Top 5 free things to do in Gatlinburg at Christmas, ranked

The Island in Pigeon Forge is open year round including Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day (individual store hours may vary) (photo by Morgan Overholt/
Category: , ,
Leave a comment

Disclosure: This site is sponsored by ads and affiliate programs. We may earn money from the companies mentioned in this post. As an Amazon, Tripster and CJ Affiliate we may earn from qualifying purchases.

Sevier County is no place to be broke during the holidays.

The commercialization of Christmas is a steamroller of bright lights, consumption and celebration, all wrapped into one giant festive ball.

It’s both the best and the worst thing about the holiday season.

It’s that yin and yang, I suppose, that is at the heart of the season captured in classics from Dicken’s “Christmas Carol” to Seuss’s “Grinch.”

Still, the spirit is there, if you know where to look. And you can find it while saving your hard-earned dollars for important things like tinsel and eggnog.

Here are some ways you can celebrate Christmas in Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville without ever opening your wallet.

The 40-foot walk-through Christmas Tree at The Island in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. (photo by Morgan Overholt/
This 40-foot walk-through Christmas Tree is one of the many photo-worthy props and Christmas decorations at The Island in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. (photo by Morgan Overholt/

5. Walk around downtown Gatlinburg or The Island in Pigeon Forge

There’s something about going for a good winter’s evening walk, letting that cold air fill your lungs and snap your senses open, that is inextricably Christmas.

My favorite destination to soak in some seasonal spirit is Gatlinburg, a city built to be accessed by foot.

Sure, there’s a good-sized hill, but take your time and relax.

Even though Gatlinburg is a small village, at Christmas, it makes me think of the classic carol “Silver Bells.”

I suppose it’s the bustling activity and the vaguely European architecture.

If you let your imagination wander, it’s a little bit like time travel, to the golden age of Christmas where I’ve gone back to the age of busy sidewalks filled with people dressed in holiday style and the feeling of Christmas tangible in the air.

Like Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney could walk, arm in arm, out of one of the shops and suddenly, inexplicably, life is a musical, but one that somehow captures the joy of a Christmas tinged with melancholy.

In Pigeon Forge, The Island is the perfect spot to walk at night, get a photo at the giant Christmas tree and enjoy the season.

But be warned, the brand of Christmas at The Island is very different.

If Gatlinburg is Dean Martin singing Christmas carols into your soul, The Island is Seuss’s Whoville, all neon lights and bombast and electric mirth.

There’s no place for reflection, no time for season sadness, even for those of us who enjoy our minor desolations.

If it sways you one way or the other, The Island offers abundant free parking, which can be hard to find in Gatlinburg.

John Oliver's cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (stock photo)
John Oliver’s cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the winter (stock photo)

4. Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

For reasons we’ve discussed before, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free. On behalf of all Tennesseans, you’re welcome.

And Christmas is a great time to get out and explore the wonders of the park and the hiking trails.

I like to go to Cades Cove in the winter and visit the little churches and cabins.

It’s time travel again, but instead of going back to a slick Christmas with packages and men in fedoras, this is a hardscrabble Christmas in which the gifts are homemade and candy or fruit is a treasure.

I like to stand on the hard-board floors and think about a tiny evergreen that had likely been cut down on Christmas Eve and decorated with ribbons and maybe strings of popcorn.

It’s cold and hard and, to use a term that carries more condescension than I’d like, simple.

But it’s also joyous and free, spiritually as well as financially.

Read Also: Why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free and others are not

The Apple Barn
The Apple Barn can be an especially fun place to visit during the holidays (photo by Alaina O’Neal/

3. Visit The Apple Barn in Sevierville

Located in Sevierville, the Apple Barn’s centerpiece was built in 1910 by a family that farmed the surrounding land for generations. There’s no admission for the barn and, when it’s decorated for Christmas, it’s a sight to see.

A word of caution, however, for the purposes of this exercise, temptation awaits at The Apple Barn.

Sure you can go into the barn and see the sights, check out all the items, watch them make cider and candy and explore the grounds without spending a dime. But it’s not easy.

Between the tempting foodstuffs, the beverages and the items for sale, you will be sorely tempted to open your wallet.

Think of this as a Christmas test of willpower.

Sevier County celebrates Winterfest through February 2021 featuring millions of twinkling lights and holiday displays 8stock photo)
Sevier County celebrates Winterfest through February with millions of twinkling lights and holiday displays (photo by Jerry/

2. Go for a drive

Technically, this is not free because you’re using gas, but let’s not get bogged down in details.

When I was a kid, every year we’d go visit my grandparents in Marion and Grandma Betty would insist that we go down to the park by the river and look at the city’s holiday lights display.

It was like if Shadrack’s was put together by the Amish who were willing to budge this time and allow a little electricity but not enough to risk eternal damnation.

Pigeon Forge is significantly better decorated than Marion was. It’s worth loading the kids in the car to cruise the strip and look at all the lights.

But I would recommend accessing the traffic situation before embarking on this particular adventure.

You don’t want to be sitting in traffic staring at the end of a trolley for two hours, but if traffic is flowing, cruising is always a good time.

Read Also: Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland 2021, what you need to know

The Old Mill features shops, restaurants and plenty of sightseeing opportunities
The Old Mill features shops, restaurants and plenty of sightseeing opportunities (stock photo)

1. Visit the Old Mill Square in Pigeon Forge

The Old Mill is, well, an old mill built in 1830 and still functions today.

Again, you will be tempted to spend money at one of the many diverting little shops and restaurants. Still, admission is free to come and explore.

The mill is a working tribute to the pioneers of yesteryear and really does a job at Christmas. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a great spot to take family Christmas photos for the ‘gram.

Bonus: Check out the Arts and Crafts Community

I quite enjoy checking out the Arts and Crafts Community this time of year.

Just shop where you see The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community logo to explore local talent and homemade goods or explore their 8-mile loop of artists and craftsmen.

The Christmas Arts and Crafts show this year will run from Nov. 29 through Dec. 5 and offers free admission.

What are your favorite things to do for free? Let us know in the comments!

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at for questions or comments.

Things to do


What caused the fire in Gatlinburg in 2016? Here’s the real story

Don’t make these 10 mistakes when visiting Dollywood at Christmas


Leave a Comment