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Why Gatlinburg is the Perfect Family Getaway

So you want a vacation in the mountains, but your family is not quite ready to attempt backcountry camping. I get it. We have 3 little kids, and we’re just starting to dip our toes into exploring the great outdoors. Gatlinburg, Tennesee seemed like the perfect compromise. As we drove to Gatlinburg for a weekend stay, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was excited for mountain views, even as rumors of kitsch and airbrushed t-shirts swam through my mind.

I found that there is so much more to Gatlinburg than the souvenir shops and tourist traps. There’s a reason this east Tennessee town is such a popular vacation destination for families. This gateway city to Smoky Mountain National Park has a little something for everyone, from adventure-loving families and the outdoorsy types to those that embrace odd museums.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the greatest draws of Gatlinburg is its proximity to the Smoky Mountains. If you’re short on time, take a short drive from Gatlinburg into Great Smoky Mountains National Park via the Sugarland Entrance. Drive about 15 miles until you reach the parking lot and viewing area where you’ll find spectacular views of the Smokies.

If you’ve got a bit more time to spend exploring the park and enjoy the outdoors, you may want to hike the trails. Trek up to Clingman’s Dome to reach the highest point in Tennessee or take the short trail to Cataract Falls from the visitors center.

Spectacular Views

Gatlinburg itself is rife with opportunities to see the grandeur of the Smokies. Travel 407 feet up the Gatlinburg Space Needle for panoramic views of the city and mountains. You take an elevator to the top, so strollers and kids are welcome on the observation deck.

Another option for aerial vistas would be the Gatlinburg Sky Lift or the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway. The Sky Lift is a chairlift ride, and probably not recommended for young children. The Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway is an enclosed gondola, and perfect for families.

Anakeesta

Speaking of aerial trams, take a chairlift or an enclosed gondola up the mountain to reach Anakeesta, the new outdoor family adventure park in the mountains. Families with older kids can enjoy the thrill of zip lining over the treetops with spectacular views.

Younger families will find plenty to keep them busy at Anakeesta, as well. Little ones can use their physical skills by navigating the Children’s Treehouse Village Playground, which is a series of rope bridges, a maze and a tube net. Stroll through the Tree Canopy Walk for an up-close look at the zip liners and a chance to see wildlife 50 feet below on the forest floor.

At the top of the mountain, you’ll find Firefly Village with ice cream, souvenir shops, restaurants and a cozy cluster of Adirondack chairs around a campfire. You can also check out the memorial walk to learn about the wildfires that tore through Gatlinburg in 2016.

Kid-Friendly Eats

Every good family vacation includes a quest for the best local ice cream, and Gatlinburg has a wealth of options. Try The Village Cafe and Creamery for a more peaceful experience while you enjoy the picturesque Village area, or step back in time to the Glades Soda Fountain for a malt or a sundae. In addition to copious ice cream treats you’ll find a candy store on every corner. Kids will surely be in heaven from the sheer amount of sugar.

Feast on pancakes at Log Cabin Pancake House or Pancake Pantry. After all, what kid doesn’t love a short stack with loads of syrup? We also found Best Italian to be an ideal place for dinner with some of the best pizza around. We went early to avoid the crowds. The garlic knots alone made it well worth it!

Family Attractions

If you need a break from the outdoors or you have some time to kill, check out one of the many family-friendly attractions that line the sidewalks of Gatlinburg. Everyone in our family loved Ripley’s Guinness World Records Museum where kids of all ages – including the adult kids – could vie for a world record in hula hoop rotations, loudest scream or fastest hopscotch.

Other great attractions include multiple options for mini golf, Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze and Gatlin’s Escape Games. Definitely set aside an entire afternoon for Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. With an indoor playground for kids and underwater tunnels for up-close views of penguins and sharks, kids will never want to leave.

Stroller Accessible

One thing I loved about Gatlinburg was how easy it was to take a stroller almost anywhere. We had no problems bringing our stroller to the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle or on a gondola with us to Anakeesta. You can even enjoy a few walking trails in Great Smoky Mountain National Park with a baby. Just stop by Sugarlands Visitors Center for guidance on the best family-friendly trails.

The only exception to how stroller-accessible Gatlinburg is would be some of the attractions. A few of the buildings are just too small to accommodate strollers, but we never had a problem leaving ours near the front desk.

Adventure

If you’re traveling to Gatlinburg with older kids you’ll find a ton of heart-pumping activities to try. Go whitewater rafting whether it’s your first time or you’re an old pro in some of the nearby rivers. Try a ropes course, horseback riding or zip lining in the mountains.

Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park & Ski Area is a one-stop shop for thrilling activities. You’ll find rides, roller coasters and a rock wall year-round, and skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing during the winter months.

Great Shopping

Need a break from all the adrenaline? No worries. Shopping is a favorite Gatlinburg past time with seven malls and countless shops and boutiques. Make sure to duck into The Village just off the main street for some truly unique stores and restaurants, including the legendary Donut Friar. There are plenty of toy stores and candy shops to keep the kids happy, and souvenir shops to help the whole family remember the trip.

Throughout the months of July and October, the Gatlinburg Convention Center hosts the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair where you can find handmade jewelry, pottery, wood carvings, candy, leather products, artisanal jam and more. This is an event for the whole family as the Kids Corner offers free crafting for little ones.

Easy to Get Around

Everything in Gatlinburg is within walking distance, which is especially helpful for families with strollers and little legs. Another fun way to get around is to make use of the trolley system Gatlinburg offers. Fares are extremely affordable (started at 50 cents) and stop at many of Gatlinburg’s main attractions.

Rich in History and Culture

Gatlinburg pays homage to east Tennessee history and culture with multiple stops along the Tennessee Heritage Trail. Old cottages, schoolhouses and homesteads dot the Smokies, telling the stories of the earliest settlers of the area.

Kids will love the street performers during Smoky Mountain Tunes & Tales, a seven-week summer celebration of Appalachian culture and history. Entertainers tell stories, sing, dance and play bluegrass and folk music each night on the sidewalks of downtown Gatlinburg.

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