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Between Tennessee and North Carolina, lies a vacation paradise tucked between foggy mountains and old-growth forests. From honeymoon retreats to kid-friendly cabin rentals, generations of our family have enjoyed the gorgeous scenery and countless things to do with kids in the Smoky Mountains. Family-friendly hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, unbelievable attractions in Gatlinburg, and endless fun in Pigeon Forge bring many families — including mine — to the Smoky Mountains year after year.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the headliner of this area. Nature lovers will want to tackle exhilarating hikes, discover beautiful waterfalls, or explore the park on horseback.
The park also displays the Applachian history of the area by preserving old cabins and settlements. The rustic valley of Cades Cove is a great place to watch for wildlife (bears!) and take a walk through history. However, if traveling with young children, consider saving Cades Cove for another time — touring the site requires a 2- to 4‑hour drive on a one-way road.
The city of Gatlinburg became a top travel destination when the national park opened, providing popular lodging on the Gatlinburg strip and restaurants for park visitors. Now it draws tourists for its own sake, thanks to attractions like Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, a haunted mansion, and countless candy shops. You can even walk across a 150-foot-tall SkyBridge that overlooks the city. Head up the mountain to Ober Gatlinburg for skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and ice skating. Hungry yet? Stop in at Pancake Pantry for a true Tennessee tradition.
From honeymoon retreats to kid-friendly cabin rentals, generations of our family have enjoyed the gorgeous scenery and countless things to do with kids in the Smoky Mountains.
Pigeon Forge is the most indescribably touristy place I have ever been. It’s glorious. There’s an upside-down museum, a Titanic replica, dinner theater, mini-golf, go-karts, and more. While the town became popular as a less crowded alternative to Gatlinburg, it has taken on a life of its own. Don’t miss the quieter spots, though, like the Old Mill Restaurant (a great stop for southern comfort food). One of my favorite memories of this area is walking down to the Little Pigeon River and feeding the ducks.
Tennesseans have a special affinity for Dolly Parton, and why not? She’s a bestselling songwriter, sends books to our kids, provided aid to victims of the 2016 Gatlinburg fires, AND helped fund a vaccine for COVID. So this might help you understand why there’s an entire amusement park named after her.
Dollywood has all the classics of a standard amusement park — exciting coasters, a river raft ride, and even an adjacent water park. But the best parts of Dollywood are the things that make it unique, like the eagle sanctuary, a coal-powered train, artisan demonstrations of the region’s skilled crafts, and a good helping of bluegrass music and Appalachian friendliness. Be sure to stop at the Taffy Kitchen or Showstreet Ice Cream for an afternoon snack!
Don’t Miss Our List of the Best Things To Do at Dollywood!
While visiting the Smoky Mountains, take some time to drive over to Cherokee, North Carolina. As the capital of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee offers a deep look into the history and culture of the people who occupied the Smoky Mountains long before tourists arrived. In warmer months, families can tour Oconaluftee Indian Village and experience Cherokee life in the 18th century. Oconaluftee Islands Park offers spots for swimming, tubing, and fishing.
When You Go
McGhee Tyson Airport near Knoxville, Tennessee, is the closest airport and is served by several major airlines. (I don’t recommend flying into Nashville and driving; it’s almost a four-hour drive.)
While there are trolleys that circle through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, you’ll want your own vehicle for the most reliable transportation, especially if you plan to visit the national park.
Find great deals on car rentals through RentalCars.com
Where to Stay: Smoky Mountain Hotels, Cabins, and Lodging
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has tent and RV camping available. Hidden Mountain Resorts offers condos and cabins throughout the Smoky Mountains, while VRBO, Turnkey, and Vacasa have options for renting mountain chalets with hot tubs and private pools. For a premium family experience, try Wilderness at the Smokies in Sevierville, which includes an indoor water park, or The Island in Pigeon Forge, with hotels just steps away from restaurants and shops. Hampton Inn in Pigeon Forge is a reliable budget option.
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