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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.

 

 Pro-Tip: Check for kid-friend­ly hikes and stroller-acces­si­ble areas ahead of time. 
  

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. 

 

 

Cades Cove has prim­i­tive cab­ins, beau­ti­ful scenery, and the best oppor­tu­ni­ties for bear sight­ings.  Pho­to by Kei­th McCamish.

 

 

Gatlinburg

 

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.

 

 

The Gatlin­burg Sky­Bridge fea­tures glass floor pan­els that allow you to look down as you walk across the bridge (No thanks!). Pho­to by Amy Baugess on Unsplash.

 

 

 

 

Pigeon Forge

 

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. 

 

 

The main drag of Pigeon Forge is filled with neon lights and excit­ing attrac­tions, but qui­eter spots, like the Old Mill, are just a cou­ple of blocks away. Pho­to by Kei­th McCamish.

 

 

Dollywood

 

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. 

 

 

via GIPHY

 

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!

 

 

Kids will love watch­ing arti­sans make hand-blown glass cre­ations at Dol­ly­wood (but maybe don’t take them to the glass-filled gift shop right next door). Pho­to cour­tesy of Dol­ly­wood and Her­schend Fam­i­ly Enter­tain­ment Corporation.

 

 

Cherokee

 

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. 

 

 

From late May through ear­ly Octo­ber, vis­i­tors can expe­ri­ence bon­fire sto­ry­telling at Oconaluftee Islands Park in Chero­kee, North Car­oli­na. Pho­to cour­tesy of Swain Coun­ty TDA/Chamber of Commerce.

 

When You Go

 

Getting There

 

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.)

 

 

Getting Around

 

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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Christy Nichol­son is a writer, edi­tor, and recov­er­ing per­fec­tion­ist from Nashville, Ten­nessee. When not trav­el­ing with fam­i­ly, she enjoys cozy days at home read­ing, gar­den­ing, mak­ing music, and wran­gling two awe­some kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about trav­el and sus­tain­able living. 

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