Are you planning a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? The capital of Appalachian Disneyland, you’ll find a bit of mountain magic here for everyone! Here are ten things you need to know to visit Gatlinburg plus my best secret Gatlinburg travel tips!
This list of things to know before you visit Gatlinburg is brought to you in collaboration with Hotels.com.
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A Quick Note about Traveling Now
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Gatlinburg Travel Tips: Things to Know Before Visiting Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Here are my best tips for planning a trip to Gatlinburg!
Where to Stay: Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, or Sevierville?
If you want to go out in Gatlinburg at night (to enjoy the nightlife or a nighttime tour like this Haunted Gatlinburg tour), then you should stay in the town proper. However, if you only want to visit Gatlinburg during the day, you can stay in nearby Pigeon Forge or Sevierville. Keep in mind that there are drives of up to an hour between the towns due to the increased traffic that tourism brings to the area.
I stayed in Knoxville and came down for the day, but there are many great resorts and lodges in Gatlinburg to choose from so that you don’t have to leave at night! Our drive back was almost ninety minutes in the rain after dark – yuck!
Should you save or splurge on a place to stay? If you want to wake up with a gorgeous mountain view, it may cost you a bit extra, but the scenery here is definitely worth it! Look for Gatlinburg resorts that have updated lodging and nice amenities like a pool, hot tub, and either a mountain or a river view.
There are also cabin rentals, which will give you some privacy if that’s what you’re looking for!
Start the Day with a Hearty Breakfast – of Pancakes!
The region is famous for its pancakes and pancake houses, so even if you only come for one day, you have to eat some pancakes! Some places close around 2 pm, but there are places, like the oldest pancake house in the area, the Pancake Pantry, which stays open until 4 pm.
You can get regular pancakes, or cover them in fruit. You can even get buckwheat pancakes and other regional staples you may not get all the time back home!
Whether it’s watching out for bears in the park or pickpockets in town, you need to keep your wits about you while you are here.
A backpack or purse with RFID technology along with good park safety will go a long way here. Think sunscreen, bug spray, and wallets and purses that can’t be tampered with.
Don’t Skip a Visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
If you will only be in the area for a day, you can easily fit in a quick drive (think one or two hours) and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. If you have more time, here’s how to spend an entire day in the park from Gatlinburg, including a visit to Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, and the Newfound Gap.
The park is huge, spanning multiple states, so don’t expect to tackle it all in one Gatlinburg vacation. Instead, set some goals for your trip or agree to just go with the flow!
While in the park, you can see bears, deer, wildflowers, trees, waterfalls, and so much more!
Spend Some Time in Downtown Gatlinburg
Many of the best things to do in Downtown Gatlinburg are within walking distance of one another along the Parkway. Make sure to enjoy some of the town’s great eateries (like the Alamo Steakhouse), along with shopping in some of the city of Gatlinburg’s more eclectic stores.
Some highlights you won’t want to miss include visiting a distillery and going moonshine tasting!
Plan What You Want to Do Ahead of Time
The area that people think of as Gatlinburg and the surrounding towns have so many things to do that it can be a bit overwhelming! Gatlinburg offers something for everyone, so a little planning can make it feel less overwhelming once you’re here.
You can pick up a Sightseeing Flex Pass which will allow you to choose your own mountain adventures like visiting Ripley’s Aquarium, the Aquarium of the Smokies, Anakeesta Theme Park, walking above Gatlinburg on the Ober Gatlinburg, and many more local attractions and amusement parks.
If you want to go to Dollywood, note that its located in nearby Pigeon Forge. However, if you just want to pay homage to Dolly Parton, you can visit the statue of her in her hometown of Sevierville.
You might also want to consider what you’ll want to do in Gatlinburg that’s outside of the downtown Gatlinburg area. There are hiking trails, a crafts community, mini golf, rafting, a sky lift, and even a private helicopter tour.
There’s enough to on your Smoky Mountain vacation that the whole family can have a great time!
Consider Going on a Guided (or Self-Guided) Tour
If planning your trip is feeling a bit overwhelming, add a few guided tours so that you know you’ll be in good hands while you explore the area. A few that I’ve done or that are highly recommended:
Haunted Gatlinburg Tour – I did this while in Gatlinburg and it was so fun and spooky! You meet your tour guide downtown and go on a walking tour of the haunted sites in Gatlinburg!
Foxfire Mountain: Hiking & Swinging Bridge Family Adventure – If you’re looking to explore the outdoors, this tour will cross the Swinging Bridge to Prosperity, a 335-foot bridge to Prosperity Mountain!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Self Driving Trip – If you want some tips and information while you visit the park, this is the way to go!
Pigeon Forge: Helicopter Tour of Gatllinburg – We didn’t get to do this because we were traveling with a toddler, but this is my dream activity the next time we road trip through Tennessee.
Sightseeing Flex Pass – I mentioned this before, but this is a great way to plan your activities and fun things to do in advance and save money at the same time.
Expect to Pay for Parking!
If you plan to drive your car to downtown Gatlinburg, expect to pay for parking, because everywhere it can cost from $10 to $20 to park for the day. Some restaurants and attractions advertise that they have free parking (which is awesome), but they tend to be outside of the most congested part of the city center.
If you do pay, note that once you leave, you cannot return without paying again. So think about this ahead of time if you plan on leaving quickly.
You can use the Gatlinburg Trolley to save money and park on the outskirts of town. If you’re staying in town overnight, you can use the trolley to get around to avoid paying to park. Note that your hotel or resort might also have a parking fee.
I budgeted quite a bit of money for parking for our trip, and I was still shocked at how much I spent on parking in Gatlinburg.
Make sure to have cash available since storms can knock out the power. While we were in town, all the power went out for hours and this meant you couldn’t pay for anything with a credit card or app.
How to Get to Gatlinburg
If you’re coming to Gatlinburg for a quick getaway, the easiest way to reach the city is by car. We drove in on our big Southern USA road trip, and the drive was easy. You don’t get into real mountain driving until you actually enter the national park.
There is a small airport in Gatlinburg (the Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport), but this is really for rich people on private planes. Most folks drive or fly into Atlanta, Charlotte, or Nashville, and then they will drive to Gatlinburg. The drive from these cities ranges from three to four hours, and all three airports offer rental cars that you can arrange ahead of time.
I use Discover Cars when I rent cars on my travels. You’ll be able to pick up a car at any airport or in your hometown.
While the Knoxville airport tends to be an expensive airport to connect to, the drive is just a little over an hour (unless you get unlucky like us, and encounter a lot of rain).
What to Bring with You to Gatlinburg
Whether you’re going on a Gatlinburg honeymoon or a family vacation, there are a few things that everyone will want to bring with them.
A camera. While it’s great to have a cell phone with you for quick pics, if you want to do more serious photography or take more videos, I find it nice to travel with a separate dedicated camera as well.
If I will be wrestling with my toddler on the trip, I’ll grab my Sony ZV-1, which is a powerful compact camera with great video capabilities as well. If it’s just me, I’ll take my Nikon (though if you’re buying a new camera I have my eye on this Sony).
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie. The mountains can drain your battery since it will take more power to continually check for signal where the signal gets spotty.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for tourist destinations because it has many anti-theft features designed to deter pickpockets plus RFID technology to keep your credit card digits safe. It also transitions to a night bag more easily and won’t embarrass you if you go to dinner directly after sightseeing all day.
Tips for Saving Money in Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg is pricey! Between hotels, attractions, and meals, you can quickly blow your budget. Here are a few ways to keep your trip budget down:
~Use the trolley to avoid paying for parking.
~Have your nice meal at lunch and a more budget-friendly option for dinner (or cook dinner in your vacation rental).
~Look for deals on attractions beforehand (like using the Sightseeing Flex Pass)
~Keep cash on you to avoid paying any credit card transaction fees (and they exist)
~Spend more time in the national park (which is free) and less time in the town shopping
The Travel Guides I Used to Plan My Trip
We went on a big trip around the South (for five weeks), so I read a lot of Southern USA travel guides to help me decide what we should see. These are the three I used the most to plan this trip:
Lonely Planet Florida & the South’s Best Trips – this book was essential for me when I was trying to plan our road trip and understanding what was near each other and what absolutely not to miss.
Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events that Made the Movement – we did a lot of Civil Rights and Civil War historic sites on our trip, and if you’ll be doing any of this kind of travel, make sure to get this. It was invaluable for finding off-the-beaten-path sites and can’t miss Black-owned historic businesses.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Gatlinburg make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I paid for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance whenever you are more than one hundred miles from home.