Never have I received more Instagram DM’s than when we embarked on a family road trip to Tennessee for fall break. And it wasn’t even a sponsored gig this time! I knew I had to write a blog post about it for you all who may be considering a similar escape to the mountains. We decided to go because our extended family members decided to do something different for the November holiday this year. We’re staying home for Winter Break, so I definitely wanted to find a fun (safe) change of scenery for our fall vaca. I’d like to think we succeeded, taking a memorable 12+ hour drive north to the Smoky Mountains. Here are my travel tips on how to take your family on a dreamy yet safe road trip to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee in the fall!
What to Pack for a Safe Road Trip to Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge in the Fall
It’s in the 60’s outside in Boca Raton as I write this post, but that wasn’t the case back in November! It was still hot out and this mama was actively seeking an excuse to wear her boots and sweaters…and stop sweating. Because of the pandemic, my family decided to drive up to Tennessee, so we had plenty of room in our SUV for suitcases and supplies.
We rented a private cabin on Airbnb (located in Sevierville which is adjacent to Pigeon Forge, but a 25-minute or so drive to Gatlinburg), so I know it had a somewhat stocked kitchen, jacuzzi tub (indoor and out–a must!), a firepit, porch and indoor fireplace.
What We Packed:
- Essential groceries and snacks (there is a great Publix in Pigeon Forge, so you can even schedule Shipt delivery to your cabin if you have it!)
- Wine and/or beer
- Coffee and filters for the coffee maker (we brought creamer too)
- Dish and laundry soap (Airbnb’s rarely have this)
- S’mores supplies
- Hot chocolate
- Bathrobes (THIS WAS ESSENTIAL!)
- Scented candles (we went with spruce and gingerbread)
- Bluetooth speaker to play tunes
- Winter clothes (some to be active in- hiking, snow tubing, etc.)
- Night clothes/warm pajamas
- Rain jacket
- Boots, sneakers and snow boots
- Book and magazines
- Thermal cups for hot beverages
- Fire logs for your firepit or grill
Embrace Tennessee #CabinLife
Our family loved #cabinlife. Whether we were drinking coffee or wine (or apple cider) by the fire or warming up in the jacuzzi, there is nothing cozier than holing up in a cabin with your family. It was just what the doctor ordered on this trip.
Our cabin was extremely close to two of the activities I booked, which was nice: Dollywood and Dolly Parton’s Stampede dinner show.
Book Winter Activities in Advance
Because we were traveling at the start of the holiday season, I made sure to book the must-do activities I’d heard about well in advance.
The first? Dolly Parton’s Stampede, which is a dinner show similar to Medieval Times except in November and December, it is Christmas-themed. So beautiful!
Christmas at Dolly Parton’s Stampede
From their website: During the holidays, the Stampede arena is magically transformed into a true fantasy land complete with twinkling lights, evergreens, poinsettias, old-fashioned holiday costumes, and familiar holiday music. But no show is complete without fun and games! The holiday festivities get playful as Elves from the North Pole and the South Pole compete in a friendly rivalry while serving up a four-course holiday feast!
Watch in wonder and delight as our Sugar Plum Fairy brings to life the spectacle of “Living Toys” right before your eyes! And you will marvel at the living Nativity, a portrayal that is both dramatic and spectacular. Three kings arrive atop real camels while shepherds guide their flock, all reminding you of the true spirit of the season!
The 4-course family feast (creamy soup, chicken, pork loin, corn on the cob, herbed potato, biscuit and dessert) was delicious and more than filling (there are vegetarian and gluten-free options available). But parents beware, none of the Dolly Parton licensed properties serve alcohol. This was a dry affair! Overall, it was a lot of fun–definitely recommend doing this once during your safe road trip to Gatlinburg!
Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas
Due to reduced capacities, the day we chose to visit Dollywood was SOLD OUT. I was so relieved I purchased our tickets and parking pass well in advance. Getting in was pretty seamless as a result, after the mandatory health screening, of course.
We are accustomed to visiting Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, so going to a theme park in pretty cold weather was a new one for us! We donned jeans, scarves and puffer vests (and our required masks) and headed into the park having no idea what to expect.
MBMom Tip: Don’t forget to pack your theme park rain gear! We were caught off guard during some showers during the earlier part of the night.
Here are my thoughts on our experience at Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas:
- The holiday lights are on par if not better than Disney. Sorry, I said it. Dollywood was DECKED OUT. Super impressive as far as decorations go. Their tree had an entire projection show dedicated to it plus faux snow.
- Most of the rides (aside from a small-ish kids section in the park and the breathtakingly gorgeous Dollywood Express steam train) are roller coasters. Luckily, we are a thrill-seeking family, so we enjoyed taking our daughter on her first crazy, upside-down roller coasting experience. They even have a wooden roller coaster, believe it or not!
- The food is meh. Dollywood has treats galore, but it was challenging to find a solid meal for dinner that appealed to everyone in our family. Unfortunately, you can’t bring food and drinks into the park, so eat before you go or make due. No alcohol is available for purchase either.
- The park hours are weird. On the day we went, Dollywood didn’t open until 2:00 p.m. and closed at 11. Normally, we go hard all day at a theme park in Florida.
- Like Universal, TimeSaver Line Management Passes are available for an additional fee. We didn’t purchase them, but Santa must have been looking out for us because a family who was leaving let us have theirs and as a result, we were able to go on every ride we wanted to before park closing!
MBMom Tip: Be sure to pick up cinnamon bread to go at The Grist Mill before leaving the park. It will make for an unforgettable breakfast the next morning at your cabin!
Ober Gatlinburg Winter Activities
One of the things I knew we couldn’t miss during our safe road trip to Gatlinburg was going snow tubing…even if it was only in the 50’s-60’s outside! #dailybocaavery said it was her favorite part of our entire trip by the way. The best place to do it? Ober Gatlinburg. It’s a mountain of fun for the whole family!
I highly recommend parking in downtown Gatlinburg and taking the aerial tramway up the mountain. The views are beautiful, especially in the fall! However, if you’re not comfortable being in a rather large grouping of people in an enclosed space (even with masks on), you can drive up and park at the mountain instead.
90-minute snow tubing sessions open up the weekend before Thanksgiving. A “Magic Carpet” (outdoor escalator) takes families back to the top of the hill following each run…no hill climbing involved. Like Dollywood, these tickets will sell out, so I highly recommend purchasing well in advance of your visit. Just be prepared for your kid to beat you down the mountain every time…
After lunch (FYI- there’s a decent sit down restaurant with a bar called Seasons of Ober. It’s kind of hidden back where all the lockers are, but so much better than quick service in my opinion), we decided to ride the Ski Mountain Coaster. This was something completely unique for this South Florida mom! Did you know you control the brakes on this thing? What a rush! We purchased our tickets on the mountain.
Hiking in the Smokies
If you know me, I’m far from being an experienced hiker. But, when I heard there were some relatively easy hikes to waterfalls near Gatlinburg, I wanted to try.
From Hiking in the Smokies: The hike to Grotto Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains begins from the Trillium Gap Trailhead, located just outside of Gatlinburg. The parking area for Grotto Falls will be on the left side of the road after driving roughly 1.6 miles along the one-way Cherokee Orchard Loop Road. The trailhead is located just beyond the parking area on the opposite side of the road. Due to the popularity of this hiking trail, there are additional parking spaces further up the road. Your best bet is to arrive early during the peak visitor season.
This is key. It was definitely hard to find parking when we arrived around lunchtime.
The most distinctive feature about Grotto Falls is that it’s the only waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that a person can actually walk behind. As you walk behind the 25-foot waterfall, you’ll not only hear, but also feel the thunderous power of the water plunging into the pool in front of you. Watch your step around here, especially in the winter, as the area surrounding the falls is perpetually wet and slick.
Our 7-year-old handled this hike no problem. She loved traversing all the rocks across the stream where the waterfall was. The whole hike took us about 2+ hours, but we packed sandwiches and ate lunch by the falls. A great way to spend a half day!
And don’t forget to take a family photo by the iconic Great Smoky Mountains National Park sign!