36 Hours in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
United States, Tennessee, Travel Stories, 36 Hours

Pancakes, moonshine, and the Great Smoky Mountains all have one thing in common: Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This bustling center for mountain tourism features loads of locally owned restaurants, exciting attractions, interesting shopping, and sits at the foot of the most-visited national park in the country. So what do you do when you only have 36 hours across a two day weekend?

The small mountain town that now thrives as a bustling center for tourism has lots to offer any visitor. Tourists can enjoy golf, hiking, camping, fishing, shopping, short day trips to Pigeon Forge, Cherokee, and Bryson City, or just hanging out in the hot tub of a resort cabin rental. With so much to do it was difficult to design a 36-hour trip but, hey, sometimes all you have is a two-day weekend. Here is just one of the many possibilities.

Friday

1. The Alamo Steakhouse | 8 p.m.

Any steakhouse that has their own in-house butcher is a place you must get dinner. The restaurant features over a dozen tasty steak options, all marinated for at least a couple of weeks before being cooked to your liking. Be sure to ask the waiter or waitress what they recommend that night, but I always recommend The El Presidente Porterhouse (yes, I love the irony of translating that to “The The President Porterhouse”). But if you’re not a fan of steak, don’t worry there is still plenty for you. They have several fish, chicken, and salad items to choose from, and one hamburger meal called The Burger because it is an entire pound of beef.

The Alamo Steakhouse is a great destination for anyone. It’s family friendly with a really nice kid’s menu (this isn’t just a menu with two or three options; it features burgers, chicken strips, hot dogs, grilled cheese, popcorn shrimp, even a large child’s salad). It’s a great place for groups with tables that can easily move to accommodate your needs. But my favorite part (that I have yet to try myself) is the private dining booths for couples. These booths are built into an alcove with complete privacy for a romantic date.

705 East Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-436-9998 | http://alamosteakhouse.com | $15-40 adults, $5-10 children

2. Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook | 10 p.m.

Your belly is probably full by now and your eye lids getting heavy, but there is one treat you don’t want to miss on your first night in Gatlinburg (this is where I always visit my first night in town). The Gatlinburg Overlook (the view is shown in the title image at top) is an amazing place with a view of the downtown area and Mount Le Conte in the distance. At night the city lights up the valley floor, but you can still see a good amount of stars overhead on clear nights. You’re far enough away from the city to enjoy nature and listen to the tree frogs chirping. It is a peaceful place to spend some time with your date or let the kids run around for a few minutes. Read: Stunning Vistas at the Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook in Tennessee

Getting to the overlook is the only tricky part. It is located on the Gatlinburg Bypass that takes the national park traffic around the downtown area. The shortest way to access the bypass from the direction of The Alamo Steakhouse is to drive back into town and turn right onto Highway 321/441 toward Pigeon Forge. However, you cannot turn left onto the bypass from this direction. Instead, you have to pass the bypass and turn around at the next cross connection about a mile further up the road, then return south on the highway and merge right onto the bypass. The overlook will be on the left.
The cavernous front dining area at Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg, TN on Monday, August 5, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette

The cavernous front dining area at The Pancake Pantry.

Saturday

3. The Pancake Pantry | 8 a.m.

Any day in Gatlinburg started at The Pancake Pantry is a great day. This restaurant was the first pancake house established in Tennessee and has been a staple and icon of Parkway ever since. Owned by local residents Jim and June Gerding, the restaurant is a great way to start your day. The main feature of the menu is a variety of pancakes and toppings, but they also have standard breakfast items just in case. Try the Wild Blueberry Pancakes and be sure to ask your waiter or waitress for the story behind the blueberries. Hopefully they’ll know, because I’m not telling you until you’ve visited this place yourself!

628 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-436-4724 | www.pancakepantry.com | $5-15

4. The Village Shops | 10 a.m.

After filling your bellies with a wonderful breakfast, The Village Shops right next door is a great way to walk it off. The outdoor shopping center is owned by the same family as the restaurant, so you’ll notice a tie-in with the unique architecture. Jim Gerding carefully selected the roofing, windows, doors, and decor of every shop, crafting a unique experience while shopping for arts, crafts, clothing, shoes, and more. At the very least it’s fun to just walk along the cobblestone streets that makes you feel as though you’ve just been whisked away to a cozy European village.

634 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-436-3995 | www.thevillageshops.com

5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park | 12 p.m.
A man stands on top of a stone wall to snap a photo at the Newfound Gap Overlook at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, NC on Sunday, August 4, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette

The view from the Newfound Gap Overlook is definitely worth a photo. Or two. Or many.

If you’re in Gatlinburg it would be a crime not to set foot inside the Great Smoky Mountains National park at least once. Sure, 36 hours isn’t a lot of time, but that is one of the great things about this national park: you can do a lot without going very far from your car. Highway 441 is the main artery carrying traffic through the park, across the mountain range, and on to Cherokee, North Carolina. Visitors can hop on this highway for an easy four-hour tour of the park, or you can take advantage of one of the many hiking trails easily accessible along the way. Here are a few things you can do with four hours in the most-visited national park in the country.

  1. Sugarlands Visitor Center – The visitor center on the Gatlinburg side of the park is just a few minutes from downtown, but completely surrounded by nature. The large visitor center features loads of maps, brochures, and guides, a small exhibit area, restroom facilities, and staff to help guide you through the park.
  2. Chimney Tops Trail – If you would like to get out onto a trail for a couple of hours, this is the one for you. It’s one of the most popular because it’s fairly easy to hike, easy to access, and offers beautiful panorama views from the top. You can begin the hike from a parking area about 7 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. It is a rigorous 4-mile round trip hike with a total 1,500′ in elevation gain to the pinnacle.
  3. Alum Cave Trail – This trail is a little bit easier to hike and even more popular than the Chimney Tops Trail. On warm spring, summer, and fall days the parking area will be full and vehicles will begin to line both sides of the highway for miles. The 4.50-mile round trip hike is fairly easy with only a 1,000′ total elevation gain. At the end of the trail visitors reach Alum Cave, which is a bit misleading. It’s actually a bluff hanging out over the ground below about 100′ tall. It is still a pretty place to visit, and an easy hike for a couple of hours.
  4. Newfound Gap Scenic Overlook – The peak of the highway’s traverse over the mountain range is noted with a beautiful scenic overlook, providing views both east and west. The view east toward Cherokee, North Carolina is stunning most days out of the year as you can trace the route of Highway 441 through the cut in the mountain range. This is a great place to spend a little time, and believe it or not it only takes about 45 minutes to drive here from downtown Gatlinburg.
  5. Clingmans Dome – One of the most popular scenic spots along the Appalachian Trail, Clingmans Dome features a large parking area, restroom facilities, gift shop, and an observation tower at the very peak with stunning 360-degree views. The restrooms and gift shop are easily accessible from the parking area, but the observation tower is a half-mile hike up a somewhat steep, paved path. The view is incredible on clear days, especially during sunrise or sunset. If you’re not up for the hike, even the view from the parking area is gorgeous and worth the investment in time. It takes about 10 minutes to drive to this parking area from the Newfound Gap Scenic Overlook.

6. The Space Needle | 4 p.m.

Once you return to Gatlinburg from the beautiful scenic views of the national park, why not start with a beautiful scenic view of the city? The Space Needle is just the place to get a stunning view from right within the city in all directions. The locally owned attraction is a steel frame observation tower standing a whopping 407′ high. Visitors ride an elevator to the top and are able to spend as much time as they like before riding a separate elevator back down. The deck at the top is safely guarded with a rail around the outer edge, and about 20′ wide around the entire structure. However, if you’re not quite up to the heights or if you feel the children may not enjoy it, you can stay on the comfortable ground floor at the Gatlinburg Arcadia. The enormous arcade features hundreds of games of all kinds, live entertainment, and a little pizzeria for snacks.

115 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-436-4629 | www.gatlinburgspaceneedle.com | $8.50 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 children ages 5-12, free for children under 5

7. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium | 5 p.m.

Believe it or not, this attraction is right next door to The Space Needle. Since you’re already here, add this to your list for an interesting museum you may not be able to find back at home. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium is exactly that: a museum of odd, strange, almost unbelievable but true moments from human history. The museum includes artifacts, replicas, wax mannequins, videos, and loads of information about some of the strangest things people have ever done. It’s a fun place for children, adults, and dates to enjoy a couple of hours.

800 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-436-5096 | www.ripleys.com/gatlinburg | $16.99 for adults, $9.99 for children

8. Blaine’s Grill & Bar | 7 p.m.

At this point you must be getting hungry, and Blaine’s Grill & Bar is just around the corner (actually it’s on the corner). This unique three-story building has a definite New Orleans flare to the style with outdoor seating on a balcony overlooking Parkway, open-air vaulted ceilings inside, and flamboyant decor. They have a large menu of soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches, pastas, chicken, and fish to choose from, so you’re sure to find something to feed the hunger.

812 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-430-1978 | http://blainesgatlinburg.com | $10-20

9. Drink, Dance, or Dream | 9 p.m.

At this point it’s been a long day, so no one would blame you for wanting to head back toward your rental cabin, hotel, or resort property and enjoy a dip in the swimming pool or cocktails in the hot tub. Seriously, no one would blame you. However, if you still have some energy left in your reserves, and you’re already in town after finishing a great dinner at Blaine’s, why not take advantage of it? If you’re up for dancing in a club atmosphere just head upstairs to the third story of the same building to Club 812 (812 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-430-1978 | http://812gatlinburg.com). Each night they break out the dance floor and bring in local talent for live music so patrons can dance the night away in the beautiful New Orleans-style building.

If the peppy dance scene isn’t to your liking, you can head across the street for the moonshine. Seriously, you can sample some free moonshine at the Ole Smoky Distillery (930 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-436-6995 | http://olesmoky.com). Over the last few years this has become one of America’s most famous distilleries, and the owners have capitalized on that fame. The large facility has a tasting room, live entertainment throughout the year, on-location stills and people to show you the process, and an enormous gift shop for all kinds of merchandise. Oh, and you can buy some of their whiskey and moonshine for your next dinner party at home.
A meandering creek that runs alongside a portion of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, TN on Sunday, August 4, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette

A meandering creek that runs alongside a portion of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Sunday

10. Log Cabin Pancake House | 10 a.m.

Just because you had pancakes yesterday morning doesn’t mean you can’t visit this pancake house today. The Log Cabin Pancake House has a huge menu with lots of options, so if you don’t want a double dose of sugary goodness spread across a carb overload you can easily find something else. They do have a large menu of pancakes and crepes, but you can also find waffles, omelets, eggs, and a small “Hold the Pancakes” section. It’s also a comfortable, eclectic atmosphere inside an old log building with just about every college sports team banner hanging from the ceiling the owners could find.

327 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, TN | 865-436-7894 | www.logcabinpancakehouse.com/gatlinburg.html | $5-15

11. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail | 12 p.m.

One of the most unique features of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the one-way motor nature trails. These trails provide visitors a change to escape the hustle and bustle of town Gatlinburg by driving along a one lane road deep in the forest. The best part about these trails is that you don’t even have to leave your vehicle to see historic structures, beautiful nature, and even black bears! The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail follows the route of the Roaring Fork River, including a section of beautiful short waterfalls and cascades (pictured above). There are plenty of parking areas to get out and stretch your legs, enjoy a hike, or snap some photos. My favorite place to stop for awhile is the cascades in the photo above about halfway through the route, and an old waterwheel house right on the side of the road near the end. You can also hop on the Rainbow Falls Trail for a chance to see one of the most popular spots in the park. The 5.4-mile trail is strenuous, but well worth the hike for a great view. Read: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Note: This motor trail is closed in the winter months, so be sure to call or check the website below before planning to take this route.

Directions: Access the one-way route by turning onto Historic Nature Trail at Traffic Light #4 from Parkway. Follow the two-lane road past Mynatt Park (on the right) until you see a fork in the road. This is the beginning of the nature trail. The trail is 5.5 miles long and takes drivers back into Gatlinburg on Roaring Fork Road on the east end of town, intersecting with Highway 321. www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/roaringfork.htm

Lodging

Gatlinburg has no shortage for lodging throughout the region, but you don’t have to just rely on hotels. Unlike other tourist destinations that feature only hotels or rental condos, Gatlinburg has a little bit of everything to choose from. What you choose depends on a lot of factors, so read below to see which might suit you best.

  • Hotels – This is the standard, almost-never-fails option. There are loads of hotels from small to large, locally owned to corporate chain. If you want the best deal you can try booking at the last minute since most of them cut rates a day or two before check-in. You can also try their walk-in specials the day of, but then you might find it difficult to find a room at all.
  • Resorts – Gatlinburg probably has more resort rental properties than hotel rooms. The resorts are more expensive, but you also have the luxury of a full kitchen, swimming pools on site, easier parking, and a bit more private since they’re off the main highways. This is a great option for extended stays and large groups or families.
  • Cabins – If you really want a nature experience during your short weekend, try a rental cabin. Most cabin rentals require a two night minimum stay, but that would be perfect for a trip like this. Cabins have anywhere from one to four bedrooms, but usually include sleeper sofas in the great room for small families.
  • Camping – Hey, there is nothing that says you can’t enjoy a trip like this from the comfort of a travel trailer, fifth wheel, or cabin tent. There are plenty of campgrounds around the area, and also quite a few inside the national park.

Getting There

Driving – This is by far the best option for getting to Gatlinburg, and really the only way. It’s easy to reach this destination by vehicle. It is located in Northeast Tennessee, which is reached via Interstate 40 from Asheville, NC and Knoxville, TN, Interstate 81 from Virginia, and Highway 441 from Cherokee, NC. Gatlinburg is approximately 200 miles from Atlanta, GA; 230 miles from Columbia, SC; 200 miles from Charlotte, NC; 250 miles from Roanoke, VA; 215 miles from Lexington, KY; and 220 miles from Nashville, TN.

Flying – The nearest commercial airports to Gatlinburg are McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee (40 miles away) and Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee (100 miles away). If you fly into either of these airports you would most certainly need a rental car to reach Gatlinburg.

Train – Not even a remote option. However, there are several scenic trains and kids’ trains you can ride once you get there.