Amy is a working mum with an MBA, hailing from China, educated in Canada, and now residing in Cleveland, Ohio. She juggles her finance career with raising two babies and loves to write for her parenting blog, AmyBabys.com, while creating unforgettable family memories through travel.
Vacations in the Eastern United States typically involve heading south and finding a beach. This year our growing family decided to try something a little different, and boy did it payoff!
Gatlinburg is a mountain resort city located in the heart of Tennessee, right on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It makes for a wonderful mix of nature and adventure, allowing families to experience the trip in a variety of ways. From relaxing day hikes offering spectacular views, to thrilling mountain coasters, Gatlinburg offers it all. In this article we’ll explore the best things to do in Gatlinburg and describe how it made the year for our young family of four.
We have two kids under two years old, so one perk of Tennessee was less time spent traveling in the car. Venturing to some of our favourite beach locations requires a longer drive, a tough ask for our than 7-month-old. Leaving for the trip we were excited – our first vacation with both of our children! We spent a good two weeks thinking about all the necessary gear — probably overkill unless you’ve got smaller kids — but it’s worth mentioning that the area is among the mountain tops where the clouds form, and the weather can change rather quickly! Little rain jackets for the kiddos and a nice pair of rainboots for walking ensured everyone stayed comfortable.
As we arrived, we drove through the city of Pigeon Forge. A tourists dream, this little city is packed with excitement! We passed numerous unique hotels and cabin rentals. The Mountain Mile has a little bit of everything, shopping galore, go-karts, wineries, indoor snow tubing, restaurants, live music, and even jeep tours of the mountainous terrain. This area boasts the Rocky Top Mountain Coaster Ride (yes, a roller coaster built into the side of a mountain) and The Mountain Monster, a 200-foot free fall for thrill seekers.
Pigeon Forge is also home to Dollywood, named after hometown hero country singer Dolly Parton. TripAdvisor crowned Dollywood the #1 theme park in the U.S. for 2022.
Seeing as how we have two small children, we opted for comfort above the possible unknowns of a hotel. The family splurged on an Airbnb that could accommodate our unique needs. To save space in the car, we found a great local business to delivered cribs and baby gear to the house. The road up to our new home for the week was quiet the experience in itself! Slow and steady up a windy climb. Once we arrived, we could not have been happier about the house – beautiful view with a spacious double deck patio. As promised the host included toys and games for the kids. Once the children were down for the night we could relax in the hot tub or snuggle by the outdoor fire pit. People told us we would probably see wildlife, and withing 24 hours of arrival we met our favourite little visitors, a family of black bears!
One cub knocking his brother down the slope…. Hey don’t scratch the car!
Gatlinburg is famous for its black bear population. Every clothing shop both in and outside of the park sells bear merchandise. Homes in the area are built specifically with the wildlife in mind. Trash bins have locks and houses are typically up on stilts to make sure these furry friends keep their distance.
Once we settled in, Downtown Gatlinburg was our first stop. The Village Shoppes is a little haven tucked away from the bustle and offers 27 unique shops and eateries set in a delightful European village atmosphere. Village Shoppes is also home to The Donut Friar, which turned out to be our favourite place to grab a morning snack.
Across from the Village Shoppes is the entrance to Anakeesta – Tennessee’s award-winning adventure park. And by entrance, I mean to say chairlifts! If you don’t care for heights, the park also offers truck rides from Downtown Gatlinburg to the summit. Anakeesta truly has something for everyone; teenagers and adults who act like teenagers (my husband) can enjoy the mountain coaster and zipline tours. Younger kids can explore the Treehouse Village Play area, Canopy Walk, and sensory botanical gardens. You can easily spend a day exploring the park, with is numerous clifftop shops and restaurants, and everywhere you look, panoramic smokey mountain views.
Across the street from Anakeesta is Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. This massive facility is home to over 350 different species of aquatic life. Our favorite part had to be the 340-foot underwater tunnel with a glide path. Kids also can enjoy a two-story learning tower or play in the adorable Penguin Playhouse. The aquarium makes for a great getaway on those rainy days.
After spending a considerable amount of time (and money) in Downtown Gatlinburg, we decided it was time to pack some lunches and do some hiking. It was time to explore the trails! You really can’t go wrong, but it’s worth considering what you’d like to see – Waterfalls, old-growth forests, or scenic views. Since we had the children, we chose a few of the easier hikes. The Gatlinburg trail lays right on the outskirts of the city of Gatlinburg. The trail is relatively flat and travels alongside the Little Pigeon River. Several foundations and chimneys from old homesites are visible along the trail.
From novice to expert, there are a wide variety of trails differing in elevation that offer a range of unique experiences – and they are all free! Looking back, some of our favourite memories were made in the great outdoors, dipping hot feet in the river or watching our kids discover a swarm of butterflies!
If you’d rather stay in the car, Cades Cove is a nearby 11-mile picturesque drive that hosts the largest variety of historic buildings in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Churches, log homes, barns and mills originally erected by European settlers in the early 1800s can be viewed right from the car, or explored on foot while you park. The true draw of Cades Cove (at least for our 2-year-old) was the bears. Black bears can typically be seen along the loop during the afternoon and early evening hours. If you like to bike, the drive is closed off and open exclusively to bicyclists on Wednesdays.
One last attraction before we packed up the suitcases and headed north. With all the choices you quickly realise that you’ll run out of vacation before you run out of things to do in Gatlinburg! Our final day was spent at Parrot Mountain Gardens. The gardens boast some beautifully landscaped gardens, full of plant life and flowers. You will see dragonflies and butterflies…. alongside hundreds of birds. Big birds, small birds, colourful birds — toucans, magpies, and yes, parrots! Our oldest, assisted by the friendly staff, got to hand feed a baby bird at the nursery upon our exit from this unique find.
Leaving Gatlinburg was hard. Not only because we wished we had more days on the docket, but also quite literally we couldn’t pack the car on account of a bear situation. Our momma and baby cubs attempted to get into the locked driveway trash bins the morning we had to leave. We can’t vacate the property with a family of 5 hanging out in the driveway! The friendly Airbnb host understood the situation and allowed us extra time to start our trek home.
C’mon we need to pack and leave!
There is a reason the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. Gatlinburg is a place for all budgets and all ages. The food and entertainment are done right, the attractions are endless, the views are spectacular, and whether you’re affordably retired or a family with kids, the whole crew will have a blast!