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Spring Break in the Smokies: An Affordable Family-Friendly Alternative

Ditch the sun and sand for scenic hiking trails, kid-friendly amusements and active adventures.

U.S. News & World Report

Spring Break in the Smokies: An Affordable Family-Friendly Alternative

Spring sunrise view of layered mist in the mountains of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Take advantage of an excellent value and quality time in the great outdoors with gang this spring. (Getty Images)

Looking to break away from a traditional spring break beach trip? The Great Smoky Mountains, which stretches across North Carolina and Tennessee, offers an enticing and adventurous option for families looking to avoid crowds, recharge and have fun hiking, biking and horseback riding along scenic trails, enjoy wildlife watching and embrace other outdoor pursuits. From strolling along self-guided nature trails to admiring stunning falls and natural sites to joining expert-led interpretive walks, there are plenty of affordable and crowd-pleasing activities that appeal to the young – and the young at heart. Read on to start planning a family adventure to remember.

The Setting

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encompasses 533,427 acres and stretches across North Carolina and Tennessee, is just an hour southeast of Knoxville, Tennessee. The park offers a gorgeous landscape filled with misty mountains, striking waterfalls, picturesque wildflower fields and beautiful trails. As you heading southeast from Knoxville, you'll weave past Sevierville, Tennessee, the proud home of singer and entertainer Dolly Parton, where resorts, outdoor activities such as zip lining at Foxfire Mountain Adventures, as well as attractions, such as music theaters, go-kart tracks and mini-golf, abound. Tourist also flock to the Sevier County Courthouse to grab a selfie with its legendary Dolly Parton statue. Past Sevierville, you'll find Pigeon Forge, where there are a variety of kid-friendly attractions, including a Dollywood theme park, multiple dinner theater shows, museums, shopping, hotels and resorts. And once you reach the base of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, you can embrace the area's quaint mountain village charm and amusements, including Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies.

The Key to Family Fun

With so much to see and do in the Smokies, it's challenging to experience the best of the area in one visit. That's why Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, says that 80 percent of tourists to the area are repeat visitors who may come multiple times of year. While spring brings wildflowers, summer is perfect for outdoor fun and visits to Dollywood. Meanwhile, fall ushers in gorgeous fall foliage. At any time of year, the Smoky Mountains make for an alluring active trip for families on a budget. "I'm most at peace when I'm in the mountains and there are a lot of people who feel the same," Downey says.

Some of the most popular family attractions are those owned by Parton. Dollywood is the most-ticketed attraction in the state with some 2 million visitors each year. At the theme park, you'll find plenty of rides and performances, along with a kid-friendly resort and even Dollywood cabins for rent. Dixie Stampede, a dinner show celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2017, lets diners enjoy a meal while watching performance showcasing everything from buffalo and longhorn to more than 30 horses and their trick riders.

New to the area in 2017 is the Alcatraz East Crime Museum, which features an impressive collection of crime memorabilia, including the white Ford Bronco OJ Simpson rode during the infamous police chase. There are plenty of opportunities to keep kids busy while parents study the fascinating collection. Also worth a stop is the Titanic Museum, which features some of the only photos taken of the famous ocean liner, as well as deck chairs, a trunk, china and tickets. Kids will also get a kick out of WonderWorks Pigeon Forge, an engaging amusement park, with shows, unique exhibits and rope courses well suited for visitors of all ages.

Affordable Kid-Friendly Activities

The Smokies offers plenty of adventure-packed activities that don't cost a dime. The most popular option is hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which does not charge an admission fee. There are hikes for all ability levels, including plenty that end at waterfalls, a consistent thrill for younger hikers.

Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg also offer a variety of shopping experiences, from antique stores to outlet malls to moonshine distilleries. The Incredible Christmas Place, billed as the south's largest Christmas Shopping Village, offers room after room of Christmas decor and collector items, and guests may even spot Santa meandering around.

The Island, located in the middle of Pigeon Forge, is another affordable entertainment mecca. Here, you'll find the Ole Smoky Distillery, where shoppers can taste moonshine in flavors such as apple pie and blackberry, as well as a dancing fountain, live music, and an assortment of shops and boutiques, including a magic shop to delight kids. There are also lots of affordable options for family entertainment at The Island, including a Ferris wheel with 360-degree mountain views, a ropes course, the Escape Game, an arcade and a mirror maze.

Mountain Lodging

At The Island, you'll find Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Island Hotel, which touts the tagline “mountain latitude, island attitude" and includes spacious rooms appointed with kitchenettes and fireplaces. Alternatively, for a unique stay, consider retreating at The Inn at Christmas Place, which is decked-out in holiday décor all yearlong and offers Christmas movies available for rent, singing Santas and glockenspiel German wooden clocks that play carols hourly. There are also many options to rent cabins or camp in the park at a variety of backcountry campsites and grounds for a low rate.

Kid-Approved Dining Options

At Paula Deen's Family Kitchen in Pigeon Forge, patrons can enjoy cost-effective family-style dining options, and pick from fan favorites, including beef pot roast, fried chicken and fried catfish, along with the classic Ooey Gooey Butter Cake. At the restaurant, you'll also find a gift shop where you can meander through a replica of Deen's home kitchen. Alternatively, you'll find a variety of pancake houses and other breakfast spots for a hearty start before heading out for a park hike, along with an abundance of familiar chains and local eateries.

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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