Family vacations are such a fun and easy way to make amazing memories with those we love the most. Family vacations can also be a little stressful, especially with young children in tow. Luckily, there are so many resources these days to help us find the best accommodations and attractions so we aren’t wasting our time. So let’s take a trip to Gatlinburg, TN!
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My family loves to explore. We love to hike and find new things to do. Although I consider myself a planner, there is something very intriguing about welcoming the unexpected.
Honestly, we typically take family vacations to Disney World in Orlando, or to the beach in Destin, so our trip to Gatlinburg was a nice change of pace. And this trip was perfect with young children, too! There is so much to do, plenty to see and explore and a nice variety of restaurants for everyone in your party.
Mid June is apparently the most popular time for a trip to the Smokies, but there is so much to do that we didn’t really notice the crowds (everyone is pretty spread out) and we didn’t have to wait for a meal at any restaurant (except on a Friday evening). We all know how disastrous long waits can be for children, so I will break it down for you and let you know the times that worked best for us.
The firt thing we checked was the forecast. Almost every activity you will do in Gatlinburg is outdoors. Of course there are many museums you can enjoy, but we opted to spend 95% of our time outdoors exploring nature. Unfortunately, the forecast called for rain and thunderstorms every single day we were in town, however, it rained maybe a total of an hour each day.
Be sure to grab this book, too. We used this book every day we were in town, and it was very helpful. You will also find big hiking sticks at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, so pick up a couple for the kids – it makes the trails that much more fun!
We didn’t even stop at our villa to check in before heading straight to this fun little amusement park. A lot of attractions are considered an “amusement park” in Gatlinburg, but this one was more like a little county fair, in my opinion. It was winter-themed and had a Swiss Alps feel.
Ober is open year round, so you can experience different attractions for each of the four seasons. Although winter is a peak time for skiing at Ober, you will not be bored in the warmer months. Parking is $8, and we found that you really can’t park anywhere for free in Gatlinburg, unless you find a spot on the strip, which is very difficult to do.
There is now Summer Tubing available, which is adjacent to the Mountain Coaster, allowing riders to cruise 250 feet down the mountainside. The cost is $8 per person for 2 runs. We opted out of this attraction because our youngest is only 3 years old, so she didn’t meet the age requirement, although I’m sure she would have loved it.
minimum height of 36”
must be at least 4 years old
age 4-6 must ride with an adult
must wear close-toed shoes
There is an unlimited kiddie pass, allowing your younger children to participate in 3 of the Kiddie Land rides all day long. It’s $10 for the pass and we experienced zero wait times, which was nice for excited children with little patience. Otherwise, the rides are individually priced, which can really add up.
Must do: Alpine Slide
You have to take the ski lift to the top, which was a bit unsettling for me at first, but it is safe and secure and even my 3 year old had a blast. It is $8 per person per ride and children 6 and under must ride with an adult.
You will ride on either a red (individual) plastic sled with speed control, or a yellow (tandem) plastic sled with speed control. If riding tandem, both riders must have their hands on the speed control at all times.
The Alpine Slide was so much fun, our children begged to ride it over and over again. We rode it multiple times and it was just as exciting each time.
Tip: take a goPro camera with you and secure it to your hat and you will get an amazing view and capture the excitement on video!
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
We chose to visit the Aquarium on a rainy morning so we could use the afternoon to explore the outdoors. The Aquarium was a child’s dream come true – so much to do, yet not wasting an entire day indoors. We found parking down the street for $10, because the garage to the attraction was already full when we arrived around 10am. Be aware: you will not know that the garage is full until you arrive to the garage, which is silly, causing more traffic, as you have to turn around with the masses of others who were hoping to get a spot in the garage.
The Aquarium was the most crowded attraction we experienced during our entire trip, so if you have a young child, I would highly recommend a stroller, and arriving at open. There was a long line to get into the attraction, and it was very slow moving once inside as well. But please hear me when I say it was SO worth it!
Let your children explore the 3 story playground or take a nice stroll through the shark lagoon, where you will see eels, sharks, sea turtles and fish all around you. And did I mention mermaids? There is a mermaid dive, where the whole family will enjoy the beauty of mermaids swimming with the fish and interacting with the audience – and don’t forget your camera for a photo op with the mermaids!
Tip: plan ahead and make a reservation for the penguin encounter. Unfortunately, we were unaware that reservations were necessary and they were completely booked. But you can pay $40 per person (4 years and older only) to pet and feed a penguin. And who doesn’t want to get nose-to-nose with penguins? We were bummed we didn’t get to experience this. However, there is a penguin playground where the sweet little playful birds come nose-to-nose with you (behind glass). Be sure to check out the tags on their wings too – they are all named. My children loved Moana!
You will exit the Aquarium through the gift shop (brilliant advertising on their end), so be sure to look around! We found a little area in the gift shop where kids can fill their very own treasure chest full of gems, jewelry and gold coins for just $5.99. My 3 year old loved this activity and played with her “jewels” the entire trip!
Cades Cove Scenic Drive
This is an absolute must-see in Gatlinburg. Cades Cove is an isolated valley in the Smoky Mountains and sees roughly 2 million visitors each year – making it the most visited area in the park. It took us about an hour to drive from downtown Gatlinburg, but the drive was worth it, as we took in the scenery from the mountains along the way.
While driving through Cades Cove, you will be able to stop along the way as well and explore different homes and churches where the first Europeans settled around the 1820s. This spot became a protected part of the Smokies around 1934.
Don’t forget to stop at the John Cable Grist Mill before you exit the park. It’s a great chance to stretch your legs, visit the shop, and explore the mill and another short trail along a stream. We even saw a snapping turtle.
Cars are not permitted at Cades Cove on Wednesdays or Saturdays.
Scenic Drive Through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
We drove through the park almost every day we were in town, and we saw different trails and beautiful scenery every single time. You are able to stop at many different overlooks and get views of the mountians. The streams along the way are also a fun spot to walk around and skip rocks. We even saw elk along the road, about 3 feet from the car. All wildlife is protected in National Parks, and it’s like the elk knew it – they were unphased by cars stopping and snapping pictures and videos.
Be sure to print out this scavenger hunt for the kids. It can add a little excitement to the drive through the mountains. My kids made a friendly little competition out of it.
Drive up the Pigeon Forge bypass to see one of the most beautiful views of Gatlinburg. Be sure to stop at Mount Le Conte. You can see Mount Le Conte and compare it to the picture from the signage at the overlook. Just another beautiful spot to stop the car for a few moments and take in the views.
This specific trail was recommended by many books we read and people we saw at the visitor center. Although I am glad we took this hike, I will say it is very steep and literally in the clouds, so visibility is scarce. It was marked as an “easy” path, however, with two young children, it was not. The path is paved, but entirely uphill. I would recommend a stroller, although it may be a bit difficult to push uphill, and a jacket! The temperature dropped 20 degrees by the time we reached the top, which is the highest point in the park. This spot was past the Tennessee/North Carolina border, so it’s a bit of a drive.
Chimney Picnic Area
We found this beautiful picnic area by mistake as we were turning the car around and we are sad we didn’t know about it sooner! This is a quiet and scenic area with picnic tables and your own grill. You can pack a lunch or bring food to cook and enjoy the stream and wildlife. There were many rocks to climb and sit on and a path to walk as well. We drove through at 1pm and it wasn’t terribly crowded. This will be a must-do for us during our next visit.
Laurel Falls Trail
Laurel Falls Trail was by far one of my favorite trails we took our entire trip! It is a 2.6 mile round-trip hike to a breathtaking waterfall. Plan on walking for at least 2 hours, depending on how much time you choose to spend at the waterfall. But please do not let the length of this trail give you any hesitation!
This is a paved path to the top, and shaded most of the way. Strollers are not recommended, as the path gets bumpy and narrow at times. Overall, I felt that the path was very safe to walk with small children, just keep a close eye at all times.
I strongly recommend a backpack for children 3 and under, as their little legs may get tired. I felt a lot safer with Lucy on my back, rather than walking freely along the steep edge of the mountain. We used this backpack here, and it was perfect for my 35 pound 3 year old! I was able to carry her almost the entire walk and it was comfortable and extremely easy to get in and out of.
Once you reach the top of the trail, you are greeted by an 80 foot waterfall. I cannot put into words how beautiful this waterfall is and how much my entire family loved the view. There is a small bridge to walk across (adding to the beauty) and many photo opportunities to get a picture with the waterfall.
You can also climb down rocks to reach the bottom of the waterfall, which we opted to do, and we were not disappointed. It was definitely safe enough, even for my 3 year old. Feel the water and sit on a rock, taking in the sights and sounds of the nature around you. I highly recommend starting this trail early, as it became very crowded on our trek back down the path. We arrived around 9am and we pretty much had the trail to ourselves on the way up.
Anakeesta deserves a post all on it’s own! You must take the ski lift or chondola ride up the mountains to reach your destination. I would recommend the chondola with small children in tow, as it is enclosed, while still allowing you to see all of your surroundings. Once you reach the top, you will find plenty of shops and activities to keep the whole family entertained. There is also a sit-down restaurant, or small food trucks along the way. We opted to eat lunch at the Smokehouse Bbq food truck so we didn’t waste any time!
Anakeesta opens at 9am, but most attractions do not open until 10am. I still recommend arriving between 9-9:30, as it is not crowded and you will be able to sit in a rocking chair while drinking a cup coffee at the top of the mountain, or take a walk through the gardens.
There is so much to do here with kids, so plan on spending at least 3 hours to ride the rail runner, mine for gems, play in the treehouse, and walk through the tree canopy. The tree canopy walk was our favorite, as you are walking on 16 different bridges, 40’-60’ in the air. Strollers are not allowed on the bridges, but the staff is so friendly and accomodating, that they offered to walk to stroller to the front of the park for us, so it would be waiting when we finished.
The rail runner is a mountain coaster on a single-track that races you through the trees on the mountain. We took the kids and rode tandem, as neither were big enough to ride solo. They have a weight limit, and will actually weigh you before you ride so you do not exceed the limit with 2 people. As a result, I rode with my 6 year old and my husband took our 3 year old. It’s $15 per tandem ride and the ride lasts about 30 seconds, if I had to guess. You control the speed of the coaster. It was so much fun!
The gem mining was easily my daughter’s favorite activity at Anakeesta. You have the option to purchase a bag of fossils, gems, or a “motherload” which is a combination of all. It is an interactive waterfall where the children have their own baskets and can dig through the rocks and dirt to find and wash off their gems and fossils. And the best part, you keep what you find! This is a paid activity, ranging from $6.95 to $23.
The Island at Pigeon Forge
Think Downtown Disney meets carnival. The Island is so much fun you will have to drag your kids out of there. Our only regret was not spending an entire day there.
You will find ample dining opportunities, shopping and kids rides at The Island. We went on a Friday evening and it was packed. It took a while to get there too because there was so much traffic, but once we arrived, we had a blast! Once the sun goes down, all of the rides light up and glow in the dark.
Buy an unlimited pass for $30 per child. If your child is under 42”, you must ride with them. They have a huge ferris wheel, a small roller coaster, a happy swing, big trampoline area, and many more rides. Both of my children loved the rides.
If you go at night and plan to eat dinner like we did, put your name down at different restaurants and they will text you when your table is ready. We found most of the wait times to be about 1.5 to 2 hours, but one restaurant (Timberwood) was able to seat us in about 40 minutes. But don’t worry, you can walk around and let the kids play while you wait. Honestly, I wish we would have grabbed a Cinnabon or fries from the little shops, rather than waste over an hour sitting down.
Be sure to grab your road trip downloads, a guaranteed way to keep little ones busy for hours!
This is a must-do with little kids!
Obviously you could spend 2 weeks in Gatlinburg and not see it all, but the key is to find what works best for your family. All of the attractions listed above worked great with kids and I would highly recommend!