With one of the nation’s best theme parks and the most visited of the country’s national parks, a visit to the Smokies was long overdue for this Southern gal. Although I grew up in Alabama, I never spent any real time in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains as a child. When a family reunion in the North Carolina High Country looked like it was in the works, my husband and I decided it was the perfect opportunity to visit both the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains in a single trip.
My family spent half of a week exploring Dollywood, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Here’s what you need to know if you are planning a trip to the Tennessee Smoky Mountains with kids too.
The Lay of the Land: Smokies Overview
The most important thing for travelers with kids to understand is that the area is big. The Smokies and the surrounding towns are large enough that you might want to stay in several places if you are planning a longer visit. The three major cities – north to south – are Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. All have family-friendly lodging options, many of which are very budget friendly (more on lodging later, so keep reading). You can make your home base in one of them, but be prepared for plenty of drive time if you want to explore the entire area. We spent two nights in Sevierville and then one in Gatlinburg and found that worked well.
What to Do with Kids in the Smoky Mountains
Nearly everything in the Smokies is meant for family travelers, which is refreshing and makes for easy planning. Of course, the hard part is narrowing down what you want to do. The area is like central Florida – you could go for a week or more and still leave many stones unturned and activities undone. We decided to pace ourselves and not try to schedule too much, which was a smart strategy. If you only have a few days, here are some of the true highlights.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Seriously, don’t go to the Smokies and not actually go to the Smokies. The National Park should be a must-do on every family’s list. There’s no fee for driving into the park as there is for many other national parks, so it’s as budget-friendly as you can get.
Depending on the ages of your kids, a few hikes are some of the best activities. We chose Clingman’s Dome with our kids due to their ages and our limited time. The trail is paved, parking is ample, and the hike offers some of the most amazing views of the park. By the time my family arrived to the trail’s head, our toddler had passed out in the backseat in his car seat. We loaded him into our Ergo carrier and hiked up with him asleep on my husband’s back. Big sister at age 7 had no problem making the climb, although she certainly complained a little as 7 year olds tend to do! We had overcast weather when we were there but still admired the views. The path prohibits using strollers and wheelchairs but we saw some people using them (I wouldn’t recommend it at all – it’s a scary slope if you lost your grip on a stroller!).
You can honestly spend several days doing outdoor adventures without getting bored. Biking trails through the Smokies are popular as well as everything from waterfalls to ghost towns.
The theme park scene is alive and well in the Smokies too, with Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country water park both nearby. If you only have a day, visit the theme park. If you have two, split your time with one day at each. Don’t miss my complete guide to Dollywood with kids for the best ride strategies, tips, and recommendations. Dollywood isn’t as hectic as Disney or Universal parks, but having a good touring strategy – especially with young kids – saves frustration and maximizes fun.
Pigeon Forge Shows & Fun
The city of Pigeon Forge south of Dollywood is home to a number of attractions that families with kids will enjoy. From Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede to the Titanic Museum, there are seriously dozens of family-friendly activities and shows. Parts of Pigeon Forge are like a miniature Vegas strip, but without the adults-only vibe. It also reminded me a lot of Panama City, Florida in the attractions it offered. It’s touristy but families also flock to it for a reason – it entertains!
The peaceful and charming town of Gatlinburg on the edge of Tennessee entrance of the national park is worthy of at least a day visiting in its own right. It’s everything Pigeon Forge is not – serene and unspoiled. Pigeon Forge is where you should go to play but Gatlinburg is where families go to unwind and unplug. The downtown still has plenty of action – dining, shopping, and more and there’s some adventure fun at Ober Gatlinburg, but it’s mostly gorgeous mountain views and simple foothill living.
Where to Stay in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains
Dollywood’s Dream More
The most luxurious larger hotel option in the Tennessee Smokies is undoubtedly Dollywood’s Dream More Resort, but it is still moderately-priced. In terms of quality, think more Disney’s Grand Floridian than Mandarin Oriental – still very nice but perhaps not true luxury. Although we didn’t stay there this trip, I researched it extensively before our travels and it is another hotel that I would consider without a moment’s hesitation.
Wilderness at the Smokies
So where did we stay? Our family started our trip staying two nights in the Seiverville area, which is close to Dollywood. Our hotel of choice was Wilderness at the Smokies, which boasts three (THREE!) water parks build right into the resort. With a 7 year old and 2 year old in tow at the time of our trip, I knew there wasn’t really any place else for us to stay on our first time to the area.
Wilderness at the Smokies did not disappoint. We could truly have stayed in the hotel two or three days straight and not run out of things to do. The water parks were only the start. There were rock walls, pin bowling, a gaming center and ropes course, plus plenty of dining. Best of all, the price was very reasonable (rates during our stay which coincided with peak summer season were $224-$260), especially if having access to the water parks saves you a day on theme park tickets instead. My daughter is begging to find an excuse to go back – it was one of her favorite hotels ever. I think it would work especially well for a multigenerational gathering or family reunion.
Lodge at Buckberry Creek (Gatlinburg)
After our stay at Wilderness at the Smokies, we then moved along to Gatlinburg for a third night during our trip. Gatlinburg offered a totally different vibe and lodging experience. We chose a small resort up in the foothills called the Lodge at Buckberry Creek. The accommodations were all suites with a full kitchen, living room, bedroom and large bathroom. Plus, there were laundry machines in our suite entrance which we desperately needed after three days of vacationing and hiking in the July Tennessee heat. At just $265 a night during our stay, it was a steal for a luxurious family getaway. We dined on the veranda overlooking the mountains as the sun set and in the morning, hiked down to a small river pavilion the hotel has and skipped stones with our kids. It was pure old-fashioned memorable family time.
(Note: Sadly, the Lodge at Buckberry Creek was substantially damaged by the Gatlinburg wildfires of November 2016 after this article was published. Check with the hotel about its rebuilding timeline or check out these alternative Gatlinburg cabin rentals.)
Travel Tips for the Smoky Mountains with Kids
If you’re considering a family trip to the Smokies, here are a few other tips to plan your vacation.
- Where to Fly: Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) is the closest airport, served by Allegiant, America, Delta, Frontier, and United. The airport is very manageable in size and a great choice for family travelers with easy logistics. Asheville, NC (AVL) is also reasonably close, especially if you plan to visit the North Carolina Smokies on the same trip. The closest major airports are Atlanta and Charlotte, but both are a significant drive.
- Beware of Traffic: Traffic in rural Tennessee? It may seem crazy, but it can be a real factor, as the tourist crowds overwhelm the roads and infrastructure. Plan extra time to get where you need to be.
- When to Go: Our trip was at the very end of July which meant serious summer heat, but crowds were actually quite light. Since so many schools in the South start in early August, most families had wrapped up their summer vacation plans by the time we arrived. If you plan a summer trip, August is definitely the time to go for lighter crowds.
Disclosure: Dollywood graciously hosted my family, providing our theme park tickets, and Wilderness at the Smokies offered my family a discounted media rate during our stay. As always, all opinions are my own.