You’re vacationing in the Great Smoky Mountains and you want to make the most of your time. Who can blame you? This neck of the woods is jam-packed with history, food, fun, and natural beauty – so it can be kind of difficult to figure out what to do first. (Or next.)
If you have a family, you’re in luck. This post will offer 10 of the most exciting, educational, and kid-friendly activities in this charming neck of the American woods. Read on!
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We would be remiss in our duties if we didn’t list Great Smoky Mountains National Park as the first activity. You absolutely must make time to get out into the park. Decompress, leave the electronics behind and enjoy mile after mile of gorgeous, unspoiled natural wilderness.
Founded in 1934, this rugged wilderness straddles North Carolina and Tennessee, encompassing more than half a million acres of forests, meadows, waterways, and trails. Taking kids here is the best education you can give them about the importance of nature.
2. Rainforest Adventures Discovery Zoo
Take a deep dive into the rainforest with this family-friendly stop in the Smokies. Rainforest Adventures Discovery Zoo is designed by the same team behind Animal Kingdom at Disney World, this beautiful natural ramble features monkeys, parrots, snakes, a petting zoo, and more. They’re small but mighty, with more than 130 species in a cozy space and very affordable admission.
3. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Stop by Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to take an educational “dip” into one of the best inland aquariums in America. At Ripley’s Aquarium kids will learn tons watching the Live Penguin Cam, touching rays, visiting attractions on two different levels, and begging for toys at the gift shop. (Did we say that??)
This family attraction boasts more than 10,000 species in 10 different galleries, so there’s plenty of activity for the whole day if you’re the more sedate type. If you like to pack it in, you can see the aquarium in the morning and head to one of the other adventures on this list in the afternoon.
4. Titanic Museum Attraction
Yes, it really is called the “Titanic Museum Attraction.” Located in Pigeon Forge, the museum is built half-scale to the original Titanic using the actual plans designed to construct the real ship. It also contains within it many of the notable sights you would have seen on the world-class (but ultimately doomed) passenger liner.
You can visit the museum during operating hours to enjoy its artifacts and exhibits, or you can sign up for a special event, such as dinner aboard the “ship.” Make sure, no matter what you want to do, that you reserve in advance, as it does sell out.
5. Junior Ranger Activities
You can do Junior Ranger activities in any park, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, other national parks and monuments, or simply in your nearest natural area.
Junior Rangers learn all about wildlife, plants, wilderness, safety training, and more through the completion of online activities that you can print from the National Park Service website. Once you’ve completed the activities, you can log back on and print out a commemorative badge, which the kiddos can decorate to their hearts’ content!
6. Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community
For those who appreciate the finer things in life, the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community is here to serve. It is the largest independent organization of artisans in the entire US and is unique in that it’s not all located in one place.
Rather, you can get a map of the community and then spend a lovely day driving from one shop to another, enjoying goodies like food, candles, paintings, quilts … and everything in between. Truly, there’s something for everyone!
7. Hollywood Star Cars Museum
Automobiles sometimes play as big a role in movies as their human costars do, which is how the Hollywood Star Cars Museum was born. Aggregating not only famous cars from movies but also those owned by celebrities, this attraction is a sure showstopper for any mechanically-minded young’un.
Be sure to check out the Fast & Furious cars, the Batmobile used in 1992’s Batman Returns, and the Humer H3T from 2012’s Avengers.
8. Sugarlands Visitor Center
On your way into the park? Stop by Sugarlands Visitor Center, where you can talk to rangers, enjoy interactive exhibits, and learn about the flora and fauna of the Great Smoky Mountains. You can also grab a park map or a newspaper to start your trip into the park off right.
If you’re entering the park from another angle, try the Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, or Clingmans Dome centers. These offer the same amenities with different exhibits, and all are an amazing way to introduce children to the concept of conservation.
9. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium
More Ripley’s? Yes, indeed. Not only can you see traditional oddities – for which the franchise is famous – you can also view, for a limited time, an exhibit about Mr. Ripley himself. The man behind the phenomenon was a globe-traveling adventure-seeker whose love for unusual stories once made him the most-mailed person in the entire world!
As with any Ripley’s, you’re sure to have a family-friendly time at this Pigeon Forge institution.
10. Museum of Salt and Pepper Shakers
Love cooking? Here’s a fun – if only tangentially educational – way to teach children about the Old Ways Of The Kitchen as well as how people around the world have seasoned their food!
The Museum of Salt and Pepper Shakers is located in Gatlinburg and offers an eye-popping collection of more than 20,000 salt and pepper shaker sets. They also have a huge collection of pepper mills and the proud distinction of being the only museum of its kind. At only $3 per adult (a price that can go toward a gift shop purchase), it’s well worth seeing.
Of course, this list is far from complete, but it should give you a good head start with planning your Great Smokies vacation. Bon voyage!