Known as "the gateway" to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a vacation destination unto itself. It's a great place to enjoy a number of popular tourist attractions, as well as a wonderful home base to explore the natural beauty of the Smokies.
Gatlinburg Space Needle
Head to the Gatlinburg Space Needle to get a bird's-eye view of the town and its beautiful mountain setting. You'll board glass elevators to ride up to the 407-foot observation tower, where you can enjoy a 360-degree view of some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world. Other on-site attractions include a two-story playground/arcade and a theater offering live entertainment. This attraction is open every day of the year. Operating hours vary seasonally.
Standard Space Needle admission prices are $10.95 per adult; $7.95 for senior citizens (60+), military visitors (with valid ID), or AARP members (with a membership card); and $5.95 for kids ages four through 11. Kids three and under are admitted free with an adult. Families with young kids can save money by purchasing a family pass online. The family pass includes day and night admission for two adults and two kids under 12 for around $30. Separate fees apply for the arcade and shows.
There are a variety of great activities to enjoy at Ober Gatlinburg, which is described as a "ski area and amusement park." The park itself is at an elevation of 3,300 feet. You can take a fee-based tramway up to the park from downtown Gatlinburg, or drive to the entrance. TripAdvisor reviewers indicate that the drive up is fine, but that coming back down is a bit more difficult due to the steepness of the road. The tram ride is a tourist attraction all on its own as it provides a 2.1 mile ride up Mount Harrison from which you can see breathtaking views of the surrounding scenery that you won't have a chance to view any other way.
No matter how you get to the park (car or tram), there is plenty to do upon arrival. Activities vary by season and are individually priced. You can purchase a wristband that provides access to several (but not all) of the activities. The tram ride costs $13 for adults and $10.50 for kids ages five through ten. There is no charge for kids four and younger. The wristband does not cover the tram. It also does not cover the ski mountain coaster ($16 single rider; $27 double rider), seasonal snow tubing ($25 per person for 90 minutes; higher during holidays), or snow skiing/snowboarding (prices vary based on a variety of factors).
There is a kiddie land activity section that does not cost anything to use. Other attractions and activities include:
- Chairlift - This is not the tram. It is an open-air chairlift that you can take up the mountain beyond the park's entrance and back down.
- Alpine slide - After you ride the chairlift up the side of the mountain, you can opt to come back down via an 1,800-foot alpine slide.
- Wildlife encounter - View local wildlife including bears (assuming you are not there during hibernation season), various birds of prey, bobcats, river otters, and more.
- Indoor carousel - Take a spin on Ober Gatlinburg's indoor carousel ride.
- Arcade - Enjoy a variety of fun arcade games and opportunities to redeem tickets for prizes.
- Water raft rides (seasonal) - Slide down a closed tube water slide or an open flume style water ride.
- Chair swing (seasonal) - Enjoy a kid-friendly swing ride with one-of-a-kind surrounding scenery.
- Miniature golf - Play a relaxing round of miniature golf surrounded by the Smoky Mountains.
Individual attraction prices generally vary from $3.50 to $7 each. Wristband prices vary from $19 to $33 based on age and the number of attractions included. For most attractions, kids under four are admitted free with a parent. The park closes for maintenance for a few weeks during April and May each year after snow tubing and ski season ends, but is otherwise open every day. Hours vary seasonally.
Aquarium of the Smokies
Operated by Ripley's, the Aquarium of the Smokies is an 85,000 square foot facility that is home to a variety of aquatic wildlife, including various types of fish, coral, sharks, and much more. You can also enjoy behind-the-scenes adventures such as a "penguin encounter" and a chance to "splash with the stingrays," as well as a ride in a glass bottom boat in Shark Lagoon. It was named the "best U.S. aquarium" in the USA Today 10Best readers' choice awards program in 2017.
The aquarium opens every day of the year at 9 a.m. Closing time varies by season. If you purchase tickets online, you can save $2 per ticket. Online adult tickets are $32.99. Tickets for kids ages six to 11 cost $17.99, while admission for kids from two through five is $7.99. Ripley's has several additional Gatlinburg attractions and activities, though the brand's signature Odditorium is closed for renovations as of the beginning of 2018. If you plan to visit multiple Ripley's properties (which include miniature golf, a mirror maze, a moving theater, and more), you can save by purchasing combo tickets.
Museum of Salt and Pepper Shakers
If you like speciality museums, be sure to check out the Museum of Salt and Pepper Shakers when you're in Gatlinburg. This unique museum is home to 20,000 salt and pepper shaker sets, and it also houses a nice collection of pepper mills. It's something you won't see anywhere else, unless you go to their "sister museum" in Spain. TripAdvisor reviewers give it high marks, describing it as "a fun little stop" with a "very interesting collection" that is "well organized and well kept."
The museum is open daily, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from noon until 4 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is just $3 per person, and the price of admission can be credited against any gift shop purchase.
Not every attraction in Gatlinburg comes with a price tag for admission. Located on Trillium Gap Road in Gatlinburg, Grotto Falls is a beautiful, 25-foot-high cascading waterfall that you can actually walk behind. To get there, you'll need to take a hike - literally. The round-trip hike to and from the falls is just 2.6 miles, and it is rated as an easy to moderate trek. As with any hike to a waterfall, don't expect a flat path. It's not steep, but do expect a steady incline as you'll gain around 585 feet in elevation during the outing. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, so be sure to take a camera.
You will need to cross a few small streams that don't have a bridge in order to get to the falls. With that in mind, it's probably a good idea to wear waterproof hiking boots or other sturdy shoes designed for outdoor activities that you don't mind getting wet in the middle of a hike. Of course, be sure to take plenty of other water and any other supplies you may need on a hike of this length.
The great thing about an outdoor attraction like this is that it's free to go and you can go during any daylight hours that fit into your schedule. Expect to spend two to three hours on the hike, taking some time to enjoy the scenery once you arrive at the waterfall. If you enjoy this hike, you may want to set aside time for other scenic hikes in the area, including Abrams Falls, Ramsey Cascades, and Mount LeConte.
Great Vacation Destination
If you love beautiful scenery and fun, family-friendly attractions, Gatlinburg is a terrific place to spend a vacation. These great attractions are just the beginning - there are dozens of other wonderful Gatlinburg attractions to consider, as well as plenty of great lodging options. The downtown area is packed with things to do and the shopping in the area is incredible. Plus, Gatlinburg is near other great tourist destinations like Pigeon Forge (home of Dollywood) and Townsend, Tennessee (home of Cades Cove and Tuckaleechee Caverns). You'll never run out of things to see and do in this lovely mountain getaway.