From Pigeon Forge to Chattanooga: A Kid-Friendly Road Trip in Tennessee

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If you’re seeking the ultimate Tennessee adventure for the whole family, this road trip from Pigeon Forge to Chattanooga is just for you. From the southern charm of Dollywood to the mysteries of an underground lake in the small town of Sweetwater, you’ll experience thrills, natural wonders and history across four days of fun.

Let’s hit the road!

Day 1: Exploring Pigeon Forge

The adventure begins in Pigeon Forge – the Gateway to the Smokies. Kick off the day with a visit to legendary Dollywood, an amusement park that offers a unique blend of adrenaline-pumping attractions and immersive experiences that showcase the rich cultural heritage of the Smoky Mountains and the life of country singer Dolly Parton. Feel the rush as you twist and turn on rollercoasters such as Big Bear Mountain and the Dragonflier. Indulge in delicious Southern cuisine at over 30 eateries throughout the park – the three-pound slice of apple pie is a must. And if you love toe-tapping entertainment, the live shows are sure to please. Check out the vocal stylings of the acapella group The Tones in The Village Depot. Visiting during the summer? Dive into fun at Dollywood’s Splash Country, where you’ll float down the lazy river, speed down waterslides and soak up the sun by the sparkling pools.

Beyond the parks, check out WonderWorks, an interactive science museum that will spark curiosity in kids and adults alike. Housed in an upside-down building, this unique and immersive experience offers a world of fun-filled zones to explore. Experience the rumble and tumble of an earthquake in the Earthquake Café. Feel the force of 74mph winds in the Hurricane Shack. Want to be an astronaut for the day? Try on an authentic space suit or attempt the astronaut training challenge, where you’ll spin in a gyroscope and experience what it’s like to be weightless!

For dinner and a show, a swashbuckling adventure awaits at the Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show. Feast like a pirate on a four-course meal featuring pan-fried ham, creamy vegetable soup and flaky biscuits while an epic battle unfolds between Blackbeard and Calico Jack on an expansive indoor lagoon. Watch as they lead their crews to victory (or loss) aboard full-size pirate ships. See pirates swinging from the mast. And marvel at mermaids leaping from the water and performing aerial tricks.

Where to Stay

Wind down at one of the many kid-friendly hotels in Pigeon Forge. Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort brings a dose of country charm to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. In contrast, The Margaritaville Island Hotel brings island flair and is conveniently located near many attractions – the rooftop pool is especially a big hit with the kids.

Day 2: Smoky Mountain Adventures & Onward to Knoxville

Clingman’s Dome at The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo Credit: mzglass96/AdobeStock.com

Leaving Pigeon Forge behind, it’s onward to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Featuring over 520,000 acres of lush forests, hiking trails, mountain peaks and cascading waterfalls, this park is the perfect place to explore with kids of all ages. Hike up to Clingman’s Dome for some of the most stunning panoramic views of the park. Cool off with a tubing excursion on the Deep Creek of Great Smoky. Or, enjoy a scenic picnic near the creek in Cades Cove. Don’t forget to grab an ice cream from the nearby Camp Store’s Snack Shop.

Next stop – Knoxville. And there’s no better way to spend the afternoon than a trip to Zoo Knoxville. You’ll find more than 1,200 animals here, such as giraffes, baboons and white rhinos. Get up close and personal with wildlife during scheduled animal encounters, where you’ll meet sloths, otters and adorable red pandas. Soar above a ravine on a zipline experience that launches you over the treetops. And for the younger kids, hop aboard the Zoo Choo Train for an adventure around the zoo’s koi pond.

A red panda at Zoo Knoxville. Photo Credit: Wildspaces/AdobeStock.com

Sports lovers should check out the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, celebrating the history and achievements of women in the sport. Test your basketball skills on three different courts, participate in a timed dribbling course, and pose in the photo area where you can pretend to be famous basketball players throughout history. For hands-on learning, head to Muse Knoxville, a children’s museum and science center packed with engaging exhibits such as the Illumination Station, Augmented Reality Sandbox and the Planetarium.  

Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the iconic Sunsphere, a remnant of the 1982 World’s Fair. This four-story tower with a sparkling gold globe at the top offers 360-degree views of Knoxville, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Tennessee River.

Where to Stay

Experience relaxation in a fantasy world at the Ancient Lore Village, a unique lodging experience with Lord of the Rings vibes. Stay in one of the whimsical cottages or themed rooms, from the Waterfall Villa that’s fit for an elf with its tones of topaz and white to the rustic Leprechaun Lair with its stone fireplace.  

Day 3: Historic Forts and Underground Adventures in Sweetwater

Goodbye, Knoxville. Hello, Sweetwater. Kick off the day with a scenic 45-minute drive over the Tennessee River to the charming town of Sweetwater, home to the largest underground lake in the United States. Along the way, take a short detour to Fort Southwest Point, a colonial-era fort and museum that offers free tours. Originally built in 1797, the fort served as a frontier outpost during the United States’ early years. Explore the fort and learn about its fascinating past on a guided walking tour. There’s even a working blacksmith shop and a Visitor’s Center with 18th-century artifacts.

Entrance to the Lost Sea Adventure in Sweetwater, Tennessee. Photo Credit: Joel Kramer.

In Sweetwater, descend into the depths of a vast cave system that leads to one of the largest underground lakes in the world at the Lost Sea Adventure. Embark on a guided tour through vast caverns featuring stunning geological formations and learn about how the Cherokee Indians and Confederate soldiers used to mine the caves for gunpowder. Once you’ve reached the bottom of the cave, you’ll enjoy an enchanting boat ride across the 4-acre lake nicknamed the Lost Sea. Above ground, check out the General Store for souvenirs, mine for precious gems at the Gem Sluice and watch live glassblowing demonstrations.

Next stop? Chattanooga! Along the way, swing by the Mayfield Dairy Farm in nearby Athens for a sweet treat. Grab a cone from the old-fashioned ice cream parlor, meet Maggie the Cow, the farm’s mascot and tour the grounds.

Where to Stay

Settle in for the night at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, a historic train station turned hotel where you’ll sleep in transformed train sleeper cars. And if you always wanted to sleep in a treehouse, check in at Treetop Hideaways. This boutique treehouse-style hotel offers lodging above the treetops on the side of Lookout Mountain.

Day 4: Seeing the Sights in Chattanooga

There are plenty of activities for kids of all ages in Chattanooga, but one of the most popular is the Tennessee Aquarium on the riverfront. Explore two expansive buildings housing freshwater and saltwater habitats and get up close and personal with sand tiger sharks, macaroni penguins and frolicking otters. Learn about the aquarium’s conservation efforts with a behind-the-scenes tour, handle urchins and rays in the touch tank, and travel to the ocean’s depths watching Secrets of the Sea 3D at the IMAX theater.

The popular Tennessee Aquarium is located in the downtown District along the Riverfront. Photo Credit: Fotoluminate LLC – stock.adobe.com

In downtown Chattanooga, spend an afternoon exploring the Creative Discovery Museum, an interactive children’s museum featuring captivating art, music, and science exhibits. Explore life on a farm at the Little Farmhouse gallery, test out robotics in the Stem Zone and live the life of a riverboat captain in the Tennessee Riverplay exhibit.

End your trip with a dinner cruise aboard the Southern Belle Riverboat. You’ll see the sights of the city from the Tennessee River, enjoy live entertainment and dine on a delicious buffet-style dinner featuring a menu showcasing prime rib, spicy Cajun chicken and sweet cheesecake.

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