Gatlinburg Tennessee is known as the gateway to the Smoky Mountains. This picturesque mountain town is a gem of a vacation destination, offering visitors the best in outdoor activities and fun family attractions. Surrounded on three sides by the natural beauty of the National Park, Gatlinburg prides itself in its mountain heritage which is on full display. Having a great time in Gatlinburg doesn’t have to break the bank. We’ve compiled a list of our top favorite FREE things to do in Gatlinburg.
1. Stroll River Road by the Little Pigeon River
If you need an “away from it all” moment while wandering through downtown Gatlinburg, be sure to take a leisurely stroll along the Riverwalk that runs along the Little Pigeon River one block off the downtown Parkway. Feed the ducks, watch as fishermen cast their flies in hopes of landing a mountain trout, or relax along the riverbank.
2. Enjoy a Picnic
Picnicking in the Gatlinburg area is a great way to spend a day enjoying nature with family and friends or to have a romantic outing just for the two of you. We here at Jackson Mountain Homes highly recommend taking your picnic in either Mynatt Park or Mills Park. Both offer many recreational opportunities along with other diversions for all to enjoy.
Mynatt Park – Mynatt Park is the most popular and scenic park in Gatlinburg. Facilities include many picnic tables with bar-b-que grills, a pavilion, children’s fishing stream, children’s playground, a basketball court, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, and baseball field. Directions to Mynatt Park: At Traffic Light #8 take Historic Nature Trail Road (was Airport Road) approx. 7/10 mi to Mynatt Park. Be sure to keep right at the “Y” on the road, where the left fork leads to the Park Vista Hotel.
Mills Park – Facilities at Mills Park include a pavilion with bar-b-que pit, picnic tables, “state-of-the-art” playground, softball field, horseshoe pits, jogging trail, playground, tennis courts, football field, basketball court and a 400-meter track. Directions to Mills Park: From JMH office turn right (East) on Hwy 321 and travel approx. 3/10 miles to Mills Park Road. Turn left and follow to the park on the left just past the jogging track.
North Gatlinburg Park – located on the right, just as you enter Gatlinburg coming from Pigeon Forge. Facilities include children’s trout fishing area, handicapped fishing area, horseshoe pits, walking trails and a playground.
There are many other fantastic areas to enjoy a picnic in the Gatlinburg area which include Greenbrier and Cades Cove. We highly suggest that you visit the Sugarlands Welcome Center, just inside the Park at the south end of Gatlinburg for information and advice. Be sure to know the rules and safety precautions.
Douglas Dam Overlook – In the spring and through the fall of the year, a picnic lunch at the Douglas Dam Overlook picnic area is a wonderful way to experience the mountains with a waterfront view! And, if the weather is warm, you can take a swim. This picnic area has a panoramic view of Douglas Lake with the Smoky Mountains as the backdrop, a public boat ramp, swimming area, and the fishing can be excellent in spring.
3. Tube Down a River
There are many rivers and streams on which you can spend a lazy day tubing and enjoying the scenery with friends. Two of the most scenic are Little River along Little River Road and the Little Pigeon River in Greenbrier. It is best to go to the Sugarlands Welcome Center to get information on where you can go tubing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you do not have your own tubes, many of the gas stations in Gatlinburg rent them. Just be careful to observe all safety precautions. And remember, though it may be hot outside here in the summer months, the water in the streams is very cold!
4. Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Jump in your car and explore a collection of historical sites on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail! See log cabins, the Roaring Fork Cemetery, and the remains of a village that supported over two dozen families more than 150 years ago. Located just off of Historic Nature Trail Road / (was) Airport Road – Traffic Light #8, the motor nature trail is accessible to automobiles via the eight-mile one-way paved road. Many stops along the way allow you to get out, take a deep breath of mountain air, step back in time as you visit the primitive settler’s cabins, water mill, see waterfalls, take photographs, and enjoy the beauty of the mountains.
5. Enjoy Greenbrier in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Just 2.3 miles east of Gatlinburg is a hidden jewel known as “The Local’s Entrance to the Park”: Greenbrier. Tube, swim, picnic, hike, sunbathe, fish, bird watch, bicycle, or just sit back on a rock along the river enjoying the fantastic scenery. Ramsay Cascades, Porter’s Creek, and Injun Creek Trail Heads are also located here for those who desire to explore. Since this is a local spot, you can usually avoid the crowds that sometimes fill the most popular trails in the Smokies. Just be sure to take proper precautions. All details and rules are available at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Another great Greenbrier activity is bicycling through Greenbrier Cove. The ride is about 5 miles along a pristine, crystal clear river with many scenic stops.
6. Visit The Sugarlands Visitor Center and Nature Trail
Located at Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s main northern entrance two miles south of Gatlinburg along Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441), Sugarlands Visitor Center is an attraction not to be missed. A free 20-minute orientation motion picture provides an in-depth look at the Smokies and the enormous diversity of plant and animal life in the Park. Natural history exhibits include mounted specimens of park animals in recreations of their habitats and reproductions of journals kept by the first park naturalists. Ranger talks and slide shows are presented daily from spring through fall. If you only have time for one experience in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visit Sugarlands Visitor Center!
7. Visit Cades Cove
Historical cabins, farmhouses, and churches are maintained in Cades Cove, a western valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is a great place to view wildlife without even having to get out of your car, especially in the early morning hours. Be sure to bring your camera in case you spot deer, bears, turkeys, owls and/or foxes. First settled by Europeans in 1819, the 11-mile one-way road passes by 19 numbered tour stops as identified in the pamphlet available at the entrance. If you prefer, you can also experience the loop on horseback or bicycle! For a fisherman, Abram’s Creek offers excellent native trout fishing and excellent natural scenery.
Although biking in the National Park is allowed on all roads that are open to vehicle traffic, some of the terrains aren’t very conducive to biking. There is one site in the park, however, that has been a long-time favorite with pedal pushers: Cades Cove Loop Road. Bicyclists can take advantage of fairly flat terrain and some of the most gorgeous views in the area. The loop is closed to auto traffic on Wednesday and Saturday until 10 a.m. from the second week of May through the next to last Saturday in September.
8. View Elk in the Park
Due to heavy poaching, Elk was eliminated from the Smokies in the 1800′s. But, in 2001, 25 Elk were reintroduced to the national park in hopes that there would soon be much more. And now, we are happy to report, there are lots and lots of Elk for your viewing pleasure! The best times to view elk are usually early morning and late evening. Elk may also be active on cloudy summer days and before or after storms. Enjoy elk at a distance, using binoculars or a spotting scope for close-up views. Approaching wildlife too closely causes them to expend crucial energy unnecessarily and can result in real harm. If you approach an animal so closely that it stops feeding, changes direction of travel, or otherwise alters its behavior, you are too close!
Most of the elk are located in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern section of the park. The easiest way to reach Cataloochee is taking Hwy-321 to Interstate highway I-40 at North Carolina exit #20. After 0.2 miles, turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow signs 11 miles into Cataloochee valley. Allow at least 45 minutes to reach the valley once you exit I-40. The large grassy area behind the brand new Oconaluftee Visitors Center is another great place to see these beautiful creatures.
9. Participate In The Youth Trout Rodeo
This fishing event, put on by the Gatlinburg Recreation Department, celebrates the start of Free Fishing Week by hosting its annual Children’s Trout Rodeo in June. This annual youth tournament is FREE to all anglers age 16 and under. Prizes will be awarded in several divisions (6-and-under, 7-9, 10-12 and 13-16) based on total weight of fish caught. Creel limit is five trout per person. For more information, contact Danny Gray at the Gatlinburg Trout Rearing Facility, (865) 436-4558.
10. Participate in The Gatlinburg River Raft Regatta
Gatlinburg’s popular River Raft Regatta takes place at noon on July 4th on the Little Pigeon River in downtown Gatlinburg and it is free! This unmanned river raft race is open to anything floatable. In the past, families have entered boats made out of matchsticks, floating rocks, as well as little rubber ducks. Registration takes place between 10 a.m. and noon, with the race beginning promptly at noon. Support for the River Raft Regatta is provided by the Gatlinburg Recreation Department (Toll-Free: (800) 568-4748) This is a great Gatlinburg activity for kids!
11. Take a Photo at One of Gatlinburg’s Scenic Overlooks
See Gatlinburg from a bird’s eye view from the two overlooks, one on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and the other on the Gatlinburg Bypass (closed when snow is present), which can be entered at the north or south ends of Gatlinburg. These are the perfect souvenir photo spots and one of the most popular places to watch the sun rise or set. So grab your cameras and head up to one of the Gatlinburg Overlooks and enjoy the view!
12. Visit Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts
Indulge in a little culture as you browse the galleries of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Founded in 1945, the school has developed into a leader in arts and crafts education, with an annual enrollment of more than 2,000 students from the United States and abroad. Stop by and tour select collections of the art galleries, woodturning gallery, the resource center, and the book and supply store.
13. Drive the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community Loop/The Glades
Take a trolley or your car and visit the eight-mile loop of the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community. See craftsmanship at its best, as artisans using simple tools and skillful hands whittle, carve, cast, sew, weave and transform raw elements into works of art and function. The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community is recognized internationally as the largest group of independent artisans in North America with nearly 100 shops, studios, galleries, cafes, and lodging. We definitely recommend that you check it out.
14. Enjoy Gatlinburg’s Smoky Mountain Tunes and Tales
Enjoy entertainment mini-performances by costumed performers portraying time periods from the 1800s to today. The history of the Smoky Mountains comes to life every evening during the summer and fall/winter as performers sing, dance and tell stories while engaging the audience. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself clogging, singing, or clapping along with the mountain music! Or simply sit and listen as a storyteller spins tales from long ago.
15. Walk the Downtown Gatlinburg Parkway
Explore every nook and cranny where you’ll find more than 200 unique shops, dozens of restaurants, and attractions for all ages. As you stroll, be on the look-out for homemade mountain taffy pulling, mouthwatering caramel apples being dipped or delectable fudge being prepared. Play miniature golf, experience the world’s largest underwater aquarium tunnel, ride America’s largest aerial tram, visit the unique museums, and take a turn on live-action rides! Fill your mountain appetite with scrumptious food from local restaurants featuring mountain style cooking, fine cuisine, fast food restaurants, or restaurant chains, all within the two-mile Parkway. The walk is free, but what you spend is up to you!
16. Clingman’s Dome
At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The outdoor attraction is a short drive from Gatlinburg through the national park, and although there is a steep ½ mile hike to the top lookout, views can also be enjoyed from the base of the parking lot area. However, to fully experience the area, the hike is recommended.
17. Gatlinburg Festivals
The City of Gatlinburg presents a variety of festivals throughout the year, including Gatlinburg Winter Magic, Gatlinburg Springfest, and Smoky Mountain Tunes & Tales, among many other exciting festivals that are completely free.