Nashville and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, are both worthy vacation destinations all on their own.
In Nashville, you’ve got all the country music culture, plus great historical sites and plenty of the amenities that come with a big-city stay, like posh hotels and world-class dining. In Gatlinburg, you get the blend of a tourist town and an outdoor adventure hub, with conveniently located hotels right near the Great Smoky Mountains, but also lots of family-friendly diversions, too, from museums to mini golf to go-karting.
But what if you want to see both destinations in one Tennessee trip? It’s definitely possible, especially when you consider how the two are — if you take the fastest route — located less than four hours apart. However, why just take the fastest route without stopping a while to look around? If you have some extra time, you can easily enjoy so much more that this beautiful state has to offer, and all without spending a ton of time in the car.
Intrigued? Here’s how to break down your Nashville to Gatlinburg road trip into two segments, so you can see the state over a long weekend or even longer, if you’ve got the time to kill.
Nashville to Gatlinburg Road Trip by Section
As mentioned, the fastest way to get to Gatlinburg from Nashville is via a quick drive along I-40 West, which’ll take you across the state, about 220 miles, over 3 hours and 40 minutes. While it is possible to fly between the two cities, it’s not really worth your time, as the flights can take nearly 3 hours just in the air, and you’ll need at least one layover. When all is said and done, you’d spend more time getting to Gatlinburg from Nashville via flying than you would if you just drove.
For the purposes of our trip, however, we’re not taking the fastest route on I-40 West from Nashville to Gatlinburg. Instead, we’ll be taking a slightly longer route across I-75 and I-24 West. Don’t worry, though — it’s not that much longer. This route takes just under five hours if you drive without stopping, and only requires you to drive just over 280 miles. This slightly longer route will take you to more great places in Tennessee, allowing you to make a full road trip out of your visit.
The first segment of our trip goes from Nashville to Chattanooga, with a stop in Murfreesboro (a town that you probably don’t know, but that you probably should), before you arrive in Chattanooga to explore the sights and sounds. Then, the second leg of our trip goes from Chattanooga to Gatlinburg, but with stops along the way in Knoxville and Pigeon Forge, both in Tennessee. Want to extend your trip and add on even more southern-favorite destinations? We’re also showing you how to make some easy side trips into Alabama and North Carolina, to see Huntsville and Asheville, respectively.
Keep reading to see how it all breaks down.
Segment 1: Nashville to Chattanooga
- Distance: 135 miles
- Drive time without stops: 2 hours, 20 minutes
The drive from Nashville to Chattanooga is nearly a straight shot to the southeast via I-24.. However, before getting to Chattanooga, we’re going to take a quick stop off into Murfreesboro.
Related Read: 6 Cool Campervan Rentals in Nashville, Tennessee
Segment 1 Highlight: Murfreesboro
Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is a very quick little drive outside of Nashville, so it’s easy to see why it’s a favorite small-town getaway for those who want to escape the bright lights of the city. You’ll find it located just over 30 minutes from downtown, so fill up on breakfast in Nashville and prepare for a morning spent exploring all Murfreesboro has to offer.
Home to the largest college in Tennessee (Middle Tennessee State University), Murfreesboro is also known for its abundant history. Popular sites to check out include Stones River National Battlefield, the site of the Battle of Stones River, one of the Civil War’s deadliest events. The battlefield features seven miles of walking trails, a large Union cemetery and interpretive programming.
Oaklands Mansion is another popular stop, with its National Register of Historic Places status and its similar role in the Civil War. Cannonsburgh Village is likewise a popular historic attraction, with its living history displays reflecting daily Tennessee life in the 1830s. Fun fact: The village is home to the largest cedar wood bucket in the world. Every good road trip requires a stop at a “world’s largest” attraction, right?
Related Read: 8 Memorable Tennessee Romantic Getaways For Lovebirds
Segment 1 Highlight: Chattanooga
Once you’ve thoroughly explored the historic side of Murfreesboro, you can head on down to Chattanooga, which takes just an hour and a half, or 100 miles. The riverfront city of Chattanooga is a great spot to stay overnight, as you’ll find lots of dining, shopping and entertainment.
If you arrive early enough in the day, or if you stick around for a while in the morning, you can enjoy a riverboat cruise, a troll along the city’s riverwalk (or take advantage of the city’s bike share program) or the views from the top of Lookout Mountain.
Related Read: 14 Best Hikes Near Chattanooga, Tennessee
Segment 1 Side Trip: Huntsville, Alabama
If you really want to make a thorough trip of it, you can make a little side visit to Huntsville, Alabama, after you leave Murfreesboro, but before you reach Chattanooga. The city sits south of Nashville and Murfreesboro, about two hours from Murfreesboro and about the same from Chattanooga.
Segment 2: Chattanooga to Gatlinburg
- Distance: 156 miles
- Drive time without stops: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Whether you go straight from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga, or you make that side trip over into Alabama, once you’re ready to head on to Gatlinburg, you’ll find that only 150 miles or so separate you from the mountain town.
The winding journey up two interstates does not take you directly to Gatlinburg, though, but up and around the Great Smoky Mountains, which puts you in the perfect location to explore Knoxville and Pigeon Forge, as you’ll be traveling right through both.
Segment 2 Highlight: Knoxville
Knoxville, about 100 miles from Chattanooga, is a bustling city that attracts a range of travelers, as well as students and families of students to the University of Tennessee.
Imbued with southern charm, the city on the Tennessee River offers lots to do, no matter what you’re into when you travel. Outdoor adventure? Check. A great foodie scene? Also check. Plenty of history and museums? You got it.
Related Read: 8 Best Pet-Friendly Hotels in Knoxville, Tennessee
Segment 2 Highlight: Pigeon Forge
When many travelers talk about visiting Gatlinburg, they often talk about visiting Pigeon Forge as well. The small tourist hub is less than an hour’s drive from downtown Knoxville, and is a close neighbor to Gatlinburg, with just 15–20 minutes separating the two.
One of the most popular attractions in Pigeon Forge is the family-friendly Dollywood, with its Dolly Parton-approved Appalachian theme-ing and thrills for all ages. You can actually book a stay at the theme park for the full experience, but don’t neglect exploring the rest of the town, which includes outlet malls and all sorts of touristy things to do and see, from alpine coasters to wax museums.
Segment 2 Highlight: Arriving in Gatlinburg
Once you’ve arrived in Gatlinburg, you can still head back to Pigeon Forge later, if there’s something you really wanted to do, but didn’t get the chance to try. However, if you’re staying in Gatlinburg for the rest of your Tennessee road trip, you’ll find plenty to do here without leaving for even a second.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is within easy reach, for all your outdoor adventuring. Family-friendly attractions are also abundant, such as the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, the ski and amusement destination that is Ober Gatlinburg and the skyline-dominating Gatlinburg Space Needle.
Segment 2 Side Trip: Asheville, North Carolina
And if you’re still itching to see more of the South after your road trip concludes in Gatlinburg, consider extending your trip a bit more, to hop over the state line and see what’s up in Asheville, North Carolina. The town is filled with art, great food and awesome breweries — plus lots of outdoor adventure nearby (check out our fave hikes near Asheville).
A quick stay for a few days gives you plenty of opportunity to explore the attractions in and around the popular city, including the Biltmore Estate, North Carolina Arboretum and Pisgah National Forest. The city offers a little bit of it all, and is only a two-hour drive from Gatlinburg.
If you’re considering an overnight stay in Asheville, here’s some unforgettable glamping stays.
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