Hikers on a trail in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

What are the Most Popular Outdoor Activities in Gatlinburg, Tennessee?

There are outdoor activities for everyone in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Whether you’re a dedicated hiker taking a solo trip, going as part of a group of friends with different skill levels, or taking the whole family for a vacation, the Smoky Mountain outdoors is for everyone. What are some of the most popular outdoor attractions in Gatlinburg? Let’s find out!

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Hiking and Mountaineering

As the Gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg is a hiker’s dream come true. The park contains about 850 miles of hiking trails and unpaved roads. Some are specific nature trails where hikers can see the wildflowers bloom in the spring or partake in bird watching and wildlife spotting. You may be lucky enough to stumble across elk or black bears. Of the famous Appalachian Trail’s 2,158 mile length, 70 are located within the park. Consult local guides to find out which trails are best suited to your skill level. Some are for beginners and those out for a stroll, while some are mountainous for advanced hikers only. 

Due to its rugged nature and the abundance of rainfall, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has no shortage of waterfalls, most of which can be visited from the trails. Mingo Falls is one of the tallest in the southern Appalachian Mountains with a drop of 120 feet. Then there is Rainbow Falls, which produces its namesake rainbow on sunny afternoons. Laurel Falls is the most popular, with an easy hike escorting visitors to a breathtaking 80-foot multi-level drop funneling the Laurel Branch into a narrow gorge. 

Horseback riding is another way to enjoy the trails and their natural beauty. Horses are offered both by the park and several nearby stables. Horseback riding is only permitted on certain designated trails within the park. No riding experience is necessary, as the staff will select a horse that has a temperament best suited to your riding level. 

Cades Cove

The most popular destination in the park is Cades Cove, an isolated valley that was home to many early European settlers. It features many historic homes, churches, and other structures that were once part of frontier life. These structures have been carefully preserved by the United States National Park Service

If you’re both an outdoor and history buff, this is definitely a stop you want to make. Cades Cove has bicycle rentals for those wanting to take a spin around the valley. It’s the most visited area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so be ready for delays and crowds if you decide to visit Cades Cove at any peak times. 

Hiking is also the best way to experience the fall foliage in autumn. The forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are world-renowned for their beauty in the fall, bringing visitors from all over the globe to take in the dazzling natural display. Just remember that this is the busiest time for the park and Gatlinburg, so reserve your accommodations well in advance. 

Outdoor Fun in Winter

Wintertime in Gatlinburg only means there’s more to do! Gatlinburg comes to life in winter with Christmas lights, winter festivals, and, of course, outdoor winter fun.

Ober Gatlinburg

Ober Gatlinburg is Gatlinburg’s own combination ski area and amusement park. At Ober Gatlinburg, you’ll find skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing! Any first-time skiers or snowboarders will be required to take a lesson from one of their qualified instructors. The park is accessible by car or by its own aerial tramway (which is accessible at Parkway and LeConte Street in downtown Gatlinburg). Ober Gatlinburg’s chairlift goes even higher up Mt. Harrison, offering the best views of the town and the Great Smoky Mountains. 

Both indoor and outdoor ice skating are available in Gatlinburg. There’s an indoor ice skating rink at Ober Gatlinburg and several designated outdoor spots in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A Bit More “Extreme”

If you’re looking for that extra dose of excitement, Gatlinburg also has outdoor activities for the adventurous types. 

For starters, you could take a rafting trip down the Pigeon River. Several companies offer rafting, and no previous experience is necessary. The Pigeon River is divided into two rafting sections, one beginner and one intermediate. Both sections are fun for visitors of all ages. 

If you’d like to experience the Great Smoky Mountains from a literal birds’ eye view, you can take a zipline through the treetops! See the scenic vistas of the Smokies from an entirely new angle! There are multiple ziplines operated in and around Gatlinburg (some courses require more walking and climbing than others). Friendly guides are always there watching out for your safety and making sure you are properly harnessed. 

For even more fast-paced fun, head back over to Ober Gatlinburg and take a ride down the alpine slide. You can go as fast as you want — take a leisurely pace or race a friend to the bottom! There are also two mountain coasters to try out. You ride on a track, but each rider gets their own vehicle. First is the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster. In nearby Pigeon Forge, you’ll find a similar attraction, the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster! The alpine slide is closed during the winter, but the alpine coaster is open year-round. 

Where to Find Outdoor Gear

Don’t forget to suit up! When you’re ready to undertake your outdoor adventure, whatever it may be, don’t forget to check out Nantahala Outdoor Center. Founded in 1972 by Payson Kennedy, NOC has outfitted outdoor adventurers for 50 years and helped popularize whitewater rafting in America starting in the 1970s. 

Their flagship store is located on the Parkway just east of downtown Gatlinburg. NOC is the outdoor superstore of Gatlinburg. There you’ll find every major brand of outdoor equipment you can think of in the 18,000 square foot showroom. 

But NOC is more than just a store! They also have a 25-foot tall climbing wall, a kids’ play area, and a cozy fireplace lounge. You can enroll in classes for things like kayak lessons, first aid and CPR, and survival training!

Best of all, you can book rafting trips and zipline tours right from the store with advice from their experienced employees. You can also book lodging at NOC’s cabins or motels and get a bite to eat at one of their restaurants. NOC is a destination all its own, so don’t miss it!

Unrivaled Outdoor Fun

Gatlinburg, Tennessee has outdoor fun unmatched by anywhere else. That’s probably one of the big reasons why Gatlinburg receives over 11 million visitors each year! Indoors or out, there’s always something to see and adventures to be had. 

When you’re ready to visit Gatlinburg, make sure to check out Relax Gatlinburg. We’re dedicated to keeping you informed about where to stay, where to eat, and what you can experience here in the “Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains.”