1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the US. Each year about 11 million people enjoy the natural beauty which has been preserved since the park was founded in 1934. One of the best ways to become acquainted with the park is to visit the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The visitor center has a 20 minute movie about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a small museum with examples of plant and animal life (taxidermy) found in the park. The center has information about all the park's features, trails, etc. There are a couple of easy hikes which begin near the visitor center... Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail (1/2 mile total) and Cataract Falls Hike (3/4 mile total). Check out the following links for more hiking information:
- Clingman's Dome Hike/Observation Tower (closed in winter - December through March)
The most visited site within the park is the beautiful valley, Cades Cove. There is an 11-mile one-way loop around the cove with many opportunities to stop and explore historic homes, barns, churches, and a gristmill. Cades Cove is one of the best places in the national park to view wildlife such as white-tailed deer, black bears, raccoons, coyotes, and more. Read more about visiting Cades Cove here: Plan Your Visit
TIP: The GSM National Park is free to enter! From May through September, Cades Cove is open to bicycles and foot-traffic only on Wednesdays.
Fun Facts: GSM National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2020, over 12 million people visited the park! Established in 1934, the park is within one day's driving distance of two thirds of the US population. Here are some facts that explain why the GSM National Park is such a popular destination.
- 800 square miles of natural beauty
- No entrance fee and open 365 days a year
- 384 miles of roads
- 850 miles of hiking trails
- 78 preserved Appalachian structures in 5 historic areas
- Elevation ranges from 875 to 6,643 feet above sea level
- 16 mountains within the park reach elevations higher than 6,000 feet.
- Highest mountain peak is Clingmans Dome (6,643 ft.)
- 2,000+ miles of streams
- 100 prominent waterfalls and cascades
- 130+ species of trees
- 1,600+ species of flowering plants & wildflowers
- 1,500+ black bears... highest concentration the the US
- 30 species of salamanders... salamander capital of the world
- 19 species of fireflies... home of the only synchronous firefly species in the US
Our Favorite Family-Friendly Things to Do in the Smokies
2. Dollywood and Splash Country
When you stay at one of our Highview Cabins, you are just 5 miles away from Dollywood, one of America's favorite theme parks. We have loved taking our family to Dollywood over the years not just for the fantastic rides, but for the family-friendly atmosphere. The park is beautifully landscaped and has lots of shade for the hot summer months. You will find the Dollywood staff to be very friendly and helpful. There are many great musical shows in the park which are included in the price of admission.
During November and December Dollywood celebrates Smoky Mountain Christmas. The Christmas season features many special holiday shows, events, decorations, and a magical display of 4,000,000 (four million) lights!
Summer visitors may want to cool off at Dollywood's Splash Country Water Park. The 35-acre water park features thrilling water attractions, beautiful scenery, and places to relax or dine. Splash Country made the TripAdvisor's 2019 List of Top 10 US Water Parks.
3. The Island in Pigeon Forge
The Island in Pigeon Forge is a wonderful destination filled with shops, restaurants, and amusements of all types. This is the home of the 200 foot tall Great Smoky Mountain Wheel. Ride the wheel in a climate-controlled gondola (seats 8) and you'll have a spectacular view of Pigeon Forge and the Smokies beyond. After experiencing the rides and amusements, you'll want to eat at one of the Island's restaurants. The choices range from snacks & sweets to full-service dining. Fans of Paula Deen will want to visit Paula Deen's Family Kitchen (make reservations to avoid the wait). The food is delicious and they have a great store filled with Paula's merchandise and southern treats.
The Island Show Fountain puts on a water dance/light show with music every 30 minutes. We like to visit in the evening and grab a seat in one of the comfortable rocking chairs surrounding the fountain. It's a great place to relax! This map of The Island will help you plan your visit.
TIP: The Island has free trams to shuttle you to and from the parking lots.
Visitors to the Smokies have a number of great options when it comes to shopping. The Tanger Outlets in Sevierville features about 100 factory stores and outlets. Shoppers will find a wide variety of brand-name merchandise and designer fashions at this shopping destination. Check out the Tanger Store Directory to see all the great stores.
The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community in Gatlinburg is another great shopping experience. The community is made up of more than 120 working artists and craftsmen whose shops and studios are situated along an 8-mile loop road. Arts and crafts represented include: painting, quilting, photography, candle making, pottery, leather craft, weaving, glass blowing, and much more. There are a number of restaurants, cafe's and candy shops in the community as well. Visit this link for an Arts and Crafts Community Map.
Our personal favorite shopping area is The Village Shops in Gatlinburg. The Village features 27 unique shops and eateries with something for everyone. Located on the Parkway next to the Pancake Pantry, the shops have the style of a quaint European village. The village theme is carried out with detailed architecture and design elements such as brick walkways, fountains, gas lights, and beautiful landscaping.
One shop not to be missed in The Village Shops is The Donut Friar. Since 1969 this donut shop has been creating the most delicious donuts, pastries, cinnamon rolls, and more. Their cinnamon bread is a favorite of locals and visitors and often sells out early in the day. The Donut Friar also serves coffee, espresso, latte, and cappuccino. They only accept payment in cash, so go prepared or use the on-site ATM.
TIP: You can park FREE on the Gatlinburg Parkway until 9:00 am each morning, so it's easy to pick up donuts to go!
5. The Old Mill - Pigeon Forge
Located on the bank of the Little Pigeon River, The Old Mill has been been grinding grains since 1830. The gristmill still produces about 1000 pounds of stone-ground grain per day. The Old Mill district is home to gift, candy, pottery, kitchen, and toy shops, as well as two popular restaurants. Enjoy delicious country cooking and more at the The Old Mill Restaurant and the The Old Mill Pottery House Café & Grille.
TIP: You can buy a bag of duck food for about a dollar at the Old Mill General Store to feed the ducks and geese along the river.
6. Outdoor Fun and Adventure
Are you ready for some outdoor fun? Pigeon Forge has many great activities from which to choose. Enjoy go-karting? Check out The Track's original location with its three-tiered wooden track. If your family likes to play mini-golf, then Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have many choices for you. Our favorite courses are Professor Hacker's Lost Treasure Golf and indoor blacklight Pirate Golf at MagiQuest. A newer course that is very popular is the candy-themed Crave Golf Club. They have 2 courses... indoor & outoor. There are seemingly endless outdoor activities in the Smokies, but some of the most popular include zip-lining, ropes courses, golf, horseback riding, tubing, and whitewater rafting.
The closest amusement area to our cabins is The Track Family Fun Park . It has go-karting, bumper boats, an arcade, and a variety of rides including ones for small children.
For those who are more adventurous, try rolling down an obstacle course in an inflatable ball filled with water at Outdoor Gravity Park. Have you ever wanted to go sky diving? Check out Flyaway Indoor Skydiving for some amazing fun. Our family loved this and bought the video of our experience.
One of our family's favorite activities is riding alpine coasters (also called alpine slides). While there are several of these coasters in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, our favorite one is at Goats on the Roof. Along with their alpine coaster, Goats on the Roof has a great gift shop, gem mining, sweet shop, and live goats both on the building's roof and the ground - kids love feeding the goats! Check out the video below.
7. Dinner Shows
It's no surprise that dinner shows are popular in Pigeon Forge. The largest and most well-known is Dolly Parton's Stampede. The show is thoroughly entertaining and the dinner is delicious. The video below will give you a sample of what's in store for you at the Stampede.
Other popular dinner shows are the Hatfield McCoy Dinner Feud and Dolly Parton's Pirates Voyage Dinner and Show. One other mention goes to the very popular Comedy Barn. While the Comedy Barn show doesn't include dinner, it is a well-loved Pigeon Forge attraction. The family-friendly variety show features clean comedy, magicians, jugglers, ventriloquists, and live country & gospel music.
8. Parrot Mountain and Gardens
Parrot Mountain and Gardens is an amazing place to see many varieties of tropical birds in natural surroundings. One of the highlights of the gardens is the area where you can interact with the birds. The bird handlers will hand you a bird and some seed if you like. In another area, birds named lories fly free. There is a small extra charge for the cups of nectar to feed the lories in their habitat. The beautiful gardens are terraced up a hill so families with small children will probably want to bring a stroller. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Parrot Mountain and took the video above during our visit. By the way, the birds won't get in your hair unless you tell the bird handler to put one on your head!
TIP: If you can't make it to Parrot Mountain, they have a storefront at The Island where you can see a few parrots for free.
It seems that Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have more pancake/breakfast restaurants than any other area of the country. There are so many from which to choose, but our favorite places for breakfast are:
Crockett's Breakfast Camp - Located at the southern end of Gatlinburg, Crockett's is a breakfast wonderland. The themed decor is so much fun and the food is fantastic. Their menu has something for everyone from their inch-thick Aretha Frankenstein Pancakes to Pot Roast Benedict. Our daughter-in-law highly recommends the Huntcamp Sunrise juice.
Sawyer's Farmhouse Restaurant - Sawyer's features a large menu of great food that is reasonably priced. Their fast, friendly service keeps us coming back again and again. We always enjoy our breakfasts at Sawyer's. They offer a lunch menu as well.
The Pancake Pantry is Tennessee's first pancake house and is Gatlinburg's most famous breakfast eatery. The menu is extensive with over 20 delicious flavors of pancakes. The wait can be long, but the food is well worth it. Take cash with you - the Pancake Pantry doesn't accept credit/debit cards.
TIP: When we visited Crockett's Breakfast Camp the first time, we found that they used "The List" app for their seating wait list. So, on subsequent visits we've used the app to get on their call-ahead seating list. No guarantees... but we have saved a lot of wait time by using this app. "The List" app - Google Play ..... "The List" app - iTunes
10. Ripley's Aquarium
Experience the world of thousands of sea creatures at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. Exhibits include a tropical rain forest, coral reef, sting ray bay, penguin playhouse, and so much more. A visitor favorite is the 340-foot underwater glass tunnel where you can view many sea creatures swimming around you - including large sharks! The aquarium was voted "Best U.S. aquarium 2019" by USA Today/10 Best. In addition to the general admission, the aquarium has several extra experiences you can purchase such as a glass-bottom boat ride, behind-the-scenes tour, splashing with the sting rays, and a close-up penguin encounter.