When planning my birthday trip this year I was in search of a destination that would make for a short weekend getaway and offer great hiking and lots to see and do. After some research I landed on Gatlinburg, a mountain town in eastern Tennessee. Known as the Gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it would also allow us the opportunity to check another national park off our bucket list. While this is a great road trip destination from many major cities, since we were limited on time we decided to fly into Knoxville and make the short hour drive to Gatlinburg.
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Where to Stay
When you're planning your trip keep in mind the time of year you want to visit. We went in late March and it rained two of the days we were there and a few of the areas we wanted to visit in Smoky Mountain National Park were still closed due to seasonal roads. The town of Gatlinburg was way busier than I expected (although we didn't wait for any attractions or restaurants) the sidewalks were just always packed. If you're not into crowds, I would suggest staying outside the town or in a cabin closer to the mountains and avoid peak season in the summer months.
We decided to stay in downtown Gatlinburg and booked the Air BnB below. It ended up being the perfect location as we were able to walk everywhere. Parking is not great in the city and while there are quite a few public lots, most were pretty pricey at $15-$20 per day. The condo we rented had free parking on site, was super spacious and since we never really spend much time in the room, it was perfect for what we needed.
What to Experience
Gatlinburg has no shortage of attractions for all ages. Honestly I wasn't really sure what to expect, but the best way I can describe downtown is like a giant theme park. It can be a bit overwhelming at first but strolling the streets and people watching is half the fun. I would suggest having two or three main activities in mind that are must sees for you. My top picks are below:
Visit Anakeesta: Hands down my number one pick - don't miss this one! A magical little village nestled in the mountainside there is so much to see, do, and eat here. Ride the scenic chondala to the top. Walk along the treetop skywalk (this is where we finally had a bear sighting). Ride the mountain coaster. Challenge a friend on the dueling zip lines. Eat delicious BBQ from Smokehouse. Climb the observation tower for killer mountain views. Wander through the vista gardens. Sip a cocktail while you watch the sunset at Taphouse. Enjoy a sweet treat from Pearl’s Pie in the Sky. Shop for unique gifts at Firefly village.
Definitely give yourself enough time here. We didn't go until closer to dinner time and I wish we would have had more time before the sun went down. I also recommend purchasing tickets online in advance so you can bypass the line.
Cross the SkyBridge: This a newer attraction which opened in 2019 and now holds the claim to fame as the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. You'll purchase tickets from the booth in the heart of downtown (no benefit to purchasing online but the line moves super quick) and ride an 8 minute chairlift to top. Your ticket is good for the entire day you purchase so you can ride up again later in the day and cross the bridge as many times as you'd like. The bridge does sway more than I expected and they recently doubled the number of glass-floor panels in the middle of the SkyBridge to make crossing even more thrilling so if you're scared of heights I definitely wouldn't recommend. You'll enjoy great views of the Smokies from the top and can also grab food or drinks and relax on their patio before heading back down.
I will say this is one of the most popular attractions in the city and was packed the day we went so it wasn't as enjoyable as I would have hoped. I would suggest trying to go early in the morning to avoid crowds, or if you're short on time choose the Anakeesta treetop skywalk for a much more peaceful experience.
Hike in Smoky Mountain National Park: This was one of the main reasons we planned this trip and couldn't leave without spending some time in the mountains. Thankfully our second day there we were blessed with perfect weather all day and took full advantage by completing two different hikes. Also if the weather isn't great, they'll likely close the main highway into the park due to high winds so make your plans flexible. When we were there in late March the roads to access Grotto Falls and Clingmans Dome were still closed as well.
Our first hike of the day was to Laurel Falls which is a 2.4 mile out and back trail ending at a breathtaking waterfall. This is a great hike for all ages with moderate elevation gains and a paved path the whole way. At the end of the trail you'll be able to get up close to the falls. We also scrambled our way down to the lower falls to avoid the crowds at the top. This is a popular hike so expect the parking lot to be full but there was plenty of roadside parking available.
Next, we drove to Alum Cave Trail. This hike is moderate to strenuous depending on your hiking experience and does gain steady elevation. You can hike to Alum Cave Bluffs which is 4.6 miles out and back or continue on to Mount LeConte for a total of 10.6 miles round trip. Along the way you'll cross a series of log bridges through an old-growth hardwood forest. At 1.3 miles you’ll pass through the narrow tunnel of Arch Rock and end at the Alum Cave Bluffs, the real star of the show. If you make in there in spring you'll likely see a mini waterfall falling off the top of the cliff.
Where to Eat
Where to Drink
I love creating detailed travel guides to ensure you get the most out of your time. On this blog I'll be sharing some of my past trips in hopes that it helps you plan your next adventure. Pack your suitcase you never know where I'll be heading next!
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