Image by Ron Grimes

In the northeast corner of Tennessee is the well known mountain playground, Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  As one who grew up here, I often took for granted the jewel I had in my own back door. As I have grown older and traveled all around this magnificent country I call home, I have a greater appreciation of all the Great Smoky Mountains and its surrounding communities have to offer.  The great thing about the Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg, Tennessee is that they offer something for everyone in the family.   

In this guide to the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg, we highlight several free things to do in Gatlinburg. If you are into hiking beyond the Gatlinburg area in other parts of the Appalachian trail, check out  Hiking Backbone Rock and The Beauty Spot  .

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Hike to a Waterfall

Gatlinburg is a hikers paradise both inside and outside of the national park and Gatlinburg waterfalls are plentiful.  Whether you are a family seeking a leisurely stroll or an avid backpacker, there is a hike for you and most likely a waterfall to go with it.   Here are just a few of the waterfall hikes you might consider.

Laurel Falls: Laurel Falls is great for families.  As such, it is popular and can be crowded so early arrival is recommended.   This 80 foot picture perfect cascade is accessed via a 1.3 mile paved trail and is stroller friendly.  It’s located just a few miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center inside GSMNP just outside of Gatlinburg.   Here is a great review of hiking to Laurel Falls with kids. 

Laurel Falls
Image by Mike Hicks

Abrams Falls: Abrams Falls is located within Cades Cove and is a moderate 5 mile round trip hike.  This beautiful 20 foot waterfall splashes into a pool below. However, don’t be tempted to swim as the currents are strong and the pool is very deep.

Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls: Two of the most popular waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountain National park are located within Roaring Fork Motor trail: Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls.  Both of these falls are considered moderate hikes and very popular so if you plan to hike, allow 2-3 hours for Grotto in and out and 3-5 hours for Rainbow Falls.  Wear good trail shoes and take plenty of snacks. Rainbow Falls is found at the end of a 2.7 mile moderate trail (5.2 miles in and out) and is the highest single drop waterfall in the Smokies. Grotto Falls is a beautiful 25 foot waterfall located 1.5 miles in on Trillium Gap Trail in Roaring Fork.  The trail actually runs behind the falls making it a truly unique and enchanting experience.

Trillium Gap Trail sign by
Rainbow Falls Gatlinburg TN
Image by Mike Hicks
Grotto Falls Gatlinburg, TN
Image by Phil Horton

Smoky Mountain Scenic Drives

While hiking is one of our favorite pastimes in the Smokies, sometimes a leisurely Smoky Mountain drive on winding roads enclosed by beautiful forests, streams, and wildlife can be just what the doctor ordered.  Gatlinburg offers so many opportunities to enjoy its beauty from the comfort of your vehicle. If you are visiting Gatlinburg in the very popular fall season, you will soon discover why it’s one of our nation’s most heavily visited destinations to see the fall foliage.  Despite crowds, however, we recommend you make at least one visit to Gatlinburg in the fall season.

Great Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage

Two of our favorite day drives are Cades Cove and Roaring Fork Motor Trail. 

Insider tip: You may want to check the Tennessee Football schedule, however. Nothing like a Tennessee vs. Alabama football game and the peak foliage colors  to bring these “Volunteers” out in droves. (Go Big Orange!!)

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This 11 mile loop drive circles around a cove filled with wildlife. It isn’t uncommon to see turkey, raccoons, groundhogs, deer, and yes, even black bear while driving through Cades Cove.
In addition to the wildlife, there are numerous pullover sites where you can picnic, take a short hike, and explore some historical artifacts and buildings. Cades Cove was hunted by the Cherokee for thousands of years, but the first Europeans settled in the area between 1818 and 1821 and the population grew rapidly. Along the drive you can view three historic churches, a working grist mill, numerous and other restored buildings from this fascinating era of our nation’s history. Cades Cove is no secret, however, and the drive can be rather slow especially if wildlife is spotted. There are very few ways to “go around” the cars in front of you, so we recommend to arrive early, but even if you do, plan on spending a minimum of two to four hours. Take a picnic lunch and take it all in at the slower southern pace of its mountain ancestry. Perhaps consider a bit of Cade Cove hiking if things slow down too much.

Image by Phil Horton
Black Bear Cades Cove GSMNP
Image by Phil Horton

Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Another favorite drive of ours is the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. Roaring Fork is also part of the Great Smoky National Park. Roaring Fork is a fast flowing mountain stream that runs along the trail and is apt to be “roaring” during or after a hard rain. My favorite time to visit this trail is actually the spring or summer because the lush green colors and cool shade of the trees has an enchanting effect. Just before you enter this natural fairyland, take time to explore the Noah “Bud” Ogle nature trail and farmstead. We really enjoy rolling down the windows to take in the scenery and nature’s air conditioning.

Roaring Fork Trail
Image by PFLY
Noah Bud Ogle Farm
Noah "Bud" Ogle Farmstead by Katie Taylor

Take a Smoky Mountain Rafting Adventure

That’s right! If hiking and scenic day drives don’t scratch your adventure itch, then why not spend the day on the Pigeon River?  Gatlinburg is home to several regional rivers including the Pigeon River offering class III and class IV rapids for those looking to get a little wet on their visit to the Smoky Mountains.

Rafting Pigeon River Gatlingburg
Image by: By anoldent

Never been on a whitewater rafting expedition before? No problem! There are several outfitters in the area who are more than willing to assist you and your family. Pigeon River rafting is perfect for all skill levels. The upper Pigeon River is for the more experienced, but the lower Pigeon River provides a more relaxed and unique way to see the beautiful smoky mountains.

Visit the Gatlinburg Arts & Crafts Loop Community

If all this adventure has you longing for a more relaxing day, consider a day spent exploring an 8 mile loop of artisan and craft galleries. Gatlinburg is home to the largest independent artisan community in North America and has been designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail.  This community was established in 1937 and consists of artisans who weave, sew, cast, paint, whittle, and carve creating handmade and unique pieces. It’s truly an opportunity to bring home a one of a kind souvenir that represents the spirit of the Appalachian community heritage.

Chad Hembree Smoky Mtn Carving Bears
Image by Chad Hembree

Additionally, the Gatlinburg Convention Center has numerous arts and crafts festivals throughout the year, including the very popular and very fun Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair. 

Visit a Gatlinburg Distillery

Speaking of crafts, Gatlinburg is quickly becoming a destination location for local craft breweries, whiskies, wineries, and, of course “shine”.  Local distilleries and shops offer tours, tastings, and entertainment right on the Parkway including the famous Ole Smoky Distillery. An evening stroll along the strip isn’t complete without a stop in to hear the live bluegrass on the Moonshine Holler stage, glance at the shine making process, and if you are brave enough, join in for a tasting and be entertained by the one pouring the shots.  The environment is actually very lively, but still family friendly and fun.

Sugarlands Shine
Image by Daveynin
Ole Smoky Distillery Sign
Image by Mike Burton
Ole Smoky Distillery Gatlinburg
Sugarland Winery Cellars Gatlinburg TN
Image by Davylin

Take a Ride on Smoky Mountain Coaster

A new and more unique way to explore them there hills, is on a smoky mountain Alpine coaster.  Don’t underestimate these  a “hillbilly” mountain coasters! These downhill gravity driven bobsled smoky mountain coasters are not as tame as you may think. They can be quite exhilarating as you speed down the mountain on a railway bobbing and weaving in between the trees and shrubs.

Alpine Coaster Gatlinburg
Image by Haeferl (represents Mountain Coaster)
Image by Haeferl (represents Mountain Coaster)

Visit a "Unique" Gatlinburg Attraction

Another “thrill” of sorts found in Gatlinburg is among one of the many Ripley’s or similar attractions located on the parkway.  There are haunted mansions, mirror mazes, Believe It or Not Museums, and a number of other odd, yet somewhat intriguing attractions.  If that isn’t your preference, Ripley’s Aquarium is always a hit with the children.

Ripley's Aquarium Gatlinburg TN
Image by Brent Moore
Gatlinburg Ripley's Believe it or Not
Image by Trekki 313
Night time image of Ripley's Moving Theatre
Image by Valerie Everett

See Gatlinburg from the Skies

If you really want a birds eye view of the Smokies and downtown Gatlinburg, consider taking a ride on an elevator to the top of the 407’ Space Needle. For around $30 a family of four can purchase a pass which allows for two visits to the sky. Take the first
during the day and then return at night to see the Parkway all lit up with cars and street lights.

Gatlinburg Space Needle daytime View
Image by Eric Hamiter
Gatlinburg Aeriel Tramway
Gatlinburg Space Needle Night time
Image by Valerie Everett
Image by Eric Hamiter

Another way to get higher is to take a ride on a ski lift or on the Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway. The Tramway takes you to Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park and Ski Resort. There is an ice skating rink, Alpine Coaster, and other small amusement attractions at Ober should you decide to look around. Your round trip ticket will take you back into town anytime before the closing and the Tramway runs every 20 minutes.

Finally, there is a brand new aerial adventure park called Anakeesta where you can enjoy zip lining, tree canopy walks, and scenic views.

View for Gatlinburg Sky Lift
Image by Faunggs Photos

Shop In a Gatlinburg Village

A visit to Gatlinburg almost surely means shopping. On the Parkway there are so many interesting shops to visit ranging from t-shirts, to handmade goods, to fresh bakeries and candy shops. As you stroll along the sidewalk, you will be drawn into the little nooks and crannies located along the way filled with these quaint shops. Our favorite section is called “The Village”. This collection of shops and eateries was specially designed by it’s owners in 1969 to feel like a European Village. Hands down, they succeeded. It is hard to believe you are in the mountains of East Tennessee when you stroll the cobblestone streets and take in the unique architecture.
Gatlinburg's Village Shopping Center Night
Gatlinburg Village Cobblestone Streets
Image by Daveynin
Gatlinburg Village Shops Fountain
Image by Faungg's Photos

Gatlinburg Dinner and a Show

Finally, no review of Gatlinburg is complete without a mention of the numerous opportunities to enjoy a good meal and evening entertainment. Whether you are in the mood for pizza or steak, you can find it in Gatlinburg. In fact, there is even a Bubba Gump’s and a Melting Pot! Our favorite for a more upscale dinner is the Peddler Steakhouse and for a more casual family dinner, we love the Alamo. The Alamo burned to the ground in the 2016 Wildfires, but we were so pleased to visit them in October of 2017 just one week after they reopened.

Entertainment and music are everywhere in downtown Gatlinburg. You can hear live performances throughout the Parkway on any given evening. Additionally, there are a number of variety shows, comedic acts, magic shows, and musical performances to choose from both in the immediate Gatlinburg area as well as in nearby Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

If you are interested in visiting another fun town in the south eastern Appalachian mountains, consider a day trip to Chattanooga.  

Live Music Downtown Gatlinburg
Image by Nick Amascato
Image by VeraVise

There are so many fun things to do in Gatlinburg that it is impossible to cover them all, but we hope you have a better idea of the variety of options available to you and your family. You can be as adventurous or as laid back as you desire, but the one thing you can not be on a visit to Gatlinburg, Tennessee is bored!   

We Also Recommend

Best Hotel in Gatlinburg: The Park Vista – a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel – Gatlinburg Our family has stayed here almost every fall for over 10 years.  We love the indoor pool and the views.  

Best Restaurant in GatlinburgWe love Alamo Steakhouse for great food and atmosphere.

If your visit to Gatlinburg is extended and you are looking to spend some time in Pigeon Forge, TN, check out our review of the Home 2 Suites located near The Island and Dollywood. 

Best Hiking Shoes: Check out our review of Best Wide Toe Box Shoes for Hiking

Looking for free things to do with your kids? Read The House That Never Slumbers, 10 Free Things to Do with Your Kids in the Great Smoky Mountains