If you’re in the process of planning your first trip to Gatlinburg, you’re in for a treat. This area of the country is scenically beautiful and also has a lot of shows, attractions, dining, and lodging options.
If you’re getting started, there’s so much to do that you can even end up feeling a bit overwhelmed.
The following is a guide to what you should know for your first trip, or even if you’ve already been to Gatlinburg a time or two.
Gatlinburg is in East Tennessee. It’s the busiest gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is the most-visited in the country. Gatlinburg is close to Pigeon Forge, another popular resort area.
The resort city is less than 40 miles southeast of Knoxville, and it’s along U.S. Route 441, which connects to Cherokee, North Carolina.
You can learn more about local Appalachian culture in the area, and there’s also a thriving arts scene, as well as tourist attractions.
Before Gatlinburg was one of the country’s most popular vacation destinations, it was a small town called White Oak Flats. The history of Gatlinburg, as we currently know it, started in 1854. A man named Radford Gatlin moved in and opened a general store. Then, he opened up a post office within the store, and that’s when the town’s name was changed to Gatlinburg.
By the early 1900s, there were logging companies buying land in the area. As a result, there became an aggressive push to protect natural areas. As part of that, in 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park opened. That year, there were an estimated 40,000 visitors, and by the next year, that soared to 500,000.
The tourist trade grew in Gatlinburg over the years to keep up.
What to Do in Gatlinburg
The hardest part of planning a trip to Gatlinburg is narrowing down how you want to spend your time because there are so many options.
Some of the many available options include:
- Visiting the national park: It would be difficult to plan a trip to Gatlinburg without spending some time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’re traveling along Newfound Gap Round, which bisects the park, you’ll find the majority of the most popular hikes. The Smokies have an extensive system of trails, totaling more than 800 miles. Hikes range from simple walks to very challenging longer hikes. There’s also a 71-mile part of the Appalachian Trail within the park.
- Gatlinburg Parkway: The Parkway is the main strip that runs through charming downtown Gatlinburg. There are shops and restaurants, as well as live music and family attractions like escape games and laser tag.
- The Space Needle: For a great view of the Smoky Mountains, head to the Space Needle. The Space Needle takes you on a glass elevator ride 125 meters to the top. You can enjoy the panoramic views from the observation deck, and while you’re there, learn more about the landscape and history of Gatlinburg.
- The Arts and Crafts Loop: If you go just a short distance from downtown Gatlinburg, you’ll find the Tennessee Heritage Arts and Crafts Trail. There are dozens of shops and artists’ studios. This is often described as the largest community of independent artists in the country. Artisans weave, paint, carve, sculpt and whittle.
- Cade’s Cove: This attraction is actually within the National Park. The 17-mile loop takes visitors through the scenic mountains, and there are places to stop along the way if you want to walk on trails or have a picnic. You can also go on a bike or on foot on Wednesdays or Saturday mornings in the summer because the road is closed to traffic.
- Dollywood: Legendary Dolly Parton has a major presence in the area. Her namesake theme park is close to Gatlinburg in Pigeon Forge. The Dollywood theme park is incredibly family-friendly, with live entertainment, a wooden roller-coaster, and more modern thrill rides.
- Ober Gatlinburg: During the winter, Ober Gatlinburg is a ski resort with nine slopes and an alpine slide. Ober Gatlinburg also includes an indoor ice skating rink and other things to do, and onsite equipment rentals and lessons.
- Dinner shows: Places close to Gatlinburg, including Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, have great family-friendly dinner shows. There’s Dolly Parton’s Stampede as well as the Country Tonite Theater, which is often named the top show in the Smokies. Other popular options include the Pirates Voyage and the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud.
- Anakeesta: This is a relatively new attraction in Gatlinburg, and it gets incredibly crowded, so plan ahead if you want to visit. Anakeesta is a Smoky Mountain park directly in central Gatlinburg. When you buy admission, you get all-day park access, and you can ride the Chondola chair lift as much as you want for the day. The chairlift takes you to Firefly Village, with shopping and dining. If you can’t take the chairlift, there’s also the Ridge Rambler truck that can bring you to the top of Annakeesta Summit. The TreeTop Skywalk features more than 800 feet of connected bridges suspended in the air, and you can also head to AnaVista Tower, which is the highest point in downtown Gatlinburg. You can see as far away as Kentucky.
Where to Stay
You have plenty of options as far as where to stay in Gatlinburg since it is such a visited location for tourists from around the country and the world.
There are hotels and lodges, as well as condos.
One option that’s especially popular in the area is to rent a house or cabin. You can find some options with beautiful views and amenities like hot tubs.
There are also campsites.
When to Visit
Finally, the Gatlinburg area’s peak season is usually from June through August and also in October. The summer is popular because the temperatures stay somewhat cool, and October is a favorite because of the colorful fall foliage.
If you want to beat the crowds, slower months include February and March, April, May, and September.