Heading to Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains for the first time? It can be overwhelming at first. But you won’t regret it! It’s our absolute FAVORITE place to visit! There’s SO much to do!
To help you, I’ll be walking you through six steps to planning your trip. Take it a step at a time, and you’ll have your trip planned in no time.
1. Pick travel dates.
One thing to keep in mind — certain seasons are very busy in Gatlinburg. Avoid high summer, 4th of July, and fall if you plan to be right downtown much. Traffic literally slows to a crawl when crowds are high. We prefer to hit off season or stay somewhere off the beaten path to avoid traffic.
2. Decide where to stay.
The first decision is the big one. Do you want to stay in a hotel or condo, or do you want to rent a cabin.
Hotels/condos are nice because they often have indoor pools (sometimes indoor waterparks!) and housekeeping will usually run through and spiff things up for you. Often, hotels offer other perks. Here are a few of our favorites:
- The Inn at Christmas Place — Okay, this is actually in Pigeon Forge, but it’s worth the drive. It’s not super cheap, but it sure is fun! The whole thing is decorated like, you guessed it, Christmas! It’s classy and clean, too. (For other Pigeon Forge and Sevierville hotels, check here.)
- Zoder’s Inn and Suites — This one is rated so highly on TripAdvisor, and at only around $65 per night, it’s a bargain! A stream runs beside the quaint hotel, and there are some little bonuses — wine and cheese, and milk and cookies! (Hate to admit that I’d probably prefer milk and cookies!)
- Wild Bear Falls — This is one of the indoor water parks! Love it! It’s attached to the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort. Yes, that’s one of those timeshare places. That’s both good and bad. You can easily get sucked into wasting precious vacation hours listening to spiels about owning a timeshare. But you can also save precious vacation dollars the same way.
- Holiday Inn Club Vacations Smoky Mountain Resort – Again, beware that this is a timeshare. But you can also just book a hotel room just like you would at any hotel. This resort is located just three blocks from the main street in downtown Gatlinburg, so you can easily walk to visit shops and attractions. That’s really nice, especially when you consider that parking in Gatlinburg is a big PAIN! Walking in is a great bonus.
Though hotels are always nice, we love to stay in a CABIN, especially with a large group! It’s nice to have somewhere to hang out in the evenings, play games, etc. That’s sometimes why we head to Gatlinburg at all, just to hang out in the cabin with family members that we don’t see often. Some of the pluses are that you can save money cooking your own food and almost all cabin rentals come with outdoor hot tubs. (Which you can use even in the winter. I actually enjoy them more in the winter. Sigh. I could sure go for a soak in a hot tub right now, enjoying beautiful Smoky Mountain views.
There are TONS of cabin rental companies in Gatlinburg (and also in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville). Do a Google search for “cabin Gatlinburg” and you’ll find way more than you need. Watch for companies with reviews or do a Google search for the cabin rental company name plus “review.” But we’ve really had almost all very positive experiences with cabin rentals. Obviously, some are better than others, but you get what you pay for, most of the time.
A basic cabin can actually be pretty cheap, and can save money over a hotel rental if you are sharing between a few families. But you can also splurge to get some fun amenities, like pool, Fooseball, arcade games, and more.
Here are a few cabin companies to get you started. But trust me, there are SO many.
- HomeAway — This is a nationwide company, which may be a good thing or bad thing, depending on you! Some people like to support the local economy, but others feel better about renting from a larger company. We’ve had nothing but good experiences here.
- Cabins for You — I love how many ways this company tries to help the consumer. They have a blog, with tons of good information, but they also often have live help available, a phone number that’s easy to find (sometimes, it’s still easier to just call…), and a Facebook page with extra help.
- Eden’s Crest – This is the one for those of you who like locally-owned spots. The owner of this company is great, very personally invested in his rentals. Plus, the cabins are ALL gorgeous, and the company has been highly recommended on FlipKey. Check it out.
3. Budget (and plan) for food.
If you’re staying in a hotel, you’ll need to plan enough money to eat out almost every meal (though some hotels include breakfast). That’s okay, as long as the money’s not a problem! There are some GREAT restaurants in the Smoky Mountain area!
We also love to head to Subway for a picnic lunch to haul along on a hike in the mountains.
Here are some of the greatest local restaurants, but there’s about every kind of chain restaurant around, too.
- The Best Italian Cafe and Pizzeria – This place doesn’t look like much, but BOY is it amazing! It’s right along the Parkway in Gatlinburg (though close to the park end of it), so you can walk, if you’ve parked your car. The pizza is amazing, but the calzones, are SO GOOD, too! Make sure you split them (literally, bigger than my head!). I recommend getting a calzone and a pizza for a family, so you can try both. Also a must-try are the garlic rolls. Wow. So, so good. And they come in this incredible garlic, buttery mixture that is so good to dip pizza crust in after you finish the rolls. Make sure you ask to keep it! The pasta here is probably really good too, but I’ve never tried it.
- Fannie Farkle’s — Okay, this isn’t a big meal. But if you’re just looking for something to fill you up while you browse the shops, this may be perfect. Fannie Farkle’s is a spot right on the Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg. It’s an arcade, though we’ve never been in. Out on the street, you can order food. And, again, I’m sure everything is good, but our favorite are the Ogle Dogs. What is it? It’s a really, really good corn dog. It’s a whole foot long, and the hot dogs are 100% beef. It’s just a really fun Gatlinburg tradition. We always get two and share. Our kids LOVE to get an Ogle Dog!
- The Smoky Mountain Brewery — Okay, again I choose this spot for the appetizer! I love the Hot Soft Pretzels with the Hot Beer Cheese Dip. These yummy warm pretzels are great with both the beer cheese sauce and the warm mustard they bring along, too. You get five pretzels in an order, so, again, there’s plenty to share! The rest of the food is good, too, but my favorite is the pretzels! There’s a Pigeon Forge location of this spot, too.
- The Peddler – Now, if you want a fancy night out, this is the route to go, for sure! The Peddler is an amazing steakhouse. Wow! It’s SO good! It’s one of those great restaurants where they actually cut off your steak in front of you to make sure it’s acceptable. They also have great kids’ meals — check out our story about The Peddler’s kids’ meals here.
Of course, you may decide to save money by eating in the cabin. If that’s the case, you don’t want to waste tons of time cooking. Here are some great ideas for foods to make quick in a cabin:
- Here’s an easy slow-cooker roast recipe that you use leftovers for beef barbeque sandwiches the next day. My family LOVES this recipe! It’s the only way we eat roast, but it’s super easy, too.
- Maybe you just want to make quick sandwiches for a lunch on-the-go. Here are five unique sandwich ideas, if you want something more special than peanut butter and jelly.
- Soup is always nice to make quickly, then leave in the slow cooker all day, so people can grab it when they’re hungry. Here are two recipes for yummy soups: Meatball Stew and Yummy Chunky Chicken Soup.
- Here are five ideas for really quick meals that you can make using convenience items. Anything you need, you can buy at Walmart on the way through Pigeon Forge.
- Here are two meals that work great for feeding a group at a cabin: hobo pies and oven-warmed subs. Both are favorites of my husband and me AND our kids!
- And just for fun — how to make your own Lincoln Log Toast. What else should your kids have for breakfast in a cabin?
4. Figure out what to do (and budget accordingly).
There is SO much to do in Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
But a lot of it costs a decent amount of money.
But also, a lot of the best stuff is free.
Of course, everything in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free, and it’s literally RIGHT NEXT DOOR to Gatlinburg! Here are some of our favorite things to do in the park (all without spending a dime!):
- Go for a treasure hunt. Have you ever heard of geo-caching? It’s this really incredibly neat niche activity! Yes, some people spend tons of time geo-caching, and the Great Smokies is an excellent place to do it! Basically, it’s a huge treasure hunt using your phone’s GPS feature (or a car GPS). SO much fun, and again, completely free.
- Go on a waterfall hike. My kids LOVE waterfall hikes. Now, for the best waterfall hike, you need warm weather. We love to hike, hike, hike on the way there, then spend plenty of time playing in the water and hopping around on rocks (and maybe eating a picnic lunch), before heading back to the car. (Note that not all waterfalls can be played in.) Here are our three favorite waterfall hikes in the Smokies, but there are others!
- Participate in a ranger-led activity. This post is old, so follow the links to the most up-to-date activities. These activities are great ways to get your kids into nature without spending money (though a few of these do have a small cost associated with them).
- Go swimming. Now, this is great fun, but be very careful. There have been a decent amount of deaths from swimming in swimming holes. Keep kids very close and keep life vests on when practical.
- Visit a Picnic Area. Our favorite is the Chimney Tops Picnic Area. It’s great — lots of picnic tables and grills, but it’s also right beside a roaring stream to play in. It’s a great way to spend a lazier afternoon — fishing or dangling your feet in the cold mountain water. Or wading. Again, watch kids closely.
Of course, there are lots of fun things to do that cost money, too. Here are my top Gatlinburg recommendations:
- Ober Gatlinburg – If you’re planning to travel any time soon, make sure to hit Ober Gatlinburg for snow tubing or skiing. The skiing is actually pretty decent for the midwest, and the tubing is supposed to be spectacular! On top of that, there’s all kinds of fun stuff to do in the summer — an alpine slide, petting zoos, and much more. Plus, you can ride the tram up the side of the mountain to see amazing views.
- Go shopping! Gatlinburg has an abundance of cute shops, so if shopping’s your thing, you’ll want to spend some time on the Parkway. Some of my favorites? All Sauced Up, which is a sauces and relishes shop (with TONS of free samples!); Make it Magic, a magic shop that doesn’t hesitate to give kids’ demos; and The Chocolate Monkey, which has AMAZING fudge, candies, and all manner of yumminess. Also, they give kids free monkey stamps.
- Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies — This is a fabulous aquarium. It actually took us several trips to Gatlinburg before we visited, because I expected it to be something of a tourist trap, since it’s by Ripley’s. And it’s quite expensive. But it’s totally worth it. It is a top-notch, educational aquarium combined with quirky Ripley-esque attractions (last summer, they had a tank of mermaids — real people ones). Plan most of a day.
- Mini Golf – There are tons of options, including one indoor course right on the Parkway. But my favorite are the Ripley’s courses. (No, I’m not getting paid to promote Ripley’s. In fact, a lot of their attractions are a waste of money. But the aquarium and the mini golf are very worthwhile.) There’s one in Sevierville (Old MacDonald’s Farm) and one in Gatlinburg (Davy Crokett), and both are great fun. They are everything good mini golf courses should be. They are always in good repair (which is not true of all the other courses), they do fun things when you make certain shots and make funny noises. And they keep kids really occupied. I highly recommend them.
5. Get the lay of the land.
If you’ve never been to the area before, it’s a good idea to figure out roughly where things are before you go. GoogleMaps and car-based GPS systems are notoriously unreliable for this area, so if you’ll be finding a cabin up in the mountains (especially at NIGHT!), make sure to call the cabin company ahead of time for good directions.
Also, take a look at these links for maps of various areas, so you can get a feel for where you’ll be.
6. Prepare for taking good photos.
This is just a little dumb thing, but it’s something I often forget — to plan for taking photos.
Don’t forget to make sure batteries are charged and that you have plenty of space for lots of great photos.
Also, plan for what kind of camera to take where. For example, you may not want a heavy, good camera on a long hike, but maybe your smart phone will be fine. (Here are 10 tips for taking good pictures with a smart phone.)
Maybe you want to let your kids bring their iPods or kid-proof cameras to take pictures of what they want. In fact, you can even have your kids make a vacation journal using the pictures they take.
Most of the time, you’ll want the family’s best camera out and ready for great photo ops. Here are 8 tips for taking the best family vacation photos.
Don’t forget to bring chargers, extra batteries, and extra memory cards, if needed.
Well, that’s it! With these six steps, you should be ready for a perfect Smoky Mountain vacation! Any getaway can feel like a lot of planning up front, but it’s always worth it when you hop in the car (or on the plane — even better!) and leave regular life behind for a long weekend or even a week or two! Enjoy!
Do you have other ideas for how to plan the perfect Smoky Mountain vacation? Let us know below in the comments.