Nestled into the Smoky Mountains lays the bustling tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. A must stop destination for Ripley’s lovers, hiking enthusiasts, and mini golf connoisseurs!
What to expect in Gatlinburg?
First off, whatever you’re thinking this smoky mountain town is like, forget it. We were expecting rustic log cabins, loads of BBQ food, and a quiet main street dotted with some pubs to drink at post hike.
What we got was a bustling, compact Atlantic City. The city never slowed down, with hoards of people moving from whiskey tasting to whiskey tasting.
Gatlinburg is covered in Ripley’s attractions, from an aquarium to a haunted adventure. The city has more mini golf courses than one can attempt to try in a lifetime. Along with its myriad of whiskey distillers, wineries, and of course carnival style street food. The best part? Your never ending supply of chair lifts and alpine coasters to test your fears.
How did Gatlinburg come to be?
Gatlinburg’s controversial past starts in the early 1800s when the Ogle family came to the area. The Ogle’s from North Carolina were among the first settlers in the area besides Native Americans and the Cherokee – who helped Ogle get settled.
However, the Ogle’s faced their own hardships when William Ogle – husband and father – died of malaria while retrieving his family to take them to the “land of paradise.” That didn’t stop the strong willed Martha from bringing their seven children to this “land of paradise,” and found White Oaks Flats.
Years went by and a Radford Gatlin took up shop in White Oaks Flats – literally, he opened a general store. Then he opened up a post office which ultimately changed the name to Gatlinburg.
Although he was the cities namesake, Gatlin was an opinionated and not a well liked man. He was riddled with controversies and was eventually chased out of town due to his pro-confederacy stance during the Civil War.
Gatlin left town but the name stayed.
After the Civil War, Gatlinburg started growing, largely due to the bustling and profitable timber industry in the area. In the early 1900’s the first school was opened by the Pi Beta Phi women’s fraternity and the first lodges and hotels were opened.
Shortly thereafter, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was opened and the town saw an influx of visitors.
Then the 1990’s came and Ripley’s and other tourist attractions took over the town to turn it into the Gatlinburg we know today.
Read more about Gatlinburg’s history here.
What is there to do in Gatlinburg?
You may be thinking, ‘okay, I get it, Gatlinburg has some weird history, but what can I do there?’ Well friends, read below to find out how to spend your time in ole’ Gatlinburg.
Take a sky lift or tramway to a park overlooking Gatlinburg
Who knew aerial tramways and sky lifts were so popular? On top of that, who knew there were so many that connected to high altitude parks over looking one city? I sure didn’t.
Gatlinburg has three main parks, all specializing in different activities overlooking the city… and they all have some sort of lift that can bring you to each park.
Gatlinburg SkyLift Park
The Gatlinburg SkyLift Park is NOT for the faint of heart… or those with a fear of heights and bridges – and I have both.
After purchasing your ticket – for $27.95 – and taking a few photos for purchase, the sky lift picks you up right in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg. You take the journey from the road, over the stream, and straight up the mountain to the sky lift park.
Once you’re at the park, you are greeted by a huge patio section – the SkyDeck – where you can enjoy the view of downtown Gatlinburg, purchase your photos, or sit back and relax with some hot chocolate.
The real draw to this park is the 680 foot pedestrian suspension bridge sitting over the city. The bridge is the longest in North America and even includes glass floor panels in the middle, if it wasn’t already terrifying!
This park doesn’t take long but the lines can get long! Be sure to get there early – 4:30 – 5PM – so you don’t wait all night for the ride up!
Named for the Cherokee word meaning “the place of the balsams,” or translating to high ground, Anakeesta, occupies yet another hill overlooking downtown Gatlinburg and has not one but two lifts up! Guests can take the chondola or gondola up over town for the scenic air route or get a ride in the ridge rambler.
Once at Anakeesta, you have a variety of adventure options fit for the whole family. There is zip-lining, an observation tower, another alpine coaster, and their renowned tree-top sky walk – the longest tree walk in North America at 880 feet.
Anakeesta has food, activities, and fun that adults and children can enjoy for day full of fun and adventure. Be sure to check out which events matter most to you in choosing your Anakeesta adventure since add ons can add up the dollar signs.
Ober Gatlinburg is the most kitschy of the three parks but it may be the most family friendly.
You can purchase aerial tramway tickets in downtown for $17 a person or drive up the winding mountain road to the entrance.
This park is the most versatile with activities ranging from mini golf, to a scenic chairlift, to an alpine coaster, to ski slopes in the winter.
The main building of Ober Gatlinburg is an 80s style, German themed carnival with an ice skating rink in the center surrounded by carnival fare and lots of screaming children.
This park can become expensive between paying for the aerial tramway tickets and paying for each individual activity. If you have kids that want to hit every activity and you’re planning to spend the whole day there, the unlimited wristbands for $35 (not available in winter) may be worthwhile to you.
Ober Gatlinburg was dated with a sad wildlife encounter, a rickety chairlift, and a tiny mini golf course. However, this is still a great spot to take the kids for a day outing and definitely the place to go for skiing and snowboarding.
Tip: Lines get long FAST at Ober Gatlinburg. Be sure to get on the aerial tramway right when it opens and go for the mountain coaster the second you get to the park. Otherwise, lines can easily hit 2+ hours by noon.
Hitting all three parks can become expensive, so plan accordingly and pick your top park to visit!
Have a GIANT breakfast
What better way to start your day than with waffles the size of your head? If there’s one thing the south has got over any other region in the U.S. it’s food, their fried everything, BBQ joints, and of course their breakfasts. Gatlinburg does the south proud with their top notch, breakfast spots. Check out these great choices below and gorge down on a stack of pancakes!
Breakfast places to try in Gatlinburg
Pro tip: Join the waitlist for these places online before hitting the line. This way you can wait in your hotel. Just be sure to check in when you arrive!
Enjoy some tourist attractions
Gatlinburg is for the tourists, and where there are tourist, there are an abundance of tourist attractions. In Gatlinburg you have everything from Ripley’s to mini golf to skiing. Their attractions can be ordinary, or you can feel like you’re out on the west coast in L.A. or Seattle with some of the below Gatlinburg favorites.
Gatlinburg Space Needle
Seattle may be famous for their space needle, but Gatlinburg comes in at a close second with the Gatlinburg Space Needle. The space needle takes you up 407 feet to view the city lights surrounded by the seemingly never ending Smoky Mountains.
Buy your ticket ($15.95 adult) and take the trip up and learn all about Gatlinburg and Smoky Mountain fun facts.
Gatlinburg has no shortage of arcade games but Arcadia brings home the trophy for biggest arcade! With over 100 games to choose from in the 25,000 square foot space, there is sure to be a game for everyone in the family.
Arcadia is attached to the space needle, so make a day of it and try out, both!
Hollywood Star Cars Museum
The Hollywood Star Cars Museum is the perfect outing for any movie buff. The outside of the museum is always crowded with hoards of people ‘ohhing and ahhing’ at classic cars like Gibbs’ Dodge Challenger from NCIS and the Avengers Truck sitting outside. Head inside ($14.99 adult) for even more noteworthy and classic cars from Hollywood.
Do basically everything Ripley’s
In 1970, the world renowned Ripley’s Empire took up their first space in Gatlinburg. Fast forward to present day, Ripley’s has eight businesses in Gatlinburg that are:
- Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium!
- Aquarium of the Smokies
- 5D Moving Theater
- Haunted Adventure
- Marvelous Mirror Maze
- Super Fun Zone
- Two mini golf courses
No matter what you are feeling, there’s a Ripley’s for you!
You can even buy a joint ticket for Ripley’s and the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park!
Ride an alpine coaster
What better way to enjoy the mountains than to ride an alpine coaster!? Alpine coasters are single to double rider steel, open air, coasters built into the topography of a mountain. One belt brings you to the top of the mountain then gravity brings you down. The best part? You’re in control of your own speed. Alpine coasters have a very basic brake mechanism where you just pull a handle on either side of the coaster to slow down.
Alpine coasters have become wildly popular in the past couple decades and have popped up in some of Americas most famous mountain ranges like the Rocky Mountains and of course the Appalachian Mountains.
Gatlinburg and the surrounding area has no shortage of alpine coasters, read below and pick which alpine coaster you’ll be hitting on your Gatlinburg vacation!
Alpine coasters in and around Gatlinburg
- Ober Gatlinburg Ski Mountain Coaster
- Anakeesta Rail Runner – this is a single rider coaster so the weight limit is lower
- Rowdy Bear Mountain Adventure Park Alpine Coaster
- Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster
- Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster
Pro tip: Lines can get long at each alpine coaster destination, but they do operate rain or shine! If you show up during the rain the waits are low and the adrenaline is high!
Play a round of mini golf…or two
There is no better way to unwind and relax than with a *sightly* competitive game of mini golf.
Luckily, Gatlinburg is filled with every type of mini golf you can imagine, all within walking distance of each other.
If you’re looking for glow in the dark mini golf, Gatlinburg has it, if you’re more into treasure hunting and golfing, Gatlinburg has that, too!
Take some friends and put on your athletic hats and get to putting with the below mini golf courses!
Mini golf courses in Gatlinburg
Calories don’t count on vacation so get ready to gorge yourself full of carnival fare and street pizza. There are some great restaurant options, like Loco Burro, but the real fun starts at the hole in the wall shops. Everything from corndogs, to sausage, to crazy fry concoctions, to pizza can be found along the main road in downtown.
Take a walk down the main street and follow your nose and stomachs desires.
Enjoy an alcohol tasting
Pair your street food with an alcohol tasting of your choosing. Try some wine, whiskey, or a Tennessee staple – moonshine.
Gatlinburg is home to Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery – The Holler – the most visited distillery in the country. Here you can do a whiskey and moonshine tasting of America’s first legal moonshine distillery, then find a variety of flavors to bring home.
Another favorite among Tennesseans and visitors is Sugarlands Distillery. Right on parkway (the main street) in Gatlinburg sits Sugarlands, a distillery pumping out tasty whiskeys and moonshines while also offering tours of their facility.
If hard liquor isn’t your shot, try Sugarland Cellars and do a wine tasting. Sugarland Cellars loves their city and shares a piece of history in each bottle by naming their wines after area leaders and notable locations. You can even turn your wine tasting into a day long outing by partaking in the Gatlinburg Wine Trail – currently virtual.
Go shopping for some Gatlinburg essentials
No trip is complete without some sort of shopping spree and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all of the great shops located along parkway and within all of the little side plazas.
You can find shops ranging from fashion, to hiking essentials, to pet gifts, to a sock store, and classic southern style general stores.
Be sure to save an afternoon for all of your Gatlinburg shopping needs!
Explore the Smoky Mountains
Gatlinburg is one of the main bordering cities of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Millions of tourists every year choose to stay in Gatlinburg during their Smoky Mountain adventures. The Smokies are great for picnics, day trips, or longer hiking trips, whatever you choose, there’s a Smoky Mountain experience for you.
- Biltmore – blog coming soon!
- Explore surrounding cities
- Budget your way to your dream vacation
- Make it a road trip
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