Gatlinburg Travel Guide

USA  #3 in Best Winter Family Vacations
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Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Best Things To Do in Gatlinburg

No matter the season, Gatlinburg offers a wide variety of attractions and activities. In the summer and fall, adventurers can hike, bike and horseback ride through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the winter, visitors can ski and snow tube at Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort. Year-round, this mountain town offers plenty of unique diversions you won't find anywhere else, including moonshine tastings and an 8-mile loop of galleries and boutiques featuring Appalachian arts and wares like wood-carving and broom-making. For a bird's-eye view of the city, take the elevator up to the observation deck of the Space Needle or hop on the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tram.

How we rank Things to Do

Updated June 22, 2017

  • #1
    Things to do in Gatlinburg
    View all Photos
    #1 in Gatlinburg
    Hiking, Parks and Gardens, Free
    TYPE
    More than Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Parks and Gardens, Free
    TYPE
    More than Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    One of only a few national parks that do not charge an admission fee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also the most visited, welcoming more than 10 million travelers annually. The 522,427-acre park is shared by Tennessee and North Carolina with the border running through the center. In addition to hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, the park offers historical exhibits, including original Appalachian cabins, and scenic drives to popular spots like Cades Cove and the waterfalls on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. If you love seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, Cades Cove is a great place to spot deer and black bears. Start at the Sugarland Visitor Center to get an overview of the area's history and pick up trail maps, or head to what is known as "the locals entrance" at Greenbrier a little more than 2 miles east of Gatlinburg. Trailheads to Ramsay Cascades, Porter's Creek and Injun Creek start here, and it's often much less crowded than other areas of the park.

    Recent visitors raved about the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, describing it as "a must-see" with awesome views. The one-way, narrow road can be crowded in peak seasons (summer and the month of October), so reviewers advised going early in the morning, especially to hike the many trailheads that originate along the way. Many visitors recommend hiking to Grotto Falls (stop No. 5 on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail) and most were also excited to see bears and other wildlife along the route. Recent visitors also said the Cades Cove Loop is a great place for viewing wildlife, but they advise packing a lunch and drinks and to be prepared to spend a half-day or more exploring the historic cabins and sites along the way. As with the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, traffic can be heavy during peak times.

  • #2
    Mountain Moonshine Tastings
    View all Photos
    #2 in Gatlinburg
    Entertainment and Nightlife, Tours, Wineries/Breweries
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Entertainment and Nightlife, Tours, Wineries/Breweries
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Moonshine tastings have become one of the trendiest activities in Gatlinburg for visitors of age. The Appalachian tradition of making moonshine in hidden mountain stills took hold in the early 20th century. Immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, who had settled in the mountains, found that the abundance of corn and clear mountain streams were perfect for making whiskey. Plus, the mountains provided plenty of hiding places for their illegal stills. The area eventually became known as Moonshiner's Paradise.

    Recent visitors to Sugarlands Distilling Company, named for the area filled with sugar maple trees that was once the heart of moonshine country, didn't mind the 15-minute wait for the free moonshine tasting. Many commented on the great personalities of the hosts and the service. Nearby, the Ole Smoky Distillery also received kudos for its tastings and free live bluegrass music. Many visitors called this a must-do and some congregated daily in the rocking chairs in front of the open-air stage to listen to the music. Some visitors commented on a new ordinance that requires guests to purchase a $5 tasting ticket, but noted that they received a $5 voucher to spend in the store at the same time.

  • #3
    Great Smoky Mountains Arts & Crafts Loop
    View all Photos
    #3 in Gatlinburg
    Shopping, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Shopping, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    If you're interested in art and authentic Appalachian crafts, you'll want to spend a day exploring the 8-mile Arts & Crafts loop in and around Gatlinburg. Watch mountain craftsmen and women make brooms, baskets and pottery or peruse the paintings, hand-blown glass and photography at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, which features five galleries with work from local, national and international artists.

    Most recent visitors said this was a great way to find special souvenirs unique to the area. Several shoppers recommended picking up the complimentary map in advance to help you decide which of the more than 100 shops and galleries to visit, and some mentioned perks like free parking and out-of-state shipping services offered by many of the stores. Although the trolley does have a route on this loop, reviewers suggested driving to avoid long waits for the trolley pick-up. Winter visitors also noted that from January through April, many stores don't offer regular hours.

  • #4
    Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway
    View all Photos
    #4 in Gatlinburg
    Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    For a bird's-eye view of the Gatlinburg area and the Smokies, hop on the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway, one of the country's largest tramways. Catch the tram in downtown Gatlinburg for a 2.1-mile ride up the mountain to its peak at 11,088 feet. At the top, you'll find shopping, dining, an amusement park, an ice skating rink and a small zoo (note that all of the Ober Gatlinburg attractions require additional fees not included in your tramway ticket). To continue your vertical ascent, you can take the chair lift from the peak (for an additional charge) for even more incredible views.

    Although most recent visitors said the views were amazing, some described the cable car ride as scary. Others were disappointed with the state of the attractions at the top, and more than one recent guest complained about the customer service. However, other travelers loved the variety of shops, as well as the Ski Mountain Coaster and the alpine slide.

  • #5
    Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre
    View all Photos
    #5 in Gatlinburg
    Entertainment and Nightlife
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Entertainment and Nightlife
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    This vaudeville theater pays homage to the music halls of the late 19th century with variety shows that include singing, dancing, magic and audience participation. According to recent travelers, the two-hour shows are suitable for all ages.

    Recent visitors said this local theater is great for kids and described it as an affordable activity the whole family can enjoy. Attendees particularly enjoyed the "Paper Dance," a routine performed by men in their underwear that consistently has the audience laughing, and the skits that required audience participation.

  • #6
    Gatlinburg Space Needle
    View all Photos
    #6 in Gatlinburg
    Entertainment and Nightlife, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Entertainment and Nightlife, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    This 407-foot tower overlooks the town of Gatlinburg and offers 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains. The observation deck is equipped with viewfinders and educational exhibits that detail the history of the town and the surrounding mountains. Arcadia, a 25,000-square-foot arcade with video games and a playground is also located here, as are the Iris Theater and Slice Pizza.

    While most visitors agreed that the view from the observation deck was unbeatable, many thought the attraction was overpriced. However, recent guests appreciated that the admission included a second free visit, allowing visitors to take in the view by day and by night.

  • #7
    Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park and Ski Area
    View all Photos
    #7 in Gatlinburg
    Amusement Parks, Recreation, Skiing
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Amusement Parks, Recreation, Skiing
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    The Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park and Ski Area is open 365 days a year. During the winter months from mid-December to mid-March, skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes and even non-skiers enjoy snow tubing. The amusement park, which offers several rides, including a mountain coaster, an indoor ice skating rink, a kiddie park, shops and restaurants and a small zoo, is open throughout the year. Although the resort itself does not offer accommodations, its location just a few miles from Gatlinburg makes it easy to find lodging. You can drive up to the resort (weather permitting) or take the aerial tram from downtown.

    Winter visitors raved about the ski instructors, but bemoan the long lines and lack of tickets for snow tubing on weekends and during holidays when the demand for this activity far exceeds the available reservation times. Recent travelers also loved the views from the aerial tram and all of the dining and shopping options at the park, as well as the rides like the mountain coaster, but said the facility could use some maintenance.

  • #8
    Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
    View all Photos
    #8 in Gatlinburg
    Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    One of the most popular attractions for children, Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies offers unique opportunities to get up close and personal with a wide variety of marine life. You can pet a penguin, splash around with a stingray in Touch a Ray Bay or take a behind-the-scenes tour. A people mover takes you through an underwater tunnel, where you can watch green sea turtles, big snappers, tarpons and sharks through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall.

    According to recent visitors, the tunnel, the sharks and the resident mermaid were a hit with kids. But more than one reviewer noted that the aquarium is somewhat dated and that the large crowds make it difficult to enjoy, especially with young children. Still, many families who visit often said this is an experience that they enjoy year after year.

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