Gatlinburg, Revisited

If you can manage to ignore the shiniest distractions, Gatlinburg offers a relaxing family camping destination.
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I’ve avoided Gatlinburg like the plague for all 35 of my years until now, despite seeing other families with young kids make the five-hour journey (OK, six hours with pit stops). It seemed to be a massive tourist trap, with shiny lights and fake attractions crowded into a few major streets, creating a traffic nightmare. But with a little planning and forethought, a camping trip to Gatlinburg was actually the perfect family getaway. And I was pleasantly surprised to realize how much of a mountain town it really is in the end.

Photograph courtesy Kampgrounds of America, KVIDT Creative

Where to Stay

Much of what made our visit to Gatlinburg special was our stay at the quaint but activity-packed Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg KOA (Kampgrounds of America) Holiday campground and cabin resort, located in the heart of all the action but still nestled in the mountains. The main feature was a heated lazy river/pool and nearby hot tub, situated close to a bonfire pit surrounded by colorful Adirondack chairs, where the adults hung out while the kids swam. 

I’ve been camping for nearly a decade, and this was one of the most ideal setups I’ve seen. The KOA also has a huge playground, jumping pillow, kid zipline, and more. We honestly could have just stayed in the campground all day, and friends without campers headed down with us and stayed in the cabins.

Photograph courtesy Old Mill Pottery House

Where to Eat

We fueled up for our adventure at Espresso Yourself, a must-visit coffee shop in Pigeon Forge with exceptionally friendly staff and top-notch lattes. If you’re looking for something a little more substantial, you can enjoy Southern classics at Old Mill Pottery House Café and Grill, a charming working mill that’s been around since 1830. Everything at Pottery House is made from scratch, from the loaves of bread made from grain ground at the mill to the plates, which are created in-house on the pottery wheel. 

Photograph courtesy Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

What to Do

When you do venture into town, you better have a plan—or you’ll be immediately overwhelmed by the sheer number of options. On our rainiest day, the Ripley’s Aquarium was a crowd-pleaser, with a multi-story playground inside, a walk-through shark tunnel, and all the go-to aquarium favorites. Fair warning: Almost every Gatlinburg attraction makes you exit through the gift shop. Prepare your kids, unless you want to end up with a $50 stuffed shark. 

The one downside of Gatlinburg is you have to be ready to spend some money on things that are probably much cheaper at home, like arcades, go-kart tracks, and putt-putt. Some are generic and not worth the splurge, while others have unique features justifying the cost. Hillbilly Golf, for instance, is a putt-putt course carved into the side of a mountain where you have to ride a gondola-type contraption up to the top and work your way back down. The kids loved being up high, but watch out for flying golf balls. 

The best way to navigate a trip to Gatlinburg is to intentionally pick one or two attractions per day, determine the cost ahead of time to avoid sticker shock, and stick to the plan. The shiny lights and other attractions can be overwhelming if you don’t.

Go Nuts For Buc-ee’s

There are two pit stops along the way that offer much more than a mere bathroom break. Between Richmond and Berea, Kentucky, give Buc-ee’s convenience store a try for its eclectic T-shirts, knickknacks, and serious snacks and lunch options (we like the Beaver Nuggets, corn puffs with a brown sugar caramel coating). Beware: You will leave with more than you expected to buy.

Photograph courtesy Buc-ee's

If you’re traveling with little kids who need a contained place to play, eat, and run, there’s a magical McDonald’s with its own kid room and playground off exit 29 on I-75 in Corbin, on your way home. Sure, it’s just McDonald’s. But the setup makes it so doable for families with little kids—tables are located right near the playground, but in a separate area from the rest of the restaurant so they can run wild without bothering anyone.

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