We just returned from a wonderful weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains. Between the towns of Sevierville, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge, there’s plenty to do in the area– and this applies to foodies, outdoorsmen, adventurers, history buffs, and families.
Please note that all of the ideas listed in this post are relatively inexpensive. Disney, on the other hand, which we visited last month, was definitely not. It cost a small fortune, even with a free meal plan and media discounts. That said, I know so many parents who’ve told me they felt like failures because they couldn’t afford to take their kids to Walt Disney World. If you fit into that category, I want you to hear me on this- MY KIDS WERE EVERY BIT AS EXCITED ABOUT OUR VACATION IN THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS AS THEY WERE ABOUT DISNEY. Do you read me? You don’t need to be able to afford Disney to give your children a vacation they’ll never forget. Just look at the list of ideas below and you’ll understand why….
1. Book a room at Wilderness at the Smokies Waterpark Resort. This resort is like the Disney World of the Smoky Mountains. The rooms are spacious and include a stove (bring cookware if you plan to use it), refrigerator, and microwave. The resort is huge and made for family fun- It includes three waterparks (two outdoor, one indoor), indoor mini golf, a three-story ropes course, an enormous Family Entertainment Center (with loads of interactive games), a candy shop, room service that’s actually affordable, and several restaurants and snack bars. One tip: Reserve a room in the main building on the second or third floor- That way, you won’t need a shuttle to get to the waterpark AND you’ll avoid the heavy first floor foot traffic.
2. If you’re staying at the Wilderness Resort, plan to spend plenty of time at the waterpark. Trust me when I tell you that your kids will not want to leave it- and neither will you! Since it was cold outside, we only had access to the indoor waterpark on our last visit and we ended up spending HOURS there. The rides are fantastic (check out this cool bodysurfing attraction!), the facility is very clean and spacious, and there was so much to do there that even on a busy Saturday, lines were practically non-existent. Waterpark admission is included in the resort’s (very affordable) room rate, so you’ll definitely want to schedule it into your itinerary.
3. Don’t miss Dollywood. Dolly Parton’s famed theme park really does live up to the hype, particularly in the fall when the surrounding mountains are ablaze with color. There are family-friendly rides, stage shows, a fantastic coal-fired steam engine train ride through the mountains, and lots of arts and crafts and artisans demonstrating the way things used to be– which really appealed to the home schooler in me!
4. Taste some of the region’s best barbeque at Deep South Smokehouse. Housed in a rustic, well, shack, this barbeque joint isn’t easy to find, but reviewers say it’s well worth seeking out. Make a reservation in advance and plan to eat early—The owners close up shop when they run out of food- sometimes as early as 5 or 6 pm!
5. Go rafting on the Pigeon Gorge. There are LOTS of whitewater rafting outfitters in the Smokies- But I’d probably go with the Nantahala Outdoor Center on this. We’ve used them several times on various rivers and they are established, well-trained, and highly professional. In short, I TRUST THEM WITH MY KIDS- and when it comes to whitewater rafting, that matters.
The NOC does two family trips on the Pigeon Gorge- an intermediate course for ages 8 and up and an easy course for ages 3 and up. They always have great surprises on the course- On past NOC adventures, we’ve done everything from walking under waterfalls to riding through a rapid while floating in the water alongside the boat to climbing into a hole in a rock in the middle of a river and shooting out the underside. I think we’re going to have to take advantage of this family adventure the next time we’re in the area.
6. Visit Rainforest Adventures. This little indoor zoo is a true educational gem of the Smokies. The building houses more than 600 animals and 130 species- and what really made it fun for my family was the number of animals, insects, birds and reptiles we’d never seen before. What we thought would be a 30 minute trip turned into two hours as the kids laughed over the inquisitive lemurs and capuchins, marveled at the giant boas, held a tarantula, petted goats, and learned about the life cycle of a rat in a surprisingly fascinating exhibit. Rainforest Adventures is a perfect rainy day option and there really is something for every member of the family here.
7. Get your southern cooking fix at Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant. This 1921 farmhouse is now a super-popular restaurant- and with good reason. The food is fantastic! We recommend the chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, onion rings, and mashed potatoes in particular, as well as the apple fritters which come with every meal. You may encounter a lengthy wait for a table- Use that time to take pictures of the family on the banks of the Little Pigeon River across the street and visit the Apple Barn next door for souvenirs and a glass of delicious cider. If it’s not too busy, request one of the two tables at the restaurant with porch swings instead of chairs– Your kids will be thrilled!
8. Give your kids the ride of their lives on a Scenic Helicopter Tour. This was definitely the pinnacle of our Smoky Mountain experience- Tours range from a quick and fairly inexpensive loop around Sevierville and nearby Lake Douglas to a thousand dollar, 100 mile exploration of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We opted for the $70-per-person Extended Foothills Tour It was worth every penny. The looks on my kids’ faces were priceless, the mountains were gorgeous from the air, and we’re all anticipating going on a longer tour the next time we visit.
9. Let the kids run wild at WonderWorks. Housed in an upside-down mansion, WonderWorks looks like just another overblown Pigeon Forge attraction, but locals tell us it’s well worth the price of admission. With more than 100 interactive exhibits including an indoor ropes challenge course, a 4D Extreme Motion ride, WonderWorks is a kids’ indoor paradise- and it’s educational, too!
10. Explore Sevierville’s quaint downtown area and eat at local favorite, Bistro 109. Beyond the neon lights, modern strip malls, and eye-catching attractions, it’s worth noting that Sevierville also has a very charming and historic downtown. That’s where you’ll find Bistro 109, a sophisticated bar and restaurant that’s popular with locals and tourists alike. Menu options look delicious (Maple Glazed Duck Breast, anyone?) and I can’t wait to try it. Reservations here are recommended.
11. Soar through the treetops on a zipline course. There are plenty of courses to choose from in the area- One popular option is the 1.5 mile, 2 hour course at Adventure Park at Five Oaks in Sevierville. Kids under 70 pounds must ride with a parent, but we saw very few little ones on this particular zipline course- Unless your child is very adventurous (and not afraid of heights), this is probably a better activity for families with tweens and teens.
12. Order Mushroom Burgers at Holston’s Kitchen and top it all off with a giant piece of cake. This Sevierville staple serves casual American fare with a mushroom burger that’s anything but standard– In a weekend of great meals, this burger may have been our very favorite thing to eat! We splurged on a ginormous $8 piece of chocolate cake afterward and it was worth every penny- not only for the delicious flavor but for the looks on the kids’ faces when the waitress brought it to our table!
13. Go for a hike. You’re really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t do at least a short hike while you’re in the Smoky Mountains. There are dozens of trails featuring waterfalls, panoramic views, and sweet, sweet nature- and there’s literally something for every kind of hiker. This website has a great list of hikes ranging from easy to difficult.
To heighten the experience, you may want to opt for a guided hike. A Walk in the Woods offers guided walks and hikes for every kind of traveler, from children to experienced backpackers. Park rangers also offer guided tours- Stop by the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center for schedules.
14. Discover the Forbidden Caverns. I’m a sucker for a good cave system and Forbidden Caverns seems like a winner for families in particular. The tour is an hour long and visitors say the guides are friendly and very knowledgeable. Bonus points for the mood lighting!
15. Check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Located in Gatlinburg, this kid-friendly aquarium easily rivals the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga- I really can’t decide which one I like best! From the underwater tunnels through the fish tanks to the playful penguin exhibit to the live feeding shows and interactive exhibits, I was pleasantly surprised by just how nice this aquarium was- and the kids didn’t want to leave!
16. Enjoy a meal with a view at Friendly Falls Food & Stuff. This roadside restaurant features outdoor dining with a view of a waterfall and live music—and it gets rave reviews from travelers. What more do you need to know?
17. Explore Cades Cove. This is the most visited section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park– It’s a 4,000-acre valley that’s known for its natural beauty, for the beautiful Abrams Falls, and for the historic structures that still stand there today, built by some of the 132 families that lived in Cades Cove in the mid-1800s. You can explore Cades Cove via the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, which is open year-round from sunrise to sunset. On Wednesdays and Saturdays between May and September, the road is closed to cars until 10am each morning. On Saturdays in December, the loop is closed to cars until noon. This allows bikers and walkers to take advantage of the road.
18. Eat a hearty breakfast at the famous Log Cabin Pancake House. Located in Gatlinburg, this nearly 40-year-old staple is a great place to get a breakfast your entire family will remember!
19. Get up close and personal with the Titanic. We’re all a little obsessed with the Titanic, right? That’s probably why the interactive Titanic museum in Pigeon Forge is so popular. Here, you can climb an exact replica of the Titanic’s grand staircase, meet the crew of the ship, examine Titanic artifacts, feel the exact temperature of the water, steer the ship, and more. You can proceed through the museum at your own pace, and adult and children’s versions of the tour are offered. People love this place- and I can’t wait to check it out for myself.
20. Learn about the region’s history at Wheatlands Plantation in Sevierville. This plantation home, built in 1791, is now being restored by its owners and is open for tours. Located on the site of the Revolutionary War’s “Battle of Boyd’s Creek,” the home and its acreage are rich in history, which the plantation’s owners are eager to share with visitors. You can opt for a standard historical tour or learn about Wheatlands’ famous ghosts- Both tours get rave reviews from guests.
21. Enjoy a tasty treat (and stock up on all the made-in-Tennessee souvenirs you can handle) at the Apple Barn. There’s something for everyone at this Smoky Mountain landmark, located inside a 1910 barn beside the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant. It includes a general store, candy factory, ice cream shop, and winery– but if you ask us, the very best thing about the Apple Barn is its kitchen! There, you can buy fresh apple cider, delectable apple dumplings and ice cream, apple stack cake, mouthwatering apple donuts, and fried apple pies. YUM.
22. Head back to the 1950s with a meal at The Diner. You’ll find yummy food that’s easy on your budget at this family friendly Sevierville diner that pays homage those Happy Days of yore. The menu is huge and everything we tried was fantastic- You can’t go wrong with the Elk Burger or the fantastic Chicken and Dumplings, and the onion rings are to die for. For dessert, the scratch-made Banana Pudding is a house specialty and our kids went crazy over the Hot Fudge Cake.
23. Take a trail ride through the foothills of the Smokies. We had a great time on our hour-long horseback ride with Five Oaks Riding Stables, but I was so glad they had horses (and in our case, a mule!) big enough for my seven-year-old and I to ride together– because this was not a trail he would have felt comfortable riding on alone. It featured some steep inclines, descents, and drop-offs- Fortunately, the horses knew the trail well and the guide was always ready to help when needed. We all had a nice, calm ride through Sevierville’s beautiful, hilly forests. My 10-year-old daughter, who has some riding experience, did fine on her own.
24. Sample local wines along the Rocky Top Wine Trail. Five wineries within 12 miles of each other? You owe it to yourself to enjoy a tasting at at least one of them. We opted for Sevierville’s bustling Hillside Winery, where our favorite was the popular Black and Blue variety, a sweet blend of blackberries and blueberries. Bottoms up!
25. Catch your own dinner at English Mountain Trout Farm. At this popular restaurant, diners are given a fishing pole and bait so that they can catch their own dinner in a nearby pond! Don’t have time for fishing? No problem. You can order the “freshest fish you’ve ever tasted,” according to the restaurant’s owners, straight off the menu.
26. Enjoy the kitschiness of Ripley’s Odditorium, a moth-eaten collection of more than 500 oddities and exhibits. Don’t expect much here beyond good old-fashioned sideshow-style fun– It’s a perfect activity for a rainy day. Tip: Ripley’s has 8 different attractions in Gatlinburg– Buy your tickets in bulk if you’re planning on visiting more than one, and save money!
27. Shop for authentic mountain arts & crafts in the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community. On an 8-mile loop road, you’ll find more than 120 artisans selling quilts, baskets, dolls, ceramics, folk art, stained glass, and much, much more. Visitors call this community of craftsmen and women a true gem in the Smokies.
28. Sample to-die-for barbeque at Tony Gore’s Smoky Mountain BBQ & Grill. Tony Gore is best known for his gospel singing, but did you know he can also make a mean mess of barbeque? We had lunch at his popular restaurant in Sevierville and were crazy about the Famous Three Little Pigs– featuring pulled pork, sliced pork, and smoked brisket sliders. Each one was fantastic, particularly with the addition of Tony’s famous sweet barbeque sauce. The french fries were outstanding and the meat on my baby back ribs fell right off the bone. We can’t wait to go back!
29. Look for bears along the Roaring Fork Auto Nature Trail. Visitors love this 5.5-mile, one-way loop road through the Smoky Mountains, and many report seeing black bears along the way! You can leave the trail to walk to Grotto Falls or look at one of three historic homesteads located just off the road.
30. Stop by the Bush’s Beans Visitor Center. A museum devoted to beans? HECK YEAH! People actually rave about the Bush’s Beans headquarters in Chestnut Hill, Tennessee, which includes an interactive museum, a family cafe and a general store.
Seriously, though? They had me at BEAN M– USEUM.
Got more Smoky Mountain must-sees? Share them with us in the comments!
Header image via John Britt/Flickr Creative Commons
Thanks to the Sevierville and Gatlinburg Chambers of Commerce for graciously providing some of the activities we enjoyed on our trips to the Great Smoky Mountains. As always, our opinions on all of our travel experiences are our own.