Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a picturesque small town, full of scenic beauty, vibrant culture, and many experiences that won’t cost you a dime. Take a serene nature walk, or check out a local performance – all on a budget. Discover the top 8 free things to do in Gatlinburg, and prepare to be amazed by the experiences this mountain gem offers without having to empty your wallet!
1. Hike the Gatlinburg Trail
The Gatlinburg Trail is one of the few trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that allows both dogs and bicycles. Stretching for approximately 1.9 miles, this relatively flat trail is a gentle introduction to hiking for novices and a refreshing walk for seasoned hikers.
Along the way, enjoy picturesque views of the Little Pigeon River and remnants of old homesites speckling the trail. While the trail is beautiful throughout the year, it’s incredibly enchanting during the fall when orange, red, and gold leaves blanket the floor. The Gatlinburg Trail provides the perfect backdrop for a brisk walk or a leisurely hike. The best part is that there is no entrance fee! There are a few parking areas situated along River Road that you can use. There’s also a more expansive parking lot area near the junction of US 441 and Ski Mountain Road. As of March 1st, 2023, a parking tag is required for these areas for a nominal fee of $5 per day. Overall, the Gatlinburg Trail is a top choice for budget travelers and nature lovers.
2. Explore the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community
Gatlinburg is also a haven for art and craftsmanship. There’s no better place to witness this than the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community. Established in 1937, the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community is North America’s largest group of independent artisans. From hand-thrown pottery and intricate quilts to candle-making and silversmithing, each workshop and studio welcomes visitors with open arms.
The community offers you a unique opportunity to observe the artists at work. Engaging with the artisans gives you a better understanding of the process and passion behind every creation. Additionally, while the artistry is priceless, window shopping is an entirely free thing to do in Gatlinburg. However, if you are interested in a souvenir, pieces are available for purchase at varying gift shops.
3. Visit the Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts
The Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts is one of Gatlinburg’s hidden gems. Founded in 1912, Arrowmont has evolved from a settlement school to a globally recognized center for visual art education. The campus itself is an oasis of inspiration where art and nature converge. While Arrowmont primarily offers workshops for artists of all skill levels, you are welcome to explore its serene grounds free of charge. The school’s seven studios present contemporary and traditional arts and crafts on rotation. Their mission is to showcase the talent and creativity of artists from the region and beyond. Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts offers a unique look into Gatlinburg’s vibrant arts community and its commitment to creativity.
4. Hit the Road For A Scenic Drive
Take a short drive outside Gatlinburg, and encounter captivating landscapes that look like they’ve leapt straight out of a postcard. For instance, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5-mile one-way loop that weaves through a lush forest, waterfalls, and historic buildings. Along the way, pullouts invite you to pause and soak in the panoramic views.
Another must-visit route is Clingmans Dome Road. The drive-up is especially enchanting during sunrise or sunset. If you’d like to explore beyond Tennessee, try the Blue Ridge Parkway, which extends through North Carolina.
5. Take the Gatlinburg Trolley
Explore the heart of Gatlinburg without the hassle of navigating its busy streets. The Gatlinburg Trolley has been the town’s public transportation system since 1980. This trolley offers a convenient and budget-friendly way to experience the town’s prime attractions. Effortlessly hop on and off at your favorite spots. The routes cover areas like the Arts & Crafts Community, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and downtown. Its fares are free so get onboard for unlimited rides!
6. Picnic in Cades Cove: J.O.E. and P.O.P.’s Sub Shoppe
There’s nothing quite like enjoying a tasty meal while on a picnic, especially when it doesn’t break the bank. Cades Cove offers an idyllic, budget-friendly setting with a scenic backdrop and abundant wildlife. As you navigate the 11-mile Cades Cove Scenic Loop, the picturesque views set the mood for a perfect picnic. And the best part is—it’s totally free to drive the loop and only costs $5 to park.
But what’s a picnic without mouthwatering food? Enter J.O.E. and P.O.P.’s Sub Shoppe with freshly made subs bursting with flavor. Grab one of their signature sandwiches, and remember to add a side of chips and a fresh salad. So, spread your blanket, breathe in the fresh mountain air, and take a big bite of that gourmet sub!
7. Stroll Along the Gatlinburg Parkway
The Gatlinburg Parkway is a vibrant stretch of town that pulses with energy. On the one hand, you have the backdrop of the Smokies and rustic buildings. On the other, there are modern attractions, restaurants, and shops that beckon you. The soft hum of chit-chat and music fills the air, creating a lively atmosphere. On your stroll, you might encounter street performers, musicians, or magicians dazzling a crowd of onlookers. Remember, some of the best free things to do in Gatlinburg are on the parkway.
8. Jam Out at Smoky Mountain Tunes and Tales
As dusk settles over Gatlinburg, the streets come alive with the sounds of fiddles and banjos. Smoky Mountain Tunes and Tales is a street performance festival that kicks off Friday and Saturday evenings starting on 9/22 from 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm. The beauty of this event is that you don’t need tickets; these captivating street performances are free for everyone to enjoy. The event features a talented mix of musicians, storytellers, and artists, all dressed in period attire. Each performer not only entertains but educates you on folklore and traditions. It’s an interactive experience, so don’t be surprised if you’re invited to join in a dance or try your hand at an instrument. Smoky Mountain Tunes and Tales is a showcase of talent and a celebration of Gatlinburg’s heritage.
Gatlinburg is a haven for budget-friendly activities that won’t break the bank. The scenic drives provide a tranquil escape, while the Gatlinburg Trolley offers a unique way to explore the city’s charm. Of course, cultural places like the Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts add depth to your experience. It’s evident that Gatlinburg’s value isn’t measured by its price tags, but by the priceless moments it offers. So, the next time you’re in this mountain paradise, remember that some of the best things in Gatlinburg and life are indeed free.
Content on this page is subject to change. Please contact the locations mentioned to see if promotions, hours, pricing, etc. are still valid.
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