Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a 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
1. Escape the City Hustle and Bustle at Anakeesta
Anakeesta, Gatlinburg’s newest family attraction, offers a unique outdoor mountain experience 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, restaurants and more. You can stroll through the scenic treetop canopy walk which includes 16 hanging bridges, soar through the trees on Gatlinburg’s fastest dual-racing zip lines, fly through the forest on their state-of-the-art single rail mountain coaster (coming in Fall 2018,) climb through the Anakeesta tree house playground or simply sit back and enjoy the breathtaking views of Mt. LeConte and 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.
2. Climb Crockett Mountain on the Gatlinburg Sky Lift
After taking a ride to the mountain top via the Gatlinburg Sky Lift, you’ll have spectacular views from an area surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During the day, you can pick out the sights of Gatlinburg but at night, you’re treated to a view of Gatlinburg’s glittering lights and amazing views.
3. Soar to New Heights at Ober Gatlinburg
The Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tram departs from Downtown Gatlinburg to the Ober Amusement Park and Ski Resort. It takes you on a 2-mile, twenty minute ride up the side of the mountain in the counter-balanced tram. 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.
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 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 two 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, ice bumper cars, indoor-ice skating (yes, in summer!) and more.
4. Take a Guided Mountain Bike Tour With CLIMBWorks
You can explore the only mountain bike trail in Gatlinburg with a guided experience through CLIMBWorks. All you do is show up. CLIMBWorks provides the bikes, helmets and prepared trail for everyone from beginners through expert level mountain bikers for anyone 12 and over.
5. Glide Through The Trees on a Zip Line
Anakeesta is not the only place to zip line in Gatlinburg. The CLIMBWorks tour takes keeps you into the tree canopy for more than two hours with nine ziplines and three sky bridges over trees, ravines, streams and maybe even wildlife. The tour starts with an escorted ATV ride to the top of the mountainside.
ZipGatlinburg offers three different options for all members of the family (even those as young as 5) to experience the fun of zip lining. In addition to the traditional zip lining through the treetops on a guided tour, Tree Trek is a 27 obstacle tree canopy maze that takes place entirely in a tree canopy. There’s also chance to bounce on a trapeze net 30ft high if you’re looking for a different take on the zip line experience.
6. Go For a Ride With Smoky Mountain Stables
With no experience necessary to ride, Smoky Mountain Riding Stables has over 40 head of mountain trail horses from 13 to 17 hands tall to meet the needs of all riders. The trail rides are at a walking pace through the terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains.
7. Hook a Fish With Smoky Mountain Anglers
As the oldest fly shop in Gatlinburg, Smoky Mountain Anglers 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 buy, ask about the “kids only” designated areas in the city of Gatlinburg stocked weekly or provide guides for experienced fly fishermen to have a trip to remember.
8. Cruise Around in Style
Down South Outdoor Adventure Rentals is a family- owned business offering rentals with three wheels – a Polaris Slingshot, RZR and 4 Seaters – for your family to cruise through the Smoky Mountain National Park and Gatlinburg. You can even bring along the kids as long as they’re at least one year old and have a front facing car seat.
9. Take on the White Water With NOC
Nantahala Outdoor Center offers rafting trips for guests as young as three years old on the Lower Pigeon section of the Big Pigeon River. It’s a short float trip with gentle rapids, swimming holes and beautiful scenery. For more advanced adventurers, take on the Class III rapids with a trip down the Upper Pigeon with full on excitement and the Smoky Mountain scenery in the background.
Make Time for These Area Attractions
10. Drive and Explore Gatlinburg’s Arts & Crafts Community
The Arts & Crafts Trail is an 8-mile driving loop of independent artisans who create original collectibles and showcase the cultural history of the state. These artisans 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 Shop, an old fashioned soda jerk with an antique cash register that even the kids will love. And Split Rail makes a mean salad for lunch!
If you don’t have little kids, be sure to make a reservation at Wild Plum Tea Room, a delicate and lovely lunch spot about half-way through the loop.
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.
11. 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 Smokey. 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 Tenneesee 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.
12. 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 Aquarium of the Smokies with bring you face-to-face with sharks, sea turtles, sword fish and other sea animals. 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.
13. Test Your Prowess At The World Record Museum
At the Guinness World Records Museum you’ll have the opportunity to attempt to break a World Record in the interactive challenge gallery with over 20 games and challenges including Quick Draw, Lumberjack Tree Hack, Frisbee Toss and more. If that’s not quite your thing, there are exhibits, displays, trivia and themed galleries that bring the book to life. My 10-year old declared this was his favorite attraction.
14. Add up the Weirdness at the Odditorum
Ripley’s Odditorium showcases more than 500 exhibits and oddities from around the worlds 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 size skeleton of an ostrich. This was my personal favorite among the Ripley’s museums.
15. Get Lost in a Sea of Selfies
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 but don’t worry about getting too lost. It’s kid-friendly, and the declared favorite attraction of my 6 year old.
16. 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 a huge pepper mill collection. Children ages 12 and under are FREE.
17. Pose for a Photo With a Star’s Car
Hollywood Star Cars 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; even the future with the Back to the Future DeLorean. FREE entry for children under age 6.
18. 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 like blooming flowers or flowing creeks. The newest feature, Higher Learning, offers an educational experienced based in local history and geography of the region. Children ages 3 and under are FREE with paid adult ticket.
19. Catch a Class Act at Iris Theater
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.
20. Ride the Rowdy Bear 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. It 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.
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 watching waterfalls. Check into one of their historic buildings or stop by a ranger-led program if you’re looking for guided explorations.
21. 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, the 6,643 ft represent the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. On clear days you can see about 100 miles, but when air pollution comes in you can figure about a 20-mile view.
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 the risk!
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 a 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 snack and water. Port-o-potty stops available in the parking lot.
22. Stop at a Scenic Overlook
If you’re looking for an ideal roadside spot of capture a stunning view of the Smoky Mountains and take the “in the mountains” photo, make a stop at the Gatlinburg Scenic Overlooks located on the Gatlinburg By-Pass.
23. Ask a Guide for Some Help
Smoky Mountain Guides offer 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 Clingmans Dome – all guided by local guides with a history of backcountry ethics and safety.
24. 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.
25. 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.
27. 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 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 with an 11-mile one-way loop road or via a hike through the area’s trails.
28. Head to the Mountains by Car
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5-mile loop driving trail takes its name from the stream next to its trail, Roaring Fork, but you can choose your own pace to take in the wooded views and a partial history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There several spots to pull off the trail and enjoy the mountains while you capture a picture or you can take a drive straight through – the choice is yours.
29. Hike One of These Awesome Trails
Alum Cave Bluffs are 5-miles round trip 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. Charlies Bunion is four 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 five mile roundtrip 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 two mile path one-way that gains 1,400 feet to its summit for a steep climb and one of the most popular because of its length and views. It follows along the side of the Sugarland Mountain with a view of Mount Le Conte. The trailhead is 6.7 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Stay Somewhere Special in Gatlinburg
30. 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 “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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After 18 years in software development, Lesli bailed on the corporate scene. When she’s not traveling, she’s hiking in the mountains or checking out Atlanta’s culinary scene, whiskey in hand.
Lesli has two kiddos -Cooper and Elliot- plus two bonus kids currently at UGA, and she’s happily married to her soul mate.