Thanks to a mix of kid-friendly attractions, natural beauty and tourist-ready destinations, carloads of families continue heading to the hills of Tennessee.
An age-old cascading waterfall may captivate mom and dad, while a mega water park might delight the kids. Here are a few suggestions for how families can experience the Volunteer State.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Pigeon Forge attraction offers a homespun variation on the theme park and resort concept. It stays in rhythm with its owner and namesake, country music superstar Dolly Parton, by specializing in countrified escapism. Not unlike Parton’s songs, themes of family, faith and fun run throughout the 150-acre Dollywood theme park, the 35-acre neighboring water park, and its pair of on-site resort properties.
Surrounded by lush mountain greenery, the Dollywood theme park offers more than 40 rides and attractions. Thrills can be had on rides ranging from the Wild Eagle, a roller coaster that simulates flight, to Thunderhead, a towering wooden coaster. Kid-friendly rides and play areas; live music from Southern gospel to rock ’n’ roll; arts and crafts demonstrations; and Southern edibles help round out the experience.
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Special events take place throughout the year, including a nightly summertime fireworks show; the Barbeque & Bluegrass festival in May; the National Southern Gospel & Harvest Celebration in October; and the holiday-tinged Smoky Mountain Christmas.
Guests can cool off at the adjacent Splash Country water park, featuring RiverRush, billed as the state’s only water coaster, and a host of other slides, rides and attractions.
Visitors have the option to bunk on Parton’s property, with easy access to the parks. Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins offer mountain views and amenities that include kitchens, gas fireplaces and outdoor hot tubs. The new DreamMore Resort has more than 300 guest rooms, a spa, a farmhouse-style restaurant, indoor and outdoor pools, and more. Guests also can indulge in Dolly’s Suite Dreams, the plush 2,200 square-foot celebrity suite, which Parton had a hand in decorating and designing.
2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd., Pigeon Forge, Tenn. 1-800-365-5996, dollywood.com.
A pair of buildings house this acclaimed attraction, home of the world’s largest freshwater aquarium. Explore the River Journey building, with its freshwater denizens from the Southeast and around the globe. Mammoth catfish, American gators, playful otters and other creatures can be found in re-creations of their natural habitats. This includes Appalachian Cove, where moist air and bird-filled trees make you feel as if you’ve been dropped in the middle of the wilderness.
Things get salty in the Ocean Journey building, with everything from frolicking penguins to 10-foot sharks. Reach out and touch different species of stingrays in the Stingray Bay area. Set foot in a simulated indoor rainforest, complete with fluttering butterflies.
Although the tour takes about two hours, a pair of added attractions — an Imax 3-D theater and River Gorge Explorer — can keep guests busy for the better part of a day. The River Gorge Explorer invites visitors on a two-hour trip down the Tennessee River Gorge.
1 Broad St., Chattanooga. 1-800-262-0695, tnaqua.org.
Call it a trifecta of family entertainment in and around the great outdoors. With Ruby Falls, Rock City and the Incline Railway, tourists can choose a la carte or visit all three.
The guided tour of Ruby Falls, which takes you down into the country’s deepest commercial cave, culminates with the falls itself. With a 145-foot curtain of rushing water, Ruby Falls claims the title of America’s largest underground waterfall. You may want to bring a sweater or light jacket, even in the summer; the cavern remains 59 degrees all year. A separate zip line attraction offers air-catching adventure in the summer, spring and fall.
Those “See Rock City” billboards and roadside ruby red birdhouses still proclaim the iconic attraction on the Georgia side of Lookout Mountain. Tour the grounds, with its gardens, trails and killer scenery, at your own pace. Get an eye-widening view from atop Lookout Mountain. Highlights include that shaky bridge spanning almost 200 feet; squeezing yourself through the boulder formation known as the Needle’s Eye; the birds of prey shows; and the nostalgically charming Fairyland Caverns, where Humpty Dumpty and other nursery rhyme stars glow in the dark.
Since 1895, guests have been hopping aboard the Incline Railway for a steep trip up Lookout Mountain. With windows on the sides and ceiling of each rail car, you may wish your neck had a swivel.
Ruby Falls, 1720 S. Scenic Highway, Chattanooga. 423-821-2544. Rock City, 1400 Patten Road, Lookout Mountain. 706-820-2531. Incline Railway Bottom Station, 3917 St. Elmo Ave., Chattanooga. 423-821-4224. lookoutmountain.com.
Nashville Zoo at Grassmere
Musicians aren’t the only ones making noise in Music City. An array of animals can be seen and heard at this zoo, which not only puts the focus on fun, but also on conservation efforts.
Hit the zoo trails, and you’ll come across African elephants, giraffes, meerkats, lions, lemurs and more. Rub feathers and fur with some of the critters, and feed lorikeets, brush goats and pet kangaroos.
In addition to the animals, the zoo has other options for all ages. While grown-ups can explore the Grassmere Historic Home, tots can hop aboard the Wilderness Express Train or take a slow spin on the carousel. If the primates prove inspirational, kids can swing, sway and climb at the zoo’s jungle gym.
3777 Nolensville Pike, Nashville. 615-833-1534, nashvillezoo.org.
Wilderness at the Smokies
Mountains surround this sprawling water park resort nestled in Sevierville, Tenn.
Only guests staying at the resort can take advantage of its trio of on-site water attractions. The Wild WaterDome offers indoor thrills, such as the illuminated funnel ride Storm Chaser, and laid-back chills, including a 10,000-square-foot wave pool. White knuckle seekers can get even more action outdoors at Lake Wilderness. That’s where you’ll find the free-fall sensation of Wild Vortex. Younger splashers and relaxed adults can experience more benign excitement at Salamander Springs, another outdoor park.
Other activities include dining, shopping, golf, actual white-water rafting and more.
1424 Old Knoxville Highway, Sevierville, Tenn. 1-877-325-9453, wildernessatthesmokies.com.