Gatlinburg, Tennessee is an incredible destination, and even that much better for families. We’ve been taking family vacations there since I was a little kid, and whether I was 7, 11, or 16, it was always a fun trip. Our family of 5 used to spend two weeks of every summer in the Great Smoky Mountains, and some of my greatest memories are there.
This past September, now a family of 9 (including: my parents, my older sister, her husband, their daughter, my younger brother, his fiancé, my hubby, and me), we went back to Gatlinburg after not visiting for just over a decade. While our family consists of mostly adults, adding in my 18 month old niece, Lia, has totally turned family vacations into a kid-friendly adventure, once again.
Whether your “family” is just you and a spouse, or a giant reunion of 20-30 people, here are nine of the “must-do’s” for a family vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
1. Rent a cabin
Gatlinburg and the surrounding towns have plenty of hotels, but rent a cabin if you want to take full advantage of family time! We’ve always rented through Jackson Mountain Homes, and have been very happy with the cabins and process. Most recently, we stayed at Majestic Point Lodge, a 5 bedroom, 5 bathroom home with stunning views of the mountains. Some of the best and most memorable moments of our trip were spent on the balcony together. We loved catching the sunset and sipping on wine while sharing laughs and stories.
- Most cabins come with entertainment! Our cabin had a pool table, air hockey, arcade game, and hot tub. It was impossible to get bored. We added in some adult beverages during our game nights and always ended up laughing til we cried!
- Cabins are budget-friendly! Staying together in one home meant we all got our own space (including my niece), and all the amenities of a home. We cooked dinner three nights, breakfast a few times, and always had a snack on hand. Think of all those meals, snacks, and drinks added up for a family of nine. And again, some of our best memories are around the dinner table.
- You can find cabins of all sizes. There’s a variety of cabins, from a cozy one bedroom to gigantic homes with 10 or more bedrooms, that are ready to accommodate your family. Some of the sleeping arrangements allow up to 50 family members in one home!
2. Eat at The Pancake Pantry
Okay, I just got finished saying we loved our meals at the cabin, but The Pancake Pantry is, hands-down, the best breakfast restaurant we’ve ever visited. There’s often a wait, but it’s worth it. The French toast, covered in powdered sugar with a homemade cinnamon maple syrup, is our family favorite, but you can’t go wrong with a single item on the menu! Prepare for a sugar-high and full tummy. 😉
3. Experience “Downtown”
Downtown Gatlinburg has recovered well after the fires of 2016, and downtown is bustling more than ever.
- Sky Lift – check out a bird’s eye view of this beautiful town around sunset. Soon, they will have an entire restaurant and shop at the top of the lift.
- Moonshine Tasting – grab the adults and sip on some of the best moonshine in Tennessee. We prefer Ole Smoky Distillery, but if wine is more your style, there’s plenty of wine tastings, too!
- Mountain Coaster – this town has something for everyone in the family, and if zipping down the mountain is your style, then don’t miss the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster!
- Ripley’s – we never made it to the Aquarium this trip (because the weather was too amazing to be inside!), but we’ll be back!
- The Villages – the shopping here is charming and fun. Located near The Pancake Pantry, you’ll find a little something for everyone.
4. Visit Dollywood
Ok, so it’s not in Gatlinburg, but Dollywood is located in Pigeon Forge, a tourist town about a 15-20 minute drive from downtown Gatlinburg. As a Floridian and theme park addict, Dollywood is still at the top of my list. It’s smaller, but I’ve never experienced unbearable crowds. It’s entertaining, fun, educational, beautiful, and again, has something for everyone!
- Get in line at The Grist Mill to snag a loaf of the homemade cinnamon bread!
- Mystery Mine is my new favorite ride at any theme park!
5. Dinner Show
Pigeon Forge has a plenty to choose from, so enjoy a dinner show with the family! With my 18 month old niece, we went to Dixie Stampede, and she was happily entertained the entire time. Next time, we’ll try out Smoky Mountain Adventures and Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show.
The Smoky Mountains have trails and hikes for every age, experience, and health. From a one mile loop for Cataract Falls to eight mile trips to Ramsey Falls, hiking is an adventure for everyone to enjoy.
- We loved Laurel Falls with my niece in tow. It was long enough, but short enough, and had a beautiful waterfall to enjoy.
7. Picnics by the Water
Family time is the common denominator here. Pack up the cooler, drive to Cade’s Cove, and enjoy your lunch by the water. Afterwards, play in the rocks and streams nearby and keep making the memories that’ll last forever.
- Remember to bring some water shoes!
8. Professional Photos (or just family photos on a tripod/timer!)
Our family has not had family photos taken in years, and we were finally all in one place at one time. I found a local photographer to meet us at Metcalf Bottoms for a quick family session during a picnic. If you don’t want to pay a photographer, bring a tripod, or even download a timer app on your phone. At the end of the day, you don’t want every photo displayed in your home to be a selfie!
9. Try Something New
If you haven’t figured it out yet, there’s so much to do in Gatlinburg! As a family vacation, everyone may not always want to do the same thing, and that’s okay! Split up for a day and go horseback riding, white water rafting, zip-lining, or explore the Forbidden Caverns. My husband and I were ready for an afternoon that didn’t revolve around our niece’s nap, so we headed out to go white water rafting on our own. It was so much fun, and everyone got to do what they wanted to do. That’s always a win-win on a family vacation.
During this wild season of our life, our little family needed this vacation. Gatlinburg holds so many memories, and we made many more. It’s a destination that we will always keep going back to and experiencing new things together.
The Weekend Fox Tips
- Summer and October are typically the busiest times in Gatlinburg. Avoid the crowds and higher cost for lodging by booking a trip in the other months.
- Getting into the National Park is free, which is incredible, but parking in downtown Gatlinburg can be anywhere from $6 – $20. Keep some cash on you and be smart about when and where you decide to park.
- Check the location of the cabin you book. There have been times that our cabin was a 30-45 minute drive up a curvy, steep mountain which took a lot of time out of the day.
- I encourage families to spend plenty of time together, but also allow some separation! Being all together under one roof can get overwhelming when you haven’t done it in a while.
- Bring your favorite board games. During a time where electronics rule the world, playing Monopoly with the whole family is a wonderful bonding experience.