Adventures in Gatlinburg, TN

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See penguins, sharks and other marine life at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, enjoy a family hike in the mountains and more.

The prep talk scared us. The guide demonstrated three different ways to pull in rafters after they fell out of the boat. She emphasized ignoring the instinct to stand when you fell out, and talked about black eyes and missing teeth resulting from mishandled paddles. And that was for the 4-year-old and up ride. We heard the same thing for the 8-and-up ride, but I kept focused on the reassuring words that if we followed directions, and leaned into the boat, we’d be fine and have fun.
And we did. We had an amazing time white water rafting in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. About a five-hour drive from Cincinnati, Gatlinburg is a great getaway for a weekend escape or an extended vacation. Best known for its access to the beautiful Smoky Mountain National Park, Gatlinburg offers endless opportunities to get close to nature, or enjoy shopping and endless kitschy entertainments.
We explored many of the town’s oddities during our stay. “Earthquake, the Ride” was fantastically awful. So terrible that we loved it. We only waited in line for five minutes but could repeat the announcer’s hype about the silly ’70s movie before we entered the train. It shakes, moves back and forth, is loud and involves random sights that are scary: rats, an alligator and a prominently featured gorilla. But besides a beam that falls, rises, and falls again, again, and again, it has shockingly little to do with an earthquake.

The best of the street-side attractions, and the best value in our opinion, are the Ripley ones. A pass allows visitors to enjoy several Ripley venues for one price. There’s minigolf, a haunted adventure, a mirror maze, and more, but we’d recommend Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. A lively, inviting space, the aquarium features video descriptions of habitats alongside enormous tanks, a new place for the penguins, and interactive areas that let you pet stingrays, horseshoe crabs, and sharks. But our favorite feature was the moving sidewalk. Crowds didn’t matter since the sidewalks give everyone a front row view of the exotic fish, tropical plants, and sharks inside the tunnel of aquatic sea life.

Another way to surround yourself with nature is to get outside. We hiked the Grotto Falls Trail, called “moderate,” and even “easy” on some websites.  It was not easy. True, I’m not anyone’s definition of “fit,” but I understand the word “easy.” While our kids dashed ahead, and climbed over rocks, my husband kept me company as I pretended to linger over plants and look at the scenery, but actually worked on breathing. But the falls were worth it. Despite the crowds, it was easy to maneuver the area, to take great pictures, relax on a rock and enjoy the scenery. However, we found a much easier way to enjoy the scenery on our way out of the park, as we drove by many small, but beautiful waterfalls. While less spectacular than the one we hiked to, the scenery was lovely. So the next evening, we cheated. We drove through the park, pulled off to the side and enjoyed a private waterfall, where we climbed on rocks, floated leaves down the stream, and collected beautiful pebbles as our souvenirs.

Before we headed home, we spent the afternoon at Ober Gatlinburg, an old-fashioned amusement park with something for everyone. Visitors can simply enjoy the sights, restaurants, or shopping, or they can purchase passes or tickets for activities. See bears and other animals at the Wildlife Encounters, take a ride on the Merry Go Round, go ice-skating, or visit the arcade. We got lost in the life-sized Amazin’ Maze and splashed on the Blue Cyclone Rapids, water slides that welcome visitors to wear street clothes or swimsuits. We loved the Shoot the Chute, a ride down the luge, that allows you to control your own speed as you zip down, bank curves, and speed through the end zone. But my favorite was the Scenic Chair Lift, a peaceful, relaxing ride that provides inspiring views of the Great Smokies.

Barbara Littner David is a local writer and mother of five. She is also the author of Cincinnati Trips for Kids, a collection of more than 40 great Cincinnati-area attractions.

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