Gatlinburg’s position in the Great Smoky Mountains makes for an adventurous, outdoorsy vacation where children and families can have a more laid-back and less touristy experience, if you’re willing to do your research beforehand. Of course, it helps to go during warmer months when there is a plethora of outdoor adventures to enjoy. But what does a family do when the mercury drops? As I found it out, it took several phone calls to find the real gems that you can still visit in winter – the off-the-beaten-path attractions that most Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge tourists won’t find – and it was worth it! We did also do a few touristy things that a preschooler, a toddler, and a seven-month pregnant mama could handle, and I would recommend to other families of small children.
A Guided Hike or Walk with A Walk in the Woods
My family loves to be outside – my kids are at home and happy digging in the dirt with their bare hands, climbing on rocks, jumping in leaves, running around wild, loud and free! So, I just knew our vacation had to include hiking, but it had to be low-key and easy since I’m pregnant and have very young kids (3 1/2 and 1 1/2). My husband and I had never done a guided hike before, but decided to try it when I came across “A Walk in the Woods” after doing some research on Gatlinburg attractions.
Turns out, what my family needed was a walk, and not a hike, and they offer a variety of both. It was super easy to set it up – I just emailed them and told them the days we were available, explaining we needed an easy hike for my un-able bodied family (for now at least!). They literally offer walks and hikes for all levels and interests – from a one-hour intro walk like the one we took (Intro to the Smokies), to a children’s hike (Exploring Nature with Children), to a 10-hour hike on steep elevation. They responded with a day and time and told us where to meet our guide, and off we went!
We were so happy with our guide, Cindy. She says she is a “naturalist interpreter,” and we discovered exactly what that means as we walked along the trail with her. She knew every leaf, moss, rock, tree and plant in the forest and could tell us how the Native Americans and early settlers used it. It was an absolutely fascinating learning experience for me and my husband, and she even found a way to include our oldest in the conversations. He left the hike with some moss clutched in his hand, since she had explained to him we could go home and make tea out of it. He had a great time climbing on the rocks, asking about the old chimneys that are scattered throughout the woods, looking at the river, asking about the trees and leaves, and digging in the dirt.
A guided hike is something I never would’ve paid for before, but this experience has changed my mind! It was worth every penny!
Go Fishin – Trout Fishing and Eating at The English Mountain Trout Farm
I knew this attraction would be a hit with all my boys (smile), and was told about it after talking with the super friendly folks at the Deer Farm Petting Zoo (the trout farm doesn’t have a website). It’s just a few minutes away from the petting zoo in Sevierville, on the way to the Forbidden Caverns (which is another interesting family activity that was recommended to me, but is closed in the winter). The drive out of Pigeon Forge and into Sevierville countryside is easy and picturesque, with the foothills of the Smokies, pastures, cows and southern countryside.
The farm itself is non-descript, and one might think they’ve come to the wrong place (at least, after high season). It’s just a small, brown building with a small pond. But we were immediately greeted with their friendly dogs and felt right at home in the country. Mr. Charlie Ford, the owner, is full of southern hospitality and with a nice Southern drawl, was happy to tell me all about the farm. During the summer, they typically have 125 customers all day long every day! It’s very busy. He is the main supplier of trout to Gatlinburg restaurants, selling about 85,000 pounds of trout a year. In the spring of 2013, he plans to convert a 150-year-old mill down the street into gem mining and a country store. The gem mining is actually currently part of his business and has really taken off for the kids!
The English Mountain Trout Farm lets you fish, then cooks up a scrumptious, Southern meal. Talk about farm to table!
My kids were so excited to learn to fish, as they had never done it before. Mr. Ford knew how to work with them and gave them each a net to start with, then got our oldest working with a fishing pole. He ended up catching three fish and was so excited! Two of the fish were used to make our lunch, and Mr. Ford’s wife took them to their restaurant. She made us an absolutely delicious meal of our own trout, hush puppies, macaroni and cheese, and green beans. It was so satisfying and a true farm-to-table experience!
Visit the Deer Farm Petting Zoo
The Deer Farm Petting Zoo has a huge pen full of goats that the kids can walk into and pet!
A good friend of mine, who grew up near Pigeon Forge, told me about a petting zoo in Sevierville that she grew up going to but couldn’t remember the name. I found it and we were so excited to go – animal petting, mud, and the great outdoors? A recipe for success in my family! I called them to get the details and it is very simple – you buy whatever amount of feed you desire and walk through the farm handing out food! They also offer pony and horse back rides.
We were pleasantly surprised by how large the farm is and the wide variety of animals they keep. They have goats, deer, long-horn cattle, camels, emus, donkeys, zonkeys (cross between a donkey and a zebra!), Norwegian horses, reindeer, chickens and even elk. So, we bought the largest cup they offered and set off to the goats and deer, the two pens where you can walk in and be with the animals. This was our favorite part as the goats are small and so adorable! The kids were in high-heaven petting animals that were just their size and really quite social creatures. The deer were a bit more scary for them, since even the bambis are quite big.
Horseback Riding at Deer Farm Petting Zoo in Sevierville, TN
Then, my husband and oldest son went on a 45-minute guided horseback ride through the woods! They both had a blast and it was so much fun watching Gabe experience a horse ride for the first time. He was mostly fascinated by how the horse in front of him kept pooping! You just never know what’ll strike a toddler’s fancy.
Ripley’s Aquarium(Not-So Crunchy but Totally Toddler Friendly)
We are not touristy types of people, so we weren’t sure how we’d like the Ripley’s Aquarium right in downtown Gatlinburg since it is highly promoted and, well, run by Ripley’s. However, we all loved it as it has a fantastic shark exhibit (which our oldest is quite taken with sharks right now), huge sawfish, manta sting rays, and several areas where small kids can play and romp around. The kids had a fantastic time and were exhausted by the time we left. It is a perfect place to have fun, let the kids run around a bit, get a bite to eat, and teach the kids about the ocean. I was impressed that in the women’s bathrooms, they even have a nursing mother’s room that includes a changing table and rocking chair! Now if only every public bathroom included that.
Gatlinburg Goes Green
Many of the places we chose to eat and visit I chose based on the fact that those businesses are part of the Gatlinburg Goes Green initiative. I also learned on our trolley ride through downtown Gatlinburg to see the Christmas lights, which was not-so fun for our tired little boys but I would recommend for older children, that Gatlinburg has recently changed all the Christmas lights from incandescent to LED. Wow! That is impressive. Our guide said that one day of electricity usage with incandescent bulbs is equal to an entire four month’s worth of usage with LED lights, so they are saving a ton of electricity! Go Gatlinburg! Check out their list of green attractions, dining and lodging in Gatlinburg.
Other Green and Crunchy Places to Visit All Year Round
- Smoky Mountains National Park – this is where our walk took place.
- Cades Cove – hiking, auto tour of old homesteads and churches, fishing, back country camping, biking, cabins, and even weddings
- Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont – they have hikes, workshops, naturalist certification, Family Adventure Weekends, school trips, a school and more!
- Gatlinburg Farmer’s Market – get fresh local produce and even arts and crafts so you can still eat well on vacation! Open May through October.
- Whole Earth Grocery – a great place to get healthy food supplies while on vacation, and open year-round. They even have a cafe serving vegan and vegetarian foods!
- Ober Gatlinburg – even young kids can have fun learning to ski and snow tube here. They are part of the Gatlinburg Goes Green initiative to make Gatlinburg green.
We’d like to extend a big thank you to our guest blogger, Sara from My Merry Messy Life for today’s blog!