Parking in Gatlinburg: Prices, maps and free parking tips

Hi. My name is John and I have a parking problem.

Well, it’s not so much a parking problem as it is a competition problem. I like to win.

I like to win silly little competitive games that I’ve made up in my head, games in which no one else knows they are competing.

My favorite game? Parking.

I like to pull into a full lot – say Wal-Mart on Black Friday. I want the best spot in the lot and I’m willing to waste a ridiculous amount of time to get it.

When I do get the prime spot, I declare to my family – or just to myself – that I am a parking god and all other parkers must bow before me.

I stride confidently into the store, chest thrown forward, shoulders back, just a hint of a strut. Nothing too gauche – I am a magnanimous god, after all.

If I don’t get a good spot, I pretend that I don’t care at all about parking and quickly change the subject.

I say all that to tell you this, competitive parking in Gatlinburg is a fool’s errand.

If you can find a halfway decent parking spot in Gatlinburg, you take it with a smile. Park your car, pay the price and run laughing at all the fools willing to sit in congestion for the whiff of a chance of a better spot.

“Pay?” you might ask. “My good man, where I come from we only pay to park in people’s yards at college football games.” In Gatlinburg, you pay and you like it.

Read Also: Tips on how to avoid traffic in Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg

Is there free parking in Gatlinburg?

If you’re feelin’ lucky, you might find a free parking spot in Gatlinburg along River Road (more info below).

But just remember – you’ve probably got better odds of hitting it big in Vegas or seeing Blake Shelton working the fry-o-later at Ole Red’s.

Here are your main parking options in Gatlinburg:

Margaritaville Hotel in Gatlinburg
Some hotels along the strip will offer parking for guests (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

1. Park at your hotel

To be clear, only park at the hotel if you are staying at the hotel.

When you’re staying in Gatlinburg, this is the best option. Book a hotel that includes parking in the cost. If you do this, only look at your car again when you’re ready to leave the city limits.

Read Also: Gatlinburg hotels on the strip: 5 best options ranked [2022]

The Park Grill in Gatlinburg
The Park Grill offers free parking for patrons (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

2. Park at a restaurant

Again, this is only an option if you plan on eating and leaving.

Restaurant parking spaces are valuable commodities, and they aren’t about to hold one while you’re down the block playing laser tag.

The Peddler, Cherokee Grill, The Park Grill, The Greenbrier and Crockett’s Breakfast Camp are a few restaurants that offer limited, free parking while you are dining there.

Public parking sign in Gatlinburg
There are several paid lots and a few garages in downtown Gatlinburg. Pictured: Bearskin Parking Lot at 955 Parkway (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

3. Pay to park in a garage or parking lot

This is the most realistic option.

There are several pay lots in town. If you’re comfortable doing a lot of walking, I always target the lot near Hillbilly Golf to avoid hitting the main drag traffic.

I’d rather park in the river than sit in that traffic.

If you’re planning on parking and walking the whole strip, I prefer to park at the lower end of the strip, which is built on a long incline.

It’s better to walk up the hill while you’re fresh and before having eaten a meal. Then, you just roll yourself back down to the car.

The City of Gatlinburg has two municipal parking garages, the Parkway/McMahan Parking Garage and the Aquarium Parking Garage. They are both $10 per visit at the time of this writing.

The city’s parking lots and garages in Gatlinburg include:

  • McMahan Parking Garage: 366 spaces
  • Ripley’s Aquarium Garage: 364 spaces 
  • Free Park and Ride Lot at Highway 441 Welcome Center: 145 spaces (vehicles, buses and RVs)  
  • Park and Ride Lot on Highway 321 at City Hall Complex: 95 spaces (parking temporarily reduced at this location)
  • Highway 441 Parking Lot: 34 spaces

There are also several private paid parking lots and garages downtown. Parking rates for the Highway 441 Lot are $1 per hour.

Most parking will cost about $10 per day, but it can be as high as $20 per day during the busy season.

Rates and availability are subject to change.

The Gatlinburg trolley
The Gatlinburg Trolley System is one of the most affordable ways to get around Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

4. Park and ride with the trolley

If all else fails, opt for a park and ride and take the trolley. This is often one of the most affordable options because it is free!

The trolleys run 365 days a year. Hours vary by season.

All of the trolleys stop at the Mass Transit Center at Ripely’s Aquarium.

Also, according to the city’s website, all vehicles within the transit fleet are ADA equipped.

Visitors can use the Park N Ride Lot at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center, located at 1011 Banner Road in Gatlinburg. The route departs approximately every 45 minutes.

It’s located off of the Spur before you enter town.

You can view more information and see a map of the trolley routes here.

5. Park for free at River Road

In my younger days, I’d always try to park at River Road. I even got a spot a few times – usually off-season. And then, if I didn’t, I’d park in one of the pay lots on the upper end.

There’s a risk in this, though.

The spaces in the pay lots towards the top aren’t as plentiful and in the busy season. You may find yourself having to work your way back down through traffic and settle for one of the parking garages you passed up earlier.

River Road parking spaces are located next to the river along River Road, which runs from Ripley’s Aquarium to the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Remember, Gatlinburg wasn’t built for driving. It’s a nightmare.

My recommendation, get out of the car as early and often as possible and enjoy the city the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

Where do you usually park in Gatlinburg? Let us know in the comments below.

Gatlinburg vs Pigeon Forge: Where should you stay in the Smokies?

It’s go time. The showdown we’ve all been waiting for. Gatlinburg vs Pigeon Forge.

Mano a mano. Who ya got?

Look, we understand there are no right answers here, everything’s subjective – unless you pick Sevierville, then we award you no points.

But when it comes to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge? With these major tourist destination towns, you can’t go wrong.

It’s the Beatles vs the Stones.

Star Wars vs Star Trek.

It’s original Aunt Viv vs surprise there’s a new Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil ain’t noticed a thing.

It is, of course, possible to like both but virtually impossible to not have a favorite.

So, let’s get scientific with this thing and go to the tale of the tape.

Aerial of Pigeon Forge TN
An aerial view of Pigeon Forge, Tenn. (photo by Kevin Ruck/stock.adobe.com))

Gatlinburg vs Pigeon Forge: The breakdown

So is it better to stay in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge for your family vacation?

Located five miles apart from each other, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have decidedly different approaches to the same goal. Sure, you can play mini golf, gorge on flapjacks and drink a disturbing amount of moonshine in either, but the civic identities couldn’t be further apart.

The overall comparison is based on geography.

Gatlinburg is a mountain town that was forced to grow into the nooks, crannies and hollers on the edge of what became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, it is located along the outskirts of the park’s entrance.

Gatlinburg was built with a vague notion of European influence.

It’s a town built for walking, talking and sitting down at a meal. While there are plenty of things to keep kids entertained, Gatlinburg at its heart is for adults. Certainly, it’s for mature adults – with diversions to keep the young ‘uns from getting riled up and bothering us.

Pigeon Forge is not a mountain town. It’s mountain adjacent.

As such, it’s able to stretch its legs and grow. The mini golf courses and kart tracks don’t have to be carved into the side of a hill. If Gatlinburg is vaguely European, Pigeon Forge has a soupçon of Las Vegas.

It’s all neon lights and shiny cars. And it’s cruisin’ the strip, seeing things and being seen. It’s entertainment, hillbilly style.

Dollywood sign in Pigeon Forge
Dollywood is the undoubtedly the main attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tenn (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What has more attractions, Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg?

There are a lot, a lot, of things for visitors to do in either Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg. But each has a signature attraction, the crown jewel of civic tourism.

As far as Pigeon Forge’s attractions, the jewel is Dollywood, which is almost unfair. Dollywood, frankly, has surpassed Sevierville as the third-best community in Sevier County, and it’s not even open year-round.

With its own hotel, and an exceptional water park, Dollywood’s Splash Country, in addition to the theme park itself, Dollywood is not only a massive attraction for Pigeon Forge – it’s a massive, famous attraction for East Tennessee.

Pigeon Forge also has the Titanic Museum attraction, Wonderworks, the Alcatraz East Crime Museum and many dinner shows, like the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud or Dolly Parton’s Stampede, formerly known as the Dixie Stampede.

But Dolly Parton’s Dollywood is the main winner in this category and it’s not even close. It is continually recognized as among the best of the best amusement parks in the country.

For years, Gatlinburg’s signature attraction has been Ober Gatlinburg or the Gatlinburg Space Needle. And that case could certainly still be made, but Anakeesta is charging hard into that territory.

Read Also: Anakeesta vs Ober Gatlinburg: Which attraction is better?

To me, when I think Gatlinburg, I think Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. One of the country’s premier aquarium experiences, Ripley’s offers a new experience every time you go.

And they have penguins.

The winner: While Pigeon Forge wins the fight in this category, Gatlinburg deserves an honorable mention.

Pedestrians in Gatlinburg TN
It’s much easier to navigate Gatlinburg on foot (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which is easier to navigate: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Traffic in either city can be a nightmare. Gatlinburg has the excuse of geographical limitations, but Pigeon Forge – with hectares of wide open space – was a victim of its own lack of vision.

Pigeon Forge has more side roads by which you can circumnavigate some of the traffic, but for much of it, you have to risk the Parkway.

Gatlinburg, however, is a city in which you park your car and stretch your legs. A little bit of a hike and avoid a soul-crushing traffic jam?

The winner: Gatlinburg wins the point this round.

View from Cades Cove
The road from Pigeon Forge through Wears Valley to get to Cades Cove is a better drive compared to getting there from Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Base of operations in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge

Often, you come to the area with the idea of getting out and exploring. Proximity to each other is a wash, so how do the cities compare as a base of operations?

First of all, if you want to hike the trails or get into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and maybe drive over to the North Carolina side, Gatlinburg is a clear choice.

But if your idea is exploring more of East Tennessee, then Gatlinburg is actually a little bit out of the way. The decider here to me is Cades Cove and Townsend.

The road from Pigeon Forge through Wears Valley is a mostly pleasant, quite beautiful drive. The road from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove is an unrelenting, twisting claustrophobic hellscape.

Don’t be fooled by the babbling stream. That road hugs the bottom of a holler with a mountain jutting up on either side.

If you suffer from the slightest bit of motion sickness, it is a torturous nightmare. It’s literally the only place in the world I’ve gotten car sick in the driver’s seat.

The winner: Pigeon Forge gets the point, and I’m sticking my nose out the window like a dog begging for fresh air.

Tanger Outlets in Sevierville
Tanger Outlets offers some of the best shopping in Sevier County (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which has the best shopping: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Again, there’s a bit of pick your flavor here.

The Pigeon Forge area has more discount outlet shopping – but also more cheesy tourist shops that look like they got picked up in a Myrtle Beach hurricane and landed here like Dorothy and Toto. Pigeon Forge is also hit by a few unlucky boundaries.

The best shopping in the county now resides in Sevierville at the Tanger Outlets, which has siphoned off some of Pigeon Forge’s outlet business.

Gatlinburg has a wider variety of unique shops, especially in the Arts and Crafts Community. However, you can get some of that stuff in Pigeon Forge, too.

Gatlinburg’s biggest problem for serious shopping is the very thing we awarded a point for in traffic – the walking.

In Pigeon Forge, you’re rarely very far from your car – and therefore your trunk – where you can drop off your purchases, rest for a second and recharge for round two.

If you buy too much stuff in Gatlinburg, you’re schlepping stuff up and down the mountain like a Sherpa ferrying adventure-seeking tourists up and down Everest.

The winner: Point for Pigeon Forge.

Justin Mychals at Ole Red
Ole Red is a fun place to visit for parties who want to hear some live music (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which has the best themed dining: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

I’m a child of the late 80s and early 90s. When I came up Hard Rock Café was cool – not like pseudo Boomer cool but actual honest-to-God cool.

Give me a burger, some over-priced nachos and sit me next to some fringed Jimi Hendrix jackets and a guitar once played on stage by the backup guitarist from Slayer and I’m a happy man.

Gatlinburg’s best chance for competition is Ole Red, which resides in the former Hard Rock location right at the entrance to the strip. Ole Red is a better live music venue and – it pains me to say – has better food.

However, it does not have a Native American-themed dress worn by Cher when she performed “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” at the Whiskey A Go-Go in the winter of 1971.

I’m voting with my heart, not my head.

The winner: Pigeon Forge gets the point in an upset!

Pancakes at the Pancake Pantry
The Pancake Pantry is one of the best restaurants in Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which has the best restaurants: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Sure, you can find a good steak dinner or a delicious pancake breakfast at either place.

But Gatlinburg has The Melting Pot, The Peddler Steakhouse and the Pancake Pantry.

Pigeon Forge has Paula Deen.

The winner: Gatlinburg wins in a landslide!

Glass section on the SkyBridge
Gatlinburg has unique attractions like the SkyBridge at SkyLift Park, which features a glass section in the middle (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which has the best thrills: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Pigeon Forge has a wide array of slingshots, high-rise Ferris wheels and a variety of things that make you go viral on YouTube.

Gatlinburg has a glass sidewalk in the sky that occasionally gets cracked by guys doing baseball slides with keys in their pocket. There’s fear and then there’s fear.

Why does Gatlinburg get knocked down? So it can learn to get up, baby.

The winner: Point to Gatlinburg. We’re on the comeback.

Drinks at Anakeesta with mountains in the background
Both towns are family-friendly, but Gatlinburg has more for the parents. For example, Anakeesta offers play areas for the kids while offering a relaxing getaway for the adults (media photo courtesy of Anakeesta)

Is Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg more family friendly?

I’m calling this one the “dad vote”.

Dads have some traditional roles in vacationing.

We’re involved in the money. We typically play chauffeur. We make bad puns and get irritated in traffic.

These are the things we do. What do we want on vacation?

Ideally, to have some fun, enjoy spending time with our families and relax. Often, in the midst of vacation, all we really want is some peace and quiet. Perhaps try a cabin with a hot tub. And have a few moments to ourselves.

Gatlinburg clearly is the favorite here. The family is walking so we don’t have to drive all the time. Also, there are lot of benches where we can rest and check sports scores on the phone while the family spends 35 minutes inside another shop which sells all the same crap as the last four shops we went in.

Also, I’ve seen dads fly fishing in the middle of the river in Gatlinburg while their family shops.

That’s peak dad-ing. Do you believe in miracles?

The winner: Gatlinburg has come all the way back, baby.

A black bear mother with three cubs
You’re more likely to spot a bear in Gatlinburg. But, remember to keep a safe distance to help protect yourself and the bears (photo by Andrew/stock.adobe.com)

Is it better to go to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

This is it. We’ve done the science.

We’ve broken down the tale of the tape. We’re all tied up. We’ve eaten at a lot of pancake houses.

So, vacationers, it comes down to a little thing I like to call heart, chutzpah, and a little je ne sais quoi. Who’s the best?

It’s gotta be Gatlinburg, my friend.

Sure, Pigeon Forge has go-karts but when you visit Gatlinburg, you may have a better chance of wildlife viewing. In fact, bears might come to your hotel to get a sup of cider, which has happened before.

Read Also: Bears in Gatlinburg: 7 best places and tips to see a bear

That’s the kind of world I want to live in.

View the web story version of this article here.

Elkmont ghost town: Why was it abandoned, what does it look like today?

It’s easy to be brave in the light of day, wandering around the lodges of the Elkmont ghost town in the Great Smoky Mountains.

It’s easy to peer into the dusty corners and ignore the dancing shadows when the sun rests high above, illuminating the forest and ramparting the weaknesses that fall prey to silly things like ghost stories.  

Then the sun goes down and the moon is shrouded by the clouds. The campfire flickers blue and the lanterns sputter.

Interior of an abandoned elkmont home in the Smoky Mountains
Elkmont was once full of abandoned and decaying buildings (archive photo by ehrlif/stock.adobe.com)

As a good Hoosier, I was raised with a grandmother who could recite James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphan Annie” from memory.

In the daylight, I never feared the witch tales about ghosts that came and snatched up naughty children. But today, at nearly 46 years old, put me in the mountains as the sun goes down, and my Nanny’s favorite parable comes to the front of my mind. 

“The goblins will get you if you don’t watch out.”

There have been reports of the nagging apparitions of railmen and loggers in the area.

I’m a skeptic by nature. I don’t really believe in haints or ghosts or goblins. I don’t believe in spirits that linger in the places where their souls were wronged. 


I remain my Nanny’s boy, and when the sun goes down and the wind comes up, my skepticism flickers with the firelight.

Read Also: Haunted places in the Smoky Mountains: Ghost stories from Gatlinburg

Elkmont chimney remains
You can still see remains from some old cabins throughout the Elkmont area (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Elkmont ghost town in the Great Smoky Mountains

What is known as the Elkmont ghost town is a former logging camp town and once-booming resort town near the Sevier-Blount County line in Tennessee. 

In the daylight, Elkmont is a historic relic lost to time.

The first settlers in the 1800s were mostly hunters, homesteaders and small-scale loggers.

The town of Elkmont was established in 1908 when the Little River Lumber Company used the land as a base for mining operations. Not surprisingly, considering working conditions at the time, it was an especially dangerous place to live and work.

For example, various logging and train accidents claimed lives and limbs, seeding the potential for angry ghosts – if you believe in that sort of thing. Or good ghost stories, if you don’t. 

Two years later, the company began selling plots of land to rich families from Knoxville and the surrounding area for hunting and fishing cabins. By 1912, a resort known as Wonderland Hotel was built on a hill overlooking Elkmont.

A sign for the Appalachian club in Elkmont
Signs can be found throughout Elkmont that describe the area’s history (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

The Appalachian Club in Elkmont

In 1919, a group of elite businessmen bought the resort and rechristened it the Wonderland Club. Socialites from the club and the Appalachian Club gathered weekly for dances, live music and horseshoes. I can only assume they were creepy parties. (Picture the guy in the bear suit in “The Shining”).

For the next two decades, the vacation destination hosted East Tennessee’s wealthy vacationers.

When the national park came, Elkmont’s owners were given lifetime leases in the resort community to their cottages that were converted to 20-year leases in 1952.

The leases were renewed once in 1972, but the renewal was denied in 1992.

The buildings were scheduled to be torn down. However, they were saved when they were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

A cabin under construction in Elkmont
Some of the cabins cannot be entered if they are still under renovation (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

The abandoned buildings in the Elkmont ghost town

According to the National Park Service (NPS), the park had to decide which buildings to preserve. The decisions were based on cost, environmental impacts, the feasibility of preservation and the importance of the structure.

Specialists within the park service and from contracted firms worked on the project. 

As a result, 18 of the cabins associated with the Appalachian Club are being preserved by the NPS today. A map of the buildings can be found on the NPS website.

One by one, each cabin will be refurbished until all cabins near the Appalachian Clubhouse appear as they were in Elkmont’s prime.

The buildings that were not marked for preservation have been removed. Yet, these buildings were not completely erased from the landscape.

Traces of their existence remain.

A restored cabin in Elkmont
A restored cabin in the Elkmont area of the Smokies (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

How long is the Elkmont ghost town hike?

Visitors can explore the Elkmont area on foot.

The Elkmont Nature Trail is a 0.8-mile loop. If you travel along the Little River Trail (4 miles) and the Jakes Creek Trail (2.7 miles), you’ll find a series of foundations, stone chimneys and stone walls. These are the remains of the once-thriving vacation resort.

Read Also: There’s a troll bridge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A restored cabin in Elkmont
Some cabins that have been marked for preservation are being restored (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

The Elkmont Campground in Tennessee

Nearby, the Elkmont Campground is the largest and busiest campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is around 9 miles from Gatlinburg.

From the campground, you can drive to the ranger station about 4 miles down the road. Turn left at the sign for Elkmont Nature Trail, where you’ll find a parking lot. 

Reservations are required to camp in Elkmont Campground, which is typically open from mid-April to late November.

You can make a reservation for the Elkmont campground online at Recreation.gov.

An elkmont sign shows restoration progress
A sign informs visitors about restoration efforts in Elkmont (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Elkmont ghost stories: Is Elkmont haunted?

While I am a skeptic, I can concede that if there are such traumas a soul can suffer in life that may be bound to a place in the afterlife.

And if you do see a lost soul in Elkmont, chances are it belongs to one of the workers who lost their lives on the mountain, such as Daddy Bryson and Charles Jenkins. 

On June 30, 1909, Bryson was driving a train stacked with logs heading to Townsend from Elkmont.

As the train approached a sharp curve, Jenkins, the brakeman, applied the brakes, trying to account for the railroad line being wet with rain.

The NPS reports that the brakes didn’t have enough sand and passengers, and crew jumped to safety.

Bryson and Jenkins remained aboard the train and paid with their lives. 

So why haven’t Jenkins and Bryson gone into the light? 

The answer is about as East Tennessee as it gets. Tourists.  

Tourists flocked to the wreck, not to mourn the lives lost but to gawk, gander and get photos of the wreck. 

Somewhere, in the great beyond, Daddy and his brakeman may have been like, “Oh, Really? Y’all want a show? We’ll give you a show.”

Have you visited Elkmont? Do you know of ghost stories? Let us know in the comments below.

View the story version of this article here.