For Southern charm in spades, this road trip through the heart of Appalachia is the perfect escape. As you wind your way through the lush foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll experience spectacular caves, high-flying thrills and stellar entertainment at one of the world’s great theme parks. And with a special focus on family-friendly fun, you can rest easy knowing there’s a little something for everyone. From moonshine to mountains and everything in between, the Volunteer State steps up.
In a state known for its spectacular caves, few outshine the stunning geological formations on view at Forbidden Caverns. On the one-hour walking tour, you’ll see towering rock chimneys, glistening grottos and crystal-clear streams, as well as learn the incredible history of the cave as a shelter for Native Americans during hunting parties. For some above-ground fun, there’s always rafting the Class IV rapids on the Pigeon River, or fishing and boating the day away on nearby Douglas Lake. You can’t take the incredible landscape with you, but you can come close at the headquarters of the Sevier Distilling Company, a homegrown operation that specializes in a modern take on moonshine.
2. Pigeon Forge
Drive 7 miles • 13 minutes
Just 15 minutes away, arriving in Pigeon Forge can seem like entering a whole new world. There are over-the-top stores and attractions on nearly every corner, but Dollywood, the Southern living-themed amusement park, steals the show. Featuring dozens of thrilling rides, including the innovative SkyZip, a multi-station zipline adventure that sends visitors soaring above the trees, as well as water parks, arts and crafts, and performance venues, it’s a one-stop shop for all things entertainment. History buffs can step back in time at the Titanic Museum, which feature interactive exhibits that recreate life aboard the doomed ship
Drive 7 miles • 16 minutes
Mountaintop adventurers will feel right at home in this small town, where outdoors activities are a part of everyday life. For a bird’s eye view of the breathtaking scenery, try the 2.1-mile Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway, a cable car ride that leaves from the heart of downtown Gatlinburg, or the “chondola” — part chairlift, part gondola — ride to Anakeesta’s magical Firefly Village. Both rides deliver guests at mountaintop amusement parks featuring ziplines, coasters, water slides and more.
Drive 37 miles • 1 hour, 13 minutes
No visit to eastern Tennessee would be truly complete without a deep dive into the history and heritage of southern Appalachian culture. At the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, you can wander through a restored pioneer village and take part in music, art and food events. For a break from the crowds in the national park, spend a day exploring the impossibly picturesque Little River. Home to plentiful trout and other wildlife, the cool, clean waters are an angler’s dream.