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Budget-Friendly Family Plan for a Gatlinburg Weekend and Full Mountain Experience
The first step is finding a place to stay. The Summit has nice condos located high in the Smokies at the top of Gatlinburg. The views are GREAT! Spacious, if somewhat dated, one bedroom and larger starting at $49/night even in the high season. Pools and hot tubs, children's activities. Stay here for three times the space and comfort of a hotel at less than half the price. And a big, budget-friendly bonus -- all units have fully equipped kitchens, so save a little $$$ by eating in!
For those who don't mind spending more for accommodations, check out all the local cabins. Starting in the $60's during off-season and around $100 during mid-and-high seasons, the extra privacy is sometimes worth the splurge. Visit www.vrbo.com to find good prices on Summit condos or a huge assortment of cabins.
Many think of Gatlinburg as a tacky, over-commercialized, crowded little town. They're right, but go with the right attitude and it's perfectly enjoyable. And, either way, kids LOVE it. Tons of little shops with cheap, gawdy souvenirs, and candy or ice cream at every turn. You can't miss this place. For added convenience, park the car in one of the town parking lots, and take the tram from block to block. Who doesn't like riding a tram?
Saltwater fish of all sorts right in the middle of the mountains, including a conveyor-belt walkway (with plenty of room to step off and observe) through the world's largest underwater tunnel. That's entertainment, and kids and adults alike love aquariums. Like much of the rest of Gatlinburg, this over-the-top building works here. Perfect for a two-to-three-hour tour, especially on a rainy day. A bit pricey for the budget conscious, but if you don't visit aquariums often, a worthwhile, educational bit of fun. Cost is $18 adult, $10 for 6-11, $4 for 3-5, 2-and-under Free.
Perhaps the best part about Ober Gatlinburg is getting there. After a morning exploring the city below, take one of the United States' longest skylifts straight up the mountain to the all-season amusement resort. (Skylift costs $9.50 for adults, $6.50 for 7-11, under 7 Free.) In winter, this is the Smoky's best ski attraction. It's no Tahoe, but for east-coast skiing, it doesn't get much better. In warm weather, Ober is a great amusement park, with an arcade, rides, kiddie areas, go-carts, bungie jumping, water rides and slides, and an indoor ice-skating rink. Activities are individually priced, and it's VERY easy to spend half a day here. Eat somewhere else before or after, though -- the food is overpriced and, frankly, bad.
THE destination for most Gatlinburg travelers. It would take too long to list everything there is to do, but see below for my family-friendly favorites. What I've listed can be done in a day by the ambitious family. One nice thing about the park for the budget-conscious traveler -- IT'S FREE. The original deeds establishing the park in the 1920's and '30's required that the government never charge for admission! Now, that said, there are contribution boxes if you WANT to give, but no pressure to contribute. If you have the money, though, throw a little in a box -- the park is heavily under-staffed and under constant financial pressure because of it's no-fee policy.
As an aside, kids may enjoy becoming a Junior Park Ranger. Pick up a packet at the Welcome Center and kids simply do a few activities and tell a park ranger what they've learned, then they get a badge and the official title.
For many of us, a park is synonymous with a good hike. For kids, the trick is finding the RIGHT hike -- long enough, but not too long, with something to look at and something to keep them from becoming bored. Enter this fabulous book. It details 14 hikes in the park, 5 easy, 5 moderate, and 4 "extreme." They have chosen particularly interesting hikes and, to keep it interesting, each hike includes a scavenger hunt list that makes it fun and educational in a way you would never get just by walking through the woods. Kids and adults, novice hikers and woodsmen alike will love this book. Available online or at the park bookstore in the welcome center.
Whitewater rafting outfits abound in the area, but this one is among the kid-friendly, offering trips aimed at inexperienced rafters and, specifically, at 3-7 year-olds and 7-11 year olds, along with more adventurous and challenging runs. Having a four-year-old, we enjoy the Lower Big Pigeon River float, an hour-long tube float down a mild section of the river that is suitable for 3 years and up. $18.95 per person, but an unforgettable experience that really makes the kids feel like they've been a part of the mountains.
Newfound Gap Road is the main road through the park and leads, obviously, to Newfound Gap, roughly the park's midpoint. The Gap is the point in the Smokies where Tennessee meets North Carolina -- kids can stand in two states at once! As a bonus, the Appalachian Trail (the most famous train in the country) crosses the Gap, so if you walk it a few feet you can always say "Yeah, I hiked the Appalachian Trail once. Not the whole thing -- just from Tennessee to North Carolina." To all but a few in-the-know, you are such a stud.
Cade's Cove is the most visited section of the park. If this relatively small area of the park were a park itself, it would rank as one of the ten most-visited national parks! So, obviously, it's a must-see. A "cove" in mountain parlance is a flat area in the mountain chain, and Cade's Cove is a big one. Lots of history, beautiful plant life, breathtaking views, and cool buildings left over from the 1800's. The best way to see the Cove is with a hayride, and though they run throughout the day, I think evening is the best time. What a perfect way to end the day, especially for children weary of the driving and hiking! Rides are reasonably priced at $6-$8 per person, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime type hayride, far better than anything you have at your local apple orchard. Don't miss this experience.
Finally, if you have an extra day in your weekend and some extra cash, Dollywood is THE downhome Southern theme park. The prices are reasonable (in theme park dollars, anyway), the entertainment is top-notch, and the amusement park rides are actually pretty good. I would never make this my must-see destination in the area, but if your kids want a little commercial glitz to balance out the time you've spent trying to get them to appreciate nature, they'll certainly get their fill at Dollywood. If you do go to Dollywood, consider cutting out the Ober Gatlinburg visit suggested above and spending that time at the park. Too much amusement park tends to wear families out.