Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Every other year, our family takes a summer vacation with two other families. With six adults and eight kids, our group is rolling chaos. Typically, we head for the beach. But on our most recent trip, we opted for the mountains of Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Pigeon Forge is located between Sevierville (to the north) and Gatlinburg. They blend together to some extent. Travelers who have been to Myrtle Beach, S.C., will recognize many of the attractions, including NASCAR SpeedPark, WonderWorks, MagiQuest and Ripley's Aquarium. The majority are located along U.S. Routes 441/321, known locally as Parkway.
The area offers activities for all ages and interests: sky lifts, trams, zip lines, cavern tours, mini golf, museums, arts and crafts, distilleries, wineries and shopping. There's also Dollywood Theme Park and Dollywood's Splash Country water park, courtesy of singer-songwriter Dolly Parton, whose hometown of Sevierville placed a statue of her at the Sevier County Courthouse.
Dinner shows are popular and run the gamut, from Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede to the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show to Biblical Times. We opted for the Lumberjack Feud, a family-friendly competition of lumberjack athletes and dogs (2713 Parkway, Pigeon Forge, 37863; 865-428-8688). The food is typical dinner-show fare: soup, chicken, potato, corn, biscuit and an apple turnover. Word to the wise: Cover the ears of very young children for the "hot saw" competition. It's brief, but LOUD. Cost is $44.95 for adults, $19.95 for ages 3-11. During the busy season, shows are held daily at 5 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park - The most visited location in the National Park Service system is known for its 500,000-plus acres, mountain vistas, waterfalls and black bears.
The Cades Cove 11-mile loop has a working gristmill, historic churches and houses, and multiple scenic stops along the way. The kids were fascinated by two snakes nestled into buildings near the mill. They also got a kick out of the Passport to Your National Parks we bought for less than $10; the book has spaces to collect stamps at every national park.
The hike to the popular Laurel Falls is 2.6 miles, mostly uphill, and can be slow if the trail is crowded, but it's worth the trek. It isn't suitable for strollers or wheelchairs. Keep a close eye on children: There are some steep drop-offs, and rocks near the falls can be very slippery.
Clingmans Dome, the highest spot in Tennessee at 6,643 feet, also is a popular stop.
NASCAR SpeedPark (1545 Parkway, Sevierville, 37862; 865-908-5500) If your crew has a need for speed, or just needs to burn off some energy, NASCAR SpeedPark is a reasonably priced option. The attraction has eight go-kart tracks, almost a dozen kiddie and intermediate carnival-type rides, mini golf, an indoor rock-climbing wall and an arcade. Four of the go-karts allow riders as short as 40 inches and another track lets kids that height drive.
Cost: $19.99, free for kids less than 36 inches in height
Hours: Opens between 9 and 11 a.m. and closes between 6 p.m. and midnight. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and some days November through February.
Whitewater rafting Several companies provide whitewater rafting trips. We chose Smoky Mountain Outdoors (launch site: 3299 Hartford Road, Hartford, 37753; 800-771-7238). Kids as young as 3 can raft on the lower Pigeon River, a mild 5.5-mile trip with Class I and II rapids. The 6.5-mile upper river trip has Class III and IV rapids.
Cost: Starts at $34.95 for the lower river, $62.95 for both trips. Online discounts are offered.
Hours: Vary from Feb. 28 to May 22 based on water levels. From May 23 to Sept. 6, trips run daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Wonder Works (100 Music Road, Pigeon Forge, 37863; 865-868-1800) This science museum offers exhibits based on natural science, sports, space, light and sound, and more. Highlights include a hurricane chamber where visitors experience 71 mph winds, simulated earthquake tremors, an overhead ropes course, a bed of nails, a bubble lab and an art gallery. The adults in our group had a blast competing on the Xtreme 360 Bikes, two-person bicycles that loop-the-loop over a bar based on how fast the riders pedal.
Cost: Base ticket is $15.99 for kids, $23.99 for adults; add a game of laser tag for $3
Hours: Open 365 days a year from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The Island in Pigeon Forge (131 The Island Drive, Pigeon Forge, 37863; 865-286-0119) This new development offers restaurants (including Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville and Dick's Last Resort), an arcade, kiddie rides and the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, a 20-story Ferris wheel adorned with 1 million LED lights. At night, a pond in front of the wheel features a lighted, choreographed fountain display that's worth pulling up one of the nearby rocking chairs to enjoy.
Getting there: The most direct driving route - past Cincinnati, Lexington, Ky., and the outskirts of Knoxville - is about 400 miles and six hours. Stop by the welcome center just over the Tennessee border to snag some tourism brochures and coupon books. Most major attractions have offers that save at least a couple dollars per person.
Locals advise avoiding state Route 66 during the busy months (July and October). Traffic backs up along the major thoroughfares - especially Parkway - so plan accordingly.
Lodging: There are a variety of options, from hotels to condos to rustic-looking "cabins" that offer modern amenities, full kitchens, hot tubs and room for 20 or more people. Our group rented a cabin in Smoky Cove Resort from Eden Crest Vacation Rentals Inc. It was quiet but close to Parkway and a nearby Kroger, and had a community pool. Caveat emptor: Cabin-rental ads abound, but check the operator's reputation with the local Better Business Bureau. We nixed several with "D" ratings. Costs vary widely based on location, size, time of year and amenities.
Dining: If cooking on vacation isn't your cup of tea, there are numerous national chain and mom-and-pop restaurants. Pancake Pantry and Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant are local favorites, but be prepared to wait at peak times. The Hard Rock Cafe next door to WonderWorks got a thumbs-up from both the kids and adults in our group. Joe's Crab Shack was lively and full of families, with a small playground outside.