Roadtrip to Smoky Mountains Tennessee


If you want a vacation that is within reasonable driving distance (6-7 hours depending on the area) from Columbus, the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountains fits the bill. Last year, we did Niagara Falls, and this year Matt picked out a cabin between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg for our family getaway.

Upon entering the highway, we realized we had exactly ONE movie for the entire trip, so it goes without saying that I never want to hear Shrek again. We brought a ton of snacks (hello, Birthday Cake Oreos!) and off we went. We stopped at the Georgetown Kentucky exit, which is the best stopping point for nicer restaurants (drive-through Panera, Chik-fil-A, Cracker Barrel). 

The drive was almost all highway, and we didn't encounter any traffic until we got to the city of Pigeon Forge. I'll be honest, as we drove down the Parkway, I wondered if we made a mistake. I am a beach vacationer through and through. I like natural or historic scenery, and...well, Pigeon Forge is a little different. 


I can see how older kids would be trying to climb out of the car to get into the Titanic replica that has "crashed" into the road or into the Magicquest castle, but as we sat there in wall to wall traffic, I held my breath. 

Luckily, we checked into our cabin at the Cabin Fever cabin rental office right on the Parkway and headed to our house for the week. The description said "Only book this cabin if you are serious about seclusion". OK. 

We took a hillside winding road through a zigzagging valley. The scenery quickly changed, and before we knew it, we reached our almost unmarked driveway.  It was about a half mile long and sharply turned back 2 times. It took me all week to get up the courage to drive it myself!

They were right. It was an awesome cabin with gorgeous views and NO ONE in sight. Thank goodness. I liked that we were away from the chaos, but also close enough that we could drive in to get groceries (there are 2 Krogers in Pigeon Forge) and carryout (basically any chain restaurant or pancake house you could want). 

We took the loft with Rhys and had Larkyn sleep in the bedroom downstairs. At this age, the kids sharing a room would be disastrous. Turns out, it took Rhys 2 days to get acclimated to a new sleeping place anyway, so...vacation sleeping is a learning curve itself. 

In this area, I highly suggest forgoing any sort of resort or hotel and getting a cabin. Frankly, we wouldn't do it any other way so that we can be as noisy as we want, park with ease, and cook most of our own food to save money. 

All checked in and ready for DAY TWO:  Pigeon Forge

I read several TripAdvisor suggestions, which are helpful (but don't always fit your individual family). Many people recommended the Old Mill Restaurant area. With little ones, we were up very early and accidentally got to the area about an hour before anything opened (mistake). We walked around the area to see gift shops, candy shops, the mill, etc. It was about 90 degrees and 90% humidity at 10 AM, so the troops were getting cranky (A note: July is peak tourism season and HOT, so choose your dates wisely).




The real reason we came to the Old Mill was to visit the distillery, which got the best reviews out of all the area establishments. As soon as they opened at 10, we were the first ones in and tasting all the delicious flavors of moonshine. The kids enjoyed looking at the stills, and we saw several other kids in there, in case you are wondering. 


Brooklyn, the staff member who served us, was the sweetest person I think I've ever met!  She told us about her favorite combinations, gave us mixing ideas, and some lemonade for the kids. We bought 2 jars (peach and blackberry) and got a free mixer (their special peach lemonade) thrown in. We each got shirts (mine is the softest vintage shirt I own!) and REALLY wanted the poundcake mix, but had spent enough. Their jars of shine are a bit more expensive than other places we visited, but the ease of parking and friendly staff was worth it. 


It was clear that the kids had had enough of that area, so we headed toward our other Pigeon Forge stop, The Island. If you have been to The Boardwalk at Myrtle Beach, it is very similar. Parking was like any amusement park...not close but abundant. There is a tram available, but we just kept moving so we could get in. Admission and parking is free. There are several restaurants and shops, along with an impressive fountain that "performs" to music. There are tons of rockers set up around the fountains and I loved that the kids could kind of run free without the worry of cars. 



If the kids want to ride rides, you stop into a ticket center and get a card loaded with predetermined rides of your choice (Larkyn chose the carousel and train). I rode both with her for free, and actually the train was fun!  It took us all around the entire Island, complete with a tunnel (hence the "worried" face below).  




Also on the Island is Ole Smoky Distillery, which was a bit less expensive than Old Forge and had some different flavors. I loved the butterscotch and the Shine Nog, but just got the nog (Christmas in July special!) and Matt got their powerful Blue Flame. 


We had some good pizza at Mellow Mushroom, but Rhys was AWFUL, so we called it a day after that memorable meal. Honestly, we would have had so much more time and fun at these places if it had not been so hot. 

DAY THREE: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Like I said, I consulted TripAdvisor a lot for the trip, and I knew that the point of this vacation (for us) was to see the natural beauty of the Smokies. We headed the other way from our cabin, through Gatlinburg. As soon as we saw Gatlinburg, we knew would like to stay there next time. It is just a matter of personal preference, but the little town is situated IN the mountains and just has a completely different feel. 

We headed to the Sugarlands Nature Center, where we would start our first hike. We got there as soon as it opened (do that EVERYWHERE in this area) and did not encounter traffic or parking issues. We took a trail to Cataract Falls, which was the perfect trail for our family. There was one set of steps, so we had to take Rhys out of the stroller for that. Because there was a destination (waterfall) at the end, Larkyn did not complain at all on the way. I have found that if we just go "hiking" without her knowing what we are looking for, she will complain the whole time. I would definitely suggest this trail if you have young children. 






By the time we left an hour later, the parking lot was totally full and people were waiting to get in. We had our choice between Roaring Fork scenic route or Cades Cove scenic loop. We made the unfortunate choice of Cades Cove, and I only say that because we should have known our kids better. 

It is 24 (gorgeous) miles from Sugarlands to Cades Cove. The drive is along the water, and that part of OK. But by the time we got to Cades Cove, the kids were done being in the car. We were told this was our best chance to see wildlife on our visit to the Smokies, and we got in the caravan to being our 11 mile scenic loop.






Let me reiterate. This is a beautiful place to see, and we did end up seeing a doe. There is history in the churches and cabins, and you have the chance to get out of your car at several stops. But once you are in the line, you can't turn around. You have to finish the loop, and people were biking past us. We finally stopped at a cabin and had the good fortune to run into an actual photographer. He was so kind to us and understood our predicament. He took a great family picture and said "I've been there. It gets better". I think I blacked out for the rest of the trip, and was so thankful to be back to our cabin and put the screamer to bed. 

We will try Roaring Fork next time!

DAY FOUR: Gatlinburg

After seeing a glimpse of Gatlinburg, we were excited to go back the next day. Everything opens at 10:00, so we got there around 9:00 to hopefully eat breakfast at the famed Pancake Pantry. We paid $6 to easily park in a lot across from the aquarium. Just a note, parking gets more expensive the further you go. 

We found some adorable little alcoves with shop after shop. Next time, we are staying here and mama is going to have a kid-free shopping day!  We came to the Pancake Pantry to find a line that was an hour long. Ha. But, right around the corner was the delicious Donut Friar and a few coffee shops. That was absolutely what we needed. We ate our donuts by the fountain and everyone was recharged. 







We stopped into a few candy shops and saw several arcades (and henna parlors. HENNA everywhere!). Larkyn really wanted to go into Ripley's, but we will wait a few years on that one. We made another distillery stop at Sugarlands. This place was huge!  I will say, we almost left without any purchases because the staff was too busy unpacking products and being on the phone to help the only customers in the store...this was the one distillery that disappointed.

At this point in the day it starts getting hot as hell and our kids melt down (literally), so we skipped the aquarium and went home. I still feel bad that Larkyn didn't get to go there, because she really wanted to (but also really wanted to go home too).

But...our day didn't end there. 


After Larkyn got cooled off and had some lunch, I took her to the horse farm that was very close to our cabin. We'd driven by a few times each day, and I wanted some girl time. This was the best decision we made on the whole trip.

Big Rock Dude Ranch is the PERFECT place to take your little ones. Most people said to us "You have to do Dollywood!" and I'd say you have to do Big Rock.


There is a petting farm (where Larkyn made friends with Betsy the calf), a fishing pond (they supply everything you need once you pay), a gift shop, gem mining ($11), a cafe, a playground, and of course trail riding

I grew up with my own horses and of course cannot wait to trail ride with my girl one day, but not till she's a bit older. 

A few people who were exiting the farm gave us their leftover corn to feed the animals (it is a few dollars per bag).



The gem mining brought out the nerdy kid in me, because I lived for stuff like this. You pay for a bag of sand that is filled with gems and then pour it in the pans to shake out to the bottom. Word is that there is actual gold if you pan in their creek, but we are good with fools gold and rose quartz.



It was so nice to finally sit down and watch her play on the playground. As much as we loved our cabin, our kids were missing being able to play outside (because we were on the side of a hill). She was having a blast chasing roaming peacocks, throwing rocks in the creek, and riding the ride-on toys.




The cafe is run by an awesome guy named David. His accent intrigued me, so I came to find out about his musical roots in Trinidad and playing in tribute bands touring all over. He took care of us and truly just wants to make the visitors have a good time. He could see Larkyn's bright pink face, so he threw in a popsicle for her to enjoy while we walked around in the heat.


I will remember our day at Big Rock forever and would love to take both kids back one day. 

DAY FIVE: heading home!

We had come to love our cabin and the thought of exploring a little more, so we tried to stay one more day. Unfortunately, our cabin was booked and we would have to leave. It was a LONG ride home with Rhys, and I would love to find a different way out of town that avoids the Parkway. Even if there is little traffic, there are still 1000 lights. 

Tips:
  • For some reason, no one is out and about in the morning. Most every place opens at 10, so if you can get on the road early, park and walk around the area and beat the rush. 
  • Wear bug spray all the time!  We didn't and we were eaten alive.
  • Stay in a place toward Gatlinburg and you will be close to the park. You won't have trouble driving to Pigeon Forge for the day if you leave early.
  • For very young children, I'd suggest: The Island, Cataract Falls hike, and Big Rock. As far as distilleries, we loved Old Forge and Ole Smoky. 

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