Spanning a section of the oldest mountain range in the US, the Blue Ridge Mountains cover 34,563 square miles and 8 states. Not surprising that they often look blue and smoggy especially near the Great Smoky Mountains. If you’ve got an adventurous family looking for places to explore, this region is full of activities and history. We chose to spend a little time in Tennessee and a lot more in North Carolina. 

If you’re looking for a southern version of the Wisconsin Dells, head straight to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN. Alongside the rides, waterslides, upside down houses, mountain top mini golf, pancake houses, lumberjack shows, and mountain coasters, there’s some great hikes and waterfalls to be found. In the summer, there’s rafting in the gorge. 

Asheville, NC is quaint with a fun downtown. We were surprised that Asheville is quirky and eclectic, full of art galleries, live music, breweries, and family friendly spots. Adventure is at your fingertips along the Blue Ridge Parkway – rock climbing, horseback riding, rafting, hiking, swimming, mountain biking, paddling, and urban fun like unique tours, bookstores, and music venues. 


Fly directly into Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) or Charlotte Douglass International Airport (CLT) which is 95 miles away. It’s also drivable from Madison at only 12 hours. We chose to drive and made some stops in Tennessee to Great Smoky Mountain National Park and to ride a mountain coaster in Gatlinburg, TN prior to arriving in NC. 


Oh the choices. We hopped from town to town so switched quite a bit depending on our upcoming activity.

Some of our favorites were:

The Inn at Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge, TN (comfortable and quirky)

Nantahala Outdoor Center Lodging in Bryson City, NC (rustic but close to rafting)

Earth and Sky Dwellings in Asheville, NC (unique and creative fully equipped, themed treehouses)

Gatlinburg, Tennessee 

Great Smoky Mountain National Park: We made this a brief stop despite the vast options to explore in the park. Laurel Falls is a popular 2 mile out and back hike that is one of the few paved paths in the park that was done to help stop erosion. It was difficult to get a picture without many people in it so expect large crowds. The signs for bears seemed comical considering the crowds, but be mindful while hiking that they are there. 

Ripley’s Mountain Coaster: Talk about green energy at its finest. Ride in a rollercoaster car on a pulley system to the top of the mountain and enjoy the gravity on the way down. Highlight of the day for the kiddos!

North Carolina

Natahala Outdoor Center: ok, woah! This rafting center is where kayaking olympians train. Incredible to watch. Also, the Appalachian Trail runs right through the center so if you walk on the pedestrian bridge over the river, you can say you hiked the trail! We chose to do the fully guided rafting tour that passes through class III rapids and a waterfall at the end. Kids have to weigh at least 50 lbs and I’d highly recommend the wet suits and dry jackets if it’s not August. The average water temp of the river is 50 degrees. The center also has other rafting options, zip lining, high ropes courses, mountain biking, and tubing.

Fox Mountain Guides and Climbing School: We did a rock climbing day and had a blast. The company will meet you to climb in multiple places, but we chose to go to Looking Glass Rock in the Pisgah National Forest. 800 ft of gray granite to explore requiring different climbing techniques depending on which side of the rock you climb. Warning: there’s quite a winding drive up the mountain followed by an uphill, semi-strenuous hike especially when you add in climbing gear. It was an incredible day and our whole family highly recommends this adventure. The guides frequently climb Chimney Rock nearby as well.

Looking Glass Falls: Gorgeous 60ft falls right on the highway in the Pisgah National Forest. There’s an easy walk down to the falls with access for swimming nearby. The rocks are slippery so be careful!

Sliding Rock: Only a half mile past the falls and again right off the highway is this incredible natural waterslide. There’s a railing to help with the walk up, plus lifeguards and concessions in the summer months. The river has a sustained temp of around 50 degrees. So, it’s very fun when it’s warm out, but a bit more of a polar bear challenge when not.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest: The only remaining old growth forest along the east coast is here! There are over 100+ tree species within the forest and many over 400 years old. Perfectly maintained trails with switchbacks and creek crossings, it feels primal or as if you’ve been transported to a movie set depicting early human evolution and along with this comes the wildlife. We saw a 5ft nonpoisonous snake which changed our hiking direction and plan very quickly. Eek! We also carried bear spray as they are prevalent there and were just coming out of hibernation. We noticed many other hikers with bear spray as well. Definitely more of an adventurous hike and be wary of cell service in this area, there isn’t much or any at times.

Biltmore: Beautiful historic home built by George Vanderbilt in 1895. Tickets have timed entry and include an audio tour. There’s even one meant for kids where the family dog narrates. The stables were converted to a couple cafes, gift shops, and an ice cream store which was a great spot for a break. The gardens are immense and fun to see in bloom. There’s also carriage rides available to explore the grounds. 


Bryson City is close to the Natahala Outdoor Center and has limited options but we found a few gems and enjoyed, like the Bistro at Everett Hotel and 4 Queens Mexican Grill. Asheville is loaded with breweries, pizzerias, and southern food. We enjoyed Tupelo Honey, Corner Kitchen, and Twisted Laurel. 

And The Fun Continued…

We left NC and headed into VA to spend some time in Williamsburg and DC prior to heading home. It was a great mixture of outdoor adventure and some historic, city vibes. We loved that our time in DC coincided with the blooming cherry blossoms especially after a long winter in Madison. 

If you’re feeling adventurous, the Blue Ridge Mountains are picturesque and a perfect spot to make family memories!

Lyndsey Battaglia
Lyndsey was born and raised in New Orleans which instilled a deep passion for architecture, history, and FOOD. She and her husband James are proud graduates of UW-Madison. Go Badgers! They live in the Madison area with their 3 active children. Lyndsey is a freelance writer and Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. When not working, she can be found running her kids around to swimming, ballet, basketball, and skiing. They all love new adventures, travel, cooking, being outdoors, reading, biking, and trying to keep up with their new puppy.


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