These Are the 4 Absolute Worst Times to Visit Gatlinburg, Says Local

tourists walking the strip in downtown Gatlinburg during winterfest

We love Gatlinburg, but there are times we'd rather stay away (photo by littleny/iStockPhoto.com)

If you visit Gatlinburg during one of these times, you may swear you’re never going back

As a local who has been knocking around Gatlinburg for more than 30 years, I’ve developed something of an informal guide system on when it’s a good idea to go to the Burg and hang out. Gatlinburg – unlike its sister city Pigeon Forge – was built in a spot that doesn’t leave a lot of room for expansion. There are not a lot of options for overflow when the big crowds hit. Gatlinburg’s main drag is perfect for walking, shopping and enjoying the atmosphere. But it’s also compact. There are only so many places for people to go. And while there has been some growth up 321 heading to Cosby, it’s not enough to help mitigate the crowds.

There are just some times of year when the hassles begin to outweigh the positives. These, are the worst. 

A top tourist destination in the world, Gatlinburg – by way of geography – suffers limitations that even Pigeon Forge doesn’t. In this article, we will discuss the worst times to visit one of the nicest places in the world. 

Anakeesta with american flags surrounding
Anakeesta on a Memorial Day weekend (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

1. Three-day weekends

Memorial Day. Labor Day. Anytime everyone gets Monday off. Gatlinburg draws visitors from around the country for much of the year. While locals will visit during the busy season, we tend to take advantage of the off-season as well. What a three-day weekend does, is expand the definition of the term local. While someone from a place like Nashville might not want to make the seven-hour round trip to Gatlinburg for a quick stay, the three-day weekend makes it more palatable. If you can drive over Friday night and back Monday, you get a full two days in G-burg. Any three-day weekend means the crowd sizes are going to swell. 

Gatlinburg Crowds on a July 4th Holiday
Independence Day can be quite crowded in downtown Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

2. Fourth of July 

Independence Day? I want my Independence from the crowds. It’s the height of the busy season anyway. People have an extra day or two off work – see above – and everybody and their grandmother is looking for a place to picnic for the holiday. There is even a parade. It’s just too much. There are a lot of towns around the region that celebrate the Fourth spectacularly. I’d go to one of them and save the mountains for another day. 

Autumn Leaves in the Smokies
Visitors are drawn to Gatlinburg in late October when the air is crisp and the leaves are in full autumn color (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

3. Third weekend of October

Leaf-peeping season in the Smokies is a wonderous thing. I’ve written before about a spot on the way to Cades Cove where the trees are all the same and the leaves turn a bright, golden yellow. It’s one of the prettiest spots on Earth. It’s also not much of a secret. Late October draws massive crowds to the mountains and clogs the arteries in Gatlinburg specifically. If leaf-peeping is your goal, there are a lot of spots – not that far off the beaten path – that will give you beautiful views without the massive crowds. Consider a visit to a spot like Max Patch where you can get wonderful scenery without the hassle. 

Now you might have thought – if you’re a college football fan – that I was going to make a Tennessee-Alabama reference here. But honestly, the game shouldn’t have much bearing on the leaf-peeping. It is, however, very near the traditional peak of the leaf-peeping season. That said, I would say to keep your eye on predictions, however, as the leaf-watching season might come a little earlier or later. 

fireworks from the space needle in downtown gatlinburg tn
It’s best to lodge near or in Gatlinburg if you are there on New Year’s Eve (photo by Justin Freeman/TheSmokies.com)

4. Hell Week

The week from Christmas to the New Year is aptly known, locally, as “Hell Week.” It is by far and beyond the busiest week to visit the Smokies. Restaurants and attractions are over crowded, wait times are at their peak, and traffic is a nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong, the Smoky Mountains is a beautiful place to visit during the holiday season thanks to Winterfest. The problem is, the secret is out.

Gatlinburg also does a very nice ball drop event for New Year’s Eve with fireworks and the whole shebang. This year they’re even adding a drone show to the mix. The problem? Gatlinburg is not a late-night town. It shuts down famously quickly and is not well equipped for a late-night party scene. In other words, it ain’t New York. The event – which has been held since 1987 – is billed as the Best New Year’s Eve Show in the South. I don’t know about all that. It’s nice. Certainly, it’s fun. But it’s also cold and unless you’re staying in a G-Burg hotel, you’ve got a long, sober drive home. 

Gatlinburg is one of my favorite places in the world and I don’t mind sharing with a few million friends each year. But sharing it doesn’t mean we all have to be there at the same time. There are days that I – as a local – just give to the visitors, vacationers and other – braver – locals who don’t mind the crowds. 

Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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