The Gatlinburg, Tennessee area is an excellent choice for a family vacation. The natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains combined with plenty of activities makes it a destination you will want to return to year after year. Our family has vacationed here twice so far and we haven’t come anywhere close to experiencing everything it has to offer.
Gatlinburg is located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. The town itself has a lot of charm which gives visitors the feeling of being in a quaint mountain village.
Pigeon Forge is another popular vacation destination in the area but it has a much more touristy feel. Our family preferred staying in Gatlinburg where we had a shorter drive to the National Park and other natural attractions.
Do your research to determine where your family would prefer finding lodging. If you’re like us, you’ll find yourself going back and forth from one town to the other during your stay, so be sure to familiarize yourself with shortcuts such as the Gatlinburg Bypass.
Here are Our 9 Favorite Gatlinburg Area Family Vacation Ideas:
Smoky Mountain National Park
Smoky Mountain National Park is the crown jewel of the area. The park is over 500,000 acres and is visited by over 10 million people a year. Our family enjoys visiting the park to soak in the beautiful mountain scenery, the excellent locations for stargazing, and the opportunity to spot black bears.
Our favorite areas inside the park are the following:
1 – Cade’s Cove
Plan to spend at least half a day in Cade’s Cove to give yourself a chance to really soak in all of the beauty. You also have a high chance of seeing black bears in this area, which is always a thrill. There is an 11-mile one-way scenic loop through Cade’s Cove which can take 2-4 hours to drive, depending on traffic. And there is beautiful scenery all along the way.
There are plenty of places to stop and stretch your legs as well including a visitor’s center with restrooms which is about halfway. There are also several restored buildings along the loop which are worth checking out including churches, log homes, cantilevered barns, and a working mill. Be prepared to stop your car often to check everything out.
2 – Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap is on the way to Clingman’s Dome, and it’s worth stopping there. The one-way distance to Newfound Gap is 15.5 miles and there are several scenic turnouts you should take advantage of along the way. This gap is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains at 5,046 feet. The site itself consists of a parking lot and a bathroom but the entire drive to get up there is spectacular.
We enjoy visiting Newfound Gap during the day because it’s always fun to be able to stand in two different states at once. We like going up there at night because there isn’t much light pollution there so it’s a great place to view the Milky Way and the stars. But be sure to bring some warmer clothing with you because it’s always cooler at that high of an elevation.
3 – Clingman’s Dome
The road to Clingman’s Dome is an additional 7 miles from Newfound Gap, making the total roundtrip drive almost 45 miles long so it’s wise to visit both of these destinations the same day rather than making two separate trips.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,643 feet. And it FEELS high when you’re walking up the paved trail to get to the observation tower. So tiring!
Apparently, it’s only a half mile walk but it’s steep and we were very tired by the time we got to our destination. The trail is paved but it’s too steep to be handicap accessible.
The views from the tower are fantastic, though, and are well worth making the effort. On clear days, you can see up to 100 miles away!
There are lots of scenic drives near Gatlinburg. This 5.5-mile each-way road begins and ends near Gatlinburg. It can be accessed at traffic light #8 at the end of Cherokee Orchard road and Historic Nature Trail Road. The views on this drive are spectacular. There are mountain streams, waterfalls, old growth forests, and historic cabins that you’ll want to check out!
When our family visited Gatlinburg the first time, we fell in love with the area while on this drive. We had a blast playing in the streams and enjoying the natural beauty of the Gatlinburg area.
5 – Laurel Falls
The hike to Laurel Falls is only 1.3 miles long (2.6 miles roundtrip) and is considered moderate. There are some parts of the trail with steep drop-offs, though, so children need close supervision when hiking this trail. Also, bears are often seen in this area. We didn’t see any bears when we hiked here but we did pass a copperhead snake which was sunning itself right next to the trail. Yikes!
The waterfall itself was pretty but we honestly enjoyed the hike more than the waterfall itself. it’s a popular destination so you may want to avoid visiting on the weekends which are quite busy.
Gatlinburg Family Attractions
6 – Ober Gatlinburg
Technically, Ober Gatlinburg is a ski resort. But they have done a great job at making themselves a fun destination to visit during spring, summer, and fall as well. You can either start by taking an aerial tram from Gatlinburg up the mountain, which is a fun experience in itself, or you can drive to the resort. I recommend taking the tram!
Once you reach the top, there are all sorts of activities for the entire family to enjoy:
- A mountain coaster which is loads of fun and a bit scary. Fortunately, the cars have brakes which allow you to descend the mountain as quickly or slowly as you feel comfortable.
- Ice skating
- Ice bumper cars
- Scenic chairlift
- Alpine Slide
- Wildlife encounter which is a great way to see black bears up close.
- Chair Swing
Day passes allow you to enjoy many of these activities as many times as you would like. Some of them, such as the mountain coaster and the wildlife encounter do cost extra, though, and you are only allowed to go once. The mountain coaster was definitely worth the extra fee as that is an activity that is more unique to the area. If we returned to Ober Gatlinburg again, however, we would skip the wildlife encounter as we can see bears in our local zoo.
Our sons wanted to tour this museum and my husband and I weren’t so sure about it. But I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised. It was filled with hands-on challenges and displays that caused us to linger such as the Block Breaker which allowed you to attempt to break through cement blocks with your bare hands to try to beat the current world record.
It was super fun and we spent several hours trying everything out!
This museum was also a lot of fun but many of the displays were strange or featured people and animals who had deformities so it wasn’t quite as family friendly as the Guinness museum. I guess that’s why they call it an Odditorium.
However, that being said, overall our family really enjoyed our visit. Again, plan to spend a couple of hours here to have a chance to explore everything thoroughly.
Gatlinburg is also known for being home to many artists and craftsmen. Another fun family activity is to drive around the Craftsman Loop to experience the craftsman culture of the Smoky Mountain area for yourselves. You can visit over 100 artists and craftsmen on the 8-mile route. You’ll find chainsaw carving, potters, photographers, artists, soap makers and more
This is an excellent place to find unique souvenirs for everyone in your family. And purchasing items from local craftsmen is a great way to support the local community as well.
Tips for Family Travel in The Gatlinburg Area
When visiting the Gatlinburg area, there are some important tips to keep in mind:
1 – Have plenty of food and water in the car
When driving through the mountains and inside the Smoky Mountain National Park, even shorter drives may take a lot longer than you might expect. Be sure your car is well stocked with food and water. You don’t want your hunger or thirst to force you to cut your adventures short.
2 – Bring a camera
This goes without saying. The natural beauty of the Gatlinburg area will provide plenty of photo opportunities! You’ll kick yourself if you aren’t prepared to capture them with a camera of some kind.
3 – Take the time to stop at scenic overlooks
This isn’t one of those trips where the scenic overlooks are a waste of time. The mountain views are spectacular! Don’t be in a rush while driving from place to place. Get out and look around!
4 – Be prepared with warmer gear
Have coats, hats, mittens, and blankets in the car if you plan to drive into the mountains, especially in the evenings, as the weather will be much cooler at those higher elevations than it is in Gatlinburg. It definitely gets chilly when getting out of your vehicle to view the stars or take sunset pictures.
5 – Be sure your car is ready
You would be wise to have your car tuned up and your brakes checked before taking a vacation in this area. The mountain driving will definitely put your engine and your brakes to the test.
See also our 8 Favorite Pigeon Forge Area Family Vacation Ideas for even more great ideas you’ll want to consider incorporating into your next vacation.
If you’ve been to the Gatlinburg area, we’d love to know YOUR favorite vacation ideas? What destinations would you add to this list?