These Are the 12 Absolute Best Things to Do in Gatlinburg

A guest walks the TreeTop SkyWalk at sunset at Anakeesta

A guest walks the TreeTop SkyWalk at sunset at Anakeesta (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

A list of the most iconic things to do in Gatlinburg, according to a local

There’s a joy that comes with being someplace like Gatlinburg with time to burn and a little money in your pocket. We recently spent a day in Gatlinburg with my kids starting with Ripley’s Aquarium, followed by some shopping at The Village and dinner at one of my favorite local restaurants. It was a good day, a full day. A day in which the entire family had a good time. As a local, I have barely scratched the surface of what’s available in Gatlinburg. So how do visitors do it all? Truthfully, they can’t. But they can prioritize what they want to do and let the things that don’t make the cut go. Below, I will break it down for you based on recommendations, the things I think you should put at the top of your list.

I advise a picnic in the park, a visit to the Pancake Pantry, a visit to Ripley’s Aquarium, a drive to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a trip to Anakeesta, a hike to Laurel Falls, a visit to the glass SkyBridge, a trip to the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community, a dinner at The Peddler, mini golfing at Hillbilly Golf, a ride on the Gatlinburg Trolley, a visit to the Space Needle and some moonshine sampling.

Best Things To Do in Gatlinburg

RankAttractionBest for …
1Chimney TopsOutdoor lovers.
2Laurel FallsPeople who enjoy public transportation and/or unique ways to see Christmas lights.
3Pancake PantryPancake lovers.
4Ripley’s AquariumFamilies looking for a rainy day activity.
5AnakeestaCouples looking for beautiful views, mountain coasters and ziplining.
6SkyPark SkyBridgePeople who aren’t afraid of heights.
7Roaring Fork Motor Nature TrailPeople who prefer nature in the comfort of their car.
8The PeddlerCouples looking for an intimate meal in a historic setting.
9Hillbilly GolfLovers of mini-golf and mountain culture.
10Gatlinburg TrolleyPeople who enjoy public transportation and/or unique way to see Christmas lights.
11The Space NeedleEveryone – this is an iconic attraction in the Smokies.
12Ole SmokyLovers of moonshine.
chimneys picnic area with sandwich in foreground
Start your trip with a relaxing picnic in the national park (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

1. Picnic in the National Park

Tip: pack a sandwich from a local deli

While in the Smoke Mountains, you should partake in at least one picnic inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located just up Highway 321, my favorite picnic spot is the Chimney Picnic Area. The rushing West Prong of the Little Pigeon River runs alongside the area providing great scenery as well as first-rate wading and adventuring for the family. This has been my family’s favorite spot to go hang out and grill for decades. With the sound of the water and the shade of the tall trees, it’s also a great spot to string a hammock and relax. To find the picnic area, simply set your GPS to Chimneys Picnic Area. Parking inside the park is $5 a day.

right in front of laurel falls
Laurel Falls is one of the most popular trails in the park (photo by Ryhor M Zasinets/shutterstock.com)

2. Hike to Laurel Falls

Tip: Wear good hiking shoes

Before you leave the park, you might want to get in a good hike. We recommend one with a waterfall. Among the most popular tourist destinations in the park, Laurel Falls is located on the Laurel Falls Trail, which starts about 3.5 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. There is parking available at the trailhead, but remember that you will need that aforementioned parking pass when you park in the national park for more than 15 minutes. Also, remember that since this is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Smokies, you will likely see a few other guests along your way. The Laurel Falls parking area is located at Old State Highway 73 Scenic, Sevierville, TN 37862.

inside the pancake pantry
The Pancake Pantry was the state’s first pancake establishment. It’s an area icon (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

3. Visit the Pancake Pantry

Tip: The LINE MOVES FAST

If Gatlinburg had a main food group, it would probably be pancakes. There’s no better way to start your day than with a plate full of delicious flapjacks. When the Pancake Pantry opened in 1960, it was Tennessee’s first and only pancake house. The Pancake Pantry still stands out today, both for the quality of the menu items, as well as the 1970 Willy Wonka-esque European-style architecture. Locals and visitors alike love the Pancake Pantry. These great pancakes are surely the best I’ve ever had. And they come in hearty, generous portions of five per plate. I recommend a plate of Carribean cakes. The Pancake Pantry is located at 628 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. They don’t take reservations, but don’t fret, the line tends to move quickly. For best results, arrive early. If you’re not staying downtown, plan on paying for parking in a nearby lot.

A penguin at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
The Penguin Playhouse is one of the best areas to explore at the aquarium (media photo courtesy of Ripley’s Aquarium)

4. Visit Ripley’s Aquarium

Tip: Bundle combo passes to save

After you’ve got a belly full of pancakes, waddle on down (pun intended) the Parkway to your next adventure: A trip to the aquarium. I admit that I’m partial to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. It’s the perfect place for the family to get away in the mountains. Even with crowds of people, the serenity of watching the fish and sharks is fantastic, and the underwater tunnel can amaze you no matter how many times you ride under a large shark. The penguin parade is fun and the kid’s area is gloriously hectic.

However, the aquarium is showing its age in some areas. The whole thing could use a makeover and expansion, but it’s still the premier man-made attraction in Gatlinburg. It remains a great time for the whole family. If you visit the aquarium, make sure you consider a combo pass to save on multiple attractions. It can help in stretching your vacation dollar. Ripley’s Aquarium is located at 88 River Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Paid parking is available on-site. Alternatively, you can take the free area trolley (more on that later). General admission, at the time of this writing, is $39.99 per adult, $24.99 per child (6-11) and $9.99 per child (2-5).

a walk between trees in Tennessee during the day
Anakeesta is well known for its iconic views and Treetop SkyWalk (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

5. Visit Anakeesta

Tip: Stay for astra lumina

After the aquarium, head to Anakeesta. Billed as Gatlinburg’s amusement park, Anakeesta offers something for the entire family … at a price. The still-growing attraction offers scenic mountain views from the AnaVista Tower, shopping and dining. The Treetop SkyWalk (pictured above) is a fan favorite. It also has fun add-on adventures, such as one of the best zip lines in the area and a mountain coaster. You can also consider the Astra Lumina experience as an add-on. It’s the first of its kind in the United States. The prices are a little steep and will be a much better attraction as it continues to expand in the coming years. But Anakeesta offers something that not a lot of other Gatlinburg attractions offer, which is a place to chill.

Also, the chondola ride down the mountain at night is legit one of the best experiences on the mountain. Coming down through the dark to the lights of Gatlinburg below? It’s peaceful. Soothing. It may also be the most relaxed I’ve been in a long time. Check Tripster for discounts on general admission ($34.99 per adult, $22.99 per child 4-11) when you plan your trip. Anakeesta is located at 576 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

glass panels on the skybridge
The highest point of the bridge is 150 feet off the ground and features glass floor panels (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

6. Visit the glass Gatlinburg SkyBridge

Tip: walk the bridge at sunset

Alternatively, or in addition to Anakeesta, there’s also the famous glass-bottomed SkyBridge. The SkyBridge is a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience. It’s located at the Gatlinburg SkyPark, which also offers walking paths, an observation tower and a SkyCenter where you can soak in the views with a craft beer and a snack. The bridge offers iconic views of downtown Gatlinburg TN, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and more. It isn’t entirely made of glass, but there are 30 feet of glass panels on the bridge which offers spectacular views and a blast of adrenaline.

With its panoramic views, it’s also a great place to watch the sky at dusk. There’s plenty of room up there. The bridge is wide enough for people to pass each other comfortably, allowing everyone to take the bridge at their own pace. General admission is $37.95 per adult, $23.95 for kids 6-11 at the time of this writing. SkyPark is located at 765 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

the roaring fork motor nature trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5-mile one-way road in the Smoky Mountains (photo by Tim Mainiero/shutterstock.com)

7. Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Tip: Drive it in the fall for leaf-peeping

While the Cades Cove Loop tends to get most of the attention in the Smokies, we recommend the road less traveled. Literally. This scenic drive is located just outside Gatlinburg in the national park. It includes scenic views, wildlife viewing – during the right time of year it’s a great place to see black bears – and a variety of trails to some of the most popular waterfalls in the mountains, including Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Throw in the historic buildings and occasional ghost stories, and you’ve got something for everyone. Keep in mind that this one-way road is closed during the winter months.

To access the trail, turn off the main Parkway in Gatlinburg at traffic light #8. Then, follow the Historic Nature Trail Road. The entrance to the Motor Trail is a short distance from the parking areas for Rainbow Falls trailhead. It is only a few miles away from the Parkway in Gatlinburg. Or simply set your GPS to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trailhead at 117 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

A steak at the Peddler with sides
The Peddler is best known for its quality steak and excellent salad bar (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

8. Dine at The Peddler

Tip: SALAD BAR WITH ENTREE

Whether or not you consider yourself a foodie, a large part of any vacation is the local restaurant scene. Whether you want some good seafood or an excellent steak, there are lots of solid options in the area. But one of the most iconic is The Peddler in downtown Gatlinburg. It’s steeped in history. It was originally a cabin built by the Ogles, a legendary East Tennessee family whose name is attached to many meaningful locations in and around the Smokies. The original century-old walls and carefully placed stones set the stage for your dining experience. The façade of the original cabin is part of the main dining room.

The Peddler, is of course, best known for its steaks. Steaks here are cooked to perfection, from rare to well done. Yes, even well done is done well here. But the real unsung hero of the meal is the salad bar which is included with the purchase of every entree (or for a fee if ordered al la carte).

The Peddler is located at 820 River Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Free parking is available on site but the lot is small and availability is limited. Make a reservation before you go for the best results.

Outhouse mini golf obstacle at Hillbilly Golf Gatlinburg
Hillbilly Golf is one of the best mini-golf places in the Smokies (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

9. Experience Hillbilly Golf

Tip: CLOSED IN THE WINTER

My mind is a series of odd partitions. I separate things the way they should be organized even if the real world doesn’t work that way. The truth is, when I think of mini golfing, I don’t think of Gatlinburg. In my mind, the realm of mini-golfing belongs to Pigeon Forge, so that’s where I go when I want to play mini golf. I have mini golfed in Gatlinburg. However, it wasn’t the main object on the day’s itinerary.

But if you are in the mood for some golfing. I have a suggestion. Notably, Hillbilly Golf is famous all over the United States. Hillbilly Golf is an “I’ve been to Gatlinburg” checklist item. Unlike other area courses, a lift carries golfers up the side of a mountain where you then golf your way down. Obstacles include real fallen trees and moonshine still props. Locals may think it plays up our Appalachian heritage in the wrong way. However, Hillbilly Golf is my favorite outing when my out-of-town relatives visit. Hillbilly Golf is open from March through November from 9 am-10 pm, weather permitting. Hillbilly Golf is located at 340 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

the gatlinburg trolley during the winter
I recommend the trolley during the winter months (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

10. Ride the Gatlinburg Trolley

Tip: It’s FREE!

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. There’s even a stop at Ripley’s Aquarium. For a map of trolley routes, visit the city website. Note: I especially recommend this activity during the holiday season. At Christmastime, when Gatlinburg is lit with the holiday spirit, there’s no better way to see the Winterfest lights.

the top of the gatlinburg space needle
The Space Needle once offered the tallest views in Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

11. Visit Gatlinburg Space Needle

Tip: CHECK for groupons

The Space Needle is cool. It offers great views of Gatlinburg and the mountains, and it’s a unique experience to do once. But if you want to get the best views, some of the other attractions on the list (such as Anakeesta and SkyPark) may be better. You see, despite the significant height, the needle is located down in a valley, dwarfed by the mountains to either side. It once had the title of the tallest tower, but it has been usurped by Anakeesta’s tower. Still, it’s fun. It’s worth checking out at night for the views of Gatlinburg’s lights. But it’s not the best commercial view in town. Still, if you want to check it out, you can also sometimes find a deal on Groupon. The Space Needle is located at 115 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. General admission is $15.95 per adult, and $9.95 for kids.

jars of sugarlands moonshine
Gatlinburg is known for its locally made moonshine (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

12. Sample moonshine at Ole Smoky

Tip: live music at the holler location

Gatlinburg is known for its moonshine distilleries. And Ole Smoky is the most visited distillery in the world. You can try samples for $7, which will go toward the price of a purchase made in-store. Ole Smoky currently has two locations in Gatlinburg. Both are located along the main strip only blocks away from one another. We prefer the Holler location at 903 Parkway #128, Gatlinburg, TN 37738 because it’s also a great place to catch some live music. While Ole Smoky Moonshine is one of the most well-known distilleries to try a few samples, there are several places to get moonshine up and down the Parkway. Sugarlands is another popular option, for example. Not into moonshine? There are also plenty of wineries as well.

TheSmokies.com

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What is your favorite thing to do in Gatlinburg? Let us know in the comments!

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Disclosure: We have used and experienced all the products and activities recommended on The Smokies. We may receive compensation when you click on links to some products and experiences featured.

2 thoughts on “These Are the 12 Absolute Best Things to Do in Gatlinburg”

  1. The Chimney Picnic Area is something that brings back memories of my childhood. We would always stop at the KFC on the corner (Not There Anymore) and have a picnic every year that we went. The tradition continued when I started taking my own family. Love being able to eat at the picnic tables that are next to the stream coming out of the mountains.

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  2. I have learned over the years the best things in life are, indeed, “FREE”!
    one of my favorites is to plop myself on a sidewalk bench and simply watch life happen around me. Like I Said, IT’S FREE!!!! Another one is to access the Little Pigeon River, and do some rockhounding. ALSO FREE, yet another fave pastime is to go into some of the more Mom & Pop type shops and get to know the people and buy a little something to show them Support. NEARLY FREE.

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