I’m an avid planner when it comes to vacations. I love to scour Travel Advisor, Yelp, and any other travel site I can find to tell me the best restaurants, hotels, and excursions in any given area. I hate wasting time during a vacation sitting around trying to figure out what to do. So, when my husband said he wanted to take the kids on a week-long camping trip, I got busy planning out things to do. I left all the camping stuff to him as that’s “not my department.” Organizing the itinerary? That I can handle. I know not everyone out there loves to plan. That’s why I wanted to share our trip with the masses, in hopes I can make your Smoky Mountain vacation a little more fun!
Camp Hardwick Day 1 – We packed up our pop-up “Skamper” camper and hit the road to Standing Stone State Park! We got this beauty from Craig’s List for $2500. What a steal! Standing Stone was just about an hour away from our home and was a nice, relaxed location to begin our camping adventure. We met up with some neighbors and set up camp. The kids played and roasted marshmallows, then watched a movie on the portable DVDs players before turning in for the night.
Camp Hardwick Day 2 – The first 24 hours are always a bit stressful on any trip with children, but the next morning the kids were settled in and ready to get dirty. We explored the dam and let them kick around in the shallow water. They also had a nice playground area in the camp site where the kids could burn off some energy. Later in the afternoon, we took a ride in our canoe on Standing Stone Lake. They had canoes and fishing boats available for rent as well. The camp site also boasted an Olympic size pool, but it was unfortunately still closed for the season. After returning to the camper, the boys played in the gravel with their digger trucks and made S’mores. We prepared to leave in the morning for the Smokies.
Camp Hardwick Day 3 -Shortly after we awoke, we packed up camp and travelled from Standing Stone Park to the KOA in Townsend (Smoky Mountains) which was about a two hour drive. As soon as we pulled in to the KOA, I knew this site was more my speed. Lots of nearby places to go, a fabulous playground for the kids, and a campsite right on the water where we could dip our toes! The boys were especially excited about the convenience store on site where they could pick out snacks. I also was pleased to have wi-fi so that I could keep up with my workouts on Beachbody on Demand. I like to stay on track with my fitness while on vacation, and, yes, I also like to check my Facebook too!
Our first day in Townsend was again spent setting up camp. For dinner, we found a nearby Mexican restaurant which I won’t even call out by name. It takes a lot for me to not like a meal, and I did not like that meal. It was ridiculously over-sized, but the meat was tasteless and the rice was mushy. At least the chips and salsa were pretty good. Townsend has many restaurants, but be aware that the selection is slim off-season. This was one of the only times during the week I took a chance on eating at a place I hadn’t researched. Luckily, that was about the only bad meal we had all week!
Back at the KOA, we let the kids have some playground time, and then got tucked in and ready for a big day ahead.
Check out the view through the camper!
The playground was off the hook!
Camp Hardwick Day 4– After an easy breakfast of cereal and milk, we loaded into our Element and took a trip into Pigeon Forge. On the way in, we happened to pass signs for “The Preserve Resort,” the site of our nuptials 8 years earlier. We decided to drive up the mountain to see it, and it was pretty neat going back as a family of 4. Just as breathtaking as ever on the mountaintop, and we were excited to see that they now have a pool next to the pavilion where we married.
We then headed into the city of Pigeon Forge and stopped at a BBQ place called Bennett’s. This restaurant is from a family chain of dining establishments popular in the area, and the food there was delicious! I ordered a pulled pork plate with fried corn on the cob and mac-n-cheese. (No diet here!) The kids enjoyed their meals which came with a Dirt Dessert with gummy worms. They had a fresh salad bar, and even the biscuits delivered to the table were memorable. There was nothing especially fancy about this place, but it was family-friendly with excellent food. As we drove through Pigeon Forge, the kids were mesmerized by all the go-track places so we decided to stop for a day of fun at The Track. It truly was a blast for us all! We found a coupon which gave us a few dollars off a ticket package. I believe we purchased 75 tickets for around $52. The kids’ rides were mostly 3 tickets each, so that gave both my boys several turns on the smaller go-karts and little kiddie carnival rides. We joined them for rides in the larger go-kart tracks and laughed our heads off as we tried to race each other. I especially liked that the park was not huge and did not require miles of walking. Although it was rather crowded, the kids hardly had to wait in line at all.
After a long day, we drove back to camp and prepared a camp-side dinner with food that we brought in our cooler. The boys zonked out shortly after they hit the bunks.
Camp Hardwick Day 5– On the fifth day, we drove into the town of Gatlinburg for lunch at Mellow Mushroom. We have this place in Nashville, so we already knew it would be a good meal. There are many other restaurants to chose from in the area if pizza isn’t your jam. After lunch, we hiked Laurel Falls which was just a short drive from Gatlinburg. Attention parents of toddlers who plan to go camping: If you take a toddler on a 2.6 mile hike, you will be carrying said toddler for at least two of those miles. You better start working out now. The journey was worth the pay-off, however, as it ended at a beautiful, cascading waterfall. I will say that if you are afraid of heights then this may not be the trail for you. Many of the mountain trails in the Smokies have narrow trails on steep cliffs. It can be pretty nerve-racking, especially when trying to keep energetic kids safely away from the edge.
The boys found a little mini waterfall along the trail and spent much of their time climbing the rocks in that area. We could literally feel their joy!
After the hike, we were all beat and headed back to the KOA. The boys had some playground time and we ate dinner and made s’mores at the campsite. We had no trouble going to sleep that night! A little nugget for you shared by my six-year old earlier that day: “Imagine that life could be this fun and you never even knew it.” There’s your life lesson from the heart of a child.
Camp Hardwick Day 6– Ready for another day of adventures, we spent a few hours on day 6 exploring nearby Cade’s Cove , a valley nestled in the Smokies and chock full of history and wildlife. We used the scenic driving path and pulled off every so often to look at the historic churches and homes. There were many tours available and a bustling visitor center with a gift shop. We brought a picnic lunch and found a beautiful open field to stop and relax.
One the way back to camp, we just had to pull off and take a photo by the iconic Smoky Mt sign. There was a waiting line to do so which made me giggle! Everyone wants their photo op, us included! We set up the self-timer and got a good shot. (This wasn’t it!)
Spent a couple hours back at camp before we ventured back into Pigeon Forge. We made a pit stop at the The Coaster at Goats on the Roof mountain rollercoaster. It was about $40 for the four of us to ride, and we all loved it. I was a little worried about the cost, but it was such a unique thing to do that I felt it was worth it.
We had dinner at a restaurant I found on Yelp called JT Hannah’s. We had about a 15 minute wait for a table, but there was plenty of seating in the waiting area. The decor was artistic and creative, and made us feel like we were in an old warehouse or stockyard. For dinner, I ordered the French Dip and my husband had a classic burger. The kids had spaghetti and grilled chicken from the kid’s menu. The iced tea was served in huge mason jars. We were all pleased with what we ordered, and again I was happy with the family friendly atmosphere. Dinner was followed by mini golf at Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure. We took a little train ride to the top of the course which wrapped around a huge pool of water and scenery. The kids had a blast, and the golf course was not overly difficult. It was a bit crowded, but we did not feel rushed. The evening ended with an ice cream nightcap at Mad Dog’s Creamery and Donuts which was right next door. Such a cute little ice cream joint complete with treats for your pups and your kids!
Camp Hardwick Day 7- We woke up to our last full day of adventure. We drove back to Gatlinburg and stopped at the Little Pancake House for brunch. This is a little no-frills country restaurant, but the coffee was good and the meals were hearty. Our server and manager were especially nice. Again, it was kid-friendly and not overly expensive. As we drove through Gatlinburg, this was the first time we really got a good look at all the fire damage in the area. Man, was it sad to see so many charred trees and burnt buildings. What a shame! The spirit of the town roars on though, and it was bustling with people.
We spent most of the afternoon at the Ripleys Aquarium. It was pretty crowded with people on a Friday afternoon, and cost around $100 for the four of us. We did have a coupon which helped ease the cost a bit. The aquarium was very hands on, and had some unique features. Most memorable was the glass walkway where you got 360 degree view of sharks and other marine life swimming right overhead. It was very exciting to see a shark that close without being in any danger! They also had areas where the kids could touch stingrays, crabs, and jelly fish. The penguin exhibit was also a lot of fun, except that my children got a first hand view of two mating penguins. That was interesting, to say the least! My older son said, “Look, mom, they are wrestling!” It’s all in the name of education, right?
In the center of the aquarium, there was a playground area with slides. This was the most hectic, crowded area. It didn’t bother my kids at all, but it was a little stressful trying to keep track of them in there.
After the aquarium, we walked across the street to some of the Gatlinburg shops. I finally found a coffee shop, Coffee and Company, nestled back in some shops off the main and ordered a much needed latte. The kids got candy at the Ripley’s Candy Factory, one of the many candy shops on the parkway. Although we paid a premium for candy that would have been much cheaper at the drugstore, the kids were mesmerized by the experience of seeing all the candy and getting to pick their sweet treasures.
On the way back to camp, we stopped off at Meig’s Creek Trail for a photo op at The Sinks, a gorgeous waterfall right at the edge of the road. Although we didn’t have time or energy to do a hike, we made note to come back to this area on our next visit.
The rest of the evening was spent back at camp where the kids threw stones in the water and explored the campsite. We prepared to leave camp the next morning and head back home after an adventurous week of family fun!
As we departed the next morning, we all agreed our spring break trip was a wild success. You could stick a fork in Mommy and Daddy – we were d-o-n-e, DONE! But, we created a memorable experience for our family that was well worth all the planning that went into it. My only advice for future campers is to take note of what travel season in which you will be planning your trip. We did not take into account that many restaurants and excursions would not yet be open. In many ways, traveling during off season months is great because you avoid the crowds. The trade-off is seeing a lot of “closed” signs, especially in the less populated areas. I would also recommend calling and researching the best times to visit your excursions of choice. Friday afternoon for the Aquarium was probably not the smartest time for us to go in order to avoid crowds. A simple phone call to the ticket office could have given me some insight on a slower time to visit. My other advice is not to over-plan. Hiking and traveling requires a lot of energy, so schedule in that all important “down time.” Also, always have snacks on hand to keep the kids happy. One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that well-rested and well-fed children equal less temper tantrums and slightly less complaints. Finally, always have a rain plan. Pack umbrellas and rain boots just in case you can play in the rain, and make a note of a rain activity (like a museum or movie theatre trip) you can do in case of emergency.
Happy vacation planning! I hope your trip is full of happiness and adventure, and that this post opens up some ideas for an amazing trip.
This is not a sponsored post. All of these places I researched and picked based on what I thought my family would enjoy. The only affiliate links in this post are those related to Beachbody. I am an active Beachbody coach and my business helps directly support this blog! If you are looking for a way to improve your health and fitness, reach out to me anytime or comment below with how I can reach you.