Day 1- Roadtripping, Food and Fun
Morning: Leaving Atlanta
There are two ways to get to Gatlinburg: mostly highway or awesomely scenic. They take about the same amount of time.
The predominantly highway route is mostly spent on I-75N until it merges into I-40E just outside of Knoxville. If you get carsick easily in the mountains, then this will probably be your best choice. The downside is that you have to go straight through Pigeon Forge. Depending on the time of the year, it can take you quite a long time in traffic getting through their main strip. It is also about 50 miles longer than the scenic route (but again about the same drive time).
The scenic route, our favorite, is along Hwy 441. Taking I-85N to I-985N out of Atlanta will then lead you mainly through National Forest areas up 441N.City: Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Distance: ~ 200 miles
Est. Driving Time: ~ 4hrs
Not to miss along the way.
It’s the perfect drive to stop for boiled peanuts; take a pit stop to look out over the scenic overlook at Tallulah Gorge; or make a u-turn after you realized you just passed Goats on the Roof! All of that is before you even leave the state of Georgia.
The final stretch through Cherokee, NC takes you up about 3,000 feet to the mile-high Newfound Gap and down into Gatlinburg. Chances for wildlife spots and breathtaking photo opportunities abound.
Afternoon: Drop Your Bags
Gatlinburg has an abundance of lodging options for families. Our favorite is renting one of the many mountain chalets that are available on and just off of Ski Mountain Rd. Not only do some of them boast amazing views of the mountains and Gatlinburg below, but you have all the comforts of home at your finger tips.
After playing hard all day in Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll appreciate the ability to sleep in and brew your own coffee. No need to rush about to head out and feed the hungry masses first thing in the morning. A quick stop at a grocery store on your way in, and you are good to go! I even found a place that will allow you to shop for groceries online and schedule to have them delivered when you arrive. We may try this out next time.
Don’t forget a bottle of wine to enjoy in the evenings after the kiddos go to bed! Many of the cabins and chalets have hot tubs and screened in porches, or even fire pits.
Late Afternoon: Food and People Watching
Now that you are properly settled, it’s time to get a feel for the area. Don’t worry, my suggestion doesn’t require map reading skills or planning.
Head into Gatlinburg and grab an outside, balcony seat at Loco Burro. It’s now time for you enjoy one of my favorite parts of a well-traveled city like Gatlinburg…people watching!!
Everything about Loco Burro is just what you need after a traveling day- great food, good margaritas and exceptional service. This would be my Gatlinburg version of going to Chick-fil-a. I often go there just to put myself in a better mood because they always say, “you’re welcome” and “my pleasure”. Just imagine adding a classier, south-of-the-border feel to that.
Evening: Family Movie or Game Night
Here is your turning point. Depending on what time it is, how long your drive took, and what you current disposition may be, you have two choices. You can choose to head back to the cabin for an early night in- pop some popcorn, watch a movie, play some board games, enjoy some hot tub time, etc. Or you can stay on the strip and enjoy the lights of the city at night.
I should warn you that I am going to have you up early tomorrow for some amazing wildlife viewing, so let’s call it an early evening and enjoy the spoils and comforts of your cabin.
Day 2- Bears, Mountain Adventures and Lights
Morning: Cades Cove Loop
Yep, I told you I might get you up early. Brew the coffee and get some to-go cups. Put together breakfast that works in the car- breakfast bars, sausage biscuits, etc. We are headed to Cades Cove.
This 11-mile loop will allow you the opportunity to view the beauty of the waking Smoky Mountains, as well as the chance to see wild bear, deer, turkey, coyotes, and more from the safety and comfort of your own vehicle.
It’s about 25 miles from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove and the gates are open from sunrise to sunset. I know it’s early, but wildlife viewing is best in the early mornings and at dusk. Please note that the Cades Cove Loop Road is closed on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10am, usually from May to September. This is to accommodate the many people who like to bike the loop, without the worries of sharing the road with cars.
If your family is very adventurous and/or just LOVES the outdoors like we do, then plan an entire day in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For more info and ideas, be sure to see our ideas for family fun in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Late Morning/ Afternoon: Ober Gatlinburg
We are spending the rest of the day ON the mountains. Yes, you heard me right.
As you head back into Gatlinburg from Cades Cove, you can find parking at the lower end of the Ober Gatlinburg Tramway– located at Parkway and Le Conte Street. Make sure you have $5 cash, because this parking lot does not take credit cards.
Our first order of fun is to take the Aerial Tramway from downtown Gatlinburg all the way to the top. This 2.1 mile journey upwards is taken in an enclosed, 120-passenger cable car. Not only are the views spectacular, but ANYONE can ride this. Please not that they do require you to fold all strollers before boarding.
Once at the top, you can literally spend ALL day here anytime of year. This is a 4-season attraction. From skiing and snow tubing in the winter to water rides and alpine slides in the summer, there is even more in-between to keep you busy. Indoor Ice Skating, wildlife encounters, mazes, putt-putt, playgrounds, carousels, and even the addition of an alpine coaster in Fall 2014, are all there to excite and add adventure to your family’s day. We took advantage of an all-inclusive all day pass that allowed us to enjoy all the attractions as much as we wanted.
Food options include cafes and walk-up counters, sit down restaurants, and grab and go treats. We opted for a substantial lunch at Seasons of Ober Gatlinburg, where we filled ourselves on their daily special while seated next to the window with views across the mountain range.
Evening: Gatlinburg at Night
I’m not going to lie. Ober Gatlinburg has so much to do, if you have younger kiddos then this might be where you decide that the day is done. Don’t fret, just put them to bed and enjoy a hot tub evening at the cabin.
Should you decide to stay and play on the Gatlinburg Parkway, now is a great time to download the Gatlinburg app. It’s a great resource to see events that may be going, as well as trolley maps, attractions ideas, dining options, and more.
Certain times of the year, you will find FREE entertainment around town. We happened to come across a free concert from Emi Sunshine, the pre-teen country/bluegrass singing sensation that has graced the stage at the Grand Old Opry and NBC’s TODAY show.
This evening would be a great time to head over to the Space Needle. Ride up over 400 feet for a panoramic view of the city of Gatlinburg nestled in the surrounding mountains.
Day 3- Trolleys and Attractions
Morning: Check out/ Breakfast
What’s great about this trip is that launching it off from Atlanta, we can easily have an entire fun-filled adventure in just three days. Just because we are packing up the car doesn’t mean we are done.
Once you have the car packed, let’s head to the FREE Park-N-Ride lot at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center, located on 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Make sure you have $.50 per person, because we are hopping on a Trolley and taking it in to downtown Gatlinburg at light #5, right at the aquarium. You will need to remember that you rode the Purple line. That will be what gets you back to your car when we head home today.
A short walk to light #6 will put you right near the Pancake Pantry. Even you haven’t eaten here before, the real butter and homemade whipped cream will quickly clue you in to why this is an institution that many families regard as a must-do when you visit Gatlinburg. Be sure to have cash, because they don’t take debit or charge cards.
Late Morning/Early Afternoon: Gatlinburg Parkway
Depending on the size, age and interests of your family, we can do quite a few things for the rest of the afternoon. If you have a larger family with groups that want to do different things, this is the perfect town to accommodate that. The convenience of the trolley system and proximity of attractions and shops makes this an ideal place for multi-generational family travel.
- Explore The Village Shops.
- See Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and get up and close with a penguin encounter.
- See our family travel tips for Gatlinburg and how to make memories that last through generations. We break down all the classics you can enjoy.
Overwhelmed by all there is to see and do? We have tips on how to enjoy Gatlinburg on any budget.
Late Afternoon: Head back to Atlanta
If you leave by 4pm, then you will easily make it home by a reasonable time of 9pm. For some it may be a little late, but it’s a small sacrifice when a city is so close that you can still squeeze in an entire day’s worth of fun, relaxation and memories.
That’s what it is all about- memories that last a lifetime. Take it in. Be in the moment. Just have fun! I promise you will never regret building memories with your family.
Depending on what time you leave, you might just opt for the route back through Pigeon Forge onto I-40 and then bee-line for Atlanta via I-75. This is the most straight forward route and mainly highway.
This post was sponsored by Visit Gatlinburg. Our visit was part of a larger campaign and our activities and itinerary were gratis. Although this post is sponsored, it is our experience, our feedback, and our feelings we would share with our friends.
Here are some resources to help you on your next road trip: