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Family Travel: The Smoky Mountains

Set along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, this area is a treasure trove of kid-friendly activities.

Written By:  Erin Byers Murray

Photographers:  Supplied

Whether you’re an outdoors-loving, adventure-seeking family or a bunch that simply likes to be entertained, there’s a good chance you’ll find what you need with a trip to the Smoky Mountains. Set along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the area is a treasure trove of kid-friendly activities. There’s plenty of amped-up fun in Pigeon Forge, with its wax museum, adventure center, and endless number of go-kart experiences, as well as old-time charm in Gatlinburg. But find your way off the main strips and there are even more ways to get to know the misty mountain range.

GET THERE

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are about three and a half hours from Nashville; take I-40 East past Knoxville to exit 407 and follow the signs on Route 66.

STAY

This summer marks the opening of Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort (starting at $179 per night), an oasis for families that puts you in the center of the theme park’s action. They’re now accepting reservations for stays beginning in mid-August. If you’re looking to get there sooner, the quaint and convenient Tudor Inn Gatlinburg (starting at $125 per night) is a lovely bed and breakfast that sits in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg.

DO

With more than 150 hiking trails and scenic vistas around every curve, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the state’s most extensive natural playground. If you’re looking for a place to start, take a walk—the trail head near the Cades Cove visitors’ center puts you miles away from any crowds and sets you off toward a preserve of log cabins, churches, and an operating gristmill (the area was settled in 1819). Looking for a vista? Head up toward Clingmans Dome, where, after a half-mile hike straight uphill, you can access the lofty observation platform for views of the forest of evergreens below.

Depending on how adventurous your clan is feeling, the Nantahala Outdoor Center offers rafting trips down the Upper and Lower Pigeon River—and allows kids as young as three on some trips. Zip Gatlinburg, meanwhile, puts you above the tree line with both guided and self-guide courses—they’ll even outfit you with a helmet installed with a GoPro camera, so your tween can capture it all (and surely post it for prime embarrassment later).

For something a little less hands-on, the Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway takes you on a two-mile cable car trip to the top of Mt. Harrison, where you’ll find the Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area and Amusement Park. There’s plenty here to keep kids busy in the summertime, including an alpine slide, carousel, and arcade.

You can also seize the season by having some mindless fun in Pigeon Forge. Dollywood is the area’s best theme park and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. There are 40 rides spread out over 150 acres, a steady supply of Southern snacks, and, as to be expected from the park’s namesake, live music at every turn. While you’re there, don’t miss Splash Country or Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, a dining and theatrical event featuring dozens of performers on horseback that recently underwent a $2.5 million renovation.

EAT

Yes, there’s taffy, doughnuts, roasted nuts, and candy kitchens, but Gatlinburg manages to serve up a few finer dining options as well. For a sit-down dinner that doesn’t involve a burger and a shake, try Cherokee Grill, a family-friendly steakhouse with a full-blown kids’ menu (and Shirley Temples on request) as well as a solid selection of steaks, river trout, and ribs for the grown-ups.

Up the tramway at Ober Gatlinburg, there are a number of eateries, including Seasons of Ober, which offers a casual seated view along with Ranger burgers and tram sandwiches for the kids. And you can’t leave Gatlinburg without at least one pancake breakfast. The original Pancake Pantry opened here in 1960 and usually boasts lines as long as the ones you’ll find in Hillsboro Village. Find your spot and take turns scouring The Village, a nearby shopping center, for keepsakes. Once you’re seated, you’ll be treated to friendly service and an array of more than 20 different types of pancakes, like the peach delight, a ricotta-filled crepe smothered in peach compote and dusted with powdered sugar.

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