It’s pretty overwhelming when you visit Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge for the first time. There are so many things to do, so many restaurants to try, so many trails to hike. Which ones are best for your family?
We’re here to help! Find the category below that corresponds with the age of your child/children. Then read our recommendations for the best hike, attraction and restaurant for your family!
If your kids are … under two years old:
- Best Hike: Laurel Falls
This hike is a short drive from Gatlinburg (drive about 4 miles beyond the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which you’ll pass not long after leaving Gatlinburg), which is sometimes important for little ones. But the number one reason I recommend it? It’s PAVED! Perfect for strollers! The roundtrip hike is 2.3 miles and it is rated an easy trail (but not as easy as some). Basically, it’s a worthy hike for adults — there’s a beautiful waterfall at the top — but also do-able with little ones. Two downsides: First, there are several steep drop-offs, so if you have an independent walker, you may want to consider something else. Second, this trail is really popular and it’s pretty much the first one you come to when driving in the park. So it’s busy. And parking can be a problem.
- Best Attraction: Parrot Mountain
The babies will love to see the “birdies” at Parrot Mountain, while you’ll enjoy the slower pace, the paved walkways and the lovely gardens. There’s a deli on site, so if your little ones get hungry, it’s easy to grab something. Kids under 2 are free, and adults (12 and up) cost $14.95.
- Best Restaurant: Bennett’s Pit BBQ
I picked Bennett’s because it’s not a quiet, sit and eat restaurant. It’s louder (but not too loud to disturb little ones) and people are up and around a lot. Also, there’s an incredible salad bar, so if you need to make a quick departure, you can just order the salad bar, eat quickly and go. With locations in both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, it’s also never very far away. Oh, and did I mention how GREAT the food is? Mom and Dad will be happy, too. (Here’s a review we wrote of Bennett’s.)
If your kids are … 2-5 years old:
- Best Hike: Toms Branch Falls, Juney Whank Falls or Indian Creek Falls
If you’re staying in Gatlinburg, you’ll have to plan ahead for this one. These trail heads are located in Bryson Creek, NC, which is about an hour from Gatlinburg. So grab a picnic lunch and make a day of it. The best two things about these three trails? You can park in one location and visit all three, and all three have waterfalls, which kids love! Oh, and all three trails are classified as easy and should be easily handle-able for your toddler. Juney Whank is a half mile round trip that leads to a footbridge and an 80-foot cascade waterfall. After viewing this one, head back to the parking lot and visit Toms Branch Falls. This trail is another .6 miles and it leads to another 80-foot drop. If you have a backpack along for the little one or if your little one just has tons of energy, keep going after you pass Toms Branch Falls. In another .6 miles of easy terrain, you’ll reach Indian Creek Falls. This is a 25-foot waterfall, that is really more of a waterslide. Sounds fun, huh? After all that hiking, your little one should sleep on the hour it takes to get back to Gatlinburg.
- Best Attraction: Ober Gatlinburg Tram
This may seem like a strange choice. But here’s my rationale — the tram is free for kids under 7 and only $11 for adults. The kids will LOVE this breath-taking 2.1-mile trip up the mountain and YOU won’t have to worry about them falling out of the Sky Lift. Once you get to Ober Gatlinburg, there are lots of fun things for kids to do, and the best thing is that they are all free for those under 7 years. Some fun choices: the Alpine Slide (an 1800′ track — must ride with an adult); Kiddie Land (really fun free play ground with a few rides that have a minor cost); Wildlife Encounter (see a black bear and more); and Amaze’n Maze (gets stamps on your passport and try to beat your family and friends).
- Best Restaurant: Takeout
Kids this age are hard to contain in a restaurant, and they’ll also probably be exhausted from an exciting day in the Smokies, so your best bet is to get takeout and head back to the cabin/hotel. Here are choices for takeout pizza in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. But you could also grab Subway (locations in both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg). Feeling like something more adventurous? Try takeout from the Old Mill Square Pottery House Cafe and Grill in Pigeon Forge. The food is spectacular and the menu is extensive — great salads, burgers, sandwiches, etc. for around $15. (Read our review of this restaurant.)
If your kids are … 6-10 years old:
- Best Hike: Rainbow Falls
Kids this age still love the waterfalls (really, what kids don’t?), so this is a perfect hike. It will challenge them and wear them out, but it’s do-able. The hike is 5.4 miles round trip and is classified as a moderate hike (though I thought it was really quite difficult). Be prepared to take quite a few stops. Take lots of water and a few snacks. We were shocked that this hike took us 5 and a half hours with our kids. (Read about what our kids thought about it here.) But your little ones will certainly have a sense of accomplishment when they finish this hike. And trust me, you’ll be feeling it, too.
- Best Attraction: MagiQuest
It’s pricey, but trust me, it’s worth it. This is one of our kids’ all-time favorite things to do. Basically, it’s an interactive 3-D world where the kid gets to be the wizard. Together, you solve puzzles using the kids’ magic wand, which does all kinds of things in the town, forest, or dragon’s lair. If you’ve visited MagiQuest at other locations, it still may be worth a stop. Pigeon Forge is one of the most elaborate ones and is the only location with hidden rooms. (Read more about MagiQuest.)
- Best Restaurant: Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant
This is a fun experience for little ones who can sit still for a bit longer. Order a home-style entree (what you’d expect — fried chicken, chicken pot pie, fried catfish, chicken and dumplings, etc.) and you get more than you expect. Servers start by bringing homemade apple fritters with apple butter and Applewood julep. (The kids will LOVE them.) Then everyone gets Signature Vegetable Soup. Then the main course. Kids meals are available, too.
If your kids are … 11-13 years old:
- Best Hike: The Jump Off
Kids this age have boundless energy, so this is the trail for them. Some of this trail is not an official Great Smoky Mountains National Park trail, but it’s marked with a sign. The trail is 6.5 miles round trip and is considered a moderate hike, but is right on the edge of a difficult rating. I’d have to work up to being able to handle this one. The elevation for this trail is really high (around 6,000 feet) so the views are supposed to be fabulous.
- Best Attraction: NOC White Water Rafting
I can’t wait until my kids are just a little bit bigger so they can do this. There are several outfitters for white water rafting, but this is one of the best. You can just walk into the NOC Outfitters shop in downtown Gatlinburg, and they’ll get you hooked up with the perfect rafting trip for your kids. Kids have to be at least 3 for Lower Pigeon rafting, but kids that are at least 8 can brave the Upper Pigeon. If you’ve never taken the kids white water rafting, it’s an adventure they’ll talk about for the rest of their lives. Give it a try. (Here’s a list of all the white water rafting outfitters in the area for comparison.)
- Best Restaurant: Big Daddy’s Pizzeria
This is a great spot to let kids finish using that last bit of energy. In the Pigeon Forge location, Big Daddy’s has an arcade, too. Adults can sit with a good book (or play games on an iPhone…) while the kids play for an hour or more.
If your kids are … 14-18 years old:
- Best Hike: Mount LeConte
Make sure they (and probably more importantly, you!) are trained and ready for this hike. It’s a whopping 15.6 miles round trip with a very strenuous rating. There are two spots for amazing panoramic views. And it’s just one of those hikes that you have to do to be respected as a Smoky Mountain hiker. If 15.6 miles seems like too much in one day, make plans to stay at the LeConte Lodge overnight. It’s a rustic spot to eat dinner and sleep. But there’s no electricity! Sounds like an adventure, huh? One thing’s for sure — the kids will never forget it!
- Best Attraction: Climbworks Canopy Ziplines
I can’t wait for our kids to be big enough for this! Imagine zipping through the trees like Tarzan, going from zipline to zipline. That’s what you get at Climbworks. I love this option because in two and a half hours of zipping, your feet never touch the ground. Kids have to be at least 8 years old and 80 pounds. (Here’s a complete list of zipline options in the area.)
- Best Restaurant: Dick’s Last Resort
Your older kids will love this restaurant. It’s fun, trendy, loud and memorable. Waitresses will flirt, kids will be embarrassed, and fun will be had. It’s one of the craziest restaurants I’ve ever been to! (Read a complete review of Dick’s Last Resort here.) Picture paper hats for everyone, hula hoop contests, buckets of water and bibs. It’s a riot. But be warned, it’s crass. And it’s impossible to hide from the overwhelming-ness of the place. If your teen isn’t ready to handle that, this may not be the stop for you. A good alternate would be the Smoky Mountain Brewery — make sure you try the pretzel appetizer!