It was John Muir who famously wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go….”, and many a lover of nature and the outdoors shares in longing of this statement.
I first visited Gatlinburg in 11th grade and fell in love. There’s something about the Smoky Moutains that is calls to the soul and begs for attention like Yosemite did to Muir.
Past Pigeon Forge’s tourist trap Parkway, beyond the quaint streets of Gatlinburg, lies a massive lot of preserved and nearly untouched land. Land that offers a huge array of activities like fishing, swimming, hiking, bird watching, and animal viewing.
From the Black Bear to the Worm-Eating Warbler there is much to take in in this magnificent slice of Heaven on Earth.
You could spend thousands of dollars on a week’s worth of adventure or, you can save money, not go into debt, and leave consumerism in the hotel room and enjoy these free or low-cost things to do in Gatlinburg and the surrounding area.
Keep in mind, low-cost is relative when you’re talking about a tourist area like Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg. These selections are from the many opportunities that are way overpriced just because you’re in a high-tourist areas.
Free and Low-Cost In Gatlinburg
Low Cost: Cades Cove Loop – This 11-mile driving/biking (or walking?) loop is where nature meets history. For $1 you can buy a Cade Code booklet at one of the Visitors Centers in the Park and explore the history of those who knew the Smokies long before it was a national park. We saw turkeys, 11 black bear, a multitude of butterflies, a Pileated Woodpecker, and many other birds just driving the loop.
Free: Waterfall Hikes – In 2017 we hiked to all but two of the Parks many waterfalls. Each on is unique and offers fabulous photo opportunities and a chance to get deeper into the mountains.
Free: Clingmans Dome – Not for the faint at heart, this drive/walk offers spectacular views. We hiked it on our 2017 trip and it was well worth it. You drive most of the way of the mountain and the parking lot alone has great views for those who prefer not to hike the paved but very steep climb up to the lookout. There is a small store that has gifts and water at the base of the hiking trail.
Low Cost: Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – This one is relative, but if you’re a homeschooling family the Ripley’s venues offer deep discounts to homeschoolers. The Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies admission is normally $32.99 for adults and $17.99 for children 6-11 however with some form of homeschooling ID you can get tickets for under $11 each! Use your co-op, HSLDA ID, or print your own here. This aquarium is awesome and well worth the $10. You can buy a guide book for $2 as well.
Low Cost: TopJump Trampoline Park – For $15.99 (as of May, 2018) your kiddos (and you if you’re up for it) get one hour of trampoline jumping, rock wall climbing, and ninja obstacle course (complete with a warped wall, just like American Ninja Warrior). They have a 2-hour package a well. You do need to wear gripper socks ($2 each, or bring your own). Parents can enter for free (no jumping/climbing) which is awesome or hang out in the elevated lounge area and watch. This is perfect for a rainy day when hiking and exploring are off the agenda. TopJump is located in Pigeon Forge.
Free: Sugarlands Visitors Center – This is the best visitors center in the park. They have an amazing display of native plants, animals, and insects found in the park which is free to view.
Free: Great Smoky Mountains Arts and Craft Community – this is a great driving loop of local artists and crafters. This is also a great place to find a unique gift. We watched one vendor hand-carve wooden bowls and another dip candles.
Free: Old Smoky Moonshine Stage – Okay, okay the moonshine is NOT free but even those of us who don’t drink can enjoy the toe-tappin’, hand-clappin’ bluegrass music free on the stage outside the store in downtown Gatlinburg. Around Noon and 5pm each day there’s a band playing free. It’s one of our must-do stops every time we’re downtown. They post hours and groups playing on the wall and provide many chairs to sit on plus there’s a public restroom on the second floor (step and elevator provided).
Free: Picnic and Creek Walkin’ – Enjoy a quiet picnic at Cades Cove, the Chimeys, or Metcalf picnic areas and dip your toes in the creek too. Pack your coolers and your charcoal and after you drive through the mountains you can picnic and let the kiddos get out some energy as they play in the creek. Cade Cove and Metcalf have nice shallow creek areas for safe play.