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My family and I recently got back from a trip to the Smoky Mountains area of Tennessee. We spent 5 nights there around the Labor Day weekend and had a lot of fun. We did a bit of research on things to do for families in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg so I thought I’d share some of the fun things we found. As a note, some of these attractions did provide complimentary admission tickets to our family, while others were free or we paid for ourselves.
Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains for Families
The Smoky Mountains are a great place to hike and be in the outdoors, and Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge make a great home base to do some hikes. One hike that we did was to go to Grotto Falls. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Gatlinburg, and then about a 1.5-mile hike up to the falls.
There is a parking lot at the trailhead, but if you go in the mid-morning, you’re likely to find it already full and you’ll need to park off to the side of the road and hike back to the trailhead. Laurel Falls is another family-friendly hike in Gatlinburg.
Go to the Top of Clingman’s Dome
One evening we drove out to Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point in Tennessee at 6,634 feet above sea level. It’s about a 50-minute drive from Gatlinburg to the parking lot, which is right on the Tennessee / North Carolina border. It’s about a 0.5 mile hike from the parking lot to the top of Clingman’s Dome, but it is a STEEP 0.5 mile. Once you get to the top, there is a concrete ramp structure that provides amazing 360 degree views.
Again, if you arrive in mid-morning, it’s going to be hard to find a parking space here. But we left Gatlinburg around 6pm and got to the parking lot about 7pm and found it mostly empty. We went to the top and then came back down to take this amazing sunset picture from the parking lot.
Remember too that it’s going to be a lot colder at the top of the mountain, so dress accordingly.
The Island in Pigeon Forge
The Island in Pigeon Forge is a bit of a hybrid of an outdoor shopping mall and amusement park. It’s free to park and to enter, and then there are lots of shops, eateries and a variety of rides. They provided us with ride passes, which give you access to the Ferris Wheel, a ropes course and a variety of carnival-style rides. The kids really enjoyed the rides — in fact, we went back the next day because that was one of their favorite things to do in Pigeon Forge.
The ropes course was a lot of fun — after you harness up, you can traverse various obstacles at your own pace and in any order. Then you can top it off with a jump from about 30 feet up.
They also have a new ride called SkyFly Soar America which is a cross between a roller coaster and a movie. You sit in seats that move while watching a presentation on a movie screen. The theming is very steampunk (see picture below) and it takes you on a ride to famous sites around the world like Yellowstone, Maui, Alaska, etc. It was a cool ride for sure.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Back in Gatlinburg, you can visit Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies which was a lot larger than I was expecting. They had a variety of marine animals including several sharks. We spent most of a morning at the aquarium.
Ripley’s also has a variety of other attractions within walking distance of the aquarium. We parked behind the aquarium ($10 for the day) and walked to Ripley’s Mirror Maze, which the kids really enjoyed.
They also have the classic Ripley’s Believe it or Not, a moving theater, and Ripley’s Haunted Adventure.
If you’re into escape rooms, there are several choices for you in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
- The Escape Room Pigeon Forge
- Smoky Mountain Escape Games
- Gatlin’s Escape Room Games
- Breakout Gatlinburg
We didn’t get to try any escape rooms, so I can’t give you any of our review.
Miniature golf is one of those things that you either love or hate. On the one hand, you can do it “anywhere,” so you might not want to do it while on vacation. On the other hand, it almost seems like one of those things that’s just part of the environment of touristy towns like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. While there are a variety of different mini-golf courses in the area, we did the 2 Ripley’s Mini-Golf courses. Davy Crockett’s Miniature Golf in Gatlinburg and Old Macdonald’s Miniature Golf in Pigeon Forge.
And just to show how much of a boss I am at mini golf, here’s me “calling my shot”
Ziplines and Ropes Courses
With the mountainous terrain, it’s no surprise that there are a large variety of zipline and ropes courses throughout the mountains. We looked at several places but ended up deciding to not do any of them.
Whitewater Rafting and Canoeing
There are a variety of rivers, creeks and waterways all through the area, which makes sense since the area is so mountainous. So if you’re a water rat, there’s no shortage of companies and tours that you can do along the rivers, no matter your preferred speed. You can do whitewater rafting or a more relaxing kayak or canoe tour.
Cruising on the Parkway
We were in the area in early September when it was hosting the “Rod Run,” which had a gigantic display of people bringing their classic cars. They would either park them in parking lots on the side of the Parkway in Pigeon Forge or cruise slowly in the right lane of the parkway. Thousands of people would just set up lawn chairs and watch the cars pass by.
So one evening, we drove into Pigeon Forge (we were staying in Gatlinburg), parked our van and just walked up and down the strip, taking in the sights. (Nothing says tourist trap like the $9.99 store.)
Errr is it the $9.98 store?
Or maybe we’d get better deals at the $9.95 store?
(All within 1/2 mile of one another 😀 )
The Bottom Line
We had a fantastic time in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. I hope you can benefit from our research of some of the best things to do in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Whether you’re a hiker, a shopper or an outdoor enthusiast, there’s something for everyone.
What’s your best thing to do in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge for families? Leave your suggestions in the comments.
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