The kids and I absolutely LOVE traveling. It’s a good thing too since we spend the better part of the spring on the road traveling to homeschool conventions. Whenever possible we try to fit some family fun into those trips, but it doesn’t happen much because the schedules are so tight.
This summer we were super excited to actually travel for fun and spend a week in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It’s only a few hours from home and promised beautiful views coupled with fun family times. My friend, this place exceeded our expectations! Wondering what fun treasures we found? I’d love to share our favorite family-friendly activities with you.
I actually had the kids write down each activity we did and rank them in order of which was their favorite. Then I gave each vote a numerical value and averaged them up to see which things were truly our favorites.
10 Family-friendly Things to Do in Gatlinburg
1. Go zip-lining in the tree tops.
Yep, this was #1 on every single person’s list. The views from above the trees were amazing and the adventure was quite exhilarating. We embarked on our journey early on Wednesday morning. I’ll be honest, I’ve been zip-lining in the rainforest of Costa Rica. I figured this trip would be fun, but not quite as impressive. Boy was I wrong.
Wahoo Ziplines, the company we chose, did a fantastic job! Each of the 6 lines (totally over 2 miles in the air) was unique and the guides went out of their way to make it fun. We were encouraged to let go and fly, to ride upside down, and even got to ride tandem. It was such a wonderful experience for all of us. Even my youngest had no fear…
2. Take a raft down the Pigeon River and ride the rapids.
Second on the list was the white-water rafting trip we took. Now let me settle your heart, this was nothing like Niagara Falls or anything. In fact, we could only do class I and II rapids with Luke (you have to be 8 years old for the bigger trips). So there was little fear of falling out of the boat or anything like that. But there was plenty of fun to be had.
My kids had absolutely no experience rafting or even paddling for that matter. This was a small concern for me as that left a boat full of bodies with only 2 people capable of paddling. That was no problem. Our guide had the kids paddling within minutes of leaving the river bank. Even without training of any kind, I was surprised at how well they did!
The scenery on this river was absolutely breathtaking and our guide was great at pointing out wildlife along the way. When the two hours was nearing an end, we could hardly believe we had been on the river that long. Big Bear Rafting, the company we chose for this trip, was super fun to work with. It’s a smaller business and it was clear that safety was priority, with fun being right behind it. I loved supporting them and would go back in a heart beat.
3. Be moved by the faith of many of the ship’s passengers at the Titanic Museum.
This was another trip I was unsure about (are you seeing a trend?), but it made it to the top of everyone’s list. The Titanic Museum is a tribute to the people who died when the ship sank and a tremendous source of history. When you board, everyone is given a card with a name. During the tour, you are encouraged to look for information about your person and see the journey through their eyes. At the end, you’ll find out if you survived.
One of my concerns was that my young boys (ages 8 and 5) would not be engaged in the museum. That concern flew out the window immediately when each person was handed an audio guide. They loved having a personal device telling them stories in each room. The audio guide provides an adult track with history and stories from survivors. The children follow the story of one of the dogs on board the ship and go on a hunt to find her as they travel from space to space in the museum.
Kids will also find many hands-on items in the museum, including being able to stick your hands in 28 degree water as it was the night the ship sank. This created a tremendous impact for the kids as they talked of how cold it really was for quite some time. You can also print off a Scavenger hunt before you go. The kids really loved doing this.
By far, the thing that impressed me the most about the museum was its clear presentation of the gospel. This was so unexpected, but such a beautiful message for us! There were many people who died on that ship because they wanted to provide stability in the face of fear (the musicians) or because they wanted others to know Jesus before they died. The kids loved hearing these stories both in print and from Lowell Lytle who was there telling about his personal life journey. Lytle was one of the few people to have the opportunity to dive to the wreckage of the ship, but he mostly shared about the faith of those on board.
4. Pet jellyfish at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
So we’ve been to a LOT of aquariums. Living so many years in Florida, we’ve seen a lot of marine life, fed giant whales, pet sting rays and sharks, you name it. I was honestly surprised the kids even wanted to go to the aquarium, but more surprised that it made it this high on the list!
That says a lot for educational activities and also for this particular aquarium. There were several things here we’ve never done that left quite an impression. First was petting the jellyfish. Who knew you could even do that? They were squishy and fun to snuggle up with. (Haha. We didn’t snuggle with them, but we wanted to!)
The second attention-grabber was the shark tunnel. The kids absolutely loved having the sharks swim overhead where you could see their bellies, gills, and more. We had to go through the tunnel several times they were so fascinated. Be sure you add Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies to your to-do list when you visit Gatlinburg.
5. Hike to the top of Clingman’s Dome.
For me, the draw to Gatlinburg is the Smoky Mountains. I love to sit and take in the majesty of what God has created! So naturally, we did a good bit of hiking and driving through the mountains while on our trip. There are so many trails and driving paths you could literally spend an entire week doing just that! Our favorite by far was the hike up to Clingman’s Dome. Boasting the proud claim to the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, this dome has views into 7 states on clear days.
The hike itself is intense. I won’t lie. It’s only half a mile, but the entire trip up is on a steep incline (so steep you can’t bring strollers/wheelchairs because it’s unsafe). But don’t let that deter you. There are plenty of benches along the way and the view is absolutely worth it. Even the kids loved the dome at the top.
6. Go dancing with the Cherokee Indians.
I’m guessing this doesn’t make it on the agenda of most people who visit Gatlinburg as it’s about an hour drive up the mountain, but may I encourage you to put it on your list?
The Oconalufftee Indian Village offers tours of a replica of their village from the 1750’s. You’ll see present day Cherokee Indians teaching the crafts of old including weapon making, beading, basketweaving, and more.
We had many great conversations with the people about how they live today compared to how they lived in the 1750’s. The day ended with a ceremonial dance. The kids loved it and were even invited to jump up and dance during the Friendship Dance. This attraction was my youngest son’s favorite because of the dancing and the weapons.
It’s all outdoors but mostly shaded. Make it a day and try the Cherokee museum or go tubing down the river! We will definitely try both of those next time.
7. Ride the ski lift for a view you’ll never forget.
The day we arrived in town, we went to Ober Gatlinburg for the ski lift. For those of you from places where it doesn’t snow (or is very flat) the ski lift is used in winter to transport people to the top of the mountain so they can ski down. In the summer, you can ride up the mountain and back down for a spectacular view. There are multiple places to do this, but Ober was our choice because it’s the longest and because they let you walk around up top for a beautiful view. This was definitely a great way to start our trip.
You’ll also find several other activities to do at Ober while you are up there like the maze, alpine slide, and kiddie rides.
8. Take a small sled to the top of the mountain and hang on for dear life.
All right, it’s not that scary, but you do literally ride a sled down the side of the mountain going 35mph. Who came up with this idea? I assure you it was a boy. Haha. Whoever invented it, the Alpine Coaster has become really popular in Gatlinburg in recent years with several places where you can buy tickets to ride.
We went to Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster for our 7 minute ride. The first 5 minutes is uphill and quite beautiful. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy the ride. Once you get to the top, you press the handle and fly down the mountain for 2 solid minutes. It is pretty sweet! The only downside to this fun is that it runs about $15 per ride. And you don’t get a re-run. So make sure you enjoy every second of it. HA! The good news is, this leaves plenty of time to visit the Apple Barn, The Island or the Titanic Museum.
9. Walk on the ceiling in a glow-in-the dark ropes course at Wonderworks.
I got roped into doing this one (ha) because my youngest needed a chaperone to go. I miss the days when my kids were actually scared of doing certain things, like say walking on a rope while hanging in the air! Alas, we suited up with harnesses and protective head gear (seriously?) and walked up the stairs so we could hang from the ceiling and try not to fall.
Ok, I’ll be honest. It was super fun. The kids really enjoyed it. Rachel especially was able to do every obstacle in the course so quickly that the employees were impressed with her. Luke and I went together and somehow managed not to fall. Of course, even if we had, it was dark and no one could really see us anyway, right?
All kidding aside, this was a very unique activity and I’m glad we did it. Not to mention, we enjoyed the rest of Wonderworks once we got down off the ceiling. One tip: go early as this place gets really crowded and you’ll want to make sure you have time to lie on the bed of nails. (Yes, I’m serious.)
image courtesy of Wonderworks
10. Discover the largest eagle habitat (and a few rides) at Dollywood.
Rarely do we visit a city with an amusement park and neglect to go. As you can tell from the list above, we are a family who likes action and adventure. Roller coasters included. Out of the 5 of us, only the youngest can refuse a good roller coaster and that’s only because he’s not tall enough. (Trust me, there are tears every time.)
The kids enjoyed several coasters, including the Firechaser, which we were all old enough for. It was a super fun ride. All that said, I wouldn’t call Dollywood a roller coaster park. There are so many things to do there without throwing up your arms and shrieking with thrill. The roller coasters are really a pretty small part.
The kids were most impressed with the bald eagle habitat. It’s the world’s largest sanctuary for non-releasable bald eagles and is simply beautiful on the side of the mountain. There are many large boards with information to learn, including Scripture. This was a wonderful surprise!
Have you been to the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area? Share some of your family’s favorites with us!