A Family Vacation in the Smokies

by Carmel L. Mooney

Looking for a family travel destination that offers homemade hospitality, culture, history, thrills, and scenery? A family vacation to Pigeon Forge, Knoxville, and Townsend, Tennessee is your answer.

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is an amazing family destination with a hint of Vegas and a touch of Myrtle Beach-without the beach. This beautiful area nestled in the Smoky Mountains just outside of Knoxville is an amusement park in and of itself, yet it is home to Dollywood, one of the nation’s most unique theme parks.

Pigeon Forge, a town stretching several miles in each direction mapped by traffic lights, is a gigantic playground with blocks upon blocks of restaurants, museums, dinner shows, gift stores, miniature golf, and go-kart tracks along with other unique and spectacular attractions.

A new roller rink and go-kart arena called Spin City is a must-see attraction that will make moms and dads back to the yesteryear of roller skating in style.

“Fly Away Indoor Skydiving” an indoor skydiving venue offers thrill-seekers and those who have always wanted to skydive but never had the nerve, an opportunity to experience the thrill and adrenaline rush in a more controlled indoor setting without the plane ride. The experienced staff is friendly, helpful, and compassionate with younger skydivers making it a pleasurable experience for all.

Pigeon Forge photo by Anna Leonidov

A trip to Pigeon Forge would not be complete without being “Zorbed.” Eleven-foot-tall quasi-beach balls are filled with warm water in the winter and cool in the summer and participants are encapsulated in these giant spheres, which are rolled down a mountain track. It’s an experience that can only be accomplished there and in New Zealand. Skip the 19-hour flight and try it in Pigeon Forge!

Wonderworks in Pigeon Forge’s attraction where an upside-down building façade is a home to a multitude of science wonders, space displays, hands-on activities, rides, rock climbing walls, art, illusions, and enough to keep a family busy for half a day.

A dinner show is mandatory while staying in Pigeon Forge and “The Black Bear Jamboree Dinner Theater” is a favorite with its wonderful musical review style and satisfying southern food.

Dinosaur Walk is a great stop where the dinosaurs used in Jurassic Park are on display along with real fossils and an opportunity for kids to dig and sift through sand for some of their own Jurassic treasures.

Firehouse Miniature Golf at Walden’s Landing is worth a visit with its attractive course, beautiful surroundings, and very friendly staff.

Dollywood is Pigeon Forge’s crowning glory and is in a class all its own when it comes to theme parks. Pristine grounds, very helpful employees, and rides for all ages and thrill levels make this the place to spend a full day or two. Even the bathrooms are spotless and beautifully decorated. There are cultural and spiritual displays and stores throughout the park, a museum on Dolly Parton’s life, and it’s the only theme park where you’ll find a real church as well as employees who will ask to assist you if they see you looking at a map.

Some of Dolly Parton’s relatives work there, including local artisans. Visitors appreciate the music and art from the area that is always showcased in a tasteful and family-driven way. It’s heartwarming how a young girl raised with love but poverty, made it big, driven by her own fierce will and determination, and how she gave back to her community and through Dollywood.

Red panda at the Knoxville Zoo

Not far away you’ll find Knoxville, home of one of the most impressive zoos in the nation. The outstanding care of the animals is evident in the animals’ behavior and health and the successful breeding accomplished exclusively at this zoo. Extra effort is taken to give the animals opportunities to engage in special activities and it shows. The community is actively involved in this zoo’s activities and events. It’s a very interactive place where kids can ride animals, play tug-of-war with elephants, and get within a fraction of an inch of primates.

Knoxville’s interesting downtown area and much of the city revolve around the river. A train ride on the “Three Rivers Rambler” is a perfect way to see the countryside and learn local history. No better way to see the river exists than an authentic Sternwheeler cruise on the “Star of Knoxville Riverboat” where musical entertainment and dining offer a relaxing and enjoyable way to explore Knoxville.

One excellent central place to stay with a gorgeous view of the city and historical buildings is the Hilton Knoxville where most of downtown and the Market Square lies within walking distance. The nearby University has wonderful plays and musicals providing quality entertainment at a reasonable price for the whole family.

If the quieter “peaceful side of the Smokies” is calling to you, then Townsend, Tennessee is the place to stay for a few days to see and appreciate the flora and fauna of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Nearby, Cade’s Cove offers hayrides, bicycling, auto tours, and picnicking in 2,500 protected acres of National Park-a nature lover’s paradise. An excellent lodging choice is the Highland Manor Inn where the owners’; hospitality is the best we found anywhere in the state. The grounds are huge with plenty of space for cooped-up kids to play and explore. Across the street is the interesting Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum, and a two-minute walk away is the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center.

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For authentic southern hospitality, spellbinding history, and culture, a stop in Cherokee, North Carolina is a must. This nation within a nation is home to the fascinating Cherokee people of North Carolina and is where you can experience their art, lives, and very essence.

Panther Creek Lodge and Cabins offers tastefully decorated creekside cabins with hiking trails and fireplaces, all perfect for exploring the area. At the end of the Cherokee reservation, you will want to visit the historic Old Mill with its country store chock full of local jams, hams, candles, and Cherokee art.

“Unto These Hills” is a mountainside outdoor theater offering Cherokee presentations and the Oconaluftee Indian Village offers pottery and canoe making, beading, and other Cherokee art forms. You will want to stop by the Cherokee Welcome Center to plot a course so you don’t miss out on the museums and galleries on the reservation. You may even want to inquire about a personal guide to show you the real culture of the Cherokee.

“How we will be judged in the future, is by the art we leave behind,” says Davy Arch whose beautiful masks adorn the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, a co-op that exhibits and sells Cherokee crafts and artwork. A local artist and guide, he gives an unforgettably educational and intriguing glimpse into the authentic Cherokee traditions with privately booked tours.

Asheville and Hendersonville, two other cultural hubs, are within a couple of hour’s drive. Should you choose to check out either, the best restaurant in the area is undoubtedly The Flightwood Grill in historic downtown Hendersonville. Here, authentic southern cooking is presented in delectable gourmet cuisine with mouthwatering steaks, grits, seafood, and appetizers using quality local produce.

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Carmel L. Mooney is a mom and travel columnist, travel author, and radio talk show host.

the great smokies