Figuring out what to do in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee should be more than just choosing between flapjack joints and old timey photo booths. (You’ll see what I mean when you get there.)
It’s true – the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area of East Tennessee is incredibly gimmicky. Corny attractions, goofy museums, and about a thousand other absolutely useless ways to blow your money. Think of it like a hillbilly Las Vegas… but in a dry county.
However, all gimmicks aside, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee still sit at the doorstep of Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited national park in the United States and one of the most beautiful. And for an outdoor lover (like myself) that opens up a whole ‘nother world of opportunities.
Don’t let the flashing lights of the mini golf courses or the outrageously over-the-top storefronts of the wax museums and Ripley’s Believe It or Nots turn you off to this area. If you’re looking for what to do in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge that isn’t as cheesy as the snack table at a Super Bowl party, start with this list. But first, you’ll need somewhere to stay.
Where to stay in Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge
When looking for a great place to stay in the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area, definitely consider a cabin. You can avoid the tourist traps of downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge entirely by posting up at a cabin in the woods. You’ll get peace and quiet, amazing views, black bears on your back porch, and you can make your own damn pancakes in your own cabin kitchen.
But don’t let the word ‘cabin’ fool you – these Smoky Mountain cabins are anything but rustic. They’re modern and clean with all the amenities. They’re accessible, affordable, and, if this is a selling point for you, totally instagrammable! To understand why Smoky Mountain cabins are so popular, you must check out the photos in the links below!
You can find small, romantic, one-room cabins all the way up to a 10-bedroom lodge! And they all have adorable mountain-y names. Here are 3 great examples for where to stay on your trip to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge:
A Great Escape
This large, 5-bedroom mountain home called The Great Escape II is just a few miles outside Gatlinburg. It includes a hot tub, and access to pool table, squash court, barbecue grill, outdoor pool, and theater. It has rocking chairs on an oversized porch overlooking beautiful Smoky Mountain views. Check out The Great Escape here.
Southern Sweet T
Another huge, 2-bedroom cabin (this one known as Southern Sweet T) is located just north of downtown Pigeon Forge. It too boasts a hot tub, an arcade and billiard room, oversized porch with great views, and lots of space in which to spread out. Check out Southern Sweet T here.
This spacious, 1-bedroom cabin is just east of Gatlinburg. It features a lofted game room, hot tub, mountain views, 2 bathrooms, oversized shower, and plenty of common space. Check out Seneca here.
How to choose a cabin
For me, there are a few methods I always use when choosing where to stay. After entering in your dates and visitor information on the main search page, look at the results.
On the left side, I always filter the “Guest Rating” for cabins or hotels with a rating of 9 or 10. (I’ll expand that to 8 and so on if options are limited.) Under “Accommodation type” you can filter for “cabins and lodges” or whichever lodging type you prefer.
Then, I scroll up to the top left and click “view on map” because I prefer to always choose my accommodation by its location. From there, you can see all the available cabins in the area and begin your deep dive into Smoky Mountain lodging.
Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The best thing about visiting Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is that both cities are located on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This park just so happens to be the most visited national park in the country and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
According to the UNESCO page, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to more than 3,500 plant species including almost as many types of trees as all of Europe. This relatively untouched park is also home to many endangered species including the greatest variety of salamanders in the world! If that’s not a selling point for the area, I don’t know what is.
The Smoky Mountains form the border between Tennessee and North Carolina and encompass 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
Non-Gimmicky things to do in Gatlinburg
Arriving in Gatlinburg you might think it’s impossible to find anything non-gimmicky to do. There are so many bright, flashing lights and absurdly large buildings vying for your attention. But, there are ways to spend your time that don’t involve creepy wax figures or dressing up like a saloon girl from the wild west (I don’t get it either).
Here’s a list of what to do in Gatlinburg that isn’t a gimmicky tourist trap:
The Gatlinburg SkyLift is a chairlift that takes you from downtown Gatlinburg up 500 feet to the top of Crockett Mountain. Up here you’ll find the best views of Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains from the SkyDeck.
If you’ve followed me for a while you’ll know I have a real *thing* with chairlifts. However, once the source of much, much anxiety, chairlifts are now my favorite thing and I can’t get enough of them. They are such a cool, relaxing way to see your surroundings in a way you never could otherwise.
Another thing you may know about me is I suffer from… whatever the opposite of a fear of heights is. And a love of suspension bridges. (Check out the insane one I crossed on the via ferrata in Switzerland!)
The Gatlinburg SkyBridge is North America’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge. The SkyBridge spans 680 feet long and 140 feet over the valley. It features, naturally, a series of glass floor panels in the middle. It’s located at the top of the SkyLift and is guaranteed to be one of the most thrilling experiences in Gatlinburg.
Ole Smoky Moonshine distillery
It’s true—I’m usually pushing breweries on this site. But ‘round these parts we drink moonshine.
When looking for what to do in Gatlinburg, a trip to the Ole Smoky Distillery should be on that list. Ole Smoky is the most visited distillery in America with over 4 million visitors a year.
Here, you can tour the distillery to see how moonshine is made (legally), learn about the history and lore of moonshine, and purchase discounted samples of all their flavors. And, seeing as how Gatlinburg is in a dry county (with exceptions, obviously), better start sippin’!
Newfound Gap Road
From the National Park Service:
In southern Appalachian vernacular, a gap is a low point in a mountain ridge. New Englanders call such places “notches” while westerners refer to them as mountain “passes.” At an elevation of 5,046 feet, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Newfound Gap is a 30-mile scenic drive through the Smoky Mountains that begins in Gatlinburg, TN and ends in Cherokee, NC (or vice-versa depending on where you are). You’ll ascend 3,000 feet and make your way through a variety of ecosystems.
There are parking areas for incredible views (you’re at a mile in elevation right now!) and areas to stretch your legs along the Appalachian Trail (you don’t have to hike the full 2,190 miles to say you’ve done it!).
Halfway through your Newfound Gap drive, you can turn off Interstate 441 and head towards Clingman’s Dome.
At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in Tennessee. You can hike all the way up there, sure. Or you can drive there and park at the Clingman’s Dome Visitor Center. From there, you can make the relatively short, paved walk (1/2 mile) to the observation tower for 360° views.
Know before you go: the pathway to the observation tower is paved but unfortunately is too steep to be wheelchair accessible.
I’m a huge fan of hiking and any time I can get my hands on even a few feet of elevation, I’mma take it. The Smoky Mountains are no exception. In addition to the famous Appalachian Trail, the Great Smoky Mountains offers visitors tons of hiking trails for all levels, many of them doable as day hikes from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Some of the most popular day hikes in the area include:
This hike is 8 miles roundtrip and follows the Appalachian Trail. It offers some of the best views in GSMNP with elevations hovering around 6,000 feet.
The Andrews Bald hike is short—only 3.5 miles roundtrip—and ends with fabulous views. However, this hike is fairly challenging with 900 feet of elevation gain.
Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte
The Alum Cave Trail is known for its awesome combination of interesting geological features, its adventure factor, and, of course, amazing views. It’s not a super long hike but does pass through areas with names like: Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, Eye of the Needle, Cliff Top, and the 80-foot tall Alum Cave.
Cades Cove Loop
Easy 11-mile loop trail that’s great for checking out some historic building sites and offers a great chance to spot wildlife. There’s a visitor center halfway around and many other trails to check out like the 5-mile roundtrip to Abrams Falls.
This peaceful 8-mile roundtrip hike takes you through GSMNP’s largest old-growth forest and ends at Ramsey Cascade’s the tallest waterfall in the park at 100 feet. Some of the trees on this trail have diameters of 7 feet.
Honestly though, this is just a teeny tiny selection from the many, many trails available to hikers in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. To find the hikes that’ll best suit you, check out some of the following resources:
- Hikinginthesmokys.com – They even have dedicated sections to filter trails by location, feature, and difficulty.
- National Park Service – Check out this list of hikes specifically featuring waterfalls.
- Alltrails.com – You can find detailed information on tons of Smoky Mountain hiking trails here.
What to do in Pigeon Forge
In all honesty, Pigeon Forge might be gimmickier than Gatlinburg, if such a thing was possible. However, don’t let that deter you from stopping on by. You came to this area of the country, you might as well soak it all in. (Yes, apparently ‘gimmickier’ is the grammatically correct term.)
Dollywood is Pigeon Forge and Pigeon Forge is Dollywood.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is the birthplace of the world famous Dolly Parton and became a tourist destination for literally no other reason. Y’all, I’mma tell you right now, I love Dolly Parton. She’s hilarious, talented, inspirational, good-hearted, and well-spoken.
(New to Dolly? If you’re interested, I particularly love this Dolly Parton interview from 1977, with the exception of Barbara Walters’s cringe-worthy questions and comments omg.)
She had always said that if she ever made it big, she’d return to the town she was from and create something great that would bring a lot of jobs into this area. Today, Dollywood is Tennessee’s biggest attraction welcoming over 3 million visitors a year and has 4,000 people on its payroll.
Dollywood is a full-on theme park coated in Southern charm. It’s got rides and shows, great food, and the chance to learn about Appalachian culture including blacksmithing, Appalachian music, and more.
Dollywood hosts some of the South’s largest festivals including the Festival of Nations featuring cultural celebrations from around the world, the Harvest Festival in the fall, the Barbecue & Bluegrass Festival in the spring, and is a popular destination around the holidays.
Tennessee Museum of Aviation
For something a little more aviation and little less Appalachian, head 15 minutes north of Pigeon Forge to the Tennessee Museum of Aviation.
This museum has a large collection of historic (and still airworthy) aircraft including many warbirds from World War II like the P-47 Thunderbolt.
Bush’s Beans Visitor Center
For something a little different, also a short drive from Pigeon Forge is the Bush’s Beans factory. Now, I’m a big fan of factory tours and eating food at its source (my most recent is the Ben & Jerry’s Factory in Vermont) and find them so fascinating. Plus, free samples! Who doesn’t love Bush’s baked beans, honestly?
You can visit the Bush’s museum, grab a meal at the Bush’s Family Café, learn the history of the company, and pick up a unique souvenir from your time in Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge. I can’t promise there will be a dog there… but I’m not saying there won’t be.
Yes, part of the museum is inside a giant can of beans—so maybe it’s a little gimmicky. But is it really a problem where food is concerned? Asking for a friend.
The Smoky Mountains area of East Tennessee is beautiful and makes for a great escape from wherever you are. And just because much of the two cities is gimmicky and over-the-top doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the area. Have a great time in Tennessee!