5 Fun Things to Do in Gatlinburg, TN & Nearby with Kids
With the plethora of kitschy souvenir shops, tourist traps, gold mining shops, and putt-putt golf courses that litter the area surrounding the Smoky Mountains, many people are put-off and subsequently apprehensive about visiting this beautiful part of East Tennessee. While much of the kitsch is inevitable, I urge you to look past some of the lights, Ferris wheels, bungee swings and touristy fun-parks and come along with me to our family’s picks for the top 5 fun things to do in Gatlinburg and vicinity with kids.
Best Gaitlinburg, TN Attractions for Families
1. GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most popular national park by a long shot. It draws more than 10 million visitors annually, about twice the number of the Grand Canyon, which is the second most popular park. The park stretches between North Carolina and Tennessee and includes sections of the Appalachian Trail. We love visiting the natural beauty of the park, but we have also found some worthy, man-made entertainment in the towns surrounding the national park.
Most visitors see the park looking out their car widows driving along a scenic bypass. Some may stop for pictures near waterfalls or a short hike but I recommend taking a family day hike on the Alum Caves trail. You don’t have to hike the whole trail for great scenery. Just going up to Arch Rock lets you walk along the river, see the forest and then make the unique climb through Arch Rock. It can be slightly strenuous at points but our two young daughters (ages 6 and 4 at the time) did it without assistance. Just pace yourself and enjoy the view.
This trail and parking area can get very busy, so plan ahead. There are bathrooms at the trailhead, but keep in mind that there are no water fountains or restrooms if you’re only going as far as Arch Rock. We always pack a backpack full of snacks, water, diaper changing items, and a small first aid kit. We also throw in a few extra wipes and a gallon size zip-top bag, as our girls have been known to use nature as their restroom. The zip top bag is for used wipes or diapers so that we don’t leave a trace or any accidental litter.
Tip: Check the National Park Service website before you go to confirm access to the areas of the park you want to visit.
2. SMOKY MOUNTAIN ALPINE COASTER
Another outdoor activity that’s fun for the family but not very strenuous is the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster in Pigeon Forge. We had an absolute blast on this unique coaster ride. Basically, the coaster tows you to the top of the mountain and then gravity pulls you to the bottom. Riders can control the brakes along the course, as there are places where you build up a ton of speed and scream down the mountain at speeds up to 27 miles per hour.
It is a nice scenic ride down through the forest and overlooking the river, but to be honest, I was so giddy while zipping down the mountain that I had tears running down my face and missed parts of the scenery! The ride up to the top takes about 5 minutes and then only about 2 minutes to get down. It is a truly awesome experience, so be prepared to buy a packet of tickets because riding the coaster once was not enough for our family.
3. RIPLEY’S AQUARIUM OF THE SMOKIES
I’ll be the first to admit that when I see any attraction with the Ripley’s brand name on it I immediately think “tourist trap.” However, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg proved me exceptionally wrong. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a world-class aquarium that includes an indoor rain forest, a penguin habitat, and a massive glide path tunnel that highlights sharks, rays and large ocean fish that you can almost touch through the clear acrylic that surrounds you.
They also have touch tanks where guests can reach out and touch rays or jellyfish and a four-story play structure for kids to expend a little energy. And for all the Nemo and Dory loving children, their coral reef section has clown fish and blue tangs for your kids to find.
Just to clear it up for initial skeptics like me, Ripley’s aquarium is incredibly educational and fully accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which also accredited our hometown zoo. This is no tourist trap; we easily spent about four hours wandering through all of the professionally prepared exhibits and educational shows and our kids didn’t want to leave. This is by far our family’s favorite place to go and thing to do in Gatlinburg proper.
For a healthy dose of Americana, we also spent a day at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge. We were originally on the fence about going because we thought it might be too hokey. But let me tell you, we are so glad we went that first time several years ago.
Every time we go, we spend a full 8-10 hours here and the kids are always kicking and screaming when it is time to leave. This place truly has something for everyone. There are plenty of rides for smaller kids, large roller coasters for big kids and plenty of exhibits like Dolly’s old tour bus, shows like Heartsong, live demonstrations showcasing woodworking, and fresh pork rinds being fried for anyone not interested in any of the rides. Our girls can’t ever get enough of the Rockin’ Roadway, as they get to drive the classic cars without any adults!
And did I mention the cinnamon bread yet? If not, I know I’ve given you a picture to stare at and covet below. Run, don’t walk, and get yourself some of the fresh-baked warm cinnamon bread from the Dollywood Grist Mill as soon as you pass through the entrance; trust me on this one. By the end of the day, the unassuming and somewhat tucked away Grist Mill sells out and you don’t want to miss out on this serious deliciousness. It’s worth every single blister on your feet and calorie you run off to get there.
We always grab a few to eat right away and order a few more in take-away aluminum pans that are waiting for us at the front of Dollywood when we leave. I tell my husband that I don’t want to lug them around in the stroller all day, but the reality is that I have a fear that someone might “accidentally” snatch them from our stroller and leave me empty handed! Forget having our stroller or diaper bag stolen, it’s the cinnamon bread that matters. I hope that admission is not grounds for therapy, although it probably is.
To quench your newly formed thirst from inhaling the warm and gooey cinnamon bread, throw in the towel and make the investment into a plastic souvenir drink container. While it’ll cost you a pretty penny up front, all fountain drink refills are unlimited and cost only $0.99 during the day of purchase and also for the entire season. For our family of five, the investment into one refillable container more than paid for itself after only about an hour in the park. And if you ever come back to Dollywood, you can bring your souvenir drink container year after year to get refills for only $1.99 each.
Another praise for Dollywood is that the grounds are always spotlessly clean and very well-maintained. Every staff member we met was happy, helpful and smiling. We’re already trying to figure out when we can visit again.
5. THE OLD MILL RESTAURANT
After all the fun in Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains, everyone has probably worked up a healthy appetite. The entire parkway leading to and from the national park is littered with chain restaurants, fast food joints, and places claiming to have authentic Southern cooking, but I suggest giving the Old Mill Restaurant in Pigeon Forge a try.
The Old Mill Restaurant makes classic home cooking recipes and serves them up with lots of sides and extra friendly service at big family tables. They also stone grind all of their whole grains and grits used in batters and for baking in the on-property mill. The food is sinfully delicious and unapologetically hearty. To top it off, the portions are very large. And if you need a recommendation on what to order, you can’t go wrong with their Country Fried Steak and homemade gravy or scratch-made Chicken and Dumplings, both get two thumbs-up from our family.
WHERE TO STAY IN GATLINBURG OR PIGEON FORGE
We stayed in two different Hilton family hotels while on this trip. The Park Vista Doubletree Hotel in Gatlinburg sits on top of a hill completely away from the crowds and traffic along the Gatlinburg Parkway. The indoor pool area is almost like another resort attraction for kids, as there are two great water slides, three pools and a hot tub all under one roof. Plus, the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that wafts throughout the lobby always provides a warm welcome.
The other hotel where we stayed at was Hampton Inn Pigeon Forge. Like The Park Vista Doubletree Hotel, they also have an indoor pool, but outdoors is where all of their aquatic fun takes place. Outside, they have another pool, a kids’ splash area, a hot tub and a nice gazebo. One thing we really like about the location of this hotel is that it is back off the parkway so you don’t have to fight the traffic at any hour of the day.
See all of the Hilton hotels in and near Gatlinburg, TN.
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Amy grew up in Southern California but has lived all over the globe. Her latest move brought her to Panama City, Florida, where she lives with her…