It’s easy to spend some serious cash in Gatlinburg; the city that serves as the “Gateway to the Smokies” is populated with amusement parks and museums and dotted with souvenir shops and enticing restaurants. But the Tennessee town’s raison d’etre is its proximity to the 500,000 acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which – much to the delight of penny-pinching vacationers – is free to explore.
Whether you want to grab a backpack, a tent, and spend your low-cost holiday in the woods or you’re drawn to the lights and sights of downtown Gatlinburg, there’s a wallet-friendly option (or two) here for every type of traveler. Here’s our pick of the best free things to do in and around the city.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
This popular 5.5-mile one-way, driving trail is a free and accessible way to see the Smokies (provided you have your own car). You’ll slowly – due to the speed limit and the winding nature of the road – make your way around this paved loop road, which is, somewhat ironically, named after a fast-flowing mountain stream that curves through this part of the Smoky Mountains.
Throughout your drive you’ll have opportunities to pull over to take hikes, such as the 5.4-mile trail to Rainbow Falls and back. If you head to this waterfall on a sunny day you’ll see the rainbows in the water that give its name. The hike to Grotto Falls is short, about 2.6 miles in total, but just as pretty.
As long as water levels are high enough, you can also catch waterfall action at Place of a Thousand Drips, near the end of the loop. There’s an opportunity to appreciate the scenery from a nearby overlook or even from the car itself.
Located at the end of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Ely’s Mill offers a peek at what agricultural life was like for those who lived in these mountains long ago. Built in 1925, it is still run by the family of its original owner, Old Man Ely, an attorney who constructed this place after his wife died and he wanted to flee city life.
A few small buildings are scattered throughout the site. Park in the ample lot, and wander. First up, you’ll see the old mill. It’s not currently working, but hopes are to restore the waterwheel in the future, and even if it isn’t turning, its picturesque setting in the creek is worth seeing. Most popular is the shop in the old mill building, stocked with locally made crafts.
Outbuildings house blacksmithing and other demonstrations, plus bathrooms, which may be a welcome amenity if you have spent a lot of time in the woods. If you want to delve deeper into the history of Ely’s Mill, book one of the cabins where you can spend the night.
Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill
Technically over the North Carolina border, about 30 miles from Gatlinburg inside Smoky Mountain National Park, Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill are a collection of buildings from this region, some of which are more than 100 years old.
Stroll down the walking trails, check out an apple orchard, smokehouse, and more. As is the case in much of the Smokies, there’s a chance to spot wildlife here, including elk, salamanders and black bears.
Another popular stop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11-mile, one-way driving route. Historically, Cherokee and other Native Americans used Cades Cove as a way to traverse through the area to hunt deer, elk, and other wildlife long before it became a national park.
In the 1820s white farmers established a settler community in Cades Cove. At its peak, nearly 700 people lived here, and it supported a post office, schools, and more. Today, visitors come to see the heritage homesteads from this period, as well as to spot black bears, which are prominent in the area. You’re also likely to see wild turkeys, rabbits, river otters, elk and woodchucks.
While it is best known as a driving loop, each Wednesday and Saturday morning between May and September the route is closed to cars so you can bicycle or walk (rental bikes are available). The visitor center is around the midpoint of the driving loop.
The Parkway is the main thoroughfare through Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge. In downtown Gatlinburg, between Traffic Light 1 and Traffic Light 10 (about three miles long), the road is a walkable route that’s perfect for taking in the town’s charms.
Along the way you’ll stroll through shops, including the charming Village, which has fountains and landscaped grounds, walk past restaurants, neon attractions, and candy and fudge stalls. Officially this route is called U.S. Highway 441, but everyone calls it The Parkway.
Great Smoky Mountains Arts and Crafts Community
Basket-making, weaving, ceramics and other arts are part of the mountain traditions in the Smokies. Meet the artists making these works and see their handiwork when you visit their studios and galleries in the Great Smoky Mountains Arts and Crafts Community. The 8-mile loop road is accessible by car, or you can take the free Gatlinburg Trolley.
While there are more than 100 artists who work along the loop, the vibe is more secluded than congested. Some studios are together in collectives; others are in freestanding buildings. Check individual artists’ schedules for classes and workshops.
The combination of Gatlinburg’s popularity and its remote location means that many people who visit this mountain getaway do so by car which creates traffic back ups on the narrow mountain roads.
Fortunately, there’s a free alternative to sitting in your car. The Gatlinburg Trolley whisks passengers around town on three different routes (blue, purple, and yellow), covering downtown and the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community. Consider it a free tour of the city, undertaken from the comfort of one of the city's 20 atmospheric trolley cars.
Gatlinburg is home to a few moonshine-makers and wineries. Their outposts are far more commercial than the romantic notion of “moonshine shacks”, hidden away in the mountains, you might have in your head, but if a tasting of moonshine or wine is your thing, there are several free or low-cost options for a sample. Try Sugarland Cellars or the huge Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, one of the most popular moonshine distilleries in the country, to get started.
Gatlinburg has three city parks – Mynatt Park, Mills Park, and Herbert Holt Park. Each has its own amenities, including a Storywalk Trail and disc golf at Mills, and fishing for kids at Herbert Holt. But they all share a few things: the topography of the Smokies with scenic views and lush, green landscapes; fewer crowds than you’ll find in the national park; and all three are free. Kids don’t even need a fishing license to cast a line.