Get Schooled on the Movement • National Civil Rights Museum
This world-class museum tells the story of the struggle for civil rights in America and the South. Viewing the exhibits, which stretch from slavery to sit-ins, Selma to King’s assassination, provides an important history lesson. Displays are powerful, moving conversation starters. Kids will have plenty of questions, make sure grandparents weigh in on the discussion.
Cost: $15/adults. $12/ages 4-17.
Nearby attractions: Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum, Cotton Museum
Rock with The King • Graceland
Did you know Elvis Presley was just 22 years old when he purchased Graceland? Heartbreak Hotel was a number one hit and several electrifying TV performances had made this Southerner an overnight sensation. During his career, Elvis would go on to sell one billion (yes, billion) records for RCA. Graceland, his sprawling estate, became the King’s refuge and playground when he wasn’t touring the world. Here, kids can ogle the Jungle Room, the Media Room (with its three TVs), his numerous cars, and chart a dazzling career that made Elvis Memphis’ most world-renowned export.
Cost: $42.50/adult. $20/ages 3-12 (Platinum level).
Nearby attractions: Sun Studio, Stax Museum of American Soul
Discover Cool Animals • Memphis Zoo
The newly opened Zambezi River Hippo Camp, where kids can delight in watching hippos dive and romp in a spacious pool, gives families a new reason to enjoy this nationally recognized zoo. It’s big enough to have diverse offerings yet not so sprawling as to wear everyone out. Feed a giraffe, watch an animal show, ride a camel or the train — you’ll find plenty of reasons to return.
Cost: $15/adults. $10/ages 2-11.
Nearby attractions: Children’s Museum, The Memphis Pink Palace Museum
Spot a Bald Eagle • Reelfoot Lake State Park, Tiptonville
Hundreds of bald eagles call Reelfoot Lake home during the winter months, and pelicans are plentiful during the fall. But in addition to the park’s most famous residents, there is much more wildlife to behold. Whether from the lakeshore or aboard a pontoon ride, you’ll discover a wide array of birdlife and reptiles.
Nearby attractions: Discovery Park of America, Union City
Glimpse Civil War History • Shiloh National Military Park, Savannah
The two-day Battle of Shiloh was a bloody, earth-shaking, sobering affair. More than 24,000 men lost their lives during the Civil War’s first large-scale battle. Walk the expansive grounds and you’ll see stone markers dedicated to the battalions and regiments of soldiers who fought and died in battle. Be sure to check out the visitor’s center and watch Shiloh, Fiery Trial, a reenactment film which debuted on the 150th anniversary of the battle (April 2012). Shiloh is just one of a host of battlefield sites on the Tennessee Civil War Trail.
Cost: $5/families. $3/adults.
Nearby attractions: Tennessee River Museum, Savannah; Pickwick Landing State Park
Sleep in a Historic Log Cabin • Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Jamestown
Big South Fork isn’t nearly as well known as its neighbor, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it should be. This lush 125,000-acre swath of wilderness is part of the Cumberland Plateau, a tableland of sandstone and shale that ascends nearly 1,000 feet above the surrounding land. Flowing waters left gorges, rock shelters, waterfalls, and towering sandstone arches in its wake. Sleep at Charit Creek Lodge in an original homesteader cabin (circa 1817), the oldest lodging in the National Park system. Off-grid and lit by kerosene lamps, a stay here will give you a glimpse into Tennessee’s pioneer past. Hike to the epic sandstone arch just above this hollow then go fishing on the Big South Fork or cross the border and ride Kentucky’s Big South Fork Scenic Railway.
Cost: $32/night and up
Nearby attractions: Pickett State Park offers rustic, Civilian Conservation Corps cabins as well as modern family villas and year-round camping.
Country Music Hall of Fame
Get Lost in a Country Song • Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville
If your kids listen to country music on the radio, they’ll enjoy tracing its history at this popular Nashville attraction. Listening posts and interactive displays bring country music legends to life as you learn how this musical form shaped Nashville and the people who made the hits.
Cost: $24.95/adult. $14.95/ages 6-12
Nearby attractions: Johnny Cash Museum, Tennessee State Museum
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explore the Inside of a Mountain • Ruby Falls, Chattanooga
It’s not often you get to see the towering innards of a mountain, but tour Ruby Falls and you’ll explore Lookout Mountain from the inside out. An hour-long walk leads past a variety of sculptural stalactites and stalagmites before arriving at the famous falls.
Cost: $19.95/adults. $11.95/ages 3-12.
Nearby attractions: Rock City, a charming Americana-style attraction with views of six states.
Watch for Ursus Americanus • Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg
Please don’t feed the bears! You’ll see those signs posted throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park because odds are you’ll catch a glimpse of one of the 1,500 black bears that thrive in this park, particularly in springtime. One of my family’s favorite memories was coming upon a mother bear and her two cubs as we hiked. Unlike other national parks, entry here is free, making it a budget-friendly destination. Hiking trails of varying difficulty snake through the park. Shorter, kid-friendly trails are clearly labeled on park maps. Many pass by waterfalls where you can cool off. — Jennifer Williams-Fields
Nearby Attractions: Cades Cove
Take an Unforgettable Hike • South Cumberland State Park, Monteagle
Crystal-clear pools the blue of Caribbean lagoons, sparkling waterfalls chattering down rocky shelves, and the fragrance of hemlock: These are the sensations of the Fiery Gizzard Trail. Located between the Grundy Forest and Foster Falls sections of South Cumberland State Park, the Gizzard probably got its name from a crude blast furnace along one of its creeks. No matter. Whether you hop over for a day hike on its easy 3-mile loop from nearby Fall Creek Falls or choose to rough it for 12 miles in backcountry campsites, you and your family won’t forget the name of this magical trail. — Liz Phillips
Nearby Attractions: Creative Discovery Museum
Ride a Rollercoaster • Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country Water Park, Pigeon Forge
With nearly 40 rides, plenty of music acts, animal shows, and displays about its founder, Dolly Parton, this Smoky Mountain-theme park celebrates Appalachian culture and music. Zip on a rollercoaster, slow down with a train ride, or cool off at Splash Country, there’s something here for kids of all ages.
Cost: Dollywood: $65/adults. $52/ages 4-11. Free/4 & under. Splash Country: $48/adults. $43/ages 4-11.
Nearby attractions: Pigeon Forge offers a multitude of shops and attractions.
Dance Under a Waterfall • Fall Creek Falls State Park, Spencer
One of Tennessee’s favorite and most visited state parks, Fall Creek Falls stretches across the top of the Cumberland Plateau. Named for its dramatic 258-foot waterfall that tumbles into a lush green gorge, the park offers scenic beauty at every turn. See the falls from the rim or hike into the gorge and gaze up at this thunderous force.
Nearby attractions: Creative Discovery Museum, Chattanooga
Learn About a Great President • Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, Harrogate
You needn’t travel to Illinois to learn about one of our nation’s great presidents. Pay a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, which has one of the largest and most diverse Lincoln collections in the nation. You’ll see a treasure trove of personal artifacts, including the walking cane he used on his way to Ford’s Theatre, and learn about Lincoln’s upbringing, his journey into politics, and his storied presidency during the Civil War. Re-enactors even portray Lincoln during special programs.
Nearby attractions: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park tells the important role the Gap played in the settlement of Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Ohio Valley.
Tune In to Nature • Roan Mountain State Park
Nineteenth-century travelers sought respite from Tennessee’s steamy summers at the dreamily-named Cloudland Hotel on the crest of Roan Mountain. The Cloudland is long gone, but my family often treks to the state’s northeastern corner to stay at Roan Mountain State Park. We hike high trails dense with rhododendron thickets. We dip our toes in the icy Doe River and the park’s (slightly) heated pool. We unwind to live mountain music on the lawn of the amphitheater. We build fires and play endless games of Scrabble in TV/Wi-Fi-free cabins. The accommodations may be simpler than the Cloudland, but for us, the retreat is just as restorative. — Ginger Spickler
Nearby Attractions: The Blue Hole waterfall, outside of Elizabethton
Discover a dinosaur • East TN State University and General Shale Natural History Museum, Gray
While small, this museum gets high marks for interpreting the treasure trove of fossils unearthed at Gray Fossil Site in the early 2000s. Opened in 2007, families can gain an appreciation for the state’s prehistoric record by seeing the fossilized remains of the many animals that once roamed East Tennesee four to seven millions years ago, including camels, pandas, saber-toothed cats, rhinos, and mastadons.
Nearby Attractions: Appalachian Caverns
Swap Fish tales • Tennessee Aquarium
This diverse aquarium is one of Tennessee’s top attractions, and it’s easy to see why. From colorful fish and playful otters to stingrays you can touch as they flutter past, you’ll see plenty of sea creatures but you’ll also learn about the history of Tennessee’s waters. The exhibits are varied and kid-friendly, with a variety of play stations sprinkled throughout.
Cost: $29.95/adult. $18.95/(ages 3-12)
Nearby attractions: River Gorge Explorer, a two-hour cruise on the Tennessee River