The Smoky Mountains aren’t just a beautiful part of the country. They’re also a great place to sneak in a little education as you and the kids enjoy amazing scenery and Appalachian culture. The national park is an obvious destination for a homeschool trip. However, don’t forget to explore the surrounding towns, rivers and mountains on your mountain bikes.
One of the best ways to help kids learn is to close the textbooks and give them hands-on, real-world experience. The Smokies abound with enrichment activities for every subject, from the natural sciences to history to animal encounters and artworks. And fun is easily mixed in with the multiple attractions in the gateway towns to the park, and accommodations such as the Gatlinburg cabins that offer full amenities and entertainments in mountain settings.
Explore the Natural World
No guide to this area could skip past Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can literally spend weeks exploring all the compelling opportunities on these half-million acres of diverse topography, but here are some highlights, starting from the Gatlinburg gateway area.
Start with the self-guided loop drive in Cades Cove and learn about the Appalachian farming community that sprang up in the area starting around 1850. Join the Junior Ranger program of the park to learn about different kinds of birds, trees and animals. There’s also a fun Smokies Bingo sheet that can keep small children engaged during longer hikes.
Take the easy 0.5 mile trail to the observation tower at Clingmans Dome. On a good day, you can see 100 miles of geography – see if you can pinpoint the seven (!) states that are visible. The walk also showcases how both environment and the weather change from lower elevations to this spot, at over 6,600 feet above sea level.
Dollywood Offers Fun and Education
Dollywood holds an annual Homeschool Days promotion with special rates for homeschooling families. This typically runs from early August to mid-September. But any time is worth a visit here. Along with the water park, rides and theater, Dollywood also offers educational opportunities such as the Calico Falls Schoolhouse, showcasing the one-room schools from the 1890s. Wings of America show offers a closer look at rarely seen birds of prey including Bald Eagles. And the Chasing Rainbows Museum tells the Dolly Parton story through memorabilia.
Hands-on Learning for Kids
Knoxville’s The Muse is a nonprofit STEAM museum. It builds a hands-on understanding of the principles of science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. Sounds dry? This museum is aimed squarely at younger kids, with everything from freestyle Lego kits to an augmented reality sandbox. The Fourth Friday of every month is a free family night.
If you don’t want to drive to Knoxville, WonderWorks in Pigeon Forge offers a similar experience. This lively museum leans more toward fun over education, including attractions like laser tag and a glow-in-the-dark ropes course. However, many of the more than 100 interactive exhibits do focus on science topics like space exploration, electricity, music and more.
The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is located in Vonore on an island in the Little Tennessee River. This museum is dedicated to the man who created and popularized an alphabet for the Cherokee people. Much of the Cherokee Nation’s long and rich history was lost when they were displaced. However, the writing system Sequoyah developed helped to unite an increasingly scattered people and record their stories.
The museum features artifacts from the time period. It also holds special events and workshops showcasing traditional crafts like basket weaving and Cherokee cooking. More of this lost culture can be found also at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, located in Cherokee, North Carolina, a very scenic drive across the mountains from the Tennessee side of the national park.
(Virtually) Swim With the Fishes
If your kids are interested in growing up to become marine biologists, you have several options for encouraging their dreams. Ripley’s Aquarium in downtown Gatlinburg is rated as one of America’s best aquariums, and offers animal and sea-creature encounters and numerous exhibits to explore, along with workshops and labs. Homeschoolers and teaching parents can take educational programs on pirates, bioluminescent animals, and more at special rates.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is just a couple hours’ drive away. This massive aquarium brings visitors face-to-face with over 10,000 creatures housed in tanks of up to 618,000 gallon capacity. These flying, swimming, and crawling creatures come from varied environments throughout the Southeast and beyond. Families can take tours or enjoy educational exhibits that teach about the animals and emphasize the need for conservation.
Let Your Imagination Fly
The 50,000 square foot Tennessee Museum of Aviation keeps a vital piece of aviation history alive in Sevierville. Here you can find memorabilia, uniforms, aircraft models, educational exhibits, and more. Restored vintage Warbirds are on display in the massive hangar, and visitors can sometimes watch flight demonstrations. This museum offers self-guided tours for homeschooling families at reduced ticket prices.
Demonstrate Geometry and Physics in Action
The Rocky Top Mountain Coaster in Pigeon Forge is a long, wild ride that demonstrates the fun side of engineering. Geometry meets physics as you ride the coaster cars along a winding track. Families are sent through tunnels and barns and past woodland cabins. Just when you think things are slowing down, you’re on another up section that spikes your adrenaline again. As with many attractions in the Smoky Mountains, this coaster occasionally throws a Homeschool Week with discounted tickets.