One of my favorite family vacation destinations, only about five hours from Cincinnati, is the Great Smoky Mountains. Between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, there is so much to do for your whole crew. Check out this list of my family’s favorite smoky mountain activities, and be sure to comment about your family’s favorite Smokey mountain travel traditions!
Browse the Gatlinburg Parkway
This activity could theoretically be free. However, my family always ends up getting some candy, an airbrushed shirt, and playing arcade games at Fannie Farkles while we share a foot-long corn dog. There are tons of stores from which to window shop, and LOTS of free samples along the parkway. I was able to taste some wine, caramels, and fudge all within the same block. Yum! My family has also made the tradition of getting an old west photo every time we visit Gatlinburg. It’s only about $30, and it’s a fun memory for us to share together.
Go to the Award winning Ripley’s Aquarium
Believe it to not, Ripley’s has one of the best aquariums in the world! The Gatlinburg Ripley’s Aquarium is easily navigated, stroller friendly, educational, fun; and an absolutely perfect destination for hot or rainy days, or really any day at all! With over 10,000 sea creatures to see, including lots of sharks, stingrays, eels, jellyfish, frogs, fish, and penguins, your family is sure to learn a thing or two about aquatic life during your visit!
Along with the aquatic life, you may also see some divers during your visit to the aquarium. There are several opportunities to see dive shows each day in shark lagoon, the coral reef, and stingray bay. And back by popular demand, the memorable mermaid dives are returning this summer!!!
Your family is also sure to love the stingray and jellyfish touch stations, the large indoor playground, hands-on educational components, delicious donuts and food options, and the new glass bottom boat tour! The aquarium is fun, educational, and air-conditioned! If you are looking for a really unique visit to the aquarium, check out their shark sleepovers. There are public family overnight dates available, and also private group overnights with a minimum of 12 children. Be sure to book your tickets online, and check out combo passes for savings. Your family is sure to have an ocean’s worth of fun with a visit to the Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg!
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
88 River Rd
Take a hike!
The Great Smoky Mountains are home to several wonderful visitor centers, with clearly marked hiking trails, and friendly park rangers to help mark your trail map. During our most recent GSM trip, we went to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. This location has a theatre, museum, and gift store. We took a family excursion to Cataract Falls, an easy one-mile hike that leads to a beautiful waterfall!
And don’t forget to get your National Park passport stamped, or to have your little nature lover participate in the National Parks Junior Ranger program. Junior Ranger activity booklets are available for purchase ($2.50), and have great historical, environmental, and other fun educational activities to help bridge the summer learning gap.
Sugarland Visitor Center
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Make Discoveries at Dollywood!
Dollywood’s theme park has been skillfully and thoughtfully designed with families in mind. As your family wanders the beautifully landscaped paths, you will find that everyone can stick together in the same area. Within walking distance of one another you will find big coasters that will please the adventure seekers in your group, smaller coasters that will thrill the youngsters, craft demonstrations, and live performances!
Downloading the Dollywood App will help you get around the park with ease. The map indicates where restaurants, shops, craft demonstrations, baby changing stations, and rides are located. Each ride is color coded with height and rider requirements listed- so be sure to get your child measured, and get a color coded bracelet when you enter the park (go left- you will see the centralized measuring signs). As you wait in lines, you will be grateful for another thoughtful feature, large fabric canopies that help shade guests from the sun, and fans to help them keep cool.
If you happen to get hungry, Dollywood has amazing food options. You will smell something delicious at every corner you turn, whether it is hot grilled burgers at Red’s Drive-In, some smoky, fresh BBQ, or a tasty batch of kettle corn; you won’t leave the park hungry!
Dollywood has tons of adorable craft stores, but who wants to shop if you have to lug your merchandise all over the park? Well, you don’t have to! Simply fill out a package pick-up slip, and any items you purchase throughout the day will be waiting for you at the Emporium when you leave. We hand dipped some candles during our visit, and I was worried about carrying them around in the heat all day, then I learned about the pick-up service. Very cool!
Dollywood really is fun for the whole family, baby to seniors. In fact, my 16 month old son was able to enjoy his first rides during our visit! He squealed and laughed with delight on the Lucky Ducky, Busy Bees, and Piggy Parade rides. The rides themselves were the perfect size for him, but what pushed his experience above and beyond was the workers who sang songs and made oinking and quacking sounds over the intercom! Their enthusiasm had every little rider giggling with glee, and pulled on this momma’s heartstrings. My 4 and 6 year olds had lots of rides to choose from in each area. All ages are sure to enjoy the southern hospitality, home cookin’, and adventures to be had at Dollywood!
Dollywood Theme Park
2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd.
Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
Play at Herbert Holt Park
Sometimes it is all about location, location, location. And that is definitely the case for Herbert Holt Park, which is nestled down a ramp on the left before you embark on the journey to Pigeon Forge from Gatlinburg. Be careful, you just might miss it… but you won’t want to! This park has a small playground, picnic area, and the perfect fishing pier for kids. Kids don’t even need a fishing permit to fish at this location, which is stocked with trout from the municipal farm (FYI: no fishing is permitted on Thursday’s, as that is the day the farm restocks fish). If you’re not in the mood to fish, dip your toes into the crisp Little Pigeon River, or take a hike on one of the trails. This little park packs a big punch, be sure to add it to your travel itinerary.
Herbert Holt Park
North Park Lane
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Eat a Good Meal
The Great Smoky Mountains are full of old-fashioned good eats. My families go to restaurants include the Old Mill and Huck Finn’s in Pigeon Forge, and a big pancake feast!
The Old Mill features a lunch that feels never ending… it comes with corn chowder, corn fritters, mashed potatoes, and green beans; and dinner comes with all of that plus a side salad AND dessert! It’s wise to wear elastic waistbands for this meal, and then after you eat you can walk off the food coma by browsing the quaint stores near the mill.
Huck Finn’s has great catfish, hush puppies, and live music! They also have all-you-can-eat vittles with dinner… what are vittles, you may ask? Vittles include coleslaw, baked white beans, fries or mashed potatoes and gravy, hush puppies, pickles, and onions. Again, elastic waistbands will be your friend, but if you take a hike during your visit or walk the parkway, everything will balance out in the end. Probably.
I know lots of families are loyal to a certain pancake chains in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, but growing up my family never committed to just one pancake house. We typically rented a cabin in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, and my parents would make breakfast most days. I remember us always getting a pancake breakfast, but it was spontaneous and we ate at whichever pancake house happened to be closest to the cabin we were staying at that time. Which pancake house is your family’s favorite, and what is your order? I’d love to have just one favorite place, but we have also been enjoying giving each of them a try every time we travel to the Smokies.
The Old Mill Restaurant
164 Old Mill Avenue,
Pigeon Forge TN 37863
Huck Finn’s Catfish
Pigeon Forge, TN 37863