Choose Your Own Adventure in the Smoky Mountains

Most people come to the Smoky Mountains to get away from it all. They leave behind packed schedules and city crowds, exchanging that for the simple pleasures of a vacation rental Gatlinburg cabin tucked away in the hills. It’s a great place to watch dawn over the mountains with a hot cup of coffee, take a day excursion to the natural wonders and man-made attractions of the area, and enjoy a home-cooked dinner with the family.

It’s not all quiet, however, in this region of the Smokies. The ancient, deeply forested mountains are exhilarating as you hike to the trails to the countless scenic features. The winding rivers contain hours of whitewater adventure – as well as lazy tubing. Even the charming towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg can give you an adrenaline-packed day if you know where to look.

Take a Hike

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers over 800 miles of hiking trails, some very difficult and some as easy as a light stroll. There are steep climbs, river overlooks, and wide-open mountain views on many of the trails. Adventure-seekers may want to check out some of the following.

The Rainbow Falls trail leads up to Mt. LeConte, the third tallest mountain in the national park and boasts some clear views at the top. This trail is about 13 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of almost 4,000 feet. For the first 2.3 miles of the hike, you gain over 1,500 feet. This trail weeds out casual hikers, meaning you’ll have more privacy when viewing the waterfalls and the view at the summit.

The Ramsey Cascades trail leads to the tallest waterfall in the Smokies. The 8-mile hike takes you through some of the oldest forests in the park, letting you explore this unique ecosystem. The trail also features several one-log, one-handrail footbridges over rocky creeks. The last mile is the toughest, but you’re rewarded for your hard work with a view of a 100-foot waterfall tumbling over the boulders.

Ride Downhill

If you’re looking for some down-slope fun, try the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster, the fastest mountain coaster in Tennessee. The rider cars hit speeds of over 30 miles per hour as you follow a track over hills, dips, and curves. These cars can be ridden solo or tandem with younger children. There are ticket discounts available if you’re riding with a child between 3 and 9 years old.

The Anakeesta Rail Runner, meanwhile, lets you experience a roller coaster from an unusual vantage point. This single rail mountain coaster is designed so you ride low to the ground, which makes it feel faster. The Rail Runner also starts with the speedy downhill portion and ends with a scenic ride uphill to the top of the mountain.

Ride Uphill

You have to go up the mountain to come down it, and several lifts exists to make that possible. The Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway leaves from downtown Gatlinburg up to the ski area and year-round resort. After absorbing the amazing view of the Smoky Mountains, and maybe refreshment at the restaurant, take the ski lift up to the summit, or take the resort’s own mountain coaster down the slope.

The popular Gatlinburg Sky Lift was recently refurbished to include the country’s longest pedestrian Sky Bridge – this one has a glass floor section midway across the chasm just in case you weren’t already nervous enough.

Anakeesta offers its own enclosed gondola cabins and an open lift to bring you up to the mountaintop resort, with a treehouse village feel and stunning views all around.

Defy Gravity

The Outdoor Gravity Park in Pigeon Forge lets you roll down a grassy hill the safe way: inside a giant inflatable sphere. Securely cradled in an 11 foot wide inflatable ball, you’ll be rolling down a 1000 foot slope in the modern sport called Zorbing. This park has multiple tracks including a zigzag, a funnel, and an extra fast experience. Up to three riders (aged 5+) can share a ball.

Hit the Powder

Need to escape the summer heat? At Pigeon Forge Snow, you can enjoy indoor snow tubing all year round. The park has hills you can race down and a Snow Play area if you get the urge to build snowmen. Adults and kids are welcome here, but note that children must be least 3 years old and at least 36 inches tall. This snow park also has a viewing area with snacks and beverages.

Make a Splash

If you prefer whitewater to snow, the twists and turns of the local Pigeon River contain numerous rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV. If your family is interested in a bigger adventure, the Upper Pigeon River has rougher water, big drops, and multiple Class III and IV rapids. Meanwhile, the Lower Pigeon River offers a more serene experience of mostly Class I rapids, with a few Class II challenges thrown in.