A Guide To Gatlinburg: Planning a Family Vacation

Gatlinburg is one of the most well-known towns in the Smoky Mountains.

It’s a town with plenty to do and some great scenery. Living nearby, we’re here all the time throughtout the year.

margaritaville resort view of gatlinburg
A view of Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

Even out of the many countries we’ve visited, a Gatlinburg family vacation is one of our top choices for families.

Gatlinburg Basics

downtown gatlinburg
Downtown Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

At the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this charming but busy town offers a blend of shopping, restaurants, and things to do.

downtown gatlinburg
Cloudy winter day in Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

The town sits in a valley, surrounded by hills and mountains, making it more picturesque than Pigeon Forge.

You can read more about the differences between these two towns.

gatlinburg overhead view
Overhead view of Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

The whole town is centered around the Parkway, the main road through town.

This road is also the only way to get through town, creating a traffic bottleneck on busy days.

Quiet spring night in Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

Location And Getting To Gatlinburg

View Of Gatlinburg
View Of Gatlinburg’s Surrounding Hills, Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

Gatlinburg is conveniently situated on the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee.

Its location makes it easily accessible from many major cities in the southeastern and midwestern United States.

It’s within a day’s drive of half the country’s population.

downtown gatlinburg
Parkway (the main road) through Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

Getting Here:

  • By Car: Gatlinburg is a fantastic road trip destination, with major interstates like I-40 and I-75 leading toward the area. 
  • By Air: The closest major airport is McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) near Knoxville, Tennessee, about an hour’s drive from Gatlinburg. You can easily rent a car, which is almost a requirement for the area due to traveling around the national park.
  • Local Transportation: Once you’re in town, the Gatlinburg Trolley system is a convenient way to get around. But the town is small enough just to walk around, and traffic makes driving slow in the summer.


Parking can be a challenge in Gatlinburg.

Your best option if staying in town is to leave your car at the hotel, and walk or take the free trolley. You can download the trolley map here.

Parking lot in Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

If you’re going for the day, you can either use one of the city parking areas or try to find a spot off the main parkway.

historic nature trail road
Historic Nature Trail (Airport Rd) in Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

We normally park on Historic Nature Trail, also known as Airport Road.

Parking gets cheaper as you get a few blocks away from the parkway.

This road isn’t as busy as the Parkway, and parking costs drop from $20 to $15 to $10 as you head south from the Parkway.

And it’s only about a 5-minute walk from the main road.

Where To Stay in Gatlinburg

We recommend either staying in a cabin (which will be a bit of a drive from town) or staying downtown, within walking distance of all the attractions.

Read more on our guide to the best hotels in Gatlinburg.

Our Favorite Hotel

margaritaville resort in gatlinburg pool area
Pool area at Margaritaville Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

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 our favorite. Read more on our review here.

The resort’s convenient location across the street from Anakeesta makes it a perfect base.

What tO SEE

anakeesta skylift
Anakeesta Gatlinburg. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

Anakeesta is one of our favorite things to do in Gatlinburg. See more on our guide to the top things to do in Gatlinburg.

There’s plenty of places for a scenic drive around Gatlinburg, here’s what we’d do if we were visiting for the first time.

Cades Cove

cades cove view of gravel road
Cades Cove in February. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

Cades Cove is a beautiful valley with a 13-mile road loop, a popular tourist destination for its beautiful views, abundant wildlife, and historical significance.

Cades Cove can get super busy on the weekends and holidays, so we’d recommend picking a slow day to visit. We took the picture above in February.

Even better, bring a bike and ride around in the summer on Wednesdays when it’s closed to car traffic.

Drive To Clingmans Dome

clingmans dome
Clingmans Dome. Photo by Ashley @ TheSmokyMountains.com

Clingman’s Dome is the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the highest point in Tennessee.

Located near North Carolina, Clingman’s Dome rises to an elevation of 6,600 feet above sea level. The road to get here is closed in the winter.

A steep, short paved trail can reach its summit. On clear days, you can even see up to 100 miles away!

Want free help planning your Smoky Mountain vacation? Join the new Smoky Mountains Forum and our Facebook Page. We’re there every day to answer questions!

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