Sun over the Great Smoky Mountains

Sun shines over the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo: Getty Images)

Weekend Getaways

Spend a Long Weekend in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Full of Arts, Crafts and Mountain Views

A long weekend in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is easily divided into three daylong itineraries, with visits to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge to the north, Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the south and the rollicking town center in the middle. That said, even the most ambitious travelers will have to leave some hikes and parks untried — there’s just too much to see in the place that’s known as the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This Tennessee town is a four-season destination, with water parks and fishing in the summer, snow sports and holiday shows in the winter and some of the state’s best barbecue all year long.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Friday: Hello, Dolly!

Banana and berry pancakes with syrup
Breakfast is served. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s Dollywood day! But before you strike out for Dolly Parton’s theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge, you’re going to need a hearty breakfast. That’s the excuse, anyway, for tucking in to a plate of pancakes at the Log Cabin Pancake House on the Historic Nature Trail in Gatlinburg. While opinions vary about which one of the area’s many pancake spots serves the best stack, there’s a whole lot of love for Log Cabin’s pecan pancakes and, for those in search of slightly lighter fare, blackberry crepes.

Fueled up? From downtown Gatlinburg, it’s no more than a 20-minute drive to Dollywood. The free Dollywood app is a must for choosing from among the more than 50 rides and attractions. Buy your tickets on the app before you travel and, when on-site, the app’s interactive map will help you navigate the park, as well as provide information about any height requirements for rides.

Pro tip: For an extra in-app purchase, you can use the “TimeSaver” function to expedite your entrance to eight popular attractions. The app will also guide you to the 20 or so eateries, from Aunt Granny’s, serving down-home fried chicken and biscuits, to Red’s Drive-In, which dishes out hamburgers and shakes in a 1950s-style setting.

While tunes spin all day and all over the park, the dinner shows are where things get country — or piratey, your choice. Again, your best bet is to book ahead at either Dolly Parton’s Stampede or Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show, each one a short drive from the theme park. As its name suggests, the Stampede includes a display of horse stunts; an all-in-good-fun North-versus-South competition that pits half of the venue’s attendees against the other half; as well as a four-course meal. At the Pirates Dinner & Show, enjoy a swashbuckling spectacle featuring pirates, mermaids and a four-course feast.

Saturday: Get on Top of Old Smoky

Head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which offers yet another reason to dig in to a big breakfast. This time around, head to Crockett’s Breakfast Camp, founded by a frontiersman in 1875, which puts out dishes with names like “Waffles of Insane Greatness.”

Thus fortified, you’re a short drive from our nation’s most-visited national park, which welcomed 12 million visitors in 2020 (more than three times the visitors to Yellowstone, which took second place). Inside the park — which is free to enter — your best first stop is the Sugarlands Visitor Center, where you can secure a trail map, get up-to-date trail conditions and inquire about which routes are a good fit for your crew. There are a total of 800 miles of hiking trails, so at least one is sure to suit.

The 5.4-mile round-trip trail to Rainbow Falls will reward hardy hikers with views of — and a cooling spray from — the falls, named for the colorful arcs seen in their mist.

If cycling is more your speed, the campground store near Cades Cove Campground rents bikes (summer and fall only) and is located along the relatively smooth 11-mile loop road, featuring historic cabins, churches and, at the top of the loop, the 5-mile round-trip trail to Abrams Falls.

Cades Cove Stables offers ranger-led horseback rides, carriage rides and hayrides, March through November. And when energy lags, there’s a deli with hamburgers, wraps, ice cream and picnic tables.

On your way back to Gatlinburg, you’ll pass the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park, offering soul-stirring views from the SkyLift via ski-style chairs that rise to the top of Crockett Mountain. From there, you can view the same Great Smoky Mountain terrain you conquered earlier in the day, but this time from 1,800 feet above sea level.

Skybridge Gatlinburg during a clear and sunny day
Skybridge Gatlinburg offers expansive views. (Photo: Getty Images)

Even more breathtaking is the 680-foot-long SkyBridge, the longest pedestrian cable bridge in North America. Along the way is a 30-foot section with glass flooring, and it’s a bucket-list item for many to “pass the glass.” Rest assured, there’s no shame in turning back, especially when dinner is calling back at the SkyCenter, serving corn dogs, Frito pie and brownies. Hey, you earned it.

Sunday: Go to Town

You’re on a two-day epic-breakfast streak — don’t stop now! Just so you can have an informed opinion about who serves Gatlinburg’s best flapjacks, head on over to the Pancake Pantry. This restaurant bills itself as Tennessee’s first pancake house, established in 1960 and serving creative fare like sweet potato pancakes and banana pineapple crepes.

Next, head for the hills to play a round of Hillbilly Golf, located just 2 miles up the road and billed as the South’s most distinctive mini-golf center. Ride 300 feet up to the two 18-hole courses, featuring such hazards as (replica) outhouses and moonshine stills.

Then it’s back down to Gatlinburg’s town center for an afternoon of shopping and strolling. For free, hop-on-hop-off travel, nothing beats the Gatlinburg Trolley. The yellow route will transport you to the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, which gathers 100 artists and craftspeople in an 8-mile loop of shops, galleries and studios.

At the other end, that same trolley drops you off at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies for an up-close sesh with sharks, penguins and stingrays. And all along Parkway and East Parkway are stores like Savannah Bee Company (for honey-enhanced products), SWEET! (3,000 square feet of candy), Gatlin’s Emporium in The Village, the Spice & Tea Exchange, Art of the Hopi and several open-air malls.

Cold hard cider flight
Refreshing brews abound in Gatlinburg. (Photo: Getty Images)

And because we promised some of Tennessee’s best barbecue, save time (and your appetite) for Bones BBQ Joint, where the pitmaster dishes out smoked beef brisket, pulled pork and dry-rubbed ribs, all with hush puppies on the side.

Finally, stop in for free tastings at the Tennessee Cider Company. Established in 1854, it’s open until 11 p.m., selling farm-to-glass beverages, including both cider and wine, all made in Gatlinburg. Cheers!