Located at the base of the Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg is a popular destination for visitors from across the U.S. This small city attracts over 10 million visitors every year because of its location and an endless list of activities for all age groups. It’s the perfect mix of nature, family fun, and all things alcohol. Best of all, all the best things in life, as well as Gatlinburg, are free! Keep reading for my top 5 free and cheap activities to do in the city.
1). Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Free (donations accepted)
Thanks to a treaty between North Carolina and Tennessee, everyone can visit the park for free. Though donations are accepted to help with the upkeep of the park and facilities, there are donation boxes on some roads and at the visitors centers so feel free to contribute what you can.
There are multiple hiking trails and camping spots throughout the park, to get more information, stop at Sugarlands Visitor Center or the Smoky Mountain Visitor center. They have park maps available for $1 and rangers available to answer any questions, there are also fun activities for kids.
Popular spots within the park include Cades Cove, Clingman’s Dome, and Arch Rock.
2). Roaring Forks road
This scenic drive is just off of Gatlinburg’s main strip, along the road you’ll come across historic cabins, a few hiking trails, and 2 of the best viewpoints of the Smoky Mountains. One of the first stops along the loop is Noah “Bud” Ogle Cabin. We didn’t feel the need to stop at every cabin along the way, but it is worthwhile to make a stop here.
The trails that you will have access to along the road are Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Rainbow Falls trail is 5.4 miles and takes at least 3 hours to hike to the waterfall roundtrip, from the parking lot there is also Bullhead Trail or Baskins Creek Trail. Alternatively, Grotto Falls, which is just a little farther down the road is a 2.6 mile trail and takes around 2 hours to hike to the waterfall and back.
Both trails will take you to Mount Le Conte, but Grotto Falls Trail provides an easier route. You might even get the chance to see the trail llamas at the beginning or end of their journey.
3). Rocky Mountain Wine Trail
Free (tips welcome)
There are 5 lovely wineries in Pigeon Forge that make up the Rocky Mountain Wine Trail. Here you can enjoy free tastings and get a free wine glass after 3 visits, and a gift after 5. All you need to do is pick up a 1-page passport at your first stop and collect a stamp at each winery.
If you only have time to stop by a few, make sure to visit Apple Barn where they offer wine and cider tastings (yes, you get two stamps), and Old Mill Winery where you can later enjoy a bottle on their deck or walk over to historic mill and shops.
Bonus stop: Mountain Mist Farms winery is not a part of any wine trail, but is worth a visit. It’s a short detour off of HWY 321 on the way to Gatlinburg. They don’t offer official tastings, but you can sample any wine they have in stock or take part in berry picking depending on the season.
4). Moonshine Tastings at Ole Smoky Moonshine
Cost: $5 pp (includes $5 coupon to spend in store)
With each tasting, you have the chance to sample 7 different moonshines of various proofs. Fair warning that the samples are very strong, so keep that in mind if you’ve been drinking prior.
If you’re not interested in a tasting, you can still have a drink at the bar and you might even be able to catch some live music.
5). Village Shops
This is one of many little shopping areas along the strip, but in my opinion it’s the prettiest and nicest place to relax. You will find old world style buildings, pretty fountains and flowers, and fun little shops like The Tea and Spice Exchange and Celtic Heritage.
Visitors can stop by Donut Friar or Village Café and Creamery for a sweet treat to enjoy in the courtyard. With all it’s treasures, people of all ages can enjoy this little slice of magic in the middle of the bustling street.
Where to eat
Free onsite parking
If you want delicious food at an affordable price, look no further. They have good coffee and filling options that will sustain you before or after a day in the mountains. You can even pick up snacks, drinks, and other options inside their store. The menu is vegan and vegetarian friendly, and is one of the only places nearby that will cater to a plant-based diet.
Located on the East side of the Gatlinburg strip next to the trolley stop, this café is easy for anyone to get to.
Transportation and Parking
Hotels located along the Gatlinburg strip offer free parking and are within walking distance of the area. If not staying in the immediate area, there is a trolley that goes between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg as well as paid parking lots along the strip.
Most establishments in Pigeon Forge, including wineries, have free onsite parking.