8 Don’t-Miss, Kid-Friendly Activities in Gatlinburg, TN
We recently visited Gatlinburg, Tennessee for an extended weekend, and it WONDERFUL!
Some of our lifelong friends invited us to meet them there, and I’m so glad they did!! It was the first time to Gatlinburg for all of us, and none of us knew what to expect other than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was there. We took our two young kids, and they brought their daughter, who is the same age as Little Miss. We didn’t have an agenda, just some ideas of things to see and do, and decided to play it by ear each day. We were excited to hang out, explore, and have some family fun!
We were there the second weekend in October, arriving Friday night and staying until Monday afternoon. The weather was beautiful, not hot and not cold, the ideal temperature for being outside to hike and explore. No jacket all day, and then throwing a light one on in the evenings, but not necessary. The fall colors were beginning to appear, which made for some beautiful scenery, especially in the National Park. The crowds were large, but they didn’t cause issues for any of our plans. Traffic was a little crazy a few times, but that’s life, and we were able to see and do everything we wanted!
We were surprised by how much there was to do in Gatlinburg! We really had no idea what to expect, but we weren’t expecting it to be so AWESOME!
They had everything! From mini golf to ice skating, popular chain restaurants to local diners and shops, hiking, biking and horseback riding to an aquarium and museums, plus shopping and spas for relaxing, Gatlinburg seriously had it all, but with a small mountain resort town feel.
There was so much to see and do, and we only scratched the surface, but in the time we were there here’s what we recommend you don’t miss on your visit to Gatlinburg, TN!
1. Explore in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
We spent most of our time during the days in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The weather, the colors, the scenery, it was all gorgeous, and we couldn’t not explore! We were able to hike to Grotto Falls, visit the Sugarlands Visitor Center, drive the Newfound Gap Road and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, climb to Clingmans Dome, and walk along the Appalachian Trail. We saw some of the most beautiful landscapes that pictures do not do justice.
For more about just the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and our explorations there, check out my post Great Smoky Mountains NP: 10 Things to See & Do w/Little Kids
2. Play at Ober Gatlinburg
Located in downtown Gatlinburg, the Uber Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway and the Aerial Tramway Mall are your starting points for access to Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park and Ski Area. You can take the 2.1 mile ride by cable car to the top of Mt. Harrison, where you will find mini golf, kiddie rides, shops, a carousel, an alpine slide, a mountain coaster, ice skating, a scenic chair lift, and much more! They even have a zoo, and you can see the black bears from the tram! During the winter months, they offer skiing and snow tubing, and during the hot summer months you will find a water raft slide.
While we were up there, the adults took turns racing down the alpine slide, while the kids played on the playground, rode the carousel, and mini golfed. It felt like an entirely different city, even though we were only a few miles away and technically still in Gatlinburg.
The best part was riding the TRAM! Driving up Mt. Harrison to the top instead of riding the cable car is an option, but the tram ride is half the experience!! There are two 120-passenger tram cars that glide you up the mountain while giving you breathtaking views of the Smoky Mountains.
I recommend taking the tram up during the day for an excellent view of the area, but taking it back down as it is getting dark for some beautiful sunset colors and a look at Gatlinburg with all its lights.
3. Walk around Downtown
Each day we stayed in Gatlinburg, we spent the evening meandering around downtown. This little town has so much to offer! There is such a fun, friendly, and welcoming feeling as you walk down the street past all sorts of different kinds of shops and eateries. There are endless activities for all ages!
And did you know that Gatlinburg has their very own Space Needle?! We didn’t!! It’s an observation tower! You can ride a glass walled elevator to the top for views of Gatlinburg and surrounding area. We didn’t do it while on this trip, but we walked past it plenty of times and the kids loved looking at it.
Ignore the fuzziness of this picture of the Space Needle… the 5 year old wanted to take it because he LOVED looking at the Space Needle so much!
4. Watch the Candy Makers and Buy Taffy at Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen
Sunday night, our friends were wonderful and offered to stay in the hotel with the sleeping children while Hubs and I ventured out ON OUR OWN for a mini date to get a treat in downtown. We had walked past this cute store a bunch of times but hadn’t stopped in yet.
If you ever go to Gatlinburg pop in the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen!
They have tons of sweet treats like their signature Taffy Logs, chocolates, caramels, mints and fudge. It all looked delicious, but we settled on a box of the Taffy Logs. YUMMY goodness of assorted flavors! And before you leave, make sure you take some time to watch the candy makers at work pulling taffy and using the 98 year old machine that cuts and wraps each little Taffy Log!
5. Eat at a New Restaurant (or two) for Dinner
We have an unspoken rule- that while on vacation we try and eat at places specific to the area or places we’ve never been. Gatlinburg was prime for following this rule!! With over 100 different places to eat, finding food (and new food at that!) was no problem! Deciding what we wanted with so many options is where it got tricky.
We had two nights for dining out in Gatlinburg.
Night #1, we all agreed on BBQ. We decided to try Calhoun’s but upon arrival and seeing the wait time (an hour +), we headed for option two (the kids were STARVING and couldn’t wait). We stuck with BBQ and found Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que. It’s off the main road of downtown, but still super close, and did not disappoint!!
I must admit, I do not care for BBQ, but I can always find something I can eat! I ended up passing on the pulled pork and ribs, and I settled for the Bar-B-Que Beef Brisket with Spicy Macaroni & Cheese and Onion Petals. SO SO SO GOOD! (Yes caps and bold, that’s how good it was!)
Just look at it! (Sorry for the crappy picture. I was more focused on devouring the goodness than taking its picture!)
Also, my children do not care for BBQ either, but Bennett’s had an awesome kids’ menu with options for even the pickiest eaters! We were all sufficiently stuffed as we walked back to the hotel.
Night #2, we ended up at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. for some seafood. I had never been to a Bubba Gump until this trip! It was a fun atmosphere, and we couldn’t stop talking in Forrest Gump quote the rest of the night!
It was delicious and everyone found something they liked, kids included. I had to take a pic of Bubs with the Bubba Gump sign because we often call him Bubba around the house. When he read the sign, his face lit up as he recognized the word Bubba. It was HIS restaurant!
6. Get Treats at Chocolate Monkey
So we LOVE our treats, and we love finding new treat places. Chocolate Monkey is the place to go to fulfill your dipped chocolate dreams! We hit the store right before leaving Gatlinburg for our leaving town treat.
They have caramel apples, chocolate dipped cherries, marshmallows, cheesecake, cookies and more, plus fudge, giant cookies and ice cream. There were so many things to choose from!
I settled on Chocolate Covered Cheesecake on a Stick, the kids got giant chocolate chip cookies (one with reese’s pieces and the other with sprinkles and literally the size of their heads!), and the Hubs got the Giant Apple Pie Caramel Apple. I was having serious food envy over his caramel apple after having a taste, but my cheesecake was also very, very good.
7. Stay at the Holiday Inn Express
I call the Holiday Inn Express a Don’t-Miss, Kid-Friendly Activity because of this….
Indoor water park at the hotel!! How cool is that?! So COOL!
It had 3 slides, all different speeds and lengths. A small blue one for the babies, the yellow with one curve for more adventurous toddlers and smaller kids, and the green twister tube slide for the more daring. The Hubs and I tried the green and it was FAST even for us!
There were also multiple fill-and-dump buckets, fountains, a shallow splash area by the baby pool, and squirters on the playground along your way to the slides. Lots of fun for the kids, and even for the adults! Not pictured was a small pool (4.5 feet at its deepest) for jumping into and swimming around, too.
We really enjoyed our stay at the Holiday Inn Express! Our room was great, and we were able to fit 4 adults and 3 children into it. We had complimentary breakfast every morning. It was delicious! Much better selection and options than many hotels we’ve stayed at. We were very impressed by that and by the service throughout the hotel. Everyone was very friendly and helpful!
Check out the Holiday Inn Express for your stay in Gatlinburg!
8. Drive through Cades Cove
This was probably my favorite part of our trip!
Cades Cove is part of the Great Smoky National Park, but is located in its own area of the park with its own access, which closes at night. An 11-mile, one way loop road takes you through the area and gives you the opportunity to see more of the beauty of the park, mountains, and wildlife.
We were told to get there in the early morning or closer to dusk. That’s when the animals will be out more! So we got up before sunrise, drove about an hour to Cades Cove, waited for the gates to open, and drove around the loop.
On our drive we were lucky enough to see FIVE black bears- a mama and her two cubs, and then two separate bears (one of which was literally a foot from our car window), three stags, a bunch of deer, wild turkeys, and a woodpecker! It was exciting and totally worth the early morning wake up! For more about our drive through Cades Cove read my post Why You Don’t Want to Miss Driving through Cades Cove!
We fell in love with Gatlinburg! It was a beautiful, fun-filled resort town, and we hope to go back soon! If you get the chance to visit, we highly recommend it.