Vacationing on a budget can be tough.
And even if you’re planning on hitting most of the major attractions, it’s nice to build in a day that is free from financial obligations and strict schedules.
Luckily, there are plenty of free things to do in Gatlinburg TN and the surrounding area of the Smoky Mountains that are family-friendly and won’t break the bank.
Here are some of my top suggestions:
PS: We’ve also made a printable version of this list here for quick reference.
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21. Visit a city park in Gatlinburg
The city of Gatlinburg offers a handful of great parks for guests to enjoy.
Herbert Holt Park offers a children’s fishing stream, picnic tables, a playground area and more. It’s also home to Gatlinburg’s Trout Rearing Facility, which is the state’s only municipal trout farm.
Mynatt Park features tennis courts, pickleball, a children’s fishing stream, playground areas and walking trails.
And finally, Mills Park offers a disc golf course, a track, a basketball court and a playground area.
Depending on which recreational activity you’re looking to enjoy, all of the parks provide an opportunity for kids to release some of their vacation energy.
20. Visit the Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook
If you want some great views of the Great Smoky Mountains without the hike, take the Gatlinburg bypass on your way into Gatlinburg for an iconic view of the Smoky Mountains.
From the outlook, you will see the entire town of Gatlinburg with a beautiful mountain backdrop.
It’s a great opportunity to have a fun photoshoot with the family.
While this excursion won’t take up too much of your day, it’s a great way to start your trip.
19. Take a scenic drive
There are plenty of sights to see in the Smokies without ever having to leave your car, which means the only money you’ll be spending is on gas.
For example, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one-way loop road that covers 5.5 miles. It’s open in the spring, summer and fall.
When entering the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, you can stop at the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guided nature trail, which is a walking tour of a mountain farmstead and the surrounding forest.
But keep in mind that if you park for more than 15 minutes, you will need a parking tag.
Also, at 5,046 feet, we have Newfound Gap Road – the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The scenic drive starts at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and ends at the Mountain Farm Museum in North Carolina. Speaking of which …
18. Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill
The Mountain Farm Museum is located in the Oconaluftee area of the park and features a collection of historic buildings like a house, barn, apple house, springhouse and smokehouse.
It’s a great spot to get out, explore and stretch your legs. Be sure to take advantage of the picnic areas.
It’s also a good area for seeing elk.
17. Visit a scenic waterfall
The Smoky Mountains area is home to several waterfalls, and many of them do not require a long hike to see them.
If you want to stick to the absolutely free plan, consider falls that you can drive to, like The Sinks or Meigs Falls.
16. Visit Douglas Lake
Douglas Lake is located along the hills of the Smoky Mountains and just a few miles from Pigeon Forge.
This lake stretches across more than 550 miles of shoreline with marinas and boat ramps.
It’s a popular lake to go fishing, swimming, boating or going on a picnic, weather permitting.
Plus, Douglas Lake is also the area where Bald Eagles are released from the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary at Dollywood – when they are of age and releasable.
15. Visit the Old Mill Square in Pigeon Forge
The mill at Old Mill Square has been in operation since the 1800s, and today it is one of the oldest continually operating gristmills in the country.
Around the mill, you will find restaurants, shopping and a distillery.
The area is free to explore. However, you might be tempted to pull out your wallet to try some of the delicious restaurants nearby.
14. Visit Patriot Park
Very close to Old Mill Square, you will find Patriot Park.
This park is dedicated to veterans from Sevier County and offers a walking path right along the Little Pigeon River.
It’s also home to festivals throughout the year, including Winterfest and 4th of July fireworks. This stop is a charming little getaway within your getaway.
13. Drive the Cades Cove Loop
Cades Cove is an 11-mile drivable loop and a huge tourist attraction in the Smokies. Surrounded by mountains, it offers gorgeous views and an opportunity to see the local wildlife such as black bears, turkey and white-tailed deer.
It’s a popular place to explore, ride bikes and enjoy picnics.
Along the trail, you will find churches, a working mill, log houses and restored eighteenth-century structures rich in East Tennessee history.
As long as you do not park your car for more than 15 minutes, the area is completely free to explore.
12. Visit the Little River Railroad Museum
Located in Townsend, this little railroad museum is rich in history.
It was built in 1982 to preserve the heritage of the people and companies of the Little River Lumber Company and the Little River Railroad.
This museum is open seasonally. But during the off-season, the grounds and outdoor exhibits are still available.
The museum is free to visit, but donations are appreciated. To learn more or check the current hours, visit their website.
11. Sample wine and moonshine
If you enjoy wine or moonshine, there are many places in the area that offer free samples. Although, tipping is generally recommended.
The Apple Barn Winery, Gatlinburg Wine Cellar and Mountain Valley Vineyards are just a few of the options for free wine samples.
While it can be trickier to find moonshine tastings in downtown Gatlinburg that are completely free, many distilleries offer moonshine sample sets for as little as $5.
Ole Smokey Moonshine and Sugarlands are popular distilleries that charge only $5 for samples.
10. Visit The Island in Pigeon Forge
There’s a lot to do on The Island, and admission and parking are completely free.
While looking around, enjoying the Island Show Fountain and sitting back in a nice rocking chair has no cost, it may be tempting to spend some money while you’re there.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
As a bonus, it’s also pet-friendly, but individual shops will vary.
9. Explore the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community
The Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community consists of more than 100 shops spread over the 8-mile Loop Road.
Reportedly, they make up the largest group of independent artisans in North America.
Whether you’re looking for homemade snacks, pottery, quilts or candles, it’s a fun and unique area to explore in Gatlinburg.
8. Take a ride on the Gatlinburg Trolley
The Gatlinburg Trolley runs 365 days a year for a free way to explore and get around Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas.
To ride, simply board the trolley at any stop in the city and ride to your destination.
For a map of trolley routes, visit the city website.
7. Walk the Gatlinburg strip
Gatlinburg offers several unique, local shops and attractions to explore and fill your day.
Of course, the attractions and eateries will require some money, but it’s free to look and do some people-watching.
6. Visit the Mountain Mall
The Mountain Mall is conveniently located downtown across Ripley’s Aquarium. It features locally owned shops that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
5. Visit The Village in Gatlinburg
Speaking of shopping, another area you don’t want to miss is The Village. The Village is indistinctly European with touches of Swiss, German, Celtic, English and French.
It’s the perfect place to do your shopping and dining. Also, it’s a great getaway from the more neon elements of tourism in the area.
4. Enjoy seasonal festivals and fireworks
Depending on when you’re planning your visit, keep an eye out for free festivals in the area.
For example, the Smoky Mountain Tunes & Tales event takes place in July each year. Musicians, dancers and storytellers take to the streets nightly from 6 pm to 10 pm.
Also, the city does a free fireworks show on major holidays such as July 4th and New Year’s Eve.
During the holidays, look for parades and holiday lights.
3. Visit the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
Okay, this one isn’t completely free, but it’s only $3. It’s one of the few, if not the only, museums dedicated entirely to salt and pepper shakers.
It’s a fun little stop on your tour of Gatlinburg. Plus, your $3 admission can be used toward a purchase of any salt and pepper shaker set in the gift shop.
2. Check out a visitor center
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the options, a visitor center is a perfect place to launch your adventure.
For example, the Sugarlands Visitor Center is located near Gatlinburg. It offers trail guides, maps and papers for explorers to find their way.
It’s also a great place to take a break. For example, you could get out of a bad storm or just find a resting spot while you wait for the rest of your party to finish a hike.
The center is home to soda machines and water fountains as well as public restrooms.
1. Take a hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The national park does not have an entrance fee. However, the National Park Service now charges visitors $5 to park for more than 15 minutes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Weekly and annual passes are also available.
Still, it’s a very affordable way to spend the day in the mountains.
From natural falls to chimney tops and coves, there are several trails to explore around the Smoky Mountains.
One of the most popular hikes is Clingmans Dome, which is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains.
But, there’s no better activity than exploring the mountains that made Gatlinburg the tourist destination that it is today.
Do you agree with our list? What are your favorite free things to do in the area while on vacation? Let us know in the comments!