A few years ago, we decided to take a family vacation to Gatlinburg, Tennessee in late September. It is a very beautiful area located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains along the North Carolina border. The Smoky Mountains are appropriately named because clouds hang over the mountains, which make them look like they are smoking. The area around Gatlinburg consists of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and Cherokee, North Carolina. The area is packed full of attractions. There is something for everyone in the family.
Things to do in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
The Gatlinburg area is a tourists dream. There is so much to see and do in the area. I have listed a few things that I consider highlights, but there is so much more to do including seeing nightly shows, go-cart tracks, shopping, and more. You will only be bored in this area, if you choose to be.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park. The best part is, it is free! The park offers a great chance to get out and enjoy nature. I strongly recommend taking a hike if the weather is nice. Laurel Falls is a great hike for families with younger children. It is a relatively easy hike on a paved trail. The falls is nice. A great place to see wildlife from the comfort of your car is on the Cades Cove Loop, a one-way road that drives along the base of the Smoky Mountains. On our trip there, we saw a few white-tailed deer, a black bear cub, and a snake. Another beautiful drive is the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, which a narrow, one-way road through the dense forest. It is a beautiful drive. I also strongly recommend taking a trip up to Clingmans Dome, which is the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi at 6,643 feet. The parking area is about a short hike from the observation tower; however, it is a moderate hike on the way up to the tower with a decent elevation gain. One of the neat things about going to the top is that you will cross the Appalachian Trail. On a clear day, the view is amazing from the observation tower. My kids who were 3 and 4 at the time really enjoyed the park. The best tip that I can give you for driving through the park is to take your time and look of to each side of the road. I discovered a few hidden waterfalls between the park entrance and Cades Cove that I would not have been able to see if I was going fast.
Map of Gatlinburg, Tennessee Area
The Gatlinburg area is a great place to try your hand at trout fishing. Fishing is allowed inside the city limits of Gatlinburg everyday accept Thursday, because that is the day that they stock the streams. Great Smoky Mountain National Park is another great place to fish. You will need to purchase a fishing license if you want to fish. The open fishing season is between April 1st and November 30th. You may fish between December 1st and March 31st, but that is catch and release only. Several outfitters offer guided fishing trips as well.
Ripley’s Believe it or not Odditorium
Ripley’s Believe it or not Odditorium is a one of a kind place to visit. It has over three stories of weird and amazing exhibits. The exterior of the building makes it look like the building is broken and falling apart. Some of the unbelievable exhibits include a two-headed cow, an eight-legged buffalo, and a tire that kids can climb up and stand in the middle of it. My wife and I have been to the one in Orlando before and we enjoyed our time there.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is very well done and worth visiting. The museum starts with an underwater tunnel where you can see snappers, stingrays, sawfish, and best of all, sharks. This area features a moving glide path that winds through the tunnel. It is an amazing sight to be so close to the fish. The Coral Reef exhibit is also a great place to check out. The fish show of God’s amazing creativity and color pallet. I also recommend the Penguin Playhouse, which is a great place to watch penguins. Shark Lagoon is the most popular exhibit at the aquarium. It is full of many different kinds of fish and of course, large sharks.
Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway
The Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway is a great way to see Gatlinburg as you ascend from downtown up to the ski resort and amusement park at the Ober Gatlinburg Resort. It is a very beautiful ride up and back down the mountain. You can see all kinds of cabins on the edge of the hillside as you ascend during the 2.1-mile journey to the top. There are also a few restaurants and shops at the top. It runs about every 20 minutes. If you do not like heights, this may not be the ride for you, especially as you clear each tower there is a slight drop afterwards. My kids absolutely loved it riding on it.
The Incredible Christmas Place
If you love Christmas, the Incredible Christmas Place is a must see. The outside is decorated by season with beautiful flowerbeds and a model train that runs through a garden. Inside is a winter wonderland full of Christmas stuff. Check out the designer Christmas trees. Some of them are well done and some of them are a little loud for my taste. Santa and his reindeer are flying around the ceiling in one part of the store. They also have a model train set running overhead which my kids just loved. It is easy to spend a half hour or more there.
The Gatlinburg Space Needle is also a great way to view the city and the surrounding Smoky Mountains. The observation tower offers two glass elevators that take you up over 400’ to the observation deck. The Space Needle has a two-story arcade and redemption center to go along with a cutting edge laser tag game with stunning graphics. There is also an opportunity to have old time photos taken of you and your family as well as a pizza place and a gift shop.
Have you ever been to Gatlinburg before?
Zorb Smoky Mountains
Zorb Smoky Mountains is a unique and fun ride inside of a large ball. You are driven to the top of the hill and then are strapped into your Zorb and pushed down the hill. You roll head over heels all the way to the bottom of the hill. My wife was dying to try it and she loved it. It is somewhat expensive and they will try to sell you pictures of your ride down the hill. The one piece of advice that I can give you is that they do allow you to take you own pictures with a personal camera. This is the kind of crazy thing that you need to do at least once in your life.
Recommended Restaurants in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
One of the great things about visiting Gatlinburg is that you will not go hungry. Most of the restaurants offer large portions and excellent food. Below are the top three restaurants that we ate at during our vacation in Gatlinburg.
If you are visiting the Gatlinburg area, Mama’s Farmhouse is the place to eat. It is located in Pigeon Forge, up the hill on Pickel Street, which is between stoplights number 4 and 5. They offer good down home cooking that promises to fill even the biggest appetites. The food is served family style and it is all you can eat. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Their breakfast menu stays the same everyday while the lunch and dinner menus rotate on a weekly basis. We went to Mama’s for dinner and everything was amazingly good. I would go back in a heartbeat.
The Old Mill in Pigeon Forge is a great place to shop and eat. The Old Mill is located on the Little Pigeon River in Pigeon Forge near stop light number 7. It is still in use grinding grain using its giant water wheel to turn the massive stones used for grinding. The restaurant was nicely decorated to show its age and the food was excellent. We had corn chowder there served as an appetizer to our meal that was amazing. I would highly recommend this place. The Old Mill Square offers a variety of shopping opportunities that include a pottery shop, confectioners shop, crafts, and more.
Wood Grill Buffet
The Wood Grill Buffet in Pigeon Forge is amazing. They offer a wide variety of selections that include wood-grilled steaks, smoked ribs, seafood, pizza, Mexican, and more. Their food is taste and quality is better than most of the other buffets out there. I had a great steak when we dined there. Also, their desert bar is excellent.
Lodging in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
The Gatlinburg area has many lodging options available from beautiful cabins to hotel chains, to camping in the great outdoors. We spent two nights in a hotel and we rented a wonderful cabin for the other two nights that we spent there.
Renting a cabin is a great way to go. Many of the cabin rentals are reasonably priced. They are loaded with many different amenities such as fireplaces, whirlpools, hot tubs, and game rooms. The cabin that we rented had two floors with a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom of the first floor. The second floor had a sleeping area, a bathroom with a whirlpool, and a game room that included a pool table, air hockey table, and a computer that was loaded with games. Both floors had a deck that overlooked Pigeon Forge. The top deck had a hot tub on it. Eden Crest Vacation Rentals owned the cabin that we stayed at and I would highly recommend them. We loved our time there. The best tip that I can give you when renting a cabin is to check out VRBO, which is a listing of vacation rentals by owners. If you find a cabin that you really like, be sure to book early to make sure that you get it. If you are more budget conscious and flexible, hold off on booking to right before you go and you can sometimes negotiate a lower price. Most renters offer discounts if you stay a certain number of nights.
Camping in Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a great option. There are a many different campgrounds in Gatlinburg and in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. One thing to remember is to store your food either off the ground or in your vehicle as you are in black bear country. One of the things I love about this area is that there are not any mosquitoes because all of the water in constantly moving.
The Gatlinburg area has many hotel options from national brands to bed and breakfasts. My advice is to not spend very much on a hotel room if you plan to be out and about all day. I know that when we went, the two nights that we stayed in a hotel, we were only there to sleep and gone the rest of the time.
Weather in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
The weather in Gatlinburg is usually a little milder than the surrounding area due to the city’s elevation. It still does get hot and muggy in the summer, but highs rarely reach the 90’s. If the temperature gets to warm, drive up to Clingmans Dome, which is usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler because of its elevation. In the winter, lows usually stay above freezing in Gatlinburg; however, the mountains are likely to be snow covered.
Gatlinburg is a beautiful place to come and play or just relax and take in the beauty of the Smoky Mountains. We loved our vacation there. I cannot wait to go back again. Gatlinburg is a fun and an amazing place.