I wondered whether Gatlinburg was ready for tourists after last year’s wildfires. I’m so glad we gave it a chance and scheduled a Gatlinburg vacation this summer — Tennessee’s most famous mountain town is back, and better than ever.
Thanks to Visit Gatlinburg for hosting our weekend getaway.
Like most Tennesseans, my ties to Gatlinburg are personal. My parents honeymooned there after they married. My grandmother took me to Gatlinburg for visits when I was a kid. And now that I’m a parent myself, I often vacation with my husband and kids in Gatlinburg– We love the combination of a bustling tourist town with a massive national park right beside it, filled with waterfalls, swimming holes, and more than 800 miles of trails.
So when Gatlinburg’s mountains caught fire last November, it felt very personal. Along with so many others across the nation, I breathlessly scrolled through every update, every picture, every iPhone video about the fires on Twitter and Facebook as they were posted. Seeing the smoke-filled downtown, reading about the mass evacuations, and watching people flee from their homes, I imagined that Gatlinburg, as I knew it, was gone.
In the end, though, downtown Gatlinburg was saved. Although the flames came perilously close, a drenching rain helped firefighters put out the blaze for good before it destroyed the area’s major attractions. Still, I imagined afterward that Gatlinburg was surrounded by charred mountains, with trees standing like blackened toothpicks on lifeless hillsides. I figured it would be years before the town resembled the one I grew up visiting.
Fortunately, my imagination was off by a mile. I had the opportunity to see Gatlinburg for myself last weekend, and it turns out everything I thought I knew about Gatlinburg, post-fire, was wrong. While I’m sure there are roads up in the mountains where the devastation is very obvious, as a visitor, I wouldn’t have had any idea that fires had almost claimed this town eight months ago if I hadn’t read the news ahead of time. All of our favorite attractions, restaurants, and places to stay are still there. As for the mountains, new growth has camouflaged the parts of the mountain that burned, so that the brown blends seamlessly into the green. I actually had to scour the mountains when I arrived to find burned areas; they’re not easy to spot unless you know exactly what to look for.
Bottom line? Gatlinburg is everything you remember it being, and it’s only getting better. Don’t hesitate to plan a vacation there, and for a good time that’s pretty much guaranteed, be sure to go over our list of favorite places to eat, stay, and play before your trip. Here are our surefire picks for a good time in Gatlinburg.
Where to eat
Crockett’s Breakfast Camp. This may well be our favorite restaurant in Gatlinburg. The wait can be long, but it’s worth every minute — and since you get a text when your table’s ready, just use the time to shop in nearby stores. Everything we’ve tried at this breakfast hotspot has been fabulous, but our favorites had to be the massive cinnamon rolls (one is enough for 4-6 people to try!), the potato casserole, and the perfectly baked biscuits.
Insider tip: Kids’ portions are big enough for two kids and adult meals are more than enough for two average adults — Meals come in ginormous cast iron skillets — Keep portion sizes in mind when ordering.
Insider tip: Want to avoid the wait? Opt for brunch at 12:30, 30 minutes before the restaurant closes. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a table.
Smoky Mountain Brewery. You can bet on a good meal at this Gatlinburg hotspot. Favorites here include pizza and wings, as well as a diverse selection of Smoky Mountain Brewery’s own beers on tap. Whatever you decide on, don’t skip the warm baked pretzels with beer cheese. They’re fabulous.
Insider tip: On a recent Saturday night, the wait for a table was two hours! We went for lunch the next afternoon instead, when there were plenty of tables available.
New Orleans Sandwich Company. We never visit Gatlinburg without having a meal at this authentic New Orleans restaurant. Portions are huge (a sandwich is easily big enough for two adults) and everything we’ve had here has been amazing. Try the grilled shrimp Po Boy or the seafood gumbo when you come — You won’t regret it! Added bonus– This restaurant is off the beaten path in downtown Gatlinburg, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a table, even on the busiest nights. I feel like it’s our little secret, because the food is fantastic!
Insider tip: Ask for markers from your server and decorate a dollar bill. They’ll give you a stapler once you’re done to staple it to the wall. Our kids had a blast decorating dollars, and they were thrilled to find the dollar bills they’d stapled the last time we were there.
The Donut Friar. For a delicious dessert… or breakfast… or midday snack, don’t miss this charming and incredibly popular donut shop, 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, your sweet tooth will be more than satisfied.
Insider tip: Bring cash. The Donut Friar does not accept checks or credit cards.
Where to stay
Courtyard Gatlinburg. I can’t say enough good things about this hotel. It meets all my criteria for a fabulous place to stay: It’s immaculate, it’s tastefully decorated, it has a pool, and fitness center, and comfortable indoor and outdoor common areas inside and out. There’s also an abundance of towels, toiletries, extra pillows and blankets in the rooms plus excellent guest service — as a frequent traveler, these ‘little things’ mean a lot to me. I can’t recommend this hotel enough!
Insider tip: Traveling with a large family or another couple? Consider Courtyard Gatlinburg’s two-bedroom suite, which sleeps up to 8 people. We LOVED our suite — It had large dining and living areas, a balcony, dishwasher, sink, and a full-sized refrigerator/freezer, which we put to good use on a very hot weekend. It was also beautiful. We loved being in walking distance of everything and still having lots of space to relax.
Greystone Lodge on the River. If you’re traveling with kids, the family suites at the Greystone Lodge are a great option. They include loft space with television for kids that sleeps three, a spacious kitchenette and living and dining area, and a separate room (with a door that closes!) for parents. Add complimentary breakfast, parking that’s steps away from your front door, balconies overlooking the river and a prime location in the heart of Gatlinburg and you’ve got one most excellent hotel.
Where to play
Space Needle. Abandon your fears of heights, all ye who enter here: The views atop Gatlinburg’s landmark Space Needle are spectacular! A breeze keeps things cool even on the hottest days and you’ll get an eagle’s eye view of Gatlinburg and its surrounding moutains. This attraction is definitely worth the cost of admission.
Insider tip: Go at sunset and bring your best camera for fantastic family pictures.
Ripley’s Odditorium. You and your children will love this museum filled with oddities and artifacts from around the world. It’s highly interactive, at times a little bit creepy, always fun, and well worth the price of admission. We expected to spend 30 minutes there and stayed for well over two hours.
Mysterious Mansion. This oversized haunted house is definitely not for small children, but if you’re down for an epic amount of heart-racing terror, it’s definitely the spot for you. We never visit Gatlinburg now without a stop at Mysterious Mansion; with an extensive labyrinth of creepy rooms and surprises around every corner, it just might be my favorite haunted house ever!
Insider tip: Go during non-peak hours and you’ll have more time to go through the maze of rooms— You’ll also get more attention from the ghastly creatures inside!
Ripley’s Mirror Maze If you’ve bought a pass that gets you into multiple Ripley’s attractions and you’re wondering which to choose (There are EIGHT in Gatlinburg!), this is a fun pick — Just know that it won’t take you more than 5-10 minutes to walk through. With that said, this is the classic mirror maze you always imagined as a kid, and you very likely will actually walk into a mirror before you manage to find your way out. Good times.
Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre. Known as ‘the oldest and most unusual theatre in the Smokies,’ this live, two-hour stage show hearkens back to the days when vaudeville was king and television was non-existent. Shows feature slapstick comedy, song, and lots of audience participation and visitors flock to see them — This is one item on my Gatlinburg bucket list I’m dying to cross off.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies Consider the aquarium a must-do if you’re visiting Gatlinburg with kids — From sharks to penguins to sea turtles, there’s so much to see and do inside this large and highly interactive aquarium. ‘Worlds’ inside include the Tropical Rainforest, Ocean Realm, Coral Reef and Gallery of the Seas, plus a new 3-story Discovery Treehouse and Play Center. We love this place and go pretty much every time we visit Gatlinburg.
What to Do in the Park
Whether you have a few hours of free time or a few days, any trip to Gatlinburg should include a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here are a few fun activities to suit every taste and ability:
Sugarlands Visitor Center. Just a quick drive from downtown Gatlinburg, Sugarlands provides a perfect introduction to Smoky Mountain National Park. Make time to watch the video inside the visitor center’s theater, which tells the history of the mountains, starting with their formation millions of years ago. You’ll also find a large gift shop and rangers on hand to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the park.
Laurel Falls Trail. Got just a few hours to spend in the park? Laurel Falls is the place to go. You’ll find this paved trail just a short drive away from the Sugarlands Visitor Center; enjoy views of the mountains as you walk and you’ll be rewarded at the end with a lovely waterfall. Want more details? I wrote an entire post about the Laurel Falls Trail here.
Cades Cove. Drive 1 hour and 15 minutes into the park and you’ll end up at Cades Cove, an absolutely beautiful fertile valley in the middle of the Smoky Mountains with incredible views and, sometimes, wandering 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 has a self-guided tour that will give you lots of information about the cove and the many historic structures you’ll see on the loop.
Insider tip: If you’re feeling adventurous, stop for 5.2 mile (roundtrip) hike to Abrams Falls — This popular trail is just off the motorway.
White Water Rafting. For families with kids ages eight and up, white water rafting is an incredibly thrilling experience — and Gatlinburg has several outfitters offering rafting (as well as gentler ‘Family Floats’) on the Upper Pigeon River. Rafting in the Smokies has a short but sweet 1 ½ hour rafting trip that’ll satisfy your craving for adventure. You’ll also go home with a professional photo of your family as you battle the whitewater — The photo costs extra, but I can tell you it’s totally worth it. They’re able to get shots you’d never get on your own!
A Walk in the Woods. Outdoor enthusiasts with older children will want to spring for a guided tour from these REI-trained guides, who offer hikes to some of the park’s most scenic landmarks, including destinations even the locals don’t know about. We’ve heard GREAT things about these guided hikes and can’t wait to take one the next time we’re in town. Hikes range from easy strolls through wildflower-filled meadows to 17-mile ‘extreme adventure’ hikes — No matter what your group is up for, there’s a hike for you, led by a trained guide who’ll tell you all about the area’s history, natural features, plants and animals. This is a bucket list item for me and I can’t wait to cross it off the list.
Want more ideas? Check out my post from our last visit: 30 Things to Do in Gatlinburg with Your Family.