The Smoky Mountains of Tennessee make for the perfect vacation destination for hikers and nature lovers. As America’s only free national park, the Smokies are (not surprisingly) also the most visited. The massive park offers endless opportunity for free outdoor recreation, whether it be hiking, wildlife watching, and scenic drives. Thankfully, the recreation is free as most of the attractions & restaurants in Gatlinburg are on the pricey side.
There is much more to the Smokies than simply natural wonders. People come from all over to enjoy the picturesque Sky Lift ride, live shows, cheesy museums, rustic cabins, and themed restaurants. There’s plenty to do when you are done working up a sweat. Although downtown Gatlinburg has a tourist trap reputation, if you bypass all the tacky shops and gimmicky museums, you will find plenty of interesting attractions. Moonshine, wine, & whiskey tastings, the world’s longest pedestrian bridge, a top ranked aquarium, country themed restaurants…there is a bit of something for everyone.
The area is lively and bustling with energy pretty much the entire year. There is never a dull moment in Gatlinburg. On the downside, it’s a bit too overwhelming, with tourist traps lurking around every corner. Instead of throwing away your hard earned money at overpriced & overrated attractions, focus mainly on the outdoors.
Below is a handy guide to some of the region’s best attractions, including both natural wonders, as well as some of the better touristy activities.
1. Hike the Smokies
The top thing to do while visiting Gatlinburg is definitely getting out there and exploring the natural splendor. Hundreds of miles of trails (more than 800 to be exact!) of varying difficulty give you plenty of options to choose amongst. Best part of all, the park is completely free! Some trails feature outstanding views of the mountains, others majestic waterfalls – it just depends on what you are looking for!
Keep your eyes peeled as black bear sightings are not at all rare. In fact, I saw my first black bear (after 10 years hiking various trails throughout the US) while hiking in the Smokies! Rangers always tell you to keep an eye out for wildlife, yet rarely do you even come remotely close to actually seeing anything out there on the trails. With over 1500 bears inhabiting the Smokies, this is not the case in Gatlinburg!
The Smokies are home to the highest concentration of black bears in the world, so odds are pretty good that you might see one, especially if you hike multiple trails during prime bear season (spring). Be careful as bears are often out with their cubs at this time, and thus, more likely to attack.
Easy/Mod Trails to Check Out
- Abrams Falls trail – A 2.7 mile moderate trek to one of the park’s most gorgeous waterfalls. Address: Cades Cove Loop Rd & Laurel Creek Rd
- Clingman’s Dove – A short yet impressive hike to the summit of Clingman’s Dome, which at 6643 feet, is the highest point in Tennessee. On a clear day, you can see 7 states (TN, NC, SC, VA, GA, AL, KY). Address: Clingmans Dome Rd, Bryson City, NC
- Chimney Tops – A 2 mile stroll through gorgeous hemlock forest, with mountain views throughout. A steep climb that rewards with gorgeous views! Address: Newfound Gap Rd. Gatlinburg, TN.
- Cataract Falls – This is a very easy trail (perfect for families and those who prefer a nature stroll as opposed to a tough hike) which starts behind the Sugarlands Visitor center.
Cataract Falls is an easy 1 mile long trail featuring several small creeks and a beautiful waterfall.
2. Spend the night at a luxury log cabin
A quiet relaxing weekend at a rustic cabin is the best way to take in the breathtaking mountain scenery in a more isolated setting. The entire region offers no shortage of cabin rentals, which can be found throughout Gatlinburg, as well as the surrounding communities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, & Townsend.
Timber Tops offers an amazing array of cabin options, from 1 to 15 bedrooms, with varying amenities. These are not your ordinary cabins in the woods! Many are loaded with unusual amenities including gigantic decks with jacuzzis, firepits, pool tables, game rooms, even indoor swimming pools and movie theaters! Pet friendly, holiday decorated, river views, and a secluded view are a few other extra amenities available. As an added bonus, you get free attraction tickets with every stay!
Life’s a Bear Cabin
Pictured below is Life’s a Bear, a moderately priced 2 bedroom in a secluded location. This cabin is gorgeously decorated with rustic charm and adorable bear touches throughout. The mountain views via the deck are simply outstanding and the amenities (full kitchen, hot tub, huge fireplace, pool table, darts) so fantastic that you really do not have the leave the cabin at all if you wish to simply enjoy a laid-back weekend in the woods.
The best part is that these cabins are far enough away from the clutter that you can truly soak in the nature scenery, yet still close enough for a manageable drive into town to enjoy the various shows & amenities. Of course, you could just as easily never leave the cabin and opt for a relaxing and rejuvenating weekend in the Smokies!
Visit the Timber Tops website to customize your cabin
3. Enjoy a scenic tram ride at Ober Gatlinburg
Ober Gatlinburg is the perfect year-round recreational oasis, conveniently located amidst the bustle of downtown Gatlinburg. Spring & summer, although super crowded, is the best time to take the scenic tram rides as the beautiful leafy green trees provide a picture-perfect setting. Fall is also great due to the colorful foliage surrounding the mountains. Winter, on the other hand, is much quieter, and although the scenery is quite barren, it’s a much more peaceful time to enjoy the views all to yourself. Skiing, tubing, and ice skating are also on the lineup.
Come winter, test your skills on the only ski resort in the state! Or, lace up your skates and burn off all those extra calories from all your vacation indulgences!
Other things to do at Ober include summer tubing, an alpine slide, a mountain coaster, ice bumper cars, water rides, and mini golf. Ice skating is now open year-round, and makes for a great cool escape during the hot summer season.
- Address: 1310 Ski Mountain Rd. Gatlinburg, TN
- Pricing: $12 per adult/$12 youth. Ticket is good for 2 consecutive days.
- Hours: 9:40am-9:00pm
- Additionally, various wristband deals are available. Check the Ober website for full details.
- More info on Ober Gatlinburg
4. Embark on a Whitewater Rafting Adventure
For the ultimate thrill, consider a whitewater rafting trip. The Smokies is the perfect place to enjoy a whitewater adventure, and there are several options to choose amongst. Beginner to advanced trips, half day to full day, you will find numerous options to pick amongst here. Rafting is a great way to cool off on a hot summer’s day. It is an exhilarating experience where you can enjoy nature in a more extreme way. If you are up for the adventure of a lifetime, consider rafting as an alternative (or in addition to) hiking.
Whether you prefer a relaxing trip down the river simply enjoying great scenery (float trips, Class I or II rapids) or are seeking more of an adrenaline rush with lots of drops, turns, and splashes (Class III and IV), there’s an option to suit your interest. Rafting is a great alternative to hiking during the super hot & humid summer season, when it is pretty much unbearable to hike more than a few miles.
Here is a look at a few of the best rafting adventures in the Smokies.
5. Take a stroll around The Village Shops
The Village is a beautiful Bavarian inspired complex home to over 20 restaurants and boutique shops. Heavily landscaped and attractively designed with tranquil fountains and a charming Old World ambiance, it’s the perfect place to spend a laid-back morning browsing local boutique shops.
Stop by Coffee and Company for a delicious espresso. This is the best non-chain in the area for quality drip and espresso drinks. Take a seat in the courtyard and enjoy the lovely surroundings. For breakfast, check out touristy favorite the Pancake Pantry, a family favorite since 1960. Here you can enjoy one of a dozen creative pancake varieties, from banana bread to Georgia peach. If you prefer grab & go, the Donut Friar, serving freshly made donuts and pastries, is a real hit with most tourists.
The highlight here is the abundance of great shops. Here are a few to check out.
- The Day Hiker – All your necessary hiking essentials plus cute bear themed knick knacks.
- Candle Cottage – Featuring more specialty candles than you could possibly imagine. This shop smells great the second you walk in! Lots of cute seasonal decor as well. Love that they play holiday music in the background year-round!
- Village Cafe & Creamery – Old fashioned soda shop featuring hand dipped ice cream. Also serving coffee and espresso drinks!
- Master’s Edition – Wonderful art gallery specializing in fine art. Some of the most beautiful works I’ve come across!
- Best Gift Idea Ever – Specializing in unique letter art pieces which you can customize to your liking.
Love the German style architecture of all the shops
- Address: 634 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
- Hours: 10am-9pm (10pm on Saturdays)
- Full directory of the Village Shops
6. Check out a waterfall
Unfortunately, many tourists come and go without exploring any of the natural attractions which make the Smokies so great. This is a shame as there are numerous wonderful waterfalls accessible via a short hike. Laurel Falls is one of the best-of-the-best due to the short distance and easy accessibility. Being that it is located just 3 miles from Gatlinburg, it will not take up much of your day.
The trail is paved and just 1.3 miles each way. A little steep on the way up but pretty much doable by anyone in relatively good shape. Along the way, the picturesque mountain views will more than motivate you to continue on. The ending waterfall view makes all your hard effort all the more worth it. Also be on the lookout for bears – this is a prime bear territory!
- Laurel Falls address: Little River Rd. From the Sugarlands Visitor center, turn on Little River Rd and continue 3.5 miles or so until you see the trailhead parking. Note: you will likely have to park along the road and walk a bit if you visit during prime season.
- A guide to the most popular waterfalls in the Smokies
7. Hit the road for a scenic drive
If you are not up for a lengthy hike, a scenic drive is a nice alternate way to enjoy the pretty mountain scenery. There are several options here, my favorite being the Foothills Parkway. Consider the 6 mile Eastern section which is uncrowded with little in the way of commercialization.
Along the route, there are several scenic viewpoints. The quaint countryside scenery and mesmerizing views of the mountains, especially at sunrise and sunset, make this a must-do while in the vicinity. Views of 4928 foot Mt Cammerer are simply incredible.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Another must-do scenic drive is the 5.5 mile long one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail. This picturesque drive is loaded with gorgeous views of the forest, creeks, and even a gorgeous waterfall. Additionally, numerous hikes including the beautiful Grotto Falls waterfall hike, are located directly on this route.
8. Soar 1800 ft up Crockett Mountain via Sky Lift
The open air skylift chairlift ride is a great option during the warmer months. Skylift has been taking guests up 500 feet to the top of Crockett Mountain since 1950. For the best views in town, look no further!
From the observing area, you will enjoy a wonderful overview of the Smoky Mountains.
You will also have access to Skybridge, a new attraction which just opened in July of 2019. The 680 foot long bridge is now the longest pedestrian swinging bridge in the country. The glass bottom near the midpoint of the walk is pretty cool (if you are not scared of heights!). The bridge is 5 feet wide and 140 foot tall. Views are fabulous! More details on the bridge later on.
Both the lift and the bridge are included with your admission. Tip: Book online to save yourself $4 per person.
- Address: 765 Parkway
- Hours: 9am-10pm, 7 days a week
9. Take your pick amongst cheesy museums
The Parkway in Gatlinburg is absolutely loaded with tacky museums. Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Ripley’s Haunted Attraction, the Guinness Book of World Records Museum, and so on. Basically any touristy museum you can think of, Gatlinburg has it. While most of these are severely overpriced, there is no harm having a little bit of cheesy fun while on vacation.
The Hollywood Stars Cars Museum is one of the better options, especially since the other museums can basically be found in numerous other tourist cities throughout the country. Although overpriced like all the others, this museum is unique in that it houses 40 classic movie and TV cars. If you love 80’s classics like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, then you will love this museum. Let’s admit it – the cars in these movies were just as much of a star as the stars themselves!
- Hollywood Cars Museum Address: 914 Parkway
- Hours: 9am-10pm, 7 days a week
10. Head over to Pigeon Forge
Pigeon Forge, a touristy mountain town just 20 min outside of Gatlinburg, is an entertainment center of its’ own. There is enough to do here to easily justify the short drive over. More well-known attractions include Dollywood, the Titanic Museum, the Hollywood Wax Museum, and the Island, an entertainment destination of its’ own with shops, restaurants, fountain shows, and a giant Ferris Wheel.
The Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster is a must for thrill seekers. In terms of nightlife, you really cannot pass up on seeing the Smoky Mountain Opry variety show. The Thomas Kinkade gallery is a must stop for art lovers. A stop by the Incredible Christmas Place, the largest holiday store in the South, is a must for anyone who loves Christmas, anytime of the year. This place is huge with more ornaments and decor than you could ever possibly imagine!
In terms of dining, you will find all your big chains here. Hard Rock Cafe is always a fun touristy choice with great comfort food and a fun rock ambiance. The Twisted Mac and Cheese here really is the best! In terms of local dining, check out the Old Mill restaurant, featuring a cozy setting and Southern inspired fare.
Really there is so much to do in Pigeon Forge. Check out this full guide of Pigeon Forge attractions.
11. Put your putting skills to the test on the country’s most unique golf course
A round of mini golf at Hillbilly Golf is a must for anyone seeking something fun and unusual to do. This works as an entertaining and quirky activity away from the insane crowds on The Parkway. Even the trek to the course is quite unusual. First off, you will be taken up on a tram 300 feet high above the city where you will get to choose amongst 2 different 18 hole courses. The lovely setting in the beautiful forested land of the Smokies really makes this course stand out as so much more than simply a place to golf.
This is not your ordinary mini golf course. Lots of wacky Southern decor and a few really interesting themes add to the excitement. One hole features a crazy plinko style setup. Overall, it’s just a weird course that is definitely worth a look while you are in town. One thing is for sure – you will never see another course like this one! The course is insanely cheesy, so you must have a sense of humor to enjoy the eccentric setting.
From golfing under a huge fallen down tree, to Plinko! golf, this is one crazy golf course!
As an added bonus, the course is super shady so this works as a nice escape from the brutal summer sunshine. For a few dollars more, you can come back the next day and play the other course! This is a great deal in an area, which frankly is quite overpriced.
- Address: 340 Parkway
- Hours: 9am-10pm, 7 days a week
12. Take a walk across the country’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge
Skybridge, the 680 foot long pedestrian suspension bridge is gaining attention as Gatlinburg’s newest attraction. A scary walk across America’s longest swinging bridge is now the must do while visiting, that is so long as you are not afraid of heights! Even if you are not scared of humongous drops, it is a bit nerve wracking to look down 140 feet beneath you as you walk on a shaky narrow bridge (of course there are guardrails!).
The views of the Smokies from way up here are quite incredible, especially near sunset. Near the midpoint of the bridge you will notice all the tourists have seemed to crowd together. This is due to the unique glass bottom. If you aren’t too scared, it’s a pretty cool photo opportunity.
Entrance to the bridge is included with your Sky Lift ticket, and thus, this is a really great value. As a bonus, you can come back as many times as you like in a single day. I recommend taking in the views both during the day and around sunset for a different perspective of the mountains.
- Address: 765 Parkway
- Hours: 9am-10pm
Where to eat
I recommend checking out Pancake Pantry or Crockett’s Breakfast camp for breakfast, both are conveniently located on the Parkway. For lunch/dinner, you have all your usual chains plus themed restaurants like Dick’s Last Resort, Johnny Rockets, and Bubba Gump Shrimp. These are all fun to visit while on vacation due to the touristy vibe.
Crockett’s Breakfast Camp – Right on the Parkway, big portions, and a fun country vibe!
If you prefer to go local, check out The Peddler Steakhouse or Taste of Italy. Taste of Italy is a real gem of a find. While quite overpriced (really, it’s hard to find a good value in a tourist trap town like Gatlinburg!), the food here is surprisingly good and the portions are humongous. Fresh delicious garlic knots are brought out as soon as you sit down. Order the Toasted Ravioli as an appetizer. For an entree, you really cannot beat a classic plate of Fettuccine Alfredo or Baked Ziti!
Home Cooked Italian food at Tasty of Italy – the perfect choice after a full day on your feet!
Tips for a great visit
Visiting during the off season (early fall and winter) is best both value-wise and crowd-wise. Hotels will be cheaper, plus crowds will be virtually non existent. A shorter wait time for attractions and ease of finding trailhead parking are additional benefits of visiting during the slow season.
If you plan on hiking in prime season, get to the trails early in the morning to ensure parking availability. The trailhead parking fills up extremely fast on spring/summer weekends.
Be bear aware. Do not bother or feed bears. And always keep your distance. More tips on what to do if you see a bear.
In terms of lodging, cabin rentals are typically the best deal, particularly if you are traveling with a large party. As you have access to a full kitchen, you can cook some of your meals to save a few bucks. Timber Tops is a great company which offers a multitude of options, available in just about every size and price range.