Updated May 2023 by Brianna Goebel
If your family prefers a vacation that has a more active spin versus lounging by the pool, then Gatlinburg should be at the top of your list. While it is more commonly known as a bustling tourist destination with plenty of shopping and dining, Gatlinburg is also rich in countless outdoor adventures. Whether you’re traveling with friends or the whole family, everyone can enjoy Mother Nature, be it by raft, by foot, or by car.
Plan a trip to East Tennessee this summer and enjoy the beauty that you’ll only find in this part of the country. Whether your group is in pursuit of a thrill or enjoys a serene escape surrounded by nature, here’s your guide to exploring the many outdoor adventures in Gatlinburg.
To jump straight to a specific section in this article, use the links below:
- SkyLift Park
- Water activities
- Exploring the Smokies
- Ober Mountain
- Annual events
- And just FYI …
Thrillseekers, Anakeesta should be at the top of your Gatlinburg to-do list! Open since September of 2017, the name Anakeesta comes from the Cherokee Indian language and means “the place of the balsams.” As you take the 14-minute “chondola” ride 600 feet to the top of Anakeesta Mountain, you’ll see why — you’ll be immersed in nature and lush forestry in ways you may have never experienced.
Once you arrive at the top and disembark from the chondola, you’ll be struck by the magnificent panoramic views. Then, you’ll be ready to dig into the many activities that await, which could easily fill half a day — from dueling ziplines to the Treeventure Challenge Course, mountain coaster, the AnaVista Tower, and more. Plus, don’t miss one of the park’s newest additions: Astra Lumina. As the first event of its kind in the U.S., guests are invited to enjoy a breathtaking night walk that combines lighting, projections, and sounds.
You can also expect two new attractions to be added to Anakeesta’s lineup later this summer. BirdVenture is an aviary-inspired area that invites guests to imagine what life would be like as a bird in the Smokies. The display includes three larger-than-life birdhouses, interactive adventure zones, and seven serpentine slides that wind more than 50 feet down the mountain.
For those who love adrenaline, Anakeesta is also slated to debut its first double-rail coaster this summer, too. Hellbender is designed to resemble the local Smoky Mountain salamander species and winds through the mountains in a series of twists and turns. Single-rail and double-rail coaster experiences are expected to be available.
When you need a break from all the action, you can get some retail therapy at two different shops or grab a bite to eat. Cliff Top Restaurant in Black Bear Village has sweeping views of The Sugarlands, a section of the national park known for its Sugar Maple trees; a second restaurant in Black Bear Village, Kephart Café, offers gourmet hot dogs, flatbread pizza, and frozen yogurt. If you need to calm your nerves after all of the adventure, grab an adult beverage at the bar or the beer garden.
You can also grab a bite from The Smokehouse in Firefly Village, which serves house-smoked meats like pulled pork, chicken, and brisket. Enjoy your meal at one of the picnic tables and enjoy the stellar views. While your food digests, take a stroll through Vista Gardens, which is at the highest part of the property and showcases lush gardens, a trickling stream, whimsical touches, and “twigloos,” which are stick sculptures that are indeed works of art.
A Unique Lodging Opportunity
After a day full of adventures and fun, you will need a place to relax and unwind. Mountain Laurel Chalets and Cabins is a boutique rental company that offers a series of high-end cabins for the whole family. Recently named part of The 100 Collection — which includes some of the best and most well-trusted vacation rentals — Mountain Laurel Chalet and Cabins offers getaways for groups of friends, large families, or couples. Plus, a few of the properties are pet-friendly, so don’t forget to bring your furry friend along with you!
Another great lodging option, The Park Vista: A Doubletree by Hilton has become an iconic Gatlinburg hotel. Thanks to its unique cylinder shape, guests receive some of the best views of the Smoky Mountains during their stay here. The hotel includes 300 newly renovated guestrooms and suites as well as two restaurants — Vista Grill and Firefly’s — that both offer indoor and outdoor dining.
For those who have zero fear of heights, head to SkyLift Park via chairlift, where you’ll find the SkyBridge, aka the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. Open since 2019, the 5-foot-wide bridge spans 680 feet and, at its midpoint, is 140 feet above the ground, which you can see via the glass panels. (Feeling a little breathless even typing that!) In addition to the SkyBridge, you’ll want to visit the SkyDeck, which offers a pristine view of Gatlinburg and the Smokies.
For those who don’t wish to walk across the SkyBridge, you can take advantage of the Gatlinburg SkyTrail. This scenic walkway is just over one-third of a mile and connects the ends of the SkyBridge while still allowing guests to take in views of the Smokies below. With three distinct sections, the walkway is perfect for adults, children, and even pups!
The newest addition to SkyLift Park is the Tulip Tower. Sitting 70 feet above the ground, the steel tower offers four platforms where visitors can take in breathtaking views and learn about the tower’s story as they make their way to the top.
On the Water
Spend a fun-filled day on the Pigeon River, where you can load up a raft and take to the water for a guide-led adventure. There are several whitewater outfitters in the area, each of which will get you suited up and safety-checked. The upper Pigeon River offers Class III and IV rapids, which are suitable for ages 8 and older, and the lower Pigeon River features Class I and II rapids, which are more calm and approved for ages 3 and older.
Anglers (and wannabe anglers), listen up! Fly fishing is a fabulous way to spend a day on the river, and The Smoky Mountain Angler is the place to start your fly fishing adventure. This full-service fly fishing outfitter is the only one in Gatlinburg, and they can get you prepped and then lead your crew for a fun-filled day of fishing in various mountain streams and fishing holes. Full-day and half-day options are available, and all the gear you’ll need (waders, boots, net, fly rod, spinning rod, etc.) is available for rental. Plus, they can point you to “kids only” fishing spots, which up the odds of your youngest fishermen catching something.
Fly fishing fans can also visit Herbert Holt Park to experience Tennessee’s only municipal trout farm. The park offers “children only” fishing spots and is managed to maintain all types of trout, especially rainbow trout. (Note: There is no fishing on Thursdays.)
Into the Woods
You can’t visit Gatlinburg without exploring the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The most visited park in the U.S. National Park Service, the park is filled with wildflowers, streams, wildlife, and an abundance of natural beauty unlike any other region of the United States. To make the most of your exploration, enlist the help of A Walk in the Woods or Smoky Mountain Guides. Both companies know this terrain inside and out and lead guests on tours to see everything from wildflowers to waterfalls, and they’ll point out intriguing historical elements you’d otherwise overlook.
For those who have mobility challenges or simply prefer exploring from the comfort of a car, you can still enjoy a nature-immersive experience in the Smokies. Take to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a 5.5-mile loop that winds through the Smokies and offers a glimpse of historic buildings, mountain streams, and nature in a beautifully preserved state. Should you wish to get out and stretch your legs, there are opportunities to hike to some beautiful waterfalls in the Roaring Fork area as well.
SB TIP: This narrow road is one-way only and quite winding, so those who struggle with carsickness may want to pop a Dramamine first. And be sure to check the website before you head that way to ensure the road is open.
If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, Smoky Mountain Guides also offers auto tours. While you ride in the comfort of a roomy sprinter van, you can gaze at the stunning views of popular spots like Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome. You’ll also enjoy a side of history, as the guides share insightful facts about the region and its vegetation.
What is primarily known as a winter destination for its skiing and tubing adventures, Ober Mountain (previously known as Ober Gatlinburg) is actually open year-round and offers plenty of outdoor activities for all ages, including the popular tubing hill (yes, you can tube any time of the year!). Take the 100-passenger Aerial Tram two miles to the summit of Ober Gatlinburg, where you will find a host of activities available during the spring, summer, and fall months. Plus, new this is summer, the attraction has also added mountain biking and white water rafting to its list of adventures!
Guests can enjoy the Alpine Slide, rock climbing, Ski Mountain Coaster, Scenic Chairlift, chair swings, water rides, and more. Plus, the amusement park has recently opened hiking trails, which give hikers a unique view of the 60-year-old ski slopes and the Smokies. Trails are open from mid-May through October (check the website for this year’s official opening date). Winter brings more chilly-temp activities like skiing and snowboarding.
Annual Events to Plan For NOW!
Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage
The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is an annual event with a 70-plus-year history. Wildflower lovers enjoy professionally guided walks and exhibits that showcase the best of the region’s wildflowers and other natural resources. Through events and speakers, guests can learn about flora and fauna indigenous to the region — including salamanders, snakes, ferns, trees, bats, bears, insects (and, yes, wildflowers) – then get out to see them in their natural habitat via guided hikes. While this year’s event has passed, you can bookmark this page and check back often to see when registration opens for next year’s pilgrimage. You have to sign up early as this is a wildly popular annual event.
Synchronized Lightning Bugs
An amazing phenomenon occurs when synchronized fireflies light up the forest every year. For up to two weeks each spring, male fireflies shine their lights in what appears to be synchronicity in hopes of attracting female mates. To see this amazing display, guests must register for the parking pass lottery, and if chosen, they get access to this marvelous display during its limited run. While the deadline to register for the 2022 lottery has passed, you can check in with Smoky Mountain Guides, as they offer Synchronized Lightning Bug tours via their website. Click HERE for more info.
And Just FYI …
When the sun goes down, there are still plenty of adventures to enjoy. Gatlin’s Family Fun Center features Gatlinburg’s only rooftop ropes course (among other things), which allows thrill-seekers to get harnessed and climb three stories up to tackle a series of breathtaking challenges.
And should the weather turn sour, make your way to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Plenty of hands-on activities and unusual exhibits ensure no one will even care about the rain — at least for a few hours.
When you’re ready to plan your adventure-filled vacation, head to gatlinburg.com.
This article is sponsored by Gatlinburg CVB.