We only write about destinations we have personally visited with our family. We are grateful to Anakeesta and Ripley’s Aquarium for hosting us. All opinions are our own. This post contains affiliate links. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to UNICEF.
Gatlinburg, TN sits at the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States. While Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge are packed with attractions for tourists, we wanted to spend most of our time in the park. Here is how we spent three fun and active days in Gatlinburg with our two kids (aged 3 & 5):
As we ate breakfast on our first morning, the weather forecast called for mostly sunny skies with only 20% of showers in the morning, so we thought it’d be a perfect day to drive up to Clingmans Dome and see some views of the Great Smoky Mountains. As we were putting our shoes on it started to rain, but as Clingmans Dome is an hour’s drive from our Airbnb cabin, we figured we’d hop in the car and go anyway, after all, the rain won’t last long right? Wrong…
It rained pretty steadily the whole hour we drove to Clingmans Dome. We saw a momma bear and one cub as we pulled onto the Clingmans Dome road, so that was worth the drive in-of-itself. The rain actually stopped as we pulled into the parking lot. Hey – we might get a break! We optimistically started walking up the easy paved trail to the summit.
(Note: there is a sign at the trailhead recommending that strollers are not used on the trail).
Despite being up in the clouds and having absolutely no views, the four of us had a great time on this short walk. As luck would have it, there were lots of ripe raspberries along the trail, so our daughter had a ball running along picking all she could eat. At 6,600 feet above sea level, some people have difficulties with the walk, so there are many benches along the way for people to rest. Not our crazy kids… they used each bench as a mini-stage for their “shows”. The part I liked best was the forest in the clouds – I absolutely love a spooky forest!
By the time we reached the spiral viewing platform at the top, our small glimpse of a chance ended. It started POURING rain on us. We went to the top of the platform just because we were there, but there wasn’t a view to be found anywhere… Oh well, one thing we’ve learned in our travels is that the only way to guarantee failure is to not try. Nature got the best of us today, but I’m happy we tried. Besides, we still had a lot of fun along the way.
Even though we had rain jackets on at Clingman’s Dome, we were still pretty wet so we drove back to the cabin to get into dry clothes. By this time the rain had stopped, so we decided to give nature another try and drove back to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to go for a short walk on the Gatlinburg Trail.
The trailhead actually begins at the end of the park HQ road, just north of the visitor center turnoff. This is a very easy trail with a groomed gravel path making it easy for little legs to keep up. The trail starts off a little yucky as you walk past the park maintenance yard, but soon enough you are in deep forest walking alongside a very charming little river.
The trail goes for nearly 2 miles (3.2km) in a single direction. Along the way, the deep forest stops and you enter a zone of recently burned forest from the massive 2016 fire. It was encouraging to see so much robust regeneration of the forest plants in such a short time. It’s often hard to find a reasonably flat, medium length, family friendly hike in a mountain setting, so we were happy to stumble across this hike today. We enjoyed it a lot and wished we could have done the whole thing. Sadly, we didn’t have a ton of time, but we managed to walk a total of 2.4 miles (4km) in just over a two hours.
Porters Creek Trail
On our second day, the forecast was for light rain all day, so rather than seek out some mountain views, we elected to do a family-friendly hike in the forest.
Porters Creek Trail follows Porters Creek through a gorgeous thick forest. The first few miles the trail is on a service road, so it is well maintained and is nice and wide. We love family walks on trails like this as the kids don’t need to watch their footing and everyone can walk side-by-side, making interactions a lot easier than single-file trails.
Eventually, the trail transitions to a more narrow, natural trail with trickier footing, but it wasn’t too bad. There are several scenic spots to stop and admire the creek along the way. There are a few creek crossings via bridges; the path on these bridges is narrow with high railings, so watch your little ones closely!
The first few miles of this trail is home to some remnants of 19th century settlers.There’s old stairs, stone fences and a cemetery. We managed to see some of the stone fences, but somehow managed to miss the rest. There are many spur trails along the way – we tried a few but didn’t see anything of interest. We must have not chosen the right ones…
This was a fun and easy trail for the kids to do. The kids had fun all day with their bug viewer box, catching and looking at all kinds of bugs they don’t see back home. All told, they hiked to the narrow bridge across the creek and back all on their own. This was approximately 4.3 miles (7km) in distance and it took about 3h30m. We had a lot of fun on this beautiful hike, but we wish the old settlement ruins were a little better marked.
Anakeesta with Kids
We started the day by driving into the heart of downtown Gatlinburg for a visit to Anakeesta, a family theme park featuring the natural beauty of the region. The visit starts off with a chairlift ride to the top of Anakeesta Mountain. The kids sure love being that high up!
Anakeesta is a great family experience from the moment you get off the chairlift. They take their hosting job very seriously; the staff are all super friendly, the place is spotless, there is catchy local music (banjo, country, etc.) played in the background everywhere you go, there are fans blowing cool mist on you, etc,etc, etc.
We began our day by walking up the main street to the Tree Canopy Walk. This is a beautiful walk over 16 connected sky bridges through the forest at heights of 40-60′. The bridges are very sturdy, but just wobbly enough that the kids loved walking on them. At the end of each bridge is a little wooden landing where you can stop and admire the views or take pictures of the amazing scenery. We were happy to see the level of safety the handrails provide – between the handrails and the wooden bridge steps is a mesh fence of interwoven rope. It was put to the test when our 5 year old daughter hip checked our 3 year old son as he tried to run past her… we were relieved when it easily stood up to the challenge!
Next, we paused for a quick lunch in a shaded little picnic area with amazing views of the surrounding mountains and the town below. The kids wolfed their lunches down as they knew a visit to the Treehouse Village Playground was next. This playground is super fun for kids. It’s a mini-version of their canopy walk,with many platforms connected by small, sturdy bridges. There are lots of places for the kids to climb and hide, making it an instant favorite. Our daughter quickly made some new friends and played hard with them for a very long time. Our little guy was content to explore on his own and try his skills at the different types of bridges. Any time he was allowed to join the bigger kids was a big thrill for him.
When the kids started to tire, we had to drag them out. We made our way back to the chairlift by taking the canopy tour one more time. It was almost even more fun the second time as you spend less time taking pictures and more just soaking the experience in… The chairlift ride down is fun as you get to enjoy views of town and the surrounding countryside.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Next we crossed the street to visit Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which despite its distance from the ocean, has been named among the best aquariums in the USA. Most aquariums are in places near the ocean and they are filled with local sea life, with a few big ticket items to help draw in the crowds. What I liked best about Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies was that it was chock-a-block full of crowd pleasers. They have sharks, stingrays, hundreds of clown fish (“Nemo”), penguins, octopuses, sea horses, etc, etc, etc.
From the moment you enter the aquarium you can see how child friendly it is. There are fish tanks the kids can climb inside of, two giant playgrounds, an area where they can touch jelly fish and horseshoe crabs, many hands-on exhibits for the kids to tinker with and much more. Our kids had fun from the second they walked in the door to the second we had to drag them out of the gift shop.