Gatlinburg, Tennessee (USA) is one of those rare destinations that has activities for the whole family. As the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg is a dreamworld for nature lovers and hikers! Next door Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is filled with amusement parks and museums for little and big kids. The hundreds of cabins, make Gatlinburg a top choice for honeymooners and romantic, weekend getaways.
Even though we live in Tennessee, we don’t get to Gatlinburg as often as you would imagine. Tennessee is a long state. Gatlinburg is on the eastern edge, and Memphis (where Joe and I live) is on the western edge. If we drive straight through, without any stops, we can get to Gatlinburg in 6 1/2 hours. Our last trip, we included Gatlinburg in a road trip looping around the state (see The Ultimate Tennessee Road Trip). Our daughter Lauren went with us on this particular trip. Lauren loves Gatlinburg. She even picked Gatlinburg as her choice for her senior trip 6 years ago. On that trip, we spent a week in Gatlinburg. For the trip this past spring, since it was part of a long road trip, we took 2 days. If you have a week or just a weekend, Gatlinburg has you covered!
How to Spend 2 Days in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Since we had limited time in Gatlinburg, we decided to get a hotel right on the main Gatlinburg strip. We stayed at the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson. It was a perfect location for walking around and then running back to our hotel room for a quick rest.
In our past visits, we’ve stayed in cabins. There are hundreds of cabins around Gatlinburg. Cabins range in price and size, so you can find exactly what you need to fit your needs. There are small, romantic cabins, perfect for a weekend getaway. We’ve also rented large, multi-level cabins when we were traveling with another family or just had all of our blended-family kids with us!
Day 1- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
No trip to Gatlinburg is complete without a trip into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Containing over 500,000 acres, the national park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. With over 11 million visitors a year, it is the most popular national park in the USA. That’s almost twice the number of Grand Canyon visitors. One of the best parts of the Smoky Mountains is that there are no entrance fees! Although the park is open 24/7, 365 days a year, some roads are closed during the winter & early spring seasons. Check the website before planning your trip:
Summer and fall, the national park gets packed. The earlier you can start your day, the more likely you are to not get stuck behind a traffic jam. Although you can easily spend weeks hiking and exploring the park, if you only have 2 days, here are our “must sees.”
- Breakfast- For this trip, we ate breakfast at our hotel since it was included in our lodging rate. When we’ve stayed in cabins, we’ve cooked breakfast for ourselves. If not utilizing one of these options, there are many, many pancake restaurants in and around Gatlinburg. If you pass one by, just walk or drive another block, and another one will be on your path!
- Sugarlands Visitor Center- The best place to start before heading to Cades Cove is the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which is located 12 miles southwest of Gatlinburg. It opens at 8 am. You can pick up a driving guide for Cades Cove and other helpful information to help plan your day. Continue on Little River Gorge Rd/Old State Hwy 73 for a slow, scenic drive with lots of pullover areas.
- The Sinks Bridge- This area is right on the route to Cade’s Cove (one of the Smoky’s most popular destinations). Located 11 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center, it is an easy place to pullover, snap some pictures, and stretch your legs. The Sinks is considered a waterfall, but is short in height. However, The Sinks is huge in volume. Look for sign post #5.
- Meigs Falls- These falls are easy to drive by, so be on the lookout for sign post #6. This is just 1 mile west of The Sinks Bridge and 13 miles west of the visitor’s center. As you’re driving west, the falls are on the lefthand side.
- Cades Cove- Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive from Gatlinburg will take you over an hour, but Cades Cove is definitely a “must see!” It contains an 11-mile, one-way loop where you can view historic buildings, wildlife, and the valley’s landscape. It is open from sunup to sundown. From early May to late September, every Saturday and Wednesday morning, only bicycle and foot traffic are allowed on the loop road until 10:00 a.m. If you visit early, the likelihood of seeing lots of wildlife is pretty high. Be courteous to other drivers and don’t stop on the road to take pictures. Use the pullouts for photos and animals and make sure to keep your distance from bears. Telephoto lenses and/or binoculars will come in handy!
- Lunch- The scenic drive to and around Cades Cove will take 3-4 hours. The city of Townsend is the closest place to grab a bite to eat. A local recommended Black Bear Cafe, and it was a delicious meal!
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail- From Townsend, go back east towards the Sugarlands Visitor Center. From there, the scenic drive is 3 miles away. Follow the Historic Nature Trail to the Cherokee Orchard entrance of the Smoky Mountains. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 6-mile, one-way loop (open spring, summer, & fall). Limited to foot and small vehicle traffic, it takes you through lush forests, waterfalls, and a historic, small Appalachian community. It not visiting Cades Cove, make Roaring Fork an early morning stop to avoid some of the crowds. You can drive straight through, but pulling over and enjoying the streams, waterfalls, and hiking is what makes the motor trail a memorable destination!
- Clingmans Dome- At 6,643 feet (2024 m.), Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in the Smokies. Watch the weather before making the drive to Clingsmans Dome. On clear days you can see over 100 miles, on cloudy days, when you reach the top of the observation tower, you can barely see your hand in front of your face. They don’t call them the Smoky Mountains for nothing! Clingmans Dome Road is open April 1-November 31.
- Dinner- Back in Gatlinburg, there are plenty of dining options. We chose Smoky Mountain Brewery because it was walking distance from our hotel and its high Trip Advisor rating. After dinner, spend any remaining energy walking around the Gatlinburg strip, which is full of shops and attractions!
Day 2- Museums, Shopping, & Amusements
- Museums- Depending on your families’ interests, there are a variety of family-friendly museums in Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Be prepared to spend 1-3 hours in each. Some of our favorites include the Titanic Museum, Alcatraz East Crime Museum, and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Prices aren’t cheap for any of these, but you can find coupons online and in travel pamphlets.
- Shopping- In Gatlinburg, the strip is block after block of souvenir shops. Pigeon Forge has one of the biggest outlet malls in the area. For Appalachian crafts, plan a stop at the Old Mill where you can watch flour, pottery, candy, and moonshine being made, eat samples, then buy your favorites!
- Amusement & Water Parks- Especially if you are visiting with kids, a day or afternoon riding go-carts, playing putt-putt, and climbing rock walls will be a great way to end your trip. All along the main parkway is one amusement park after another (broken up by the occasional pancake shop). Dollywood is the biggest and most popular amusement park. Dolly Parton opened the theme park in 1986 as way to bring jobs to hometown. As a side note, the community in this area love Dolly Parton. Her financial generosity is major reason the area has been able to bounce back after the 2016 wildfire that rocked the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Have you been to Gatlinburg, Tennessee before? We’d love for you to add your thoughts and recommendations. Have any questions? Please ask by commenting below! Keep up with all of our travel, camping, and cycling tips by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Leave us your email (blue box at the bottom of the post) to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and never miss a post!
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BethanyMay 27, 2018 8:43 pm
Dolly Parton definitely did not open Dollywood in 2010.
JackJuly 8, 2018 6:36 am
Dollywood opened circa 1986.