Making family memories in the Smokies is easy as pie (pecan, preferred!)

  • Written by and photos by Deborah Stone

It’s impossible not to have fun in Gatlinburg. Activities abound in this quaint Tennessee town, as well as in its neighboring burgs, from a variety of thrilling outdoor adventures to an array of exciting indoor attractions. And lest we not forget, Gatlinburg is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the most unique and special wilderness areas in the country. With its extensive lodging, dining, shopping and other services available, the city is the ideal host community for many of the park’s millions of annual visitors.

IMG 2064For an overall view of the town and its environs, hop on the Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway where you’ll experience breathtaking panoramas as you ride to the pinnacle of Mount Harrison. There you’ll find Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park and ski area that offers everything from mountain coasters and alpine slides to water raft rides, wildlife encounters and a kiddie adventure land complete with swinging bridges, web crawls, chutes and ladders. There’s even a year-round indoor ice skating rink. Come winter, the slopes open for skiing, snowboarding and tubing. And with plenty of dining options, no one goes hungry at Ober Gatlinburg. Just make sure to stop by the Fudge Shop for a free sample of some of the best homemade fudge in town.

IMG 2017Families won’t want to miss the state-of-the-art Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies with its spectacular underwater tunnel, twelve-foot sharks, giant sea turtle and thousands of exotic sea creatures. The playful penguins at Ripley’s Penguin Playhouse are adorable, causing even the most hardened adults to crack a smile or two. You’ll want to catch one of the entertaining dive and feeding shows and stop by the touch tanks to pet horseshoe crabs and feel the velvety-like stingrays as they glide quietly through the water. These and other interactive displays allow kids to have an up close and personal experience with some very magical and mysterious sea life.

Museum-goers will want to head to nearby Pigeon Forge, where you’ll find the Titanic Museum and the Guinness World Records Museum. At the former, you can connect with the famed ship, from its construction to its final hours. The tale of this tragic liner is told through the stories of both passengers and crew on board, whose lives are recounted in precise and colorful detail. Parts of the ship are replicated exactly and there are hundreds of personal and private artifacts on display. The newest gallery is dedicated to Margaret “Unsinkable Molly” Brown. Popular with all ages, the Guinness World Records Museum brings the amazing book to life through hundreds of exhibits, games, trivia-themed galleries and video. It’s chockfull of records from such arenas as sports, space, animals, food, human achievement and more, and also features memorabilia of famous record holders including Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson and others.

IMG 2121While in Pigeon Forge, take advantage of another opportunity for a spectacular scenic view at The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, located on The Island, a retail, dining, lodging and entertainment center. At 200 feet tall, the Wheel provides a bird’s eye glimpse of the Great Smoky Mountains and the surrounding area. Passengers sit in climate controlled comfort as the observation ride takes them on multiple revolutions. At night, the Wheel is illuminated with a million LED lights, making it visible from miles away. Don’t leave before seeing the Show Fountains, which feature a stunning presentation of water dance and light, all perfectly choreographed to music.

Aviation buffs young and old will want to put the Tennessee Museum of Aviation in neighboring Sevierville on their list. This hidden treasure showcases magnificently restored Warbird aircraft inside a spacious 50,000 square-foot facility. Conveniently located next to the runway of the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport, the museum also offers unscheduled flight demonstrations that visitors are welcome to observe. For most, it’s a fascinating step back in time and the knowledgeable veterans on hand are more than willing to share their memories with the next generation.

Also in Sevierville is the unique, museum-like Smoky Mountain Knife Works. In addition to being the world’s largest knife showplace, the store is a trove of relics and fossils from all periods of history. The amount of artifacts is mind-boggling from fired Civil War bullets and Revolutionary War belt buckles to ancient fossils, rocks and an assortment of glittering crystals and gems. The walls are lined with displays of examples of primitive weapons from cultures around the world, along with early frontier tools. More than a mere shop, Smoky Mountain Knife Works is a museum of the past, which provides an entertaining educational experience for its 50,000 visitors a year.

IMG 2172Families looking for a spectacular outdoor playground need to look no further than The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the country and one of the few with no entrance fees. The Cherokee described these mountains as shaconage, meaning “blue, like smoke.” This bluish mist, which fills the valleys and clings to the mountainsides, gives the park its name and remains one of its most distinctive features. Among the oldest mountains in the world, the Smokies teem with an astonishing diversity of life. Over 17,000 species of plants and animals have been documented in the park. To add to this extraordinary biodiversity is one of the nation’s largest collections of historic log buildings including cabins, schoolhouses, churches and barns that have been preserved for visitors to discover and enjoy.

The paIMG 1946rk was created in 1934 to protect the last of the southern Appalachian forest, which once covered more than four million acres, but was virtually eliminated by logging and fire. Size wise, it comprises nearly 522,000 acres with the highest elevation being 6,643 feet at the summit of Clingmans Dome. Over nine million people visit the Great Smokies annually to camp, fish for trout, hike the 850 miles of trails, espy one of the 1600 resident bears, wander through the old restored structures and cemeteries, cycle through Cades Cove, ride horseback through the backcountry, view waterfalls, picnic in the meadows, ramble on sections of the Appalachian Trails, drive the scenic roadways and learn from ranger-guided walks, talks and other presentations.

All who visit, discover that that the park is the “keeper of stories,” as it is the front porch of southern Appalachian history. It tells the tales of a pioneering spirit, of war, family, harsh weather, death, community and above all, faith. The mountain culture is alive and well here, breathing within the stories and songs that continue to be passed down from generation to generation.

IMG 1963There are several must-see sights in the Smokies, starting with Sugarlands Visitor Center, which offers nature exhibits, an introductory film, an information desk and bookstore. This is a great place to get acclimated to the park. Clingmans Dome is another not-to-be-missed locale. After climbing a short, but steep trail, you’ll reach an observation tower offering 360 degree views of the mountains and beyond. Then there’s Andrews Bald. Balds are open, unforested fields on mountain ridges. This is the easiest of the park balds to reach and makes for an inviting picnic spot. Of the many waterfalls in the park, Laurel Falls rates high with visitors. Once you see this 80-foot cascade, you’ll know why it’s one of the most photographed spots in the Smokies. And to get a good look at some sheer pinnacles – examples of the tremendous forces that millions of years ago led to the creation of the Appalachians – make your way to Chimney Tops Overlooks, located along Newfound Gap Road. The Gap is the cut through the crest of the Great Smokies and where the states of Tennessee and North Carolina meet.

For an interesting historical and cultural experience, drive or cycle through Cades Cove, an isolated valley containing a host of preserved log cabins, churches and other buildings. It’s an eleven mile, one-way road marked by various numbered stops. Kids will love the living history demonstrations, held from spring through fall, which include the making of sorghum molasses, lye soap and apple butter. They will also enjoy watching millers grind corn and wheat at the water-powered Cable Mill. Strolling through Elkmont Historical District will provide you with yet another blast from the past. Here, abandoned 1920s style cabins, once the vacation homes for the wealthy from Knoxville, line the roads. Peering in the windows, it’s fun to imagine what life would have been like back in those days.

Outside the park, you’ll want to explore Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend. Known as the “Greatest Site under the Smokies,” the caverns are estimated to be between twenty and thirty million years old and are rich in history and lore. On your tour, you’ll see a variety of formations including stalagmites and stalactites, flowstone, columns and draperies with names such as Rocket Ship,” “Pencil,” “Totem Pole,” “Dragon” “Cathedral” and “Chandelier.” Most impressive is the Big Room with its 150-foot-tall ceilings. There’s also a wishing well and a waterfall within the cave, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see the bright colored salamanders that make their home in the pools. Keep your eyes open for the pygmy bats who hibernate in the caverns.

IMG 2265Adrenaline junkies of all ages will revel at Foxfire Mountain Outdoor Adventure Park. Take the ride of your life on the largest and most scenic zip line in the Smokies as you fly over creeks, waterfalls and meadows, traversing from mountaintop to mountaintop on the two-hour course. The thrills continue as you cross the longest swinging bridge in America, stretching from the base camp at Foxfire Mountain over to Dunn’s Gorge and finally to Prosperity Mountain.

For an adventure of a different sort, head to Dollywood, the theme park made famous by country singer and philanthropist Dolly Parton, a Smoky Mountains icon. Dollywood has rides, attractions, crafts demonstrations, music, shows and special events, all with an Appalachian flavor that allow guests to experience the heart and soul of the culture-rich Smokies. There are recreations of an 1890s one-room schoolhouse and Dolly Parton’s two-room Locust Ridge childhood home, as well as a major collection of Dolly’s own memorabilia, including her incredible wigs. During the winter holidays, the park is transformed into a “seasonal symphony for the senses” with thousands of lights synchronized to holiday music.

The Smokies has you covered when it comes to accommodations, which range from mom and pop motels to hotel chains and cabins. Of special note is the Wilderness Lodge of the Smokies, a favorite with active families for its rustic mountain-modern charm and world-class amenities. The lodge is home to Wild WaterDome, Tennessee’s largest indoor waterpark. Other attractions include two outdoor waterparks, a three-story ropes course, multi-level laser tag, black light mini golf, rock climbing wall and an interactive playhouse.

When it comes to feeding the kids, choices abound for all budgets. Southern cooking dominates the culinary scene and the portions are ample. Choose to spend a night out at one of the several dinner theaters in the area such as the Grand Majestic or Dixie Stampede for a filling meal and some spirited all-ages entertainment.

The people of the Smokies take their hospitality role seriously and you’ll be hard-pressed to find more warm and friendly folk than these East Tennesseans. Their goal is for y’all to come back soon!

If you go:

For all things Tennessee:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

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