Gatlinburg: Your Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains
This guide will look at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrances, specifically the Gatlinburg entrance to Smoky Mountains National Park – the picture-perfect entrance to America’s most visited national park.
Living near Gatlinburg, the Smoky Mountain area is one of our favorite places to go with our kids out of all the places we’ve traveled.
Top Thing To Do: Anakeesta
Where To Stay: Margaritaville Gatlinburg is our favorite resort in the area. While it’s not the cheapest, it’s a new resort with a nice pool and a great location.
Where To Eat: Ole Red (not because the food is amazing, but because of the live nightly entertainment)
How To Get There: The closest airport is Knoxville (TYS), about an hour away. A rental car is almost a requirement due to the distance between attractions. Click here for deals on Discover rental cars. Gatlinburg is also within a day’s drive of 2/3rds of the country’s population!
An Overview of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nestled between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts over 800 miles of scenic hiking trails, picturesque picnic areas, and fascinating historic buildings. With its rich biodiversity and awe-inspiring landscapes, it’s no wonder this park attracts millions of visitors each year.
Unraveling the Park’s Entrances
The Smokies has multiple gateways, but the Gatlinburg entrance takes the cake for its convenience and family-friendly attractions. Other main entrances include the following:
The Oconaluftee entrance on the park’s south side provides access to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the Cherokee Indian Reservation. This area is rich in history, culture, and natural beauty:
Oconaluftee Visitor Center: Stop by the visitor center to gather information, maps, and advice from knowledgeable park rangers. You’ll also find the adjacent Mountain Farm Museum, a fascinating outdoor exhibit featuring historic buildings and demonstrations of early Appalachian life.
Cherokee Indian Reservation: Immerse yourself in the rich history and culture of the Cherokee people by visiting the nearby Cherokee Indian Reservation. Discover the tribe’s traditions, art, and stories while exploring this unique community.
The Townsend entrance offers a peaceful escape to the park’s western side, known as the “peaceful side of the Smokies.” This less-traveled area of the park provides a tranquil setting for visitors to connect with nature:
- Townsend: This charming town serves as a gateway to the quieter western side of the park, offering a more laid-back experience and access to lesser-known trails and sights.
Big Creek entrance on the park’s north side, providing access to serene picnic spots and the Big Creek trailhead
Gatlinburg: The Gateway to the Smokies
As you roll into downtown Gatlinburg, you’ll be greeted by a charming small-town atmosphere. Located just a stone’s throw away from the Sugarlands entrance to the park, Gatlinburg is the perfect base camp for your Smoky Mountain adventure. Here are some highlights you won’t want to miss:
- Sugarlands Visitor Center: Start your journey at this informative hub, where park rangers can offer tips, maps, and exhibits to help you make the most of your visit.
- Scenic Drives: Hop in the car and embark on breathtaking drives like Newfound Gap Road, Little River Road, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
- Cades Cove Loop Road: Explore this 11-mile one-way loop road dotted with historical structures, picturesque views, and ample opportunities to spot wildlife, including black bears!
- Clingmans Dome: Ascend to the highest point in the park and marvel at the panoramic views from the observation tower.
Must-Visit Attractions Near Gatlinburg Entrance
- Great Smoky Mountain National Park: With over 150 trails, your family is bound to find the perfect hike.
- Abrams Creek: Enjoy a serene picnic and stroll along the creek, where you may even glimpse a beautiful waterfall.
- Blue Ridge Parkway: Connect with the Great Smokies via this iconic 469-mile scenic drive stretching through Virginia and North Carolina.
Fun Things to Do with Kids in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge
Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge are brimming with family-friendly attractions to entertain your little ones. Check out our guide Top Fun Things to Do in Gatlinburg: Uncover the best attractions in town, including mini-golf courses, ziplining adventures, and interactive museums.
- Snow Tubing Near Gatlinburg: Have a blast sliding down the snowy slopes at one of the many snow tubing parks in the area.
- Fishing Trips in Gatlinburg, TN: Reel family fun by embarking on a guided fishing trip in the Smokies.
- Fun Things to Do in Pigeon Forge with Kids: Discover various activities that cater to the whole family, from amusement parks to museums.
Top Places to Stay in Gatlinburg: From Resorts to Cozy Cabins
After a day of exploring, nothing is better than retreating to a cozy cabin nestled in the mountains. Gatlinburg offers a variety of cabin rentals, ranging from rustic log cabins to luxurious mountain retreats. Many cabins feature fire pits, hot tubs, and stunning mountain views—perfect for a relaxing winter getaway.
Gatlinburg offers a variety of accommodations to suit every traveler’s taste and budget. Here are some of the top-rated places to stay in Gatlinburg, including luxurious resorts and charming vacation rentals:
Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg is a 4-star resort located on the main parkway (Hwy 441) in Gatlinburg. We have stayed at this resort several times, and while it’s not the cheapest resort in Gatlinburg, it’s by far our favorite.
This tropical-inspired retreat offers well-appointed rooms and suites, an indoor and outdoor pool, a fitness center, and an on-site spa.
The resort’s convenient location across the street from Anakeesta makes it a perfect base for exploring the best of Gatlinburg.
Margaritaville Gatlinburg: A Tropical Escape in the Heart of the Smokies
After an action-packed day at Anakeesta, unwind and relax at Margaritaville Gatlinburg, a tropical oasis just a short walk from the mountaintop theme park. Inspired by the laid-back lifestyle of singer Jimmy Buffett, Margaritaville Gatlinburg offers a unique dining and entertainment experience that transports you to a tropical paradise.
Dining at Margaritaville Gatlinburg
The Margaritaville Restaurant offers a delectable menu featuring a variety of island-inspired dishes, such as the signature Cheeseburger in Paradise, Volcano Nachos, and Coconut Shrimp. Kids will love the diverse options on the Little Parakeet’s menu, ensuring that even the pickiest eaters find something they enjoy.
Try one of Margaritaville’s famous frozen concoctions or specialty cocktails, like the classic Margarita or the refreshing Rum Runner. Non-alcoholic options are also available, making Margaritaville a great destination for the entire family.
Map of the best deals on top hotels and VRBOs in Gatlinburg:
Entrance Fees, Parking, and Other Useful Information
- Entrance Fee: Good news! There’s no entrance fee to access the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s right – exploring this natural wonder is free!
- Restroom Facilities: Restrooms can be found at visitor centers, picnic areas, and trailheads. Making a pit stop before hitting the trails is always a good idea.
New Great Smoky Mountains Parking Pass Required in 2023
w Great Smoky Mountains Parking Pass Required in 2023 Starting March 1, 2023, when you visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll be required to buy a parking pass if you’re going to park for more than 15 minutes.
This change has been implemented to generate revenue for the park, as it is one of the only national parks that doesn’t charge entrance fees. Three parking pass options are available: Annual Tag: Priced at $40, the annual tag can be purchased on the Great Smoky Mountains Association page or at any of the park’s visitor centers.
If you bought a pass before March 1, 2023, they’d be good until March 2024. Weekly Pass: Available from February, the weekly pass will cost $15. Daily Pass: Also available from February, the daily pass will be priced at $5.
If you have a handicap hanging tag or a handicapped license plate, you are exempt from the parking pass rule. This exemption aligns with state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina.
No parking pass or tag will be required for those just passing through the Smokies without parking for more than 15 minutes. In addition, the park will participate in the five National Park Service (NPS) fee-free days throughout the year, when all NPS sites that charge entrance fees will offer free admission to everyone.
Best Time to Visit the Smokies
- Spring: Enjoy pleasant temperatures, blooming wildflowers, and the park’s famous synchronous firefly display in late May and early June.
- Summer: Although it’s the busiest time, summer offers warm weather, lush greenery, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities like tubing and swimming.
- Fall: Witness the Smokies’ dazzling display of fall foliage, which typically peaks in mid-October.
- Winter: Experience the park’s serene beauty and snow-capped peaks, but be prepared for winter weather and occasional road closures.
The Perfect Smoky Mountain Vacation: Cozy Cabins and Charming Small Towns
One of the best ways to experience the Great Smoky Mountains is by staying in a cozy cabin in the woods. Check out Cabins in Tennessee: Find Your Perfect Vacation Spot for inspiration. While you’re in the area, don’t forget to explore the enchanting small towns that dot the landscape, each offering its unique charm and attractions:
- Wears Valley: Located on Wears Valley Road (US-321 North), this idyllic community is known for its antique shops, local eateries, and picturesque countryside.
- Balsam Mountain: Situated on the park’s eastern edge, Balsam Mountain offers a more secluded experience and access to lesser-known trails and sights.
Wildlife Wonders: Black Bears, Elk, and More
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts. Black bears are one of the park’s most iconic residents, but there’s so much more to discover:
- Elk: The Cataloochee Valley is home to a thriving elk population, reintroduced to the park in 2001.
- Old-growth Forests: Venture into the park’s ancient woodlands and marvel at the majestic oak, hickory, and tulip poplar trees.
Scaling the Majestic Peaks: Mt. LeConte and More
If you’re looking for a challenge, the park boasts several high-elevation hikes that reward you with breathtaking views:
- Mt. LeConte: As the park’s third-highest peak, Mt. LeConte offers multiple trail options leading to its summit, including the popular Alum Cave Trail and the more challenging Boulevard Trail.
- Balsam Mountain: A lesser-known gem, Balsam Mountain features a variety of trails leading to stunning vistas and tranquil waterfalls.
Practical Information: Welcome Centers, Rest Stops, and Winter Months
To ensure a smooth and enjoyable trip, keep these practical tips in mind:
- Welcome Centers: Make a stop at one of the park’s welcome centers, like Sugarlands or Oconaluftee, to gather information, maps, and advice from knowledgeable park rangers.
- Rest Stops: Take advantage of the park’s numerous rest stops, including picnic areas and restroom facilities, to recharge and regroup during your adventure.
- Winter Months: While visiting the Smokies in winter can be magical, be prepared for unpredictable weather, occasional road closures, and limited facilities.
Epic Events: Celebrating the Smokies’ Rich Heritage
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its surrounding communities host various events throughout the year, showcasing the region’s rich cultural heritage and natural wonders. Keep an eye out for seasonal festivities, such as:
- Christmas Day: Experience the magic of a Smoky Mountain Christmas with twinkling lights, festive decorations, and holiday-themed events in nearby towns.
- Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage: Join this annual event to learn about the park’s vibrant wildflowers, guided by expert naturalists and park rangers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Where are the nearest airports to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
A: The closest airports are McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) near Knoxville, TN, and Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) in North Carolina. Both are within a few hours of the park.
Q: What are some must-see scenic overlooks in the park?
A: Don’t miss out on these jaw-dropping scenic overlooks:
- Clingmans Dome: The highest peak in the park, offering panoramic views from its observation tower.
- Newfound Gap is a picturesque spot along Newfound Gap Road, providing stunning North Carolina and Tennessee vistas.
- Morton Overlook: A popular spot for capturing unforgettable sunsets on Newfound Gap Road.
- The Jump Off: A challenging but rewarding hike leading to a breathtaking overlook.
Q: How long is the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
A: The Appalachian Trail stretches for approximately 72 miles through the park, offering hikers a chance to experience the park’s diverse flora and fauna.
Q: Are there any historic structures to visit in the park?
A: Absolutely! Explore these fascinating historic structures to get a glimpse into the park’s past:
- Cades Cove collects preserved log cabins, churches, and a working grist mill.
- Cataloochee Valley: Home to several preserved buildings and the elk reintroduction program.
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a scenic drive featuring preserved cabins, mills, and other historic structures.
Q: What are some nearby towns to explore while visiting the park?
A: Be sure to check out these charming nearby towns:
- Pigeon Forge is a bustling town with family-friendly attractions like Dollywood and the Titanic Museum.
- Townsend: A quieter option on the “peaceful side of the Smokies,” with unique attractions and park access.
- Cherokee: Located near the Oconaluftee entrance, this town is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and features cultural attractions such as the Museum of the Cherokee Indians.
With its scenic drives, family-friendly attractions, and endless opportunities for outdoor adventures, Gatlinburg is the perfect destination for parents seeking to create lifelong memories with their little ones. So pack your bags, buckle up, and prepare for a thrilling journey into the heart of America’s most visited national park!
Remember to check out our other articles on family travel:
- Cabins in Tennessee: Find Your Perfect Vacation Spot
- Best Breakfast Restaurants in Gatlinburg
- Snow in TN: Your Guide to Enjoying a Winter Wonderland
Safe travels, and happy exploring!