“Sit down next to the crab.” My sister crouched and snapped a picture of her son next to a giant Japanese crab that was larger than his chest. On the other side of the room, my four-year-old niece poked a glass wall where a mammoth jellyfish had affixed itself. At Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, the crowds funnel in from the street and enter a watery world for the senses. My father popped his head into an old scuba gear outfit. My brother chased my niece through a water maze, while her father chased her back the other way. As a triple generation traveling family, we didn’t have a hard time finding things to do in Gatlinburg’s museum. We read the placards, watched the turtles, and stood on a conveyor belt exhibit that plunged beneath an underwater world of sharks. It doesn’t matter how old you are. This aquarium was built to cue human curiosity and spark amazement, which explains its popularity and non-cheesiness.
Towns can be like siblings, sometimes one is overshadowed by another. In many ways, Gatlinburg in Tennessee suffers the same predicament. To the south, Great Smoky Mountain National Park pokes the horizon and maintains its reign as the most visited national park in the United States. People come from every corner of the country to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains. To the north, Pigeon Forge is home to both Dollywood and glitzy dinner shows down the strip. But Gatlinburg carries its own accolades, especially for families with diverse interests.
Gatlinburg For Kids
After a beautiful hike up the Laurel Falls trail in the Great Smoky Mountains national park, my sister took her kids for an afternoon in Gatlinburg. Toyshops, mini-golf, and all kinds of furry and carved animals lined the main drag in town. The aerial tramway to Ober Gatlinburg is a great birds eye view of the Smokies and delivers you right to the Alpine Slide. All sleds are manually controlled. So you go as fast as you like. Double slides are available for tandem rides with little ones. After Ripley’s Aquarium, courageous kids will also like the MagiQuest and Dinosaur Museum in town.
Gatlinburg For Beer & BBQ Lovers
My husband Neil, my brother Patrick, and I would often stay on the trails long after the rest of the family. Our best hike was up Chimney Tops. Wet weather had just made its way through the region. So, the paths were slick but the foliage was just turning green for early spring. With over 5 hours of walking under our belts, we were ready for serious food and cold beer. Twice, we ate at Bennett’s Pit BBQ. Fashioned like a down-home wooden barn, Bennett’s is casual dining all the way. Draft beer arrives on the table in mason jars. Country music pumps through the sound system. Wooden chandeliers sway when the doors open and a breeze kicks in. Menus feature kid meal superstars like mac’n cheese and chicken fingers. Further into town at the end of the main strip, Great Smoky Mountains Brewery is a great lunch option as well. Neil and I split a flight of beers, tasting 6 signature brews, crafted on-premises and bought souvenir pint glasses for our collection at home. My favorite was the red ale.
Gatlinburg For Your Sweet Tooth
First shop in Gatlinburg that caught my eye, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Shop is the household favorite. Chunky Monkey, Half-Baked, and Cherry Garcia all sounded like sweet finales for a long day hiking in the Smokies. One night while the strip was packed with cruising cars and hand-holding teenagers, we paused mid-street, jumped out, and ordered our ice cream while Neil drove around the block. Completely justified and worth the extra gas. Also keep an eye out for candy shops. Most are decorated like turn-of-the-century sweet shops with antique registers. Sugared pecans, non-pareil covered pretzels, and classic toffee turtles sit on display along with some hilarious sweets like Hill Billy Honey and Smoky Mountain Toe Jam. My niece loved that last one.
This summer as my family plans our next trip, we are constantly stirring up memories of Gatlinburg, the Smokies, and Pigeon Forge. My sister and father loved our lodge, the kids adored the mini-golf, and I enjoyed the proximity to nature. We still have those brewery pint glasses and our pictures of Mountain Toe Jam are iconic. I never would have predicted a simple road trip could have become a measuring stick for all vacations to come. Even though I often travel overseas, national parks and US small towns never fail to amaze.