A mom shares her favorite things to do in Gatlinburg with her family
In my experience, I find that those visiting Gatlinburg for the first time are often surprised by the number of attractions competing for their tourist dollar. What seems like a sleepy mountain town can sometimes feel like an array of neon lights and eye-catching, quirky displays. But Gatlinburg has two sides to it. It has a mountain vibe – with local crafts, scenery, nature and history. And it has a tourist side – with shops, restaurants and attractions. Your level of “fun” may vary, but I’ll include all of the above in this comprehensive list of fun things to do in Gatlinburg for families. Editor’s Note: We’ve also made a printable version of this checklist available here.
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1. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
It would be a tragedy to visit Gatlinburg and skip over the national park. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park sees about 14 million visitors per year. With several hiking trails, waterfalls and beautiful landscapes. In fact, the possibilities are nearly endless. Some popular trails include the Alum Cave Trail, Rainbow Falls or Clingmans Dome. These aren’t in Gatlinburg proper, but it’s worth the extra drive. Of course, which one you select will depend on your experience level and desired hiking distance. There is no entrance fee to the park but if you plan on parking a car or more than 15 minutes you will need a Park It Forward pass. Editor’s Note: You might want to check out our guide on easy hikes if it’s your first time visiting!
Anakeesta is one of the premier Gatlinburg attractions in the Smokies, located in downtown Gatlinburg. While it’s often compared to Ober Mountain (see below), it definitely has a different vibe. For example, it’s a lot more modern and updated. It offers stunning views of the mountains and has great eateries. It’s a park where you go to hang out, enjoy the views and do some relaxing. There are also plenty of places to eat and even little play areas and splash pads for the kids. But that isn’t to say they don’t offer any excitement. This attraction also has ziplining and mountain coasters for an additional cost. Additionally, they offer an Astra Lumina Nightwalk experience, which is also an add-on. It’s an enchanting walk through a forest that features immersive effects of lights and sound, and it’s the only attraction of its kind in the United States. The play areas, observation tower, and iconic Treetop Skywalk are all included in the price of general admission. AnaVista, the observation tower, is currently the highest point in Gatlinburg.
Pro-tip: Check Tripster for discounts before you go (we usually save $2/ticket with this method and it works like a charm). If you’re afraid of heights, skip the chairlift and take the Ridge Rambler to the top of the mountain. Be sure to set aside at least a half day for this attraction (if not more!).
3. Gatlinburg SkyLift Park
This is another unique experience in Gatlinburg. There are several attractions featured at SkyLift Park, including the SkyTrail, SkyDeck and SkyCenter. But the money maker is the Gatlinburg SkyBridge. It’s the longest pedestrian bridge in North America. It rises 500 feet above downtown Gatlinburg with glass panes in the middle. It’s definitely worth a visit at least once in your life – unless you’re scared of heights, that is. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Allow at least 1-3 hours for this attraction to see and do everything.
4. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Ripley’s attractions are a great way to spend time in the Smokies. Why? Because there are more Ripley’s attractions here than just about anywhere else in the world. And when you bundle your tickets, you can see multiple attractions and save up to $50 per guest. At the aquarium, you can visit sea turtles, sharks, and stingrays, but my favorite aspects of this aquarium are probably the penguins and the underwater tunnels. And trust me, your kids will love the penguins. Plus, it’s a great rainy-day activity. And you’re very likely to encounter a bit of rain on your vacation (it rains a lot in East Tennessee) so keep this attraction in mind. Pro-tip: Set aside at least a half day for this attraction. And either walk to the Aquarium or take the free Gatlinburg trolley if you can. Parking is limited and will run ya about $10 per vehicle.
5. Ripley’s Odditorium
Ripley’s Odditorium is the second most visited Ripley’s attraction in the Smokies (second to the aquarium). It has hundreds of odd artifacts and hands-on exhibits that both adults and kids can enjoy. It features three stories of themed galleries that cover history, art, travel, pop culture and more. Consider adding this attraction to your Ripley’s bundle if you’re buying tickets online. Editor’s Note: We recommend setting aside at least a couple of hours for this attraction.
6. Hillbilly Golf
Even if you skip over Ripley’s attractions, Gatlinburg has some great mini golfing attractions that aren’t Ripley’s related. For example, Hillbilly Golf is one of the most iconic locations in Gatlinburg (complete with moonshine stills and fallen trees as obstacles). To experience the course, guests actually ride up to the top of a mountain on a vertical trolley. But keep in mind that this particular attraction usually closes in the winter months.
7. Ober Mountain
Formerly known as Ober Gatlinburg, Ober Mountain (or just “Ober” as the locals call it) is one of the most iconic attractions in Gatlinburg. Most of the time, I would tell you that this attraction is showing its age a bit. However, now under new ownership, that’s all changing as we speak. Plus, many people love Ober, and for good reason. The attraction has a lot to offer. First of all, you can take the scenic Aerial Tramway to the attraction or simply drive up the mountain if you prefer. Once you’re there, they offer indoor ice skating and ice bumper cars year-round. Additionally, they have an alpine slide, mountain coaster, wildlife habitat and summer tubing. As a new feature, Ober now offers a mountain biking experience (warm weather only). In the winter, you can go skiing, snowboarding or snow tubing. It’s a great spot for kids with chair swings and a carousel as well. But it can be good for adults too, depending on what you’re looking for. Tip: The Aerial Tramway is fun but a bit pricey at $30 per person. To save a bit of money, consider driving up to Ober Gatlinburg instead. Parking is just $10.
Ziplining offers a great opportunity to see some fantastic views of the mountains. After all, how can it get much better than zipping through the treetops yourself? If you visit Anakeesta, you can add a dueling zipline adventure to your base ticket for about $60, at the time of this writing.
If you only want the ziplining experience, CLIMB Works is another great location in Gatlinburg, and it’s located right next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
9. Mountain coasters
You don’t have to look very far to find a mountain coaster in the Great Smoky Mountains. And most people are surprised to learn that most mountain coasters in the area are kid-friendly. In fact, at Ripley’s, kids as young as three years of age can ride if accompanied by an adult. While the rides themselves are short, it’s a fun experience. If you’ve never done one before, it’s a bit like a small, jerky roller coaster where you can help control the speed as you zip down the side of a mountain in a cart. In Gatlinburg, you can do the Moonshine Mountain Coaster or the Ripley’s Mountain Coaster along the Parkway (also available as a Ripley’s bundle). But certain attractions also have them as part of their park, including the previously mentioned Ober Mountain and Anakeesta.
10. Horseback riding
When my Texas-based in-laws came to visit my hometown in East Tennessee, one of the things they wanted to try was horseback riding. There are several stables around the area, but admittedly, many of them are closer to Pigeon Forge, Sevierville or Townsend. Still, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them. It mostly depends on your desired ride length and location. We highly recommend Big Rock Dude Ranch. Rides at the Ranch are $59 per person and include a bag of feed for the petting zoo.
11. Gatlinburg Space Needle
The observation tower in Gatlinburg was once the highest point in Gatlinburg. Now, that title goes to the AnaVista Tower at Anakeesta. Still, the Space Needle is a fun stop on your visit, where glass elevators take you to the top of an observation deck that offers a scenic overlook of the town. At the base, there’s a full arcade. Pro-Tip: Check Groupon for discounts before you go.
12. The Village Shops
If shopping is on your list, you’ll find a variety of shops at The Village. It’s a shopping complex featuring faux-European architecture, and it’s a great place to do your Gatlinburg shopping and dining. We strongly recommend checking out The Donut Friar, but be sure to take cash because they don’t accept credit cards.
13. The Arts and Crafts Community
The Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community consists of more than 100 shops featuring regionally made items spread over the 8-mile loop road. The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community also hosts shows and events throughout the year. And impressively, they make up one of the largest groups of independent artisans in North America. It’s a great place to shop for pottery, rugs, leatherwork and jewelry. In the loop, you’ll also find some eateries and dessert shops.
14. Whitewater rafting or tubing
There are several places in the mountains where you can raft the whitewater. It can be easy to forget just how powerful the water of even a relatively small river like the Pigeon River can be. There are a variety of vendors who offer whitewater rafting on the Pigeon. Rafting in the Smokies in Hartford, River Rat Tubing and Big Bear Whitewater Rafting are some excellent nearby options.
15. Side by side rentals
You may have seen UTVs driving along the streets of Gatlinburg or the Smokies. Street-legal UTVs are allowed on roads that have a speed limit of 40 mph or less. So to see the mountains with a little wind in your hair, be sure to check out one of the many area rental places. Editor’s note: Check out our list of area side-by-side rentals here.
16. Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
This museum is one of the most affordable options on our list. Some people may not think of a Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum as the definition of fun, but it’s definitely unique and memorable. I’m not saying it’s going to be an all-day activity (maybe an hour or two at the most), but it’s definitely worth a pit stop and the $3 admission (kids 12 and under are free). Plus, the cost of admission can be used toward a purchase in the gift shop. It’s one of the biggest bargains in the Smokies.
17. See a magic show
If you’re looking for a show to watch, generally Pigeon Forge is the place to be. However, you can also see a fun magic show right in the heart of Gatlinburg. Erik Dobell is a master mentalist and magician. His show inside the Space Needle features illusions and tricks that are sure to amaze guests of all ages. Pro-tip: Check Tripster for discounts on tickets.
What are your favorite fun things to do in Gatlinburg TN? Let us know in the comments!