There’s a joy that comes with being someplace like Gatlinburg with time to burn and a little money in your pocket.
We were there last weekend celebrating my youngest’s approaching 7th birthday a week early.
“It’s my pre-birthday,” she’d tell anyone who made the mistake of speaking to her and giving her an excuse to lift the dam blocking the torrent of excitement that all but bubbled from her still six-year-old soul.
For Ainsley’s pre-birthday, we went to Ripley’s Aquarium and saw the sharks and the fish and the penguins. It was, in fact, crowded. However, if you watched my little, dancing bundle of excitement – you’d have thought she was the only kid in the place.
It was the Saturday before Easter. So there was a little Easter celebration set-up featuring a surprising amount of Ghostbusters who happily posed for Ghostbusters fans.
I wanted to ask if there was an Easter connection, something to do with Ghostbusting and resurrections. However, my wife mistook my genuine musings for something sarcastic and I was severely hushed before I could engage one of the Busters in philosophical thought.
We also saw the beef jerky Sasquatch mascot. But he was across the river and I didn’t get to ask him any questions either.
From there, we stopped by Aunt Mahalia’s Candies in the Mountain Mall and lunched at Tennessee Jed’s.
Afterward, we made our way across to The Village where we frequented our favorite shops. The little kids scored at Cartoon Toys while I picked out a nice smoked Gouda and an Earthy Leek and Mushroom cheese from the Cheese Cupboard.
Ainsley – whose ankle socks were rubbing a blister – picked out a nice tall pair of puffin socks from The Sock Shop where Sofia found a couple of blouses for 75% off.
If you happen by the Morristown Tee-ball fields this season and see a child wearing penguin – technically puffin – socks that don’t match the rest of the team, stop by and say hello. That’ll be me coaching my penguin-loving daughter who made me promise she could wear them instead of the bland, gold socks that actually match her uniform.
Finally, we stopped in the Donut Friar for some baked goods. And after being stopped by a good Samaritan who found the newly purchased toy I had left on a bench waiting for everyone in the Sock Shop – we headed home.
It was a good day, a full day. A day in which the entire family had a good time.
What are the best things to do in Gatlinburg?
Here’s the thing, we barely scratched the surface of what’s available in Gatlinburg. Like, we did maybe 0.5% of everything you can do. We didn’t make it far enough up the street to start to climb the hill. And there was so much within even that small space we missed.
And so how do you – someone on vacation – do it all? The answer is you don’t. You can’t. There’s just too much. You’ve got to prioritize what you want to do and let the things that don’t make the cut go.
What would we do?
Well, I’ve given you a small sample of a day in Gatlinburg. In fact, a few of the things we find worthwhile. In addition, I am going to break it down for you based on our recommendations, the things we think you should put at the top of your list.
But first, a caveat, there is no right or wrong to this. What we rank No. 1 may well be the last thing on Earth you want to do. Conversely, you might value some of the things we don’t rate, like exploring the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community.
Gatlinburg is teeming with talented artists and crafters. Their work is important to celebrating mountain traditions and keeping many of them alive.
Certainly, I appreciate the talent and the beauty and history. But I just don’t want to spend my day going from shop to shop looking at their wares. That’s not how I want to spend my vacation. Thousands upon thousands of other people love doing exactly that. Great for them. This is a judgment-free zone. Live like you want to live, baby.
Secondly, in our Pigeon Forge list, we kept things very narrowly to the specific, legal boundaries of Pigeon Forge.
For Gatlinburg, we’re going to get a little wider and include some things from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nothing crazy – we’re not including Cades Cove or anything across the mountains into North Carolina – but we feel you can’t plan a Gatlinburg vacation and ignore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Without further ado, here’s our list of the best things to do in Gatlinburg.
14. Ober Gatlinburg (non-winter)
For decades, Ober Gatlinburg has been one of the most popular attractions in the Smokies.
And it still has a lot to offer, from the Aerial Tramway to the alpine slide to the mountain coaster. Ober Gatlinburg surely has plenty of activities for the whole family.
But there’s a reason Ober is getting hammered – at least in my perception – by Anakeesta, which offers far less to do. Ober feels like it’s fading.
I was disappointed on our last trip, I’m not sure I’ll go back. To me, things felt run down and there weren’t nearly enough employees. The ones who were there – for the most part – didn’t exude customer service.
I’m not totally out on Ober, it still offers a lot of fun things to do. Some people love it. I just can’t put it at the top of my list anymore.
13. Go mini golfing
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. I never have. 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. But I have mini golfed in Gatlinburg, it just wasn’t the main object on the day’s itinerary.
Ripley’s Davy Crockett course is fun and the Hillbilly Golf course is famous all over the United States. Several indoor mini golf venues are available, which is good when the weather is bad.
I have to admit, objectively, that Gatlinburg has great mini golf options – but I will always go to Pigeon Forge first. In my mind, that’s the natural hierarchy.
12. Gatlinburg Space Needle
The Space Needle is cool, it offers great views of Gatlinburg and the mountains. It’s a unique experience to do once.
But if you want to get the best views, Anakeesta, the Gatlinburg SkyBridge and Ober offer better views of the mountains. You see, despite the significant height, the needle is located down in a valley, dwarfed by the mountains to either side.
It’s fun. It’s worth checking out at night just for the views of Gatlinburg’s lights. But it’s not the best commercial view in town, not by a long shot.
You can also sometimes find a deal on Groupon.
11. Ride the Gatlinburg Trolley (Christmastime)
For 10 months out of the year, you couldn’t pay me to ride the Gatlinburg Trolley.
It’s not that I’m against public transportation per se, but when I visit, I’m not on vacation. I’m there to do a specific thing or two or three and get out. The idea of riding through Gatlinburg traffic, stopping as people get on and off would drive me crazy.
However, at Christmastime, when Gatlinburg is lit with the holiday spirit? Then the ride is the whole point. There’s no better way to see all the sights than riding the trolley.
10. Take in a museum
Gatlinburg has a long list of popular museums which are more tourist attractions than museums.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! remains the most popular, although I doubt many of the younger generations have any idea who Ripley was or why he curated oddities from around the world.
I’m old enough to remember TV shows and Ripley’s books that were sold at the Scholastic Book Fair every year. But at nearly 50, I’m still several decades away from Ripley’s heyday.
I suspect – other than the displays in Ripley attractions explaining the past – most who pass through the doors have little recollection of the Carnival barker legend behind the name.
Other popular museums include the self-explanatory Hollywood Star Cars Museum and the Gatlinburg Pinball Museum – with its classic pinball machines. And also the iconic Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
9. Go shopping
Filled with a massive variety of shops, stores and curio sellers, Gatlinburg is a great place to gift shop.
The aforementioned Village is my favorite place for the variety and unique experience, but there are countless interesting shops all along the heart of downtown Gatlinburg.
8. Play arcade games
Again, there is almost no limit to places you can play games, win tickets and test your skills along the strip.
My favorites are at the Gatlinburg Space Needle and Fannie Farkle’s Amusement. I like Fannie Farkle’s because they also serve a world-class smoked sausage and the best corn dog in North America.
7. Visit the Gatlinburg SkyBridge
The SkyBridge – which offers iconic views of Downtown Gatlinburg TN, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and more – isn’t entirely made of glass.
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 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.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience that you should try at least once.
6. Hike to Laurel Falls
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 the Park Service has been experimenting with a parking reservation system.
The idea is to reduce traffic on the trail and limit congestion on Highway 321 once the parking lot fills and visitors get “creative” trying to get a spot.
A shuttle service is available through Rocky Top Tours.
5. Ober Gatlinburg (winter only)
For all of its issues, Ober remains the premier destination for winter sports in Gatlinburg.
From ice skating and ice bumper cars to skiing to snow tubing and sledding, Ober remains a great spot when it’s cold enough for man-made snow.
It’s also East Tennessee’s best and only ski resort.
Billed as Gatlinburg’s amusement park, Anakeesta offers something for the entire family … at a price. The still-growing attraction offers scenic mountain views, shopping and dining.
It also has one of the best zip lines in the area and a good mountain coaster.
The prices are a little steep and it will be a much better attraction as it expands in the coming years. But Anakeesta offers something that not a lot of other Gatlinburg attractions offer: a place to chill.
From the seats near the fire pits to the dining areas overlooking some of the best views around, Anakeesta is a great spot to visit when you don’t have to do anything else that day. Just relax.
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 be the most relaxed I’ve been in a long time.
Check for discounts on Tripster when you plan your trip.
3. Explore the Roaring Fork Motor Trail
This scenic drive is located just outside Gatlinburg in the GSMNP.
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 story and you’ve got something for everyone.
2. Ripley’s Aquarium
We’re partial to the aquarium. It’s the perfect place for the family to getaway in the mountains.
Even with crowds of people, the serenity of watching the fish is fantastic and the underwater tunnel can amaze no matter how many times you ride under a large shark. The penguin parade is fun and the kid’s area is gloriously hectic.
The aquarium is showing its age in spots, 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 try the Ripley’s attractions, make sure you check out the combo passes.
1. Chimney Picnic Area
Located just up Highway 321 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Chimney Picnic Area is my favorite place to picnic in the Smokies.
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 our 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.
What is your favorite thing to do in Gatlinburg? Let us know in the comments!
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