I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
July 12, 2021
I think of Gatlinburg as a rite of passage for every American traveler. Snuggled up against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the bustling town offers a colorful juxtaposition to the ancient mountains beyond. Enter Gatlinburg and you’ll find yourself immersed in a dizzying swirl of pancake houses, souvenir shops, tourist attractions, and hordes of wide-eyed vacationers, taking it all in.
Of course, you could see the Smokies and stay somewhere quieter — but I’ve discovered I love the dichotomy of deep woods by day and a town that’s basically one big theme park by night… plus, Gatlinburg is an easy sell to my kids. The only trouble you’ll have here is narrowing down your itinerary — There’s a seemingly endless amount of things to do in Gatlinburg, after all, and only so many hours to fit it all in.
That’s where I come in.
We’ve visited Gatlinburg multiple times over the years and experienced every season. Thanks to my job as a travel writer, I’ve gotten to try just about all the town has to offer — and now I’m sharing our very best recommendations with you. Consider this your complete guide to planning a Gatlinburg vacation you’ll never forget.
One thing you need to know about Gatlinburg is that traffic and parking — especially on weekends — can be an issue. That’s why I highly recommend staying in a hotel that allows you to walk wherever you want to go in town. Also keep in mind that while there are also plenty of hotels in nearby Sevierville or Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg is the only one of the ‘Big Three’ Smoky Mountain towns that’s truly walkable. Here are three centrally-located Gatlinburg hotels we’ve tried and enthusiastically recommend:
We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Gatlinburg during our most recent visit and loved its location. Not only is it in easy walking distance from all of Gatlinburg’s most popular attractions, it’s also off the main road, which means that when you do want to use your car (the national park entrance is only a half-mile from the hotel!), you can bypass Gatlinburg’s main drag and get to your destination much faster. Expect the usual Hilton experience here — comfortable beds and pillows plus all the standard hotel amenities, including room service, an indoor pool, a fitness center, and free parking.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at this centrally-located Courtyard Marriott, which had everything I want in a hotel — It was super clean, tastefully decorated, and had a pool, fitness center, and comfortable indoor and outdoor common areas. We stayed in the hotel’s two-bedroom suite and absolutely loved it. It sleeps up to eight people and has large dining and living areas, a balcony, dishwasher, sink, and a full-sized refrigerator/freezer. I really enjoyed having lots of extra space and still being literal steps away from everything.
We’ve stayed at the Greystone Lodge several times and always had a fantastic experience. I highly recommend the family suites here if you’re traveling with children. They include loft beds that sleep three and have their own wall-mounted television (my kids were thrilled), a spacious kitchenette and living/dining area, and a separate room (with a door that closes!) for parents. Add complimentary breakfast, parking that’s just a few feet away from your front door, balconies for every room overlooking the river, an outdoor heated pool with a slide, and a prime location in the heart of Gatlinburg and you’ve got one fantastic hotel option.
While Gatlinburg is always fun, I tend to get overwhelmed if I spend too much time out among the crowds of people. I’ve learned to add in at least one outdoor activity each day that takes us into the park and away from the masses and gives us time to appreciate the area’s natural beauty. This list of things to do includes crowd-friendly and crowd-free experiences. Try weaving both into your itinerary and I think everyone in your group will be well satisfied.
Whitewater rafting on the Pigeon River is really popular and if you’ve never tried it before, I highly recommend it. It’s incredibly exciting and requires very little effort. There are several wonderful outfitters in the Gatlinburg area that offer whitewater rafting trips — My pick is the Nantahala Outdoor Center. They have outposts in lots of different locations across the South and we’ve found that NOC employees are consistently well-trained. That’s something that matters to me when I’m taking my family out on a wild river.
You can choose between two trips through the NOC in the Gatlinburg area. The Lower Pigeon Gorge trip is 3.5 hours and features gentle rapids. It’s appropriate for ages three and up and is a perfect introduction to whitewater rafting. The Upper Pigeon Gorge trip is 2.5 hours, has more exciting rapids, and is appropriate for ages 8 and up. Both runs get stellar reviews from customers.
Anakeesta is Gatlinburg’s newest mountaintop theme park and it’s certainly beautiful — The care that’s been taken with its structures and landscaping reminds me very much of nearby Dollywood. Ride the Chondola to the top of the mountain (you can choose from a traditional chairlift or an enclosed car) and enjoy walking through Anakeesta’s lush gardens and Treetop Skywalk, all with spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. For thrill seekers, there’s the Rail Runner Mountain Coaster and what has to be the best dueling zipline course in the area. Anakeesta also has a splash pad for littles (many parents bring their kids in swimsuits for this reason) and restaurants with covered porches and amazing views — This is definitely an ideal spot for a very memorable dinner or drinks at sunset. Added bonus — You might see a bear! One had just been spotted in a tree while we were there. But don’t worry — There were plenty of security guards who immediately appeared to keep an eye on the bear and make sure everyone stayed safe.
Insider tip: Your Anakeesta tickets are good for the entire day, so if you go early, consider coming back at sunset for dinner or drinks. It’s absolutely gorgeous during the golden hour and there are many spots to sit outside, have food or drinks, and enjoy the view.
One of Gatlinburg’s newest attractions makes for a truly awesome photo or video for your social media accounts — The Gatlinburg SkyBridge. You’ll find the SkyBridge at the top of the SkyLift, the iconic chairlift that’s been operating in the center of town since 1954. Stretching 680 feet across a valley, this pedestrian suspension bridge is the longest in North America — and if being 140 feet off the ground isn’t enough of a thrill for you, there’s also a stretch of glass panels right in the middle of the bridge! Yikes!
Ober Gatlinburg is a must-do on your visit, mainly because of the aerial tramway, a 120-passenger cable car that travels 2.1 miles and 1500 feet up to this mountaintop amusement park. It really does feel like flying and is very different from the chairlift experience. The activities at Ober Gatlinburg during the warmer months are best enjoyed if you have small children — It’s a child’s paradise, really, with a small zoo, kiddie rides, mini-golf, ice skating and ice bumper cars, and a fantastic ski mountain coaster. Between mid-December and mid-March, you can ski/snowboard or go snow tubing, making this attraction a good option year-round.
Consider this a Gatlinburg must-do. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a true aquatic wonderland, featuring more than 10,000 sea creatures in ten themed galleries, as well as hands-on experiences that include touch tanks and behind-the-scenes encounters. Expect to see everything from sharks and barracudas to eels, sea turtles, exotic fish, and, of course, PENGUINS. The penguins are our favorite! Expect to spend at least two hours here, and know that it gets really crowded on weekends and during Gatlinburg’s busiest months.
You’ll need to take your car or the town trolley t0 see the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, but the drive is well worth it. A few minutes from downtown Gatlinburg, you’ll find what’s known as The Loop — an 8-mile loop road filled with shops and galleries owned by basketweavers, painters, woodworkers, glassblowers, candlemakers, potters, leather craftsmen and many more. This community was started back in 1937 and since that time, it has grown to be the largest artists’ community in the United States! Grab a map of the loop from one of the many brochure shelves in Gatlinburg before you go so that you’ll be able to pinpoint which artists you’re most interested in visiting. Afterward, stop for a glass of wine at the popular Red Oak Bistro or beer and the best hand-cut fries you can find in the area at The Fox and Parrot — Both are mentioned in the ‘What to Eat’ section below, and both are on The Loop.
File this one under things-you-thought-might-be-cheesy-and-are-actually-really-fun. We love Ripley’s Odditorium so much, we make time for a visit on nearly every trip to Gatlinburg. And now that it’s been renovated, it’s even more high-tech and interactive than ever before. Here, you’ll find three stories packed with more than 500 exhibits and artifacts featuring oddities from all over the world. I love the combination of actual items from Ripley’s famous collection and interactive games and experiences. This is probably my 14-year-old son’s favorite place in Gatlinburg and I can pretty much guarantee your kids will love it as well.
A quick drive from downtown Gatlinburg, you’ll find Sugarlands Visitor Center — It’s a perfect introduction to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Make time to watch the 20-minute video inside the visitor center’s theater, which tells the history of the mountains, starting with their formation millions of years ago. We were advised by friends to watch this movie and I’m so glad we did. It was well worth our time. You’ll also find a large gift shop and rangers on hand to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the park. This is a GREAT place to get advice on what to do and see while you’re in the park. The rangers can help you tailor an experience that meets your group’s needs.
One of the most popular trails in the park is just a few minutes away from the Sugarlands Visitor Center — The Laurel Falls Trail. This 2.6 mile out-and-back trail is relatively easy and technically paved, but it’s rough going, so don’t even think of bringing a stroller or wheelchair; anyone you bring with you will need to be able to walk on their own. At the end of the trail, you’ll find the 80-foot high Laurel Falls, which is well worth the hike. This trail is extremely popular, so I suggest you go early in the day or opt for a different trail if you don’t like hiking with crowds of people. Want more details? I wrote an entire post about the Laurel Falls Trail here.
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Can you even say you’ve been to Gatlinburg if you don’t have a mural picture to prove it? Fortunately, Gatlinburg has a new mural that’s perfect for family photo ops. You’ll find it on the wall of Smith & Son Corner Kitchen, which is on the corner of Parkway and Historic Nature Trail at traffic light #8.
Hiking with a guide from A Walk in the Woods has been on my Gatlinburg bucket list for YEARS now and on our last trip a few weeks ago, we finally got to make it happen! Whether you’re a total beginner or an advanced hiker looking for overnight camping, there’s a guided hike or backpacking trip for you. Our guide, Samantha, took us on a leisurely 4-mile hike to the beautiful Hen Wallow Falls on a trail far from the crowds of Gatlinburg. Samantha talked and answered our many questions throughout the entire walk. She told us all about the history of the area, the Native Americans who once lived there, the plants and animals we saw along the way, and much more. A guided hike gives you a great overview of the Great Smoky Mountains and I highly, highly recommend A Walk in the Woods as a quintessential Gatlinburg experience.
You don’t have to have a guide to get to Hen Wallow Falls, of course. I think this is a perfect hike for families or hikers who want to get away from the crowds and spend a few hours enjoying nature. Located in Cosby, which is a short, scenic drive from Gatlinburg, you’ll park at the Cosby Picnic Area, then walk a short distance down the Cosby Entrance Road to the Gabes Mountain Trailhead. Both the picnic area and the trailhead are well marked on Google Maps. The hike is an out-and-back trail and it’s 4.4 total miles. Consider bringing snacks for when you get to the waterfall, as well as plenty of water. The waterfall itself is very impressive, and so is the view from the falls of the mountains beyond. After your hike, you’ve got to stop for lunch at Doc’s 321 Cafe, which is just a few minutes from the trailhead. You can read more about this quirky and delicious restaurant below.
If you have tweens or teens or you’re with a group of adults who like a good scare, Gatlinburg has not one but two haunted houses that are worth your while. Mysterious Mansion is definitely the best haunted house I’ve ever visited — The scare factor will vary based on the creativity and passion of the employees who happen to be working while you’re there (from our experience, some are mailing it in and some are truly terrifying), but the haunted house all by itself is definitely worth experiencing.
I always hesitated to visit Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, because I didn’t think it could possibly match up to Mysterious Mansion. Happily, I discovered on my last visit that I was wrong. My son and I went through this house of horrors and loved it — and yes, we were very, very afraid-in-a-good-way. The attraction had many more rooms than we imagined it possibly could and even though they were clearly short-staffed the day we went (like every other business in America right now), it totally didn’t matter. Just like Mysterious Mansion, the place is scary enough on its own even without much outside ‘interference’ from employees.
I think both these haunted houses are appropriate for ages 12 and up.
Drive an hour and 15 minutes into the park and you’ll end up at Cades Cove, a breathtaking fertile valley in the middle of the Smoky Mountains with incredible views and lots of wildlife sighting opportunities that include elk and black bears! Make your way through the cove by driving the one-way, 11-mile scenic loop, but before you do, stop at the kiosk at the start of the loop and pick up a Cades Cove brochure — It contains a self-guided tour that will give you lots of information about the cove and the many historic structures you’ll see on your way. Do note that on most days, there is bumper to bumper traffic on this road, which is why the NPS recommends that you allow 2-4 hours for the drive. You will also definitely want to plan on stopping several times for pictures — It’s just that lovely.
Another important note — The loop road is closed to cars on Wednesdays in the summertime, which is great news for pedestrians and cyclists. I would love to bike this loop — Eleven miles without stopping shouldn’t take you more than about an hour and a half. Parking spots obviously get very full on Wednesdays, but from what I’ve read, park rangers don’t mind if you park on the sides of the open roads on Wednesdays, as long as your car is completely off the road.
One more thing — There are some great hikes along this loop road! One favorite is the 5.2 mile roundtrip hike to Abrams Falls. The trail starts just off the motorway.
As sunset approaches, one of my favorite places to be in town is at the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle. Take the glass elevator 400 feet straight up for panoramic views of the town and the surrounding mountains. And don’t worry if it’s hot outside — There’s always a lovely breeze on the Space Needle’s viewing platform. At sunset, the golden light and mountain views make a perfect backdrop for family photos, so keep that in mind and dress accordingly.
Don’t have time to drive to Cades Cove? Head instead to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a 5.5-mile, one-way loop road that features log cabins, historic structures, and old-growth forest. The National Park Service recommends stopping at the Noah “Bud” Ogle Nature Trail on the way — It’s an easy .8-mile walk to an authentic mountain farmstead. Also nearby is the parking lot and trailhead for Rainbow Falls, one of the most popular waterfalls in the park. This hike isn’t for beginners; it’s 5.4 total miles and is rated as moderately strenuous. If you’re used to hiking, though, you should easily be able to do this hike in a half-day.
Two things to note: The motor trail is closed in winter and you can expect heavy traffic if you’re visiting during high season. To get there, turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg at traffic light #8 and follow Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park. The trail is just a mile away from Gatlinburg.
We’ve made finding Gatlinburg’s best restaurants something of a mission — ‘Best’ to us in this case means fantastic food and generally speaking, low wait times. We are not the kind of family who likes to stand around waiting for an hour or two to eat. Obviously, Gatlinburg’s restaurants stay busy and the wait list can be a long one. With that said, we’ve managed to find a few hidden gems where you can almost always find a table, and a workaround for the one restaurant where we’re willing to wait in line.
We try to always have a meal at the New Orleans Sandwich Company when we visit Gatlinburg. In fact, they were closed for a vacation week the last time we were there and I almost cried. The portions here are huge (a sandwich is easily big enough for two adults) and everything we’ve tried has been amazing. Try the grilled shrimp Po Boy or the seafood gumbo when you come — You won’t regret it! Plus, since the restaurant is slightly off the beaten path in downtown Gatlinburg, we’ve always been able to find a table, even on the busiest nights.
While you’re there, ask your server for markers and decorate a dollar bill. They’ll give you a stapler when you’re done and you can staple the money to the wall. Our kids did this years ago and are thrilled on every visit to see that the dollar bills are still there!
For a delicious dessert… or breakfast… or midday snack, head straight to The Donut Friar, located inside The Village Shops in downtown Gatlinburg. Whether you crave Bavarian Cream or raspberry-filled donuts (my personal favorites), chocolate crullers, or date bars, you’ll find it here. But be sure and bring cash — This incredibly popular donut shop does not accept checks or credit cards.
There are many, many pancake restaurants in Gatlinburg — Crockett’s Breakfast Camp is our absolute favorite. We’ve tried lots of different dishes here and literally everything has been fabulous, from the massive cinnamon rolls (one is enough for 4-6 people to try!) and ginormous pancakes to the seasoned potato casserole and the perfectly baked biscuits. The portions here are huge, so consider splitting an order between two people (or even three if you have kids with you). And while the wait to eat here is always substantial, their seating system allows you to view your place in line in real time on your phone — We’ve learned to put our names in an hour or so before we’re ready to eat and do some souvenir shopping at the nearby stores during our wait.
For another guaranteed great meal (and often, live music to boot), head to Tom and Earl’s Back Alley Grill. This is another restaurant we always make time for whenever we’re in Gatlinburg. Here, you’ll find delicious burgers, sandwiches, fries, salads, and bar bites. Everything’s yummy, but special mention goes to the Dyin’ Man, a fabulous sandwich consisting of a thick slice of fried bologna, pulled pork, bacon, and stone ground mustard. YUM.
I also have to mention the staff here — They always go above and beyond to talk with us, get to know us, and offer great recommendations on the food and on their favorite things to do in the area. You can tell they love working at Tom and Earl’s, which makes me like the restaurant even more.
If you always seek out quirky local restaurants, The Fox and Parrot is definitely for you. Located on the arts and crafts loop a short drive from downtown Gatlinburg, this U.K.-style pub serves up authentic British food and a diverse beer and tea selection. We had dinner here on our last trip to Gatlinburg and I have to say the hand-cut french fries in particular were AMAZING. I’d recommend stopping by here after a day of shopping on The Loop for a round of drinks and ALL THE FRIES. They were just that good — I’m craving more just writing about them!
On our last Gatlinburg vacation, we asked our hiking guide for a lunch recommendation close to our trail in nearby Cosby, Tennessee. “Oh my gosh, I have the perfect place,” she laughed, “If it’s open, you’ve got to go to Doc’s 321 Cafe. It’s just a couple of miles from here. It’s in a school bus. It’s very… unique. And the food is awesome. And the menu is basically whatever Doc’s in the mood to cook that day, and when it’s gone, he closes.”
It sounded like our idea of a good time. And we got lucky that day, because when we got off the trail and headed to Doc’s, he was indeed open and the experience of eating there was one of our favorite meals of the trip. The restaurant consists of two school buses (both air conditioned), a covered porch, outdoor tables and chairs, and every kind of sign and yard artwork you could possibly imagine. When we arrived, Doc, dressed in tie-dye, was holding court at a table on the front porch as local after local stopped by to sit with him and say hello. He was clearly excited to see everyone and excited to talk about what he was cooking that day, and his excitement showed in the quality of the food we were served. Many of the dishes include Doc’s smoked barbecue, which is outstanding. My smoked chicken and cheese sandwich had super-fresh ingredients, including cilantro that tasted like it had been picked about five minutes before it went into the sandwich. The blood orange lemonade, which everyone there told us to try, was indeed delicious. And Doc’s famous smoked pie was tasty as well.
I highly recommend Doc’s if you’re coming to Gatlinburg — I think it tastes even better after hiking to Hen Wallow Falls (see more on this hike above). Just be sure and get to Doc’s on the early side. Our guide was right: When Doc runs out of food, the show’s over for the day.
Tennessee Jed’s is a Gatlinburg favorite serving up breakfast and lunch. It has quickly gained a reputation for five-star quick-serve food. Choose from options like breakfast sandwiches, frito pie, chili cheese dogs, barbecue, deli sandwiches (including a vegan tofu burger), and more. The food is served up fast, the staff is noted for its friendliness, and the meals all get raves from happy customers. We tried to go here twice during our last trip and it was closed both times — Tennessee Jed’s is closed on Tuesdays and closes all other days at 3:30. You can bet it’s at the top of our list the next time we come to Gatlinburg.
Planning a big night out during your Gatlinburg trip? Locals tell us Red Oak Bistro is where they go for their special occasions. You’ll find this European cafe in Gatlinburg’s Arts and Crafts Community, offering Mediterranean and Eastern European small plates, as well as a carefully curated selection of wine, bourbon and beer. It’s a lovely space away from the crowds and definitely a little more sophisticated than most other Gatlinburg restaurants. Red Oak Bistro is open Thursday through Sunday; reservations are recommended.
Trish’s Mountain Diner is next on my list of Gatlinburg restaurants to try that are off the beaten path. A 20-minute drive from downtown Gatlinburg, this popular breakfast and lunch place gets absolute raves from locals and longtime visitors, who love the southern cooking, large portions, and friendly servers. Dinner is served Fridays and Saturdays, but you’ve gotta get there before 8pm. Read the reviews of this place and I guarantee you’ll add it to your list as well — I’m not kidding when I say people lovvvvve this place. I can’t wait to try it.
Yes, Mellow Mushroom is a chain restaurant, so it’s not something I’d normally include in a travel post. HOWEVER, I have to give props to the Mellow Mushroom in Gatlinburg. We like to eat late, and that can be a problem in this town — The kitchens here close early. We’ve ended up at the Mellow Mushroom a few times when other restaurants were either closed or had really long waits and every time we’ve eaten here, we’ve loved it. The food at this particular Mellow Mushroom is really, really good and its location in the heart of downtown is extremely convenient. I have to give credit where credit’s due, therefore I’m here to tell you that Gatlinburg’s Mellow Mushroom is a great dining option and a place where you can almost always find a table and a delicious meal, no matter the time of day.
Now, you have everything you need for an amazing Gatlinburg experience! Enjoy your vacation — and if you have any ideas, comments, questions, concerns, or if you used this guide and liked it, feel free to contact me and let me know. I love hearing from you!
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