The mountains were calling us for spring break, and we decided to visit the Great Smokey Mountains around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We rented a condo in the mountains for a week with plans that included hiking, snow tubing, a mountain coaster, knife forging, Dollywood and more. We fit a lot into our week-long stay in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and had a wonderful trip. Here were our favorite things to do in Gatlinburg, Tennessee with kids plus our week’s itinerary to help you plan your family vacation.
If you are considering a trip to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, do it! The area is filled with opportunities for outdoor adventures for the whole family.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee has been on our travel list for a while, and it made sense for spring break. The funny thing is that two of our friends also chose Gatlinburg, Tennessee as their spring break destination, and my daughter reported two more friends from school were in the area. I had no idea it was such a spring break hot spot for Floridians, but after returning from such a great trip it doesn’t surprise me at all.
While we could have driven the 10-hours, we opted to fly into Knoxville, Tennessee. The flights were very reasonable and we were able to spend more time exploring the area.
Where To Stay In Gatlinburg Tennessee With Kids
As a family of five, we find that a traditional hotel room with two queen beds doesn’t work well for us. So we like to use Airbnb or VRBO for our travels. Going this route we are usually able to get two bedrooms, a full kitchen and a living area (with a pull-out) for the same or less than a standard hotel room. It works great for us.
For this trip, we were late booking, about two weeks prior to travel. Many of the cabins in the mountains were already booked. So we ended up booking a condo just a two-minute drive from downtown Gatlinburg. It wasn’t a “WOW” condo, but it was recently renovated, clean, comfortable and in a great location. If I was picking lodging with a view, I would have picked up in the mountains, but we really spent very little time in our condo so it was perfect.
Hiking In Gatlinburg Tennessee With Kids
Our spring break was March 12 – 20. Already blazing hot at home, we looked forward to some cool mountain air. But we didn’t realize until I really started planning things that in Tennessee that is really the end of winter, not the beginning of spring. This meant that some of the roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were still closed for winter. (Most roads are open by the first week in April, but check the National Park Service for current seasonal road closures.)
For our trip, this meant that Clingman’s Dome, Roaring Fork Motor Trail, and Grotto Falls were all still closed. I was bummed to miss some of these highly-rated destinations, but there was still so much for us to do.
Fun fact, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park is one of the few free national parks. There is no fee for entrance.
Arch Rock And Alum Cave Bluffs With Kids
The Alum Cave Bluffs trail has three destination spots. At 1.3 miles you arrive at Arch Roch, at 2.3 miles you arrive at Alum Cave Bluffs and if you were to continue the full 5 miles you would arrive at Mt. LeConte. Since this is a hike-in, hike-out trail, you need to double each of those numbers for the full hike. I knew when I picked this hike that it was a bit of a stretch for us, but I was confident we could do it.
Our goal was Alum Cave Bluffs, which is rated a moderately difficult trail. While 4.6 miles doesn’t sound too bad, for us Floridians it was the 1,000-foot climb in 2.3 miles that was the challenge. Our daughters are 14, 10 and 5 years old, and while it was a challenging hike, we all made it. The hike is certainly doable for kids, we saw several along the trail, but be prepared for a workout and some pushback from tired kids. For us, this was a three-hour hike to the top, a half-an-hour picnic/rest, and an hour and a half hike down.
This is one of those trails where families doubt themselves, especially that last half mile. As we were hiking up, families encouraged us to keep going it wasn’t much further. I am glad they did because we nearly turned around, but it was so worth making it to the top. (And, of course, we passed along the encouragement on the way down.)
The top was gorgeous. The bluffs look like a movie set.
One of the most exciting parts about this hike for us was that before our arrival on Saturday there had been a huge winter storm, and when we tackled the hike on Tuesday there was still snow on the ground. We’ve never hiked with snow on the ground, and our Florida family was in awe of the snow and ice.
If you aren’t up for the hike to the bluffs, Arch Rock is still very cool. And the first part is a much easier hike.
(Those are patches of ice under Arch Roch in the picture below.)
Laurel Falls With Kids
Our second hike of the week was a much easier hike. Laurel Falls is a 2.6-mile round-trip to the waterfall and back, and it is one of four paved trails in the Great Smokey Mountains. Because it is a paved trail, it is a very popular trail. We were warned that it would be quite busy, and for a hiking trail, it was. But it was still so lovely, the people didn’t bother us.
However, I must note that the “paved” trail is not a smoothly paved trail, and it is definitely not meant for strollers. It was paved to stop erosion in the ’60s, and roots have pushed up through the pavement along the trail. We saw several families attempting the trail with single and double strollers. I don’t believe any of them made it to the top with their strollers, having to abandon them part way and walk the rest of the way or turn back down the mountain.
Still, it was a lovely trail, and the falls were beautiful. Because of the rain after the snowstorm, the waterfall was especially full. We found a nice rock just below the bridge to sit on for a picnic and it was perfect.
Snowtubing at Ober Gatlinburg With Kids
Because it was the tail-end of the winter season, Ober Gatlinburg was still offering snow tubing. Warmer rainy conditions meant that the ski slopes were already closed for the season, but it was still cool enough to blow snow on the snow tubing hill. Another great adventure for our Florida family.
We managed to slide down the hill eight times in our hour-and-a-half timeslot. It was both exhausting and exhilarating.
A few things to note, snow tubing tickets sell out, so you must buy them in advance. Snow tubing tickets do NOT include a ride in the Arial Tram. For our family of five, that would have been an additional $100. So we opted to drive up the mountain to snow tube. Ober Gatlinburg is an old-school ski area, which means inside Ober it is old and dated. While we loved snow tubing, we had no interest in anything else Ober had to offer. (My kids don’t like to ice skate.) So for us, it was in and out. Still, if you are there for snow tubing season (or skiing) do it!
Downtown Gatlinburg Tennessee
When we talked to people about visiting Gatlinburg before our trip opinions were in one of two groups – it’s a fun little town or it’s a tourist trap. Both opinions are a little correct, but we loved it! Driving from Knoxville, we passed through Pigeon Forge first. Pigeon Forge is 100% a touristy town, it is like Orlando’s I-Drive on steroids. So by the time we got to Gatlinburg, we were excited to see a cute little town. Yes, there was a Ripley’s museum of some sort on every corner, but there were so many cute places too.
We spent about a half-day wandering around downtown Gatlinburg, poking in and out of shops and it was lovely. Crowded because it was also spring break in Tennessee, but lovely. My biggest pet peeve was parking. It was $20 to park anywhere, and difficult to find parking. Since we never spent a full day down there, the $20 parking spots added up. But we had so much fun, I would do it again.
On our first evening, after dropping off our belongings, we headed to SkyLift Park. I was so excited to check out the SkyBridge and it didn’t disappoint! We all enjoyed the ride on the chair lift to the top of the mountain, and at the top the view was spectacular!
I don’t love heights, so I was a bit nervous to cross the bridge before arriving, but I had no trouble. The first steps on the “glass” portion are a little surreal, but it was such a cool experience. After wandering around for a bit, we ordered pizza from the little restaurant and scored seats on top of the mountain overlooking Gatlinburg. It was a wonderful and relaxing way to start our trip. Highly recommended.
If you arrive at Anakeesta and you are told it is an hour-and-a-half wait to ride the chair lift or a one-hour wait to ride the Rambler, believe them. And then realize that all of those people in line waiting will also be at the top of the mountain waiting to do things. If you don’t want to stand around waiting, skip it.
This was the situation that we found ourselves in around 12:30 pm. We thought we were being smart getting the kids food at Subway and letting them sit at a table outside while mom and dad waited in line. But we didn’t think about it being madness at the top. When we arrived at the top, my husband got in line for the mountain coaster. After a 30-minute wait, he got tickets for 3:30. Then he waited in line for a drink while we bumped into people in the shops. At 3:30 we waited in another one-hour line to ride the coaster.
Basically, we waited in lines from 12:30 – 4:30. It was less than ideal.
That said, when we finished the mountain coaster at about 4:30, the crowds had thinned and it was lovely! We decided to do the Bearventure challenge course, Treeventure challenge course, treehouse village play area, the observation area and the Treetop skywalk. Without the crowds, we had a wonderful evening and it was beautiful up there. We spent another two hours or so exploring, and this part made the whole adventure worthwhile. But, if I were to go again, no way I would wait in line like that. I could have arrived at 4ish and enjoyed just the evening. The view really was spectactular.
As for the mountain coaster, it was fun, but my family was very “meh.” It wasn’t as exciting as the others we’ve done. So again, not worth the extra wait (and charge). Pick one of the main mountain coasters in the area that don’t have a long wait!
Although we generally stayed away from the touristy things (because we have many similar options back home in Florida), visiting Dollywood was a must. And it was a wonderful experience.
Dollywood is much smaller than the Florida theme parks we are used to, and even though it was quite crowded the day we went it didn’t bother us in the least. The whole park has a generally easy-going and quaint atmosphere. I could write a whole post just about our fun at Dollywood, and perhaps I will at some point, but here are a few highlights.
There is a great mix of rides for younger kids and for thrill-seekers. While the rollercoasters had some massive lines, we were able to walk right onto all of the smaller rights. We had a full day in the park – open to close – and we didn’t get to do everything, but we did a ton and it was a good full day.
We were celebrating our oldest’s birthday that week and she was delighted when one of the employees told us she could get some free birthday treats! If you are celebrating a birthday on your visit, be sure to pick up a free birthday button and free treats at Spotlight Bakery, Showstreet Ice Cream and a Red’s Dinner.
Mom tip! In the arcade area, the “Balloon Pop” game is “everyone-wins” style. This was a huge find because it meant both of our little girls were able to “win” their own prize. Big, happy winners!
Dollywood is worth a visit! In fact, I’d go back again.
Knife Forging In Pigeon Forge Tennessee With Kids
The only other time we ventured into Pigeon Forge was for knife forging. I saw Iron Mountain Metal Craft mentioned somewhere before I left, and booked it right away. If anyone you are traveling with has any interest in forging a knife, it’s a great adventure.
My husband has always talked about wanting to forge a knife. So I booked an appointment for him and our three daughters – I planned to watch and take photos. When we got there, our youngest (5) was overtired and intimidated, so she hung out with me. Everyone else had a blast.
You must make reservations ahead of time, they fill up fast. When I called the week before our visit I took the only reservations available for the week. During our visit, we overheard a number of people being told there were no appointments. They were welcome to watch and shop, but you must have an appointment to forge your own knife.
It was such a unique experience and a great souvenir that everyone was able to bring home. My husband made the railroad spike knife and our older daughters each made a horseshoe knife. (Note, based on her age our 10-year-old should have made the pony knife, but there was a mix-up in her favor, and we didn’t realize until she was already making the horseshoe knife.)
Where To Eat In Gatlinburg Tennessee With Kids
I don’t have a lot of recommendations in the food department from this trip. While there are a few cool places to eat, it isn’t a big foodie area. And the cool places are super popular, which meant they had long lines. We just aren’t the family to wait in line an hour to eat.
Our favorite place we ate in Gatlinburg was No Way Jose. There was no wait the night we went, and we enjoyed an excellent Mexican dinner. The only other must from us is the Cinnamon Bread from Dollywood. Yes, it is as good as they say!
Other Things To Do In Gatlinburg Tennessee With Kids
In addition to the hikes we were unable to do because they were not yet open for the season, we couldn’t fit everything into our trip. Things that looked like fun that we didn’t do include:
- River rafting (our youngest was too little)
- Ripley’s museums and aquariums
- Gatlinburg Space Needle
- Pancake Pantry
- More mountain coasters
- Gem mining
- The Old Mill
- The Island at Pigeon Forge
Our Gatlinburg Tennessee With Kids Itinerary
When we travel, we are always on the go. I plan a full itinerary with a variety of activities including a lot of time exploring outside. I like to have a plan and know how much I can reasonably fit into a day. I hope my six-day itinerary helps you plan your trip to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
- Fly into Knoxville, TN
- Drive to Gatlinburg
- Check into Airbnb
- SkyLift Park for exploring and pizza on the mountain
- Hike: Alum Cave Bluffs and picnic lunch (approx 4.5 hours)
- Ober Gatlinburg for snow tubing
- Picked up dinner on the way back to Airbnb
- Explore downtown Gatlinburg
- Dinner at No Way Jose
- Hike: Laurel Falls and picnic lunch (approx 2.5 hours)
- Iron Mountain Metal Craft in Pigeon Forge
- Early morning flight out of Knoxville
You're looking for kid-friendly fun.
Although both cities offer fun activities for all ages, kids will love all of the exciting attractions Pigeon Forge has to offer.
You may be wondering how far is Gatlinburg from Pigeon Forge, and the answer is about 15 minutes, depending on traffic. If traffic is heavy during popular months, it could take you longer to get to either city. The distance is about 7.5 miles from one city to the other, depending on where you start at in either city.
3 days. If you're savvy, you can pack a whole lot of bang into just three days in Pigeon Forge. It won't take long to discover the beauty Tennessee has to offer. Begin by dedicating an entire day to the Smoky Mountains National Park.
All in all, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are both incredible spots to visit. If you're looking to experience the true tourist experience of the Smoky Mountains, you'll want to visit Gatlinburg. If you're looking for an equally thrilling experience, but a little away from the crowds, Pigeon Forge is your answer.
So, when it comes down to it, Pigeon Forge is generally the cheaper option when comparing lodging, activities, and restaurants. However, there are exceptions to every rule. Be sure to compare prices for each city before making your final decision.
- Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies.
- Ole Smoky Moonshine.
- Gatlinburg Sky Lift.
- Hillbilly Golf.
- Ripley's Haunted Adventure.
- Gatlinburg Space Needle.
- Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway.
- Hollywood Star Cars Museum.