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Now that my family has moved to Nashville, we’ve been looking for family-friendly road trips we can take to explore the Southeast. Gatlinburg came as a highly recommended fun getaway that combines unique experiences and the great outdoors. We made the trip, loved it and want to share the highlights in case you’re searching for your next great American road trip destination.
1. Ride the Trolley
We quickly learned that once we arrived in Gatlinburg, it is best to park your car and use other ways to get around town. While much of Gatlinburg is walkable, it is also fun to ride the trolley. The trolley offers several loops around town; you can stop where you need to or ride the entire loop to get a feel for where everything is at.
Rides are 50 cents each or you can get an all-day pass for $2 per person. We bought tickets at the transit center next to the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
2. Extreme Miniature Golf
Miniature golf is a fun, family-friendly activity that most families have done before. When you’re in Gatlinburg, they take it up a few notches! Every mini golf place we found had a theme or something exotic to make the course unique. Some options included Crave Golf Club, Circus Golf and Treasure Quest Golf.
Based on the recommendation of our hotel, we chose Hillbilly Golf. The theme was based on scenes you might see in the South, but what made it really unique was where it was located. To get to the first hole, you have to take a funicular up the side of a mountain.
Then you’ll traverse down the mountain on a trail as you complete each hole.
3. Mountainside Rollercoasters
Being in the mountains and among the trees also adds to the excitement of roller coasters. There were several mountain coasters to choose from in Gatlinburg.
At Rowdy Bear Mountain, they have two attractions — the mountain glider and the mountain alpine coaster. To ride the mountain glider, you must weigh at least 80 pounds. The mountain alpine coaster is designed with the little ones in mind. Once kids are 3 years old and 38 inches, they can ride with an adult. Although our kids met the age and height requirements, we decided to pass on them because our kids were a little scared.
For bigger kids (56″ and taller), the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster is a great choice. I watched videos of the ride and it looks really fun. Next time we visit, if the kids aren’t tall enough, this big kid will go on the ride by himself!
4. Huge Pancakes and Cinnamon Rolls
Walking around town, we worked up a big appetite. Highway 441 is the main street in Gatlinburg and it is filled with delicious food options. Our friends in Nashville highly recommended that we eat breakfast at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp.
On our second morning, we planned to eat at Crockett’s. We arrived on the later side and had to wait 30 to 45 minutes, so I recommend that you show up early to avoid the wait.
We ordered pancakes, waffles and a skillet to share. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs because the portions here are huge. We barely made a dent in the massive pancakes that are literally 2 inches thick.
Friends also told us that the cinnamon rolls are really good at Crockett’s. There was no way that we could eat one during our meal, so we came back the next day to take one to go. The cinnamon rolls were the size of my head. Between the four of us, we devoured the two that we ordered.
5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains were once privately owned. The roads through the park were built by Tennessee and North Carolina state governments and local communities. When the land was transferred to the federal government, it was stipulated that there were to be no entrance fees charged to visitors.
Children ages 5 to 12 can become a Junior Ranger. Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet for $2.50 online or at any visitor’s center, then complete the interactive tasks. There are four different booklets to choose from with age-appropriate activities. Once finished, talk with a ranger and show your booklet to receive your Junior Ranger badge.
We hiked the Cataract Falls trail to explore a bit of the national park. It was an easy hike that provided plenty of opportunities for Timothy to climb rocks and traverse fallen trees. We did the leisurely hike in about an hour. We look forward to coming back and exploring even more of this national park.
When you visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in late May you may even see the amazing firefly light show. Tickets are limited, so mark your calendars to reserve your spot when the lottery opens.
6. The Longest Suspension Bridge
The suspension bridge stretches 680 feet across a deep valley that is up to 140 feet below. For the truly adventurous, there’s even a glass bottom at the highest point so you can test out your fear of heights.
Your family will take the SkyLift up 500 vertical feet in a 3-person chair lift that is similar to what you’ll find at ski resorts. When you get to the top, you’ll enjoy some of the best views in Gatlinburg from atop Crockett Mountain.
7. Skiing, Snowboarding, and Alpine Slides
In the winter, locals visit Gatlinburg to ski and snowboard at Tennessee’s only ski resort, Ober Gatlinburg. The ski season in Gatlinburg is limited to December through March and the resort offers terrain for all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Tubing is also available at the 9-lane, 400-foot snow tubing park that features a 50-foot vertical drop.
Ober Gatlinburg’s 140’ by 75’ indoor skating rink is open year round. Visitors will also love the 1,800’ alpine slide, wildlife encounter and mountain coaster.
8. White Water Rafting
For families that enjoy water activities, the excitement of white water rafting should be high on your list. Smoky Mountain Outdoors offers trips for children as young as three years old and there is no experience necessary to take one of their trips.
9. Dollyworld Theme Park
Although Dollywood is technically in the next town over, it is just a short drive from Gatlinburg. This theme park offers around 40 rides has a good reputation for some fun food options and recently expanded in 2019 with a new Wildwood Grove section.
Families can save money at Dollywood by buying a two-day flex ticket for only $20 extra. A third day is only $10 per person more. Water park is also available as a separate admission. When you buy a ticket to Dollywood, same-day admission to the water park is only $10 extra. Keep in mind that the water park closes for the year the day after Labor Day.
10. Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Ripley’s offers multiple attractions in Gatlinburg for families to enjoy. The iconic Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium is known as the weirdest spot, with over 500 exhibits and artifacts that will intrigue your family. Here are some other quirky museums to put on your list if you’re into that sort of thing.
Beyond the museum of oddities, Ripley’s has eight other attractions in the Gatlinburg area. The Aquarium of the Smokies consistently gets high marks. Kids will enjoy the 5D Movie Theater, Marvelous Mirror Maze and Candy Factory. Older children can experience the scares of the Haunted Adventure and Guinness World Records Adventure. And everyone should enjoy the Old McDonald’s Farm and Davy Crockett mini golf courses.
Families can save money by buying a combo ticket that provides admission to multiple Ripley’s attractions with pricing starting at $50 for adults and $35 for kids. Here are some good cards to use to maximize that sort of purchase.
Where to Stay in Gatlinburg
If you are flying to the area, the airport in Knoxville (TYS) is the closest option, but Nashville (BNA) and Charlotte (CLT) are also feasible options just a few hours away. Take advantage of the many points hotels available in Gatlinburg so you can spend your money on all of the fun attractions in the city instead.
- The Park Vista by Hilton Doubletree — This hotel offers sweeping views of Gatlinburg and the surrounding forest. It has an indoor pool and mini waterpark that the family will enjoy year-round. Rooms are available for as few as 40,000 Hilton Honors points. The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card currently has a 150,000 point welcome bonus (after you spend $4,000 in purchases on the Card within your first 3 months of Card Membership) which is almost enough for four free nights at the Park Vista.
- Fairfield Inn and Suites Gatlinburg Downtown by Marriott — The Fairfield is a modern hotel that maintains its small-town charm. The hotel features an outdoor firepit and complimentary breakfast for guests. It is a Marriott Bonvoy Category 5 hotel, so you can use your annual award nights from various Marriott cards. The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card will earn you 75,000 welcome points (after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months), which is enough for two free nights.
- Holiday Inn Express Gatlinburg Downtown — This Holiday Inn Express shares many amenities with the Holiday Inn Club Vacations timeshare right next door. The indoor pool area is amazing and reminds me of a scaled-down version of Great Wolf Lodge. Rooms are available for 30,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night. The IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card provides automatic Platinum status and a fourth night free when booking your stay with points.
- Greystone Lodge on the River — We stayed at this hotel during our Holiday Inn Club Vacations timeshare presentation. Greystone is located next to the Ripley’s Aquarium and the trolley hub, making the location was very convenient. It was also very walkable to all of the attractions we wanted to see in Gatlinburg. The best option is to book your room using flexible points, such as those from the Chase Sapphire Reserve, with points worth 1.5 cents towards travel booked via Chase Travel.
Gatlinburg has something for everyone in your family. There are rides and attractions suitable for young families, as well as those with teenagers and young adults. No matter which time of year you are visiting, your family will have a great time exploring all that the city and national park have to offer.
Visit the Gatlinburg website or visitor’s center to plan your next vacation and look for coupons for these and many other activities in town.
Featured image by Wray Sinclair / Getty Images
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