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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 vacation list. While it is more commonly known as a bustling tourist destination with plenty of shopping options and dining destinations, 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 even by car.

Plan a trip to East Tennessee this summer, and spend time enjoying the beauty that you’ll only find in this part of the country. Whether your group is in pursuit of a thrill or simply enjoys a serene escape surrounded by nature, here’s your guide to exploring the many outdoor adventures that await in Gatlinburg.

Your Guide to Gatlinburg’s Amazing Outdoor Adventures

Anakeesta

Thrillseekers, Anakeesta should be at the top of your Gatlinburg to-do list. Open since September of 2017, this adventurous destination is fairly new and still in growth mode, as we were informed it may be years before Anakeesta is truly complete. The name Anakeesta comes from the Cherokee Indian language and means “the place of the balsams.” And as you take the 14-minute “chondola” ride 600 feet to the top of Anakeesta Mountain, you’ll see why as you’re 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 first be struck by the magnificent panoramic views, and then you’ll be ready to dig into the many activities that await, all of which could easily fill half a day. Partake in a dueling zipline adventure, which takes riders along 1,000 feet of zip and features two rappelling stations, and then meander along the tree canopy walk, which features 16 connected bridges up to 60 feet above ground. The children’s treetop playhouse offers plenty of nooks and crannies for little ones to explore, and the mountain coaster, which reaches up to 25 miles per hour, gives riders a thrill as it races down the mountain and back up again. And don’t miss the new AnaVista Tower, now the tallest point in Gatlinburg. You can see to Kentucky on a clear day!

An enjoyable chondola ride takes you to the top of Anakeesta Mountain, where adventures await. Image: Anakeesta

Take a seat and enjoy the view. It’s breathtaking, isn’t it? Image: Anakeesta

Dueling ziplines offer a fast-paced adventure through the trees. Below the riders, you can see a section of the 16-bridge treetop canopy walk. Image: Anakeesta

The children’s treetop playhouse is pint-sized fun! Image: Anakeesta

Vista Gardens is a delightful display of colors and textures and marks the highest point at Anakeesta. Image: Anakeesta

While you’re at Anakeesta, be sure to check out the Memorial Forest Walk, which tells the story of the wildfires of 2016. Image: Ashley Haugen

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 Grill & Bar has sweeping views of The Sugarlands, a section of the national park known for its Sugar Maple trees; a second restaurant is in the works that will offer fabulous views of Mount LeConte. If you need to calm your nerves after all the adventures, grab an adult beverage at the bar or the beer garden, where you can also grab a bite from Anakeesta Smokehouse, which is more food truck than restaurant. 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 truly works of art. Children will love the TreeVenture Challenge Course and Willow Man, part of the newly expanded children’s area. Or check out the new Black Bear Village that has new dining and shopping options.

Not to be missed is the Memorial Forest Walk, a visual storytelling of the devastating wildfires of November 2016. There is still evidence of the devastation caused, as charred trees are still being nurtured back to health, and those that were unsalvageable have been removed. But what’s most poignant in this visual retrospective is the resiliency of the locals, who banded together to save each other from harm and lended a hand to begin the rebuilding.

Spend a Night Under Canvas

For an adventurous lodging experience, consider booking a stay at Under Canvas, non-traditional lodging that can serve as a base camp for your adventures in the National Park and nearby Gatlinburg. Under Canvas, which offers an immersive and luxurious outdoor stay, is situated on 182 acres and is only open for eight months of the year, closing down for the region’s chilly winter months. There are a variety of safari-inspired tent options based on the number of travelers and desired amenities. Options include suites with stargazing viewing window, twin tents, suites with “hives,” and deluxe options. Some have private bathrooms, while others have access to the communal bathrooms, but every Under Canvas stay is glamping at its finest.

When the sun sets, guests are offered s’mores by the campfire, and when you want to just chill out, play a game of cornhole or check out one of the board games available in the main lodge, which also offers a sitting area, full-service café with delicious fare and tasty beverages. And complimentary morning coffee, of course.

When you arrive at Under Canvas, stop in at the main lodge, pictured here on the left, to check in. Then you’ll be led to your very own tent to begin your glamping adventure. Image: Leila Grossman

This tent is the “Stargazer.” The little pop-out features a window on top so you can lay in bed and look up at the stars, of which there are plenty in such an amazing outdoor setting. Image: Leila Grossman

Tents feature zip-open windows, fans, lanterns, robes, towels and wildly comfortable beds. It’s hard to believe this is still technically considered “camping.” Or is it … Image: Leila Grossman

While simply being on the Under Canvas property is enjoyable enough, you won’t want to miss the access to all of the outdoor activities made available to guests, plus the proximity to more than 800 square miles of forest and access for hikers to the Appalachian Trail. The front desk can also arrange ATV tours, horseback riding, helicopter tours and rafting. The Under Canvas staff is highly accommodating and passionate about ensuring an enjoyable stay.

To learn more about Under Canvas, including perusing tent options and vacation packages, visit undercanvas.com.

SkyLift Park

For those who have zero fear of heights, head to SkyLift Park via chairlift, where you’ll find the newest attraction in Gatlinburg: the SkyBridge, aka the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. Open since May 17, 2019, the 5-foot-wide bridge spans 680 feet and, at its midpoint, is 140 feet above 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 also just opened and offers a pristine view of Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains.

That’s a looooooong way to walk! Image: SkyLift Park

When you’re halfway across, look down through the glass bottom portion of the bridge to see just how high up you are! Image: SkyLift Park

On the Water

Whitewater rafting

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 good for ages 8 and older, and the lower Pigeon River features Class I and II rapids, which are more calm and ideal for ages 3 and older.

When you’re ready to take to the water, check out Rafting in the Smokies, Smoky Mountain Outdoors and Nantahala Outdoor Center, though there are plenty more from which to choose.

Enjoy an invigorating rafting experience in Gatlinburg! Image: Rafting in the Smokies

Fly fishing

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.

Check their website for the latest fishing report and to book your adventure.

The Smoky Mountain Angler is a full-service outfitter that can get anglers of all experience levels outfitted and prepped for a successful fly fishing outing. Image: The Smoky Mountain Angler

Spend a day fly fishing, and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful colors. Image: Smoky Mountain Angler

That’s no small fish! Image: Smoky Mountain Angler

Into the Woods

Hiking 

You can’t visit Gatlinburg without spending time 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 that is unlike any other region of the United States. To make the most of your exploration, enlist the help of A Walk in the Woods, a tour company that’s owned and operated by Erik and Vesna Plakanis. With a combined 60 years of experience, they know this terrain inside and out and lead guests on half- and full-day hikes to see everything from wildflowers to waterfalls, and they’ll point out intriguing historical elements you’d otherwise overlook. They’re also a great resource for planning your hike along the Appalachian Trail, and offer updated trail conditions and other pertinent information to ensure your hike is as safe and enjoyable as possible.

Find out more about guided hikes and services offered on their website.

Auto Tours

For those who have mobility challenges or who 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.

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail offers a mystical vibe. Image: Bill McMannis via Flickr CC

This old Dodge pickup is found at Ely’s Mill, which is located at the end of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Image: Bill McMannis via Flickr CC

If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, Smoky Mountain Guides offers auto tours as well. 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.

Ober Gatlinburg

What is largely known as a winter destination for its skiing and tubing adventures, Ober Gatlinburg is actually open year-round and offers plenty of outdoor activities for all ages. Take the 120-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. Guests can enjoy the Alpine Slide, rock climbing, Ski Mountain Coaster, Scenic Chairlift, chair swings, water rides and more. Winter, obviously, brings more chilly-temp activities like skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing. Find a complete list of outdoor activities at obergatlinburg.com.

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 that is indigenous to the region, including salamanders, snakes, ferns, trees, bats, bears, insects and, yes, wildflowers, and then get out see them in their natural habitat via guided hikes. Bookmark this page, and check back often to see when registration opens up. You have to sign up early as this is a wildly popular annual event.

Synchronized Lightning Bugs

Every year, an amazing phenomenon takes place when synchronized fireflies light up the forest. 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 experience this marvelous display during its limited run.

This year’s lotto takes place April 30, 2021. Bookmark this page to keep up with the latest information. Or, you can check in with Smoky Mountain Guides, as they offer Synchronized Lightning Bug tours via their website. Click HERE for more info.

It’s a magical sight like nothing you’ve ever seen — and it’s only around for a short time. If you want to see the synchronized lightning bugs, you need to apply for the lottery and hope you’re chosen. Good luck! Image: Radim Schreiber via Gatlinburg.com

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). This brand new offering 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, which has undergone a facelift and features a bevy of new, updated, interactive displays. 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. 

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