Monday, June 29, 2020

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

We drove down to Tennessee to see the Great Smoky Mountains, and it was really fun to hike the trails and see the clouds clinging to the mountaintops. But right outside the entrance of the park is a completely different experience that's found in the town of Gatlinburg. Unabashedly touristy, it's a complete wonderland for kids. From mini-golf to mountain coasters, Gatlinburg features every kid-friendly amusement in existence. The downtown area resembles the Las Vegas strip, but for families.

Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a spike in COVID cases just after the pandemic, so we had to stick with outdoor activities where we could socially distance safely. This meant that we weren't able to check out many of the indoor attractions and restaurants we wanted to visit. But here's what we were able to safely do, with masks on and a lot of hand sanitizing.

What to Do

Our first activity in Gatlinburg was a ride on the Rowdy Bear Mountain Coaster. Gatlinburg has no fewer than four mountain coasters, and I picked this one for its fun name. A mountain coaster is a single or double seater roller coaster that is pulled to the top of the mountain on a track, then winds its way down at about 30 mph. My kids had a blast and each rode the coaster three times.

A few yards away from the mountain coaster is Hillbilly Golf, an absolutely delightful mini-golf course. You have to take a funicular to the top of the mountain, where the course begins, then putt your way down the mountain, through 18 holes. The course features a moonshine-making theme, and also has some interesting signs along the way about the recent fire and tornado that devastated Gatlinburg (and the mini-golf course). Our favorite part was the Plinko-inspired hole.

Gatlinburg's neighboring town is the equally touristy Pigeon Forge, which is where we visited the Paula Deen Adventure Park and Lumberjack Show. Here, you get outfitted with a harness so you can participate in activities like the log roll, speed climb, ropes course, and zipline roller coaster. I've never seen a lot of these attractions before, and the kids had a really good time at the park.

The lumberjack show plays at least twice a day and features lumberjacks (and jills) competing against each other with axes and chainsaws. The show is family-friendly, with many kids in the audience receiving lumber "cookies" (slices of wood) throughout the performance, and the competitors are very impressive in their athleticism.

A short drive from Gatlinburg were two other activities that we had a blast with: ziplining and white water rafting. We did the ziplining with Climbworks, and it was amazing. The ziplines were really long and high up in the trees  sometimes it was hard to see the next landing because it was so far away! It was the kids' first time ziplining, and the fantastic staff made it really fun for them.

For the white water rafting, we went with Smoky Mountain Outdoors Rafting, the largest outfitter in the area. We were lucky enough to have a raft and a guide all to ourselves, and everyone had a great time rafting through class 3 and 4 rapids.

And finally, we spent a lot of time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, our whole reason for visiting Gatlinburg in the first place. Here's my post on some great hikes to do in that park.

Where to Eat

As I mentioned, we didn't feel particularly safe eating in Gatlinburg's crowded restaurants, so we ended up cooking most of our meals at our Airbnb home. We did do takeout once, from Mama's Chicken Kitchen, just a few minutes drive from the main drag. The fried chicken and all the sides were absolutely delicious, particularly the biscuits with gravy and jam. Everything was all eaten up before I remembered to take a photo.

Where to Stay

Because we were traveling post-pandemic, I decided we'd rent a home outside of the downtown area. The home we found, dubbed the Royal Chalet, was absolutely perfect  tucked at the top of a winding mountain road, nestled in the trees. The panoramic windows were great for bear watching, although no bears actually came around during our stay. We did spot one digging through a neighbor's garbage cans, though.

What's Nearby

Just two hours from Gatlinburg is Asheville, North Carolina, a fantastic city with so much good food and more great hikes. Here's my itinerary for that part of our road trip!

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