This mountain town is an east coast destination that’s a year-round getaway for families and fun
The Tennessee town of Gatlinburg draws adventurous families year-round and we can understand why. Tons of free things to do in Gatlinburg are available including visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and hiking its many trails to epic vistas. Whether you choose to bunk up in a cozy cabin nearby, or one of the many family-friendly resorts in town, we know you’ll love visiting this part of the country. Summer and winter activities abound for the perfect choose-your-own-adventure family vacation.
Where to Stay in Gatlinburg
Relax, reconnect, and recharge with loved ones at the ‘hidden among the Smoky Mountains’ cabin-like, luxury treehouses at Treehouse Grove. Great for large groups and for pets too. Creek and mountain views galore and minutes from everything else the area has to offer.
With indoor and outdoor pools, and just minutes from the major attractions is Glenstone Lodge, which offers free parking and is on the trolley stop, making it easy to get to any part of the downtown area.
Zoder’s Inn and Suites has indoor racquetball courts, picnic areas with grills, and a spa on-site to take advantage of while the kids enjoy a game of basketball at the outdoor courts. Stay options include rooms, suites, and cabins that easily accommodate a six-person family or group.
Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The star attraction here is the national park, and it is the only free national park in the country. Grotto Falls, Laurel Falls, and Ramsey Cascades are some of the waterfalls to watch out for and sunrises and sunsets are best observed at the top of Mt. Leconte. A family fishing expedition is a great experience to indulge in here as is camping on the campgrounds. Other activities to experience here are ziplining, whitewater rafting, biking, birding, horseback riding, and winter sports aplenty when it snows. Be sure to check out all the ranger programs while you are there.
Best Family Hikes in Gatlinburg
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers loads of hiking opportunities with Andrews Bald, Alum Cave Bluffs, and Clingmans Dome being favorite destinations. Along the way, take in the waterfalls, wildlife, and scenic vistas and enjoy all of nature’s glory as you stop for a picnic or take photos of the family.
Cades Cove is an open-air museum that preserves some of the buildings from when the first settlers arrived. There have been deer, bear, fox, and wild turkey sightings in the area. Hiking trails here include Abrams Falls, Thunderhead Mountain, and Rocky Top.
Ober Gatlinburg features a 1.5-mile hike up beautiful Mount Harrison behind Tennessee’s only ski resort. Hidden treasures to sight along the way include ponds, bridges, scenic photo opportunities, and a wishing well.
Summer Activities in Gatlinburg
Anakeesta: The award-winning outdoor family theme park includes a 14-bridge treetop skywalk and the AnaVista tower here is the highest point you can get to in downtown Gatlinburg for 360-degree views of the Smokies. The botanical gardens are home to more than 3,000 plants and flowers and include trails and waterfalls. The TreeVenture is an interactive challenge course for all ages (kids love this one!). In spring, the Blooms and Tunes event has art installations, live music, and thousands of blooms at the VistaGardens.
Gatlinburg SkyLift Park: Get on the scenic SkyLift for a ride to the top, then walk on the record-breaking SkyBridge which also has a glass bottom section. Head over to the SkyTrail hiking path and enjoy the grand views from the Tulip Tower observation deck. If you want to stay on and continue to observe the views, spend time at the SkyDeck amphitheater or the SkyCenter where shopping and dining will keep you busy.
Astra Lumina night walk among the stars: This is the 15th experience offered in the globally known Lumina series but the only one in the United States, so you know you are truly experiencing something special when you visit here. Light, sound, and projected images provide an outdoor visual experience like no other. This is located at Anakeesta but is a separate experience and while it is offered year-round, summer is recommended as the best season to avoid any unexpected weather incidents that may affect your visit.
Space Needle Gatlinburg: Another all-season experience but especially great in the summer is the Space Needle which has glass elevators that you ride all the way up to the observation deck for views of the entire city. See how many venues you can recognize using the free viewfinders and learn all about the history of the area.
Winter Activities in Gatlinburg
If you’re looking to stay indoors and stay warm but still enjoy interesting and fun family-friendly experiences, here are a few spots for your consideration:
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: Get a look at aquatic life up close with giant sea turtles, penguins, stingrays, and sharks swimming around. The glass bottom tour is a unique experience as are the tropical rainforest and coral reef areas. Enamored by your visit? Continue to enjoy the aquarium even after your leave by viewing the live penguin camera on the website! Other Ripley attractions in the area include the Haunted Adventure and the Mountain Coaster.
Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum: The world’s only museum dedicated to salt and pepper shakers is right here in Gatlinburg. That’s 20,000 sets of shakers from around the world, and they also have a huge pepper mill collection as well. Get ready for shakers in all shapes sizes, themes, and colors that you can imagine (or not).
Gatlinburg Pinball Museum: Another unexpected museum experience to look forward to in Gatlinburg is the Pinball Museum which houses the largest collection of limited-edition pinball machines and retro arcade games. Give your family a few hours in here but even a day might be enough if you are a true arcade game aficionado.
Ober Mountain Amusement Park and Ski Area: As the state’s only ski area, this is a huge local and tourist attraction so plan your visit well. Take the aerial tram from the downtown area to the top. Experience the Ski Mountain Center, Ice Bumper Cars, Rock Climbing Wall, and Wildlife Encounter. Winter activities to immerse yourself in here are skiing, snowboarding, and snowtubing. There’s also the indoor year-round ice-skating rink to enjoy. There’s much more to do and while this is an all-season attraction, winter is definitely a great time to visit.
Getting to Gatlinburg
If you are flying in, then the closest commercial airport is McGhee-Tyson Airport in Knoxville. Then a 40-mile drive by car will bring you to Gatlinburg. If you are driving in, then Gatlinburg is accessible from any direction. Remember that weekends and public holidays are when the crowds arrive, and your travel times might be affected.