Gatlinburg: An HONEST review of a crazy family vacation

Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Where the heck do I begin? Seriously, this place is like the most split-personality vacation I’ve ever taken. So I’m gonna share it all—what to do if you go… and what to AVOID like the plague. P.S. If you’ve ever been, please feel free to share your favorite spots I missed!

I’m dividing this post into Gatlinburg, the Smoky Mountains and Pigeon Forge to make it a little easier, but know that if you go, you will visit all three. They’re super close to each other.

Downtown Gatlinburg

FYI, downtown Gatlinburg is a total shitshow. A fun shit show, but a shitshow nonetheless. The streets are packed with people. And pretty much every other store is a candy store, an arcade or some weird-ass experience like live parrots or an earthquake ride. I told you, shitshow.

Where to Stay in Gatlinburg

There are a ton of places. Hotels, cabins, motels, RV parks, houses. We found our house on VRBO. Here are a few things I’d recommend when you’re looking for a VRBO in Gatlinburg:

Amazing views, but look carefully to make sure there aren’t any big ugly structures or power lines in the view because there were plenty.

And if you get a house in the mountains, I highly recommend getting there during daylight because the roads are windy and narrow and have no guardrails and you will absolutely yell at your hubby to slow the F down multiple times. Like divorce lawyers should position themselves at the bottom of the mountain. 


Lower your bar. Lower. Lower. Lowwwwerrrr. Okay, now you’re ready for Gatlinburg restaurants.

There are soooo many bad ones, but we found a few great ones!

Crockett’s Breakfast Camp

When I saw the wait time was 85-100 minutes, I was like F that, but I learned two things: one, there’s a reason the wait is so long, and two, you can join the waitlist online.
It was deeeeeeeelicious. I HIGHLY recommend the griddle cakes. They’re kind of a cross between pancakes and cornbread. And Zoey got the cinnamon roll that looked amazing. Plus, the inside looks like a fun old Western town (the restaurant, not the cinnamon roll). 

The Peddler Steakhouse

While this place is mucho expensivo, the filet mignon was delicious, and the very long, very plentiful salad bar will remind you of the good ole days before Covid.

Two tips: They do have very limited parking and make your reservation for the River Room well in advance!


The Crazy Mason Milkshake Bar

Holy crap, this place is cRaAZyYy. Every single milkshake is a decadent architectural feat of sugary products piled on top of a mason jar, with hilarious names like “Spilt Happens” and “Dashing thru the Dough.” But be prepared to wait in a long line and take out a second mortgage to pay the bill. I shit you not, $50 for three shakes! 

Dick’s Last Resort

The food sucks more than a vacuum cleaner, but Zoey wanted to go because we told her the waitstaff is purposely rude and it did not disappoint. Plus, the paper hats they make everyone wear are absolutely hilarious. Entirely inappropriate, but a riot. Like the young kid at the neighboring table got one that said “I’m adopted,” which must have upset him because he switched with his dad and wore one the rest of the meal that said “I give free mustache rides.” God, I hope his parents got a picture of that.

A few of our least favorite restaurants. And if you disagree, feel free to rip me a new one in the comments:
Slice Pizza (at the arcade). Yes, the slices are huge but they ought to be for SEVEN BUCKS a slice. You know what else they should be? Tastier! 
Calhoun’s BBQ. I know some people love this place but to me it was just meh. Maybe because I’m from Texas and know what good BBQ should taste like. Them’s fightin’ words. 
The Old Mill Potterhouse Cafe. Not terrible but not great. But the pie was delicious! Maybe just stop there to pick up some pie to go. 


Anakeesta is a picturesque, beautiful mini town at the top of the mountain and there’s only one way to get there. By paying a crapload of money. But I think it was totally worth it. We ended up spending most of a day there, I’d say half a day if you’re not zip lining. 

You can either take the ski lift chairs up to it (I was scared shitless) or if you don’t want to think about plummeting to your death from an open chair, you can ride in a big ole truck.

Once you get to the top, there are big firepits with rocking chairs, a few overpriced but cute stores, an ice cream shop, a great restaurant called Clifftop and lots of things to do like mountain coasters!!!! Soooooo much fun!!!! 

And if you’re an idiot like me, you can book zip lining in advance and give yourself a memory you’ll have for the rest of your VERY SHORT life. But seriously, it was super fun. Just make sure you wear comfy clothing and adult diapers. 

Anakeesta also has ropes courses for kids, some kind of bird exhibit we didn’t see, and even a beautiful light show at night that we heard is very pretty.

Hillbilly Golf

So a few of you recommended Hillbilly Golf, which sounds kind of wrong but it is sooooo right. You guys, this place is LOTS OF FUN. You take this weird elevator up and then you play mini golf down the side of a little mountain. My only advice is leave plenty of time to do this activity. The line moves sloooooowly. And there is NO bathroom at the top so go before you go. 

FYI, the lift wasn’t full of headless people, I just photoshopped their faces out. 

The Smoky Mountains

OMG, they are BEEEEAUTIFUL. In the morning when the sun comes up behind them and makes them glow. In the evening when the setting sun turns them red. When it’s almost nighttime and they make a black silhouette against the royal blue sky. Shit, I feel like I should go write a haiku or something.

Hiking in Smoky Mountain National Park

Alum Cave Trail

This 4.6 mile hike was my favorite. Most of the trail runs beside a pretty river and then higher up you take these amazing stairs through a stone archway. Just don’t be expecting to hike alone. Busy busy busy. 

Once you’re at the top (or you can go further if you want) there’s an amazing cave where you can sit and have lunch. It’s so big I couldn’t get a picture of it. Just avoid the icicle drips because that means they’re melting and about to fall on your head and impale you. 

Laurel Falls Trail

This is a nice shorter hike that’s perfect for families. It’s 1.2 miles to the waterfalls, where you’ll hear the beautiful symphony of cascading water alongside the melodic sounds of mothers yelling, “STAY AWAY FROM THE LEDGE!!!”

Parking at all of these trails is a nightmare. There are soooo few spots for soooo many cars. When we went to Laurel Falls, we got there before 8am and there were plenty of open spots. By 8:15, there were none. And at Alum Cave, we just patiently waited for hikers to leave to get a parking spot, but it’s still not easy. Be early or be patient. 

Pink Jeep Tours

So the awesome thing about a Pink Jeep Tour ISN’T that it’s in a badass pink Jeep. The best thing about it is the GUIDE!!! They drive the whole time so you can finally look at everything without worrying you’ll steer the car into a gorge, and they’ll also tell you lots of cool stuff about the National Park. 

Our awesome guide Mike even let Zoey drive a little! Kidding, then I’d be writing this post postmortem from the bottom of a gorge.


Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community

If you have an hour or two to kill (or blue hair and a walker) and you want a relaxing activity, the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community is a lovely option. There’s a map of all the stores marked with everything from pottery to glass-blowing to carved wood, and even a delicious olive oil store. The highlights were Olga’s Yodel Cinnamon Rolls (to die for) and Glade’s Soda Shop where they have flavored syrups and your kiddo can mix and match and create a disgustingly sweet concoction.

Pigeon Forge

Okay, if I had to describe this place, it’s like Las Vegas and Ripley’s Believe it or Not had a one night stand and got knocked up and gave birth to this crazy place. All I could think as we drove through is WTF? It’s like a long street that’s full of go-karting and crazy dinner shows and stores that have live sharks, live gators and live goats. But… if you dig a little deeper, there are some awesome hidden gems.

Rocky Top Mountain Coaster

So apparently, Rocky Top is the longest mountain coaster in the area, and I believe it. It literally has four lifts, so you go up and down four different times in one ride! Holden and I went and loved that we could see each other and wave throughout the ride. Just try not to get stuck behind someone who goes slow and brakes a lot.


As if Dolly Parton didn’t do enough already, she went and opened Dollywood, an awesome amusement park!! My hubby took Zoey who LOVES big roller coasters and they both said they were super impressed. They said there were lots of big coasters and a lot of kiddie rides, but less in between rides, so Holden and I didn’t join. 

The Island

Wait, what is THIS place?! Holden and I stumbled upon this awesome area called The Island and we were super impressed. For one, there was parking!!! And it was FREE!!!!! I’m not sure that’s what impressed Holden. But there’s a HUGE ferris wheel, bungy trampolines, a multi-level ropes course, more rides and lots of great stores with some awesome souvenirs. 

Holy crap, that was a lonnnnnng-ass blog post, and it was only a six-day vacation. I think I need a vacation after that vacation. But all in all, I would give the Smoky Mountains two thumbs up, Gatlinburg one thumb up, and Pigeon Forge one hairy toe up!

If you liked this, please don’t forget to like and share it! Thank you!! And please let me know anything else we should have included on our trip in the comments! 

There are 14 comments for this article
  1. LilMightyMeg at 7:16 pm

    Split personality vacation haha yes that’s the best way to describe it. We did it with ALL my in-laws last summer. 20 of us ranging in age from 8-80+ we had two cabin/houses next door to each other. The week was so fun and we barely touched the surface on what we could have done. We found the swimming holes to be some of the most fun. The Sinks swimming hole is a must do. But parking is rough so be prepared to wait. I’d for sure go back and do it again. Thx for sharing your vacation with us all!

  2. KH at 7:27 pm

    In summer go to Splash Country and rent a retreat. We do it almost every summer and it’s the best water park. We also love a place called Bullfish. Weird name. Great food.

  3. AMY M KEENAN at 7:29 pm

    I LOVE that Hillbilly Golf made the list! That place has been around since I was Zoey and Holden’s age (we won’t do the math on that one ha ha). So many funny memories of my family trips to this crazy area!

  4. Brandi Lisenby at 7:34 pm

    So I live about an hour from there so we go a good bit during the summer for Soaky Mountain, a water park. Other than that, yeah it’s turned into a Vegas wannabe lol. But next time you’re in the mountains go to Cherokee near Cataloochie Park and explore and see Elk and maybe some bears. Come during the summer and do things like Sliding Rock or tubing down Deep Creek. Stay somewhere like Bryson City, Sylva, or Waynesville and you’ll get all the mountain action you want and still be close to Asheville for activities.

  5. Cristi K at 7:47 pm

    Did you know that the ferris wheel on the island is the old Navy Peir Ferris Wheel? I thought it was cool that I’ve ridden it in both places!

  6. Jeanne Starr at 8:09 pm

    I hope someone comped you for these really accurate reviews. I always enjoy when you share something like this. You are such a great writer. I live pretty close and agree – it’s a shitshow, a fun one but still a shitshow. I enjoy Cherokee myself and have spotted an elk or two. Very cool area.

  7. Sara Clauss at 8:14 pm

    I loved everything about that weird, tacky place! We didn’t get into the park, not my friends’ thing and I was bummed about that.

  8. sue at 11:23 pm

    America is so weird – I don’t think we have ‘tourist towns’ like this in australia (unless you count the gold coast) mostly we all flock to the beach instead

  9. Darnell Holbrook at 4:01 am

    We live fairly close and still take weekend trips as it is its own little world. We still manage to find new things to do or places to explore. River Rat tubing is great and a fun family day. Cades Cove will take forever but is beautiful and worth it. We have had deer jump over the hood of the car and seen bears. There are also old churches and structures to explore with lots of history as well as hiking trails. A must for food is The Local Goat! Make online reservations as they are always packed. Five Oaks Kitchen is another favorite for breakfast.

  10. Lisa at 8:23 am

    Love your honest review! We are headed there later this year for the first time and am taking notes from your experiences.

  11. Christy Watychowicz at 10:23 am

    We were in Gatlinburg for a couple of days earlier in March, love that we hit some of your spots! Peddler was great and we did sit right on the river, Hillbilly Golf is legendary, did it as a kid and now shared it with my own kid. Was glad to go in March, the crowds and lines were big enough, can’t imagine it in the summer!

  12. Janan Rice at 11:32 am

    Mountain Coasters are the bomb! I discovered them in Branson last time we went and it is hands down the funnest coaster I have even been on. I laughed and laughed and laughed. 🙂

  13. Kathleen at 12:27 pm

    The towns sound like Wisconsin Dells!

  14. Megan at 1:15 pm

    You missed the most important part…moonshine tasting at ‘Ol Smoky!