Gatlinburg, Tennessee is home to a bustling downtown area filled with interesting attractions and delicious restaurants; and it’s also home to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park – a natural oasis hosting thousands of miles of fun for outdoor lovers.
If you’re heading to a place packed with so much adventure, you need to know the best ways to spend your time and the essential things to do in Gatlinburg, TN.
Follow our huge list to select the right items for your itinerary, regardless of your travel style!
Enjoy Mother Nature as You Explore
Gatlinburg is absolutely filled with outdoor activities your family and friends will love!
Escape the City Hustle and Bustle at Anakeesta
Anakeesta Theme Park, Gatlinburg’s newest, state-of-the-art family attraction, offers unique outdoor adventures for all ages. Begin with a ride from Downtown Gatlinburg to the summit of Anakeesta mountain on the Chondola’s quad chairlift or enclosed 6-person gondola cabin.
At the top you’ll find Firefly Village, a whimsical, treehouse-themed village of shops, food, drinks, and more.
You can stroll through the scenic treetop canopy walk — which includes 16 hanging bridges — or soar through the trees on Gatlinburg’s fastest dual-racing ziplines. Fly through the forest on their state-of-the-art single rail mountain coaster, or climb through the Anakeesta treehouse playground. Or you can simply sit back and enjoy the breathtaking views of Mt. LeConte and the sparkling lights of downtown Gatlinburg.
Insider Tip: Make sure at least one evening is spent at Cliff Top restaurant, taking in a view of the sunset.
Adventure at Gatlinburg Skylift Park
Located in the heart of the downtown area, you’ll be whisked 500 vertical feet high via the Gatlinburg Sky Lift, for spectacular views from an area surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Once there, your first stop should be Sky Bridge, where you can walk 680 feet across the valley. It also includes a 30-foot span of glass so you can peer 150 feet to the bottom. It’s the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America, and the most spectacular experience in the Smokies!
After that, head to SkyCenter on the SkyDeck for a selfie in the iconic 1950s yellow SkyLift chair, then grab a pizza and a soda or beer and sit back and soak up the view.
Finally, hang tight for phase 1 of the SkyTrail, which is scheduled to open in the spring of 2021. A quarter-mile roundtrip boardwalk will showcase unmatched views of the record-breaking Gatlinburg SkyBridge, and panoramic Smoky Mountain vistas.
Soar to New Heights at Ober Gatlinburg
Ober Gatlinburg offers so much to do in every season — making it a great place to visit!
The Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tram departs from Downtown Gatlinburg to the Ober Amusement Park and Ski Resort. The tram takes you on a 2-mile, 20-minute ride up the side of the mountain in the counter-balanced tram car. The views from the tramway are glorious, and it’s a quick way to get to the activity area without having to drive there. That’s especially helpful for those who have already paid to park in the downtown area.
In the winter, the Ski Area offers access to the ski slopes for a single session of skiing or snowboarding during day or night sessions. For families hitting the slopes for the first time, there are ski classes for children (starting at age 4) and adults, as well as snowboarding classes. A limited number of jackets, pants and helmets are available for rental.
We visited in summer and loved the Ski Mountain Coaster, which climbs 1000 feet uphill before racing downhill to almost 3000 feet of turns, dips, zip-zags and corkscrews. The ride is perfect for any age, and each 2-person pair chooses how they want to experience it. You can zoom at up to speeds of 25 MPH or use the handbrakes for a more relaxed pace.
We also enjoyed the children’s maze, mini golf, ice bumper cars, indoor-ice skating (yes, even in summer!) and more.
FLEX PASS: Breathe in the rich splendor of the majestic Appalachians with the Smoky Mountains Sightseeing Flex Pass. Save up to 30% of admission costs at over 30 attractions and tours throughout the Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and the Smokies.
Glide Through The Trees on a Zip Line
As we mentioned earlier, Anakeesta offers a dueling zipline excursion, so you can race and experience flying through the air with your family and friends. Participants must be 7 years old and at least 70 pounds to zip.
CLIMBWorks is also a great place to get your zip on! The tours here take you into the tree canopy for more than 2 hours, with 9 ziplines and 3 sky bridges over trees, ravines, streams and maybe even wildlife. They offer two different tours — the Mountaintop Zipline and their top-rated Treetop Zipline. The tours start with an escorted ATV ride to the top of the mountain. Must be at least 7 years old to participate.
Go For a Ride With Smoky Mountain Stables
With no experience necessary to ride, Smoky Mountain Riding Stables has over 40 mountain trail horses from 13 to 17 hands tall to meet the needs of all riders. All horseback rides are great for beginners through advanced riders, with beautiful wooded scenery and mountain streams.
The trail rides are at a walking pace through the terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Hook a Fish With Smoky Mountain Anglers
As the oldest fly shop in Gatlinburg, The Smoky Mountain Angler is the first place to head for trout fishing gear, guided trips, and information. They are a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency license agent and can get you licensed for fishing.
Insider Tip: When you stop by, ask about the “kids only” designated areas in the city of Gatlinburg stocked weekly. They also provide guides for experienced fly fishermen to have a trip to remember.
Cruise Around in Style
Gatlinburg is a great town filled with great adventures — all you need is an awesome ride to cruise around in. Enter: Jeep rentals!
A Jeep rental allows you to go where you want, when you want, so you can explore all Gatlinburg and the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park have to offer. Rent a jeep for a day, a week, or even a month! Convertible tops are available. Cars and passenger vans are also available for rent.
Walk One of America’s Longest Swinging Bridges
One of the wonderful things about Foxfire Mountain are the beautiful trails and bridges that meander throughout the 150 acres of pristine forests, bubbling creeks, delightful Lost Mine Falls, beautiful vistas, and lazy creek-side treks.
Throughout these easy to moderate trails you will cross multiple unique bridges — from log bridges to covered bridges to cable bridges — including America’s second-longest swinging bridge, 70 feet above the east prong of the Little Pigeon River.
This Foxfire family fun adventure is great for all ages and even includes an on-the-ground obstacle course for both children and adults.
Take on the White Water With NOC
Nantahala Outdoor Center offers whitewater rafting trips for almost every age! Guests as young as 3 years old can raft on the Lower Pigeon section of the Big Pigeon River. It’s a short family-friendly float trip with gentle rapids, swimming holes, and beautiful scenery.
For more advanced adventurers, take on the Class III rapids with a white water rafting trip down the Upper Pigeon with full-on excitement, and the Smoky Mountain scenery in the background.
Make Time for These Area Attractions
Gatlinburg has so many activities to choose from — the hard part will be deciding which ones to visit on your trip!
Drive and Explore The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community
The Arts & Crafts Community is an 8-mile driving loop of independent artisans who create original collectibles and showcase the cultural history of the state. With over 100 world class artisans, they are the largest organized group in North America, and offer a wide variety of art pieces to add to your collection. This is where to pick up a memorable and meaningful souvenir of your trip.
Besides exceptional artisans and shops, you’ll find great eateries, quaint accommodations, and more. We adored getting a rootbeer float from Glades Soda Fountain, an old fashioned soda jerk with an antique cash register that the kids will love. And Split Rail Eats makes a mean salad for lunch!
The trail is about 3 miles outside of the downtown area. Everywhere we saw and visited included free parking (unlike the downtown area). But, if you prefer to leave your car at the cabin, use the Yellow Line on the trolley to get here.
Insider Tip: Look for “Create Your Own” banners at certain shops. Some artisans offer hands-on workshops or make-your-own crafting opportunities. Ask for information as you visit all the shops around the loop.
Say “Cheers!” At East Tennessee’s First Moonshine Maker
There are a number of Moonshine establishments in Gatlinburg, but you’re going to want to head to Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery. It was Gatlinburg’s first legal moonshine maker; they worked to change the law, update the stereotype, and make it easy for us all to indulge. “The Holler” also claims the title of America’s most visited distillery.
Your visit gives you the true moonshine experience from the scent of fermenting grains, through the work of the authentic-working moonshine stills.
In addition, the distillers are proud to answer your questions about the history of East Tennessee while you sample their moonshine during the affordable tastings for adults 21+. Be sure to check out their resident musicians for a special show too.
Watch the Sharks at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
As the home of a 340-foot underwater tunnel – one of the longest underwater tunnels in world – a visit to the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies will bring you face-to-face with sharks, sea turtles, swordfish and other sea animals.
While you’re there, you have to experience their new, indoor Glass Bottom Boat Adventure! Just 3 inches of glass will separate you from the 12-foot sharks that call the aquarium home. (You can make reservations for this at Guest Services or the Glass Bottom Boat area.)
It’s not just underwater animals here — the Penguin Playhouse introduces visitors to endangered African black-footed penguins through the combination of crawl tunnels, pop-up domes, and a swim-through passage.
Kids (and adults!) are guaranteed to love this place!
More Ripley’s Awesomeness
Perfect for families, friends, or anyone, Ripley’s Odditorium showcases more than 500 exhibits and oddities from around the world in 16 themed galleries.
The Oddities are a mix of artifacts and just truly…odd collections! Some of the oddities are authentic shrunken heads, a sculpture made from car parts, and a life-sized skeleton of an ostrich. This was my personal favorite among the Ripley’s museums.
In the labyrinth of lights and mirrors at Ripley’s Amazing Mirror Maze, you’ll see yourself over and over and over and over again as you’re trying to find your way to the exit.
Families are welcome to join in the fun, and don’t worry about getting too lost. It’s kid-friendly, and declared the favorite attraction by my 6-year-old!
If your kids are too young for the mirrors, then consider swapping this option out for the Ripley’s 5D Moving Theater. It’s a state of the art theater with digital effects and motion seats will have you feeling like you’re in the movie!
Finally, if you prefer to tee it up, then head to the Davy Crockett Mini Golf Course. It replicates the “old days” when Tennessee hero Davy Crockett roamed the area. Thirty-six holes cover two themed courses.
Ripley’s sells combo passes or single attraction tickets — so you can go to one, or all!
Shake Things Up at This Museum
With more than 20,000 pairs of salt and pepper shakers, Gatlinburg is home to the world’s only Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum!
The collection includes salt and pepper shakers from all over the world, and also has a huge pepper mill collection.
Children ages 12 and under are FREE. The $3 admission charge for adults goes toward any salt and pepper shaker in the shop.
Pose for a Photo With a Star’s Car
The Hollywood Star Cars Museum offers the best cars from movies and TV in recreated settings complete with sound, lights and action.
The most famous car of the collection is the Batmobile from the 1966 TV show, but other cars include The Ghostbusters Ecto-1 (original movie version), and General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard.
Cars from every generation are represented — from the Beach Boys 1955 Thunderbird to The Fast and the Furious — and even the future, with the Back to the Future DeLorean. FREE entry for children under age 6.
Ride an Incline to Mini Golf
Ready for the most unusual mini golf ever?! Then head on over to Hillbilly Golf in Gatlinburg. Here, you’ll ride an incline 300 feet above the city before arriving at two 18-hole putt-putt golf courses.
Each course is filled with mountaineer hazards — like outhouses and stills — and you and your crew are sure to have a memorable mini golf experience here. Part putt-putt, part adventure, a visit here is a must-do.
See Gatlinburg From Every Angle
The Gatlinburg Space Needle provides a 360-degree view of the Great Smoky Mountains from the observation deck after taking a ride up their glass elevator over 400 feet!
You’ll able to take in a full view of the tallest mountain in the park, Mount LeConte, or use the FREE SeeCoast view finders and focus on the smallest details of the Smokies.
The newest feature, Higher Learning, offers an educational experience based on the local history and geography of the region. Children ages 3 and under are FREE with a paid adult ticket.
Catch a Class Act
Impossibilities Magic Show boasts 40 years of performing! The duo of Magical Comedian Chris Collins and Master Mentalist Erik Dobell showcase family-friendly magic, mind reading, special effects, and generally clean fun with a little mayhem for good measure.
Ride a Mountain Coaster
As mountain coaster newbies, we got our feet wet on the one at Ober Gatlinburg, but the Rowdy Bear Mountain Coaster is a little more intense and was a perfect “follow up” ride for the kids.
The Rowdy Bear coaster goes about 35 mph and includes some intense turns. Sometimes they run “all you can ride for an hour” passes that make for affordable fun, especially in the off season. If you are only riding it once, I recommend going at dusk and coasting through the lights.
Another option is the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster. Reaching speeds upwards of 30 MPH, you can choose between single rider, double rider, or an adult/child combo. They also offer an unlimited 1-hour pass ticket, or an all-day pass for those who just can’t get enough!
A special note: The Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre was another great Gatlinburg classic, but it permanently closed at the end of 2020 after 44 years.
Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
From auto touring and bicycling to horseback riding or exploring burial landscapes, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers activities beyond just “exploring nature.”
There are also areas for fishing, hiking, picnicking, and experiencing waterfalls. Check out one of their historic buildings, or stop by a ranger-led program if you’re looking for guided explorations.
Looking for more? Find more great glamping options near the National Parks here.
Walk to the Top of Clingman’s Dome
Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the GSMNP, and it is a must-do! In fact, at 6,643 feet, it represents the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. On clear days you can see for about 100 miles!
Don’t forget that you’re in the Smoky Mountains though, so many times you’ll experience the fog and mist with limited site view (that’s what we got on our last hike to the top). It’s still worth it!
The climb to the top is a mere 1/2 mile from the parking lot. It is paved, but is an intense slope. Of course, my kids ran the whole way, but I would have preferred a walking stick, so bring one if you have one. You might also want to bring a jacket; the temps at the top can be up to 20 degrees colder than in the parking lot.
Finally, during peak seasons (like holiday weekends, etc), you can expect a wait to get into the parking lot. It can be discouraging if this is your first visit, but it does move quickly. Bring snacks and water. Port-o-potties are available in the parking lot.
Stop at a Scenic Overlook
If you’re looking for an ideal roadside spot to capture a stunning view of the Smoky Mountains, make a stop at the Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook located on the Gatlinburg By-Pass.
The views are incredible, and you are guaranteed a perfect picture.
Ask a Guide for Some Help
Smoky Mountain Guides offers a variety of guided hikes, auto tours, and backpacking trips.
Their daily tours include hikes to hidden gems in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, local history walks to farms from the early settlers, wildflower hikes, and auto tours to Clingman’s Dome – all guided by local guides with a history of backcountry ethics and safety.
Hike With Fido
The Gatlinburg Trail is one of only two trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that allows dogs and bicycles.
The trail is almost two miles and offers views of the river, foundations and chimneys from several old homesites.
It’s accessed from the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg.
FYI: The other pet-friendly hiking trail is the Oconaluftee River Trail, located at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC.
Revisit an Historical Homestead
You’ll step back in time with a visit to the homestead of Noah “Bud” Ogle. The homestead includes a cabin, barn, and tub mill typical of a 19th-century Southern Appalachian mountain farm.
The Ogle cabin — “a saddlebag” — is a rare design for the region with two cabins joined by a common chimney. The tub mill is the last surviving operational tub mill in the park, and one of the few in the region.
Explore the Valley by Car
In addition to the mountain tops, some of the best opportunities for viewing wildlife come within the valley during a driving tour of Cades Cove.
White-tailed deer, black bear, coyote, groundhog, turkey, raccoon, and skunk are just a few of the animals you may see. The Cove can be viewed on a leisurely drive on the 11-mile, one-way loop road, or via a hike through the area’s trails.
Note: In the summer months, Cades Cove is vehicle-free on Wednesdays.
SELF DRIVING TRIP PLANS: Want to dive deep into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s rich past and present? Download the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Self Driving Trip!
Head to the Mountains by Car
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5-mile loop driving trail that takes its name from the stream next to the trail — Roaring Fork. You can choose your own pace, and take in the wooded views and a partial history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on this popular drive.
There several spots to pull off the trail and enjoy the mountains while you capture a picture, or you can drive straight through – the choice is yours.
Hike One of These Awesome Trails
Alum Cave Bluffs is a 5-mile round trip hike through a hardwood forest and the narrow tunnel of Arch Rock. The Alum Cave Bluffs are a dry spot, even when the air and ground outside are very wet. If you continue on the trail, the summit of Mount Le Conte provides amazing views.
Charlies Bunion is a stone outcrop overlook along the world famous Appalachian Trail. The hike to Charlies Bunion is 4 miles each way. The trailhead is 13.2 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center or 16 miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Rainbow Falls Trail is just over a 5-mile round-trip path to the summit of Mount Le Conte, accessed from the Roaring Fork Drive Trail. It takes its name from the rainbow produced by mist from an 80-foot high waterfall, visible on sunny afternoons just a mile into the hike.
Chimney Tops Trail is a 2-mile path one-way, that gains 1,400 feet to its summit for a steep climb. This hike is one of the most popular because of its length and views. It follows along the side of Sugarland Mountain with a view of Mount Le Conte. The trailhead is 6.7 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Where to Stay
Best Near Downtown: Located near downtown Gatlinburg, The Appy Lodge has it all! With an outdoor pool with a waterslide, an indoor pool, hot tub, free WiFi, and a fitness center — it has everything you’ll need. And its location cannot be beat.
Best Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Located right outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Park Vista is located in Gatlinburg and features a multi-level indoor pool.
Best Near Ripley’s Aquarium: Bearskin Lodge on the River features free WiFi and views of the river in Gatlinburg. The property is located within walking distance of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
Campgrounds Near Gatlinburg
Best Pool: As one of the best resorts near Pigeon Forge, Sun Outdoors offers an outstanding location near exciting local attractions, plus wonderful accommodations and amenities to complete your getaway to the great outdoors. Their pool also includes a lazy river and a splash pad!
Best Activities: Enjoy trout fishing, themed activities, a craft center, arcade, and more at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in nearby Cherokee, NC.
Best on the River: Smack dab in the middle of all that is good, Grumpy Bear Campground in Bryson City, NC is a place for relaxation, fishing, hiking and so much more. Campers will enjoy the sound of the river flowing nearby.
Stay Somewhere Special in Gatlinburg
There are plenty of places to stay in Gatlinburg, but we’ve got a favorite!
Looking for something different? This post has 30 more cabin rental options we love, too!
Celebrate the Heroes at DJ’s Station
There is no shortage of hotels in Gatlinburg, but we always prefer a cabin because of the space, the kitchen, the washer and dryer, and the “at home” feel it offers.
DJ’s Station from Parkside Cabin Rentals is very, VERY special in that it honors the heroes who fought the 2016 fires.
The owner collected helmets, photos, and memorabilia to decorate the cabin and honor the firefighters. It’s gorgeous, spacious, and makes a visit to Gatlinburg something you’ll not soon forget.
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Disclosure: Thank you to Gatlinburg for hosting us on a trip. Opinions here are all our own, as always. We update this content during the year as part of a paid partnership with the CVB. Post may contain affiliate links at no cost to you.