For our first family vacation, my husband I decided to make the drive from the flatlands of Chicago to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with our 1-year-old daughter. The goal was simple: for her to “meet” the mountains.
The big caveat when it came to accommodations: satisfying our bougee first-time parent needs paired with a pandemic-inspired desire to steer clear of crowds. We did not want to camp or rent an RV. Nor did we want to stay in a hotel in the nearby mountain towns of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, two popular jumping-off points to the most-visited national park in the United States.
With these accommodation options eliminated, we opted to book a private cabin through Vrbo. Two, to be exact: One for the first three nights, then a different cabin for the next three nights.
Turns out, we weren’t alone in this accommodation strategy. According to Vrbo, the demand for rental homes in the Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg has increased by more than 30 percent compared to 2020, and by more than 60 percent compared to 2019.
This popularity isn’t surprising. Sure, you will likely pay more than you would for a hotel or camp site—but the perks more than make up for those costs. It absolutely did for us, and here is why I’d choose a private rental home again.
View from the rental cabin's living room
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
We wanted a place to nest. A hotel room is basically just that: a room where you can sleep and shower. Renting a cabin, however, provided us with all the comforts we would find in our own home—plus a few extras, like a private hot tub with stellar mountain views. There were no long hallways or riding elevators with strangers in order to get to our accommodations. The place was all ours.
Enjoying the night with a glass a wine while keeping an eye on the baby via webcam
We could do as we pleased without prying eyes or disruptions by other people. We didn’t need to worry about sharing our cabins’ hot tubs or game rooms, for instance, with anyone else. We could never get this sort of privacy at a hotel, nor an RV park or a campsite.
The author's daughter, Skylar, playing in her play tent in front of a great view
STAYING INSIDE THE PARK
We purposefully chose two homes that were situated inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Not only did this surround us with trees and rolling mountain views, but it allowed us to bypass the congestion and crowds often found in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. There was traffic from these towns to just get into the park, and we thankfully avoided that. We literally saved hours of precious vacation time.
The author on the porch swing with her young daughter
A PEACEFUL SETTING
Staying inside the park meant that we were away from the neon lights and buzzy energy of the mountain towns, and not having to share walls or a campground with fellow travelers meant relative quiet amidst the wilderness. This made the evening and nighttime hours especially relaxing—once our daughter went to bed, of course.
SPACE TO SPREAD OUT
Ask any parent: When traveling with children, it’s great to have space. (This amenity is typically appreciated by most travelers, of course.) Both Smoky Mountain cabins we rented had multiple rooms and massive wrap-around porches. We were able to designate bedrooms and play areas accordingly, rather than try to cram our belongings and bodies into a single hotel room.
View from the cabin
INCREDIBLE MOUNTAIN VIEWS
Photos simply don’t capture the majesty of The Smokies. The best views from our cabins came from the wrap-around porches that overlooked the rolling mountains. We purposefully chose two homes with inspiring views, so that even when we couldn’t leave the home (during our daughter’s naps, for instance), we wouldn’t mind. We had the stellar views to keep us occupied—and mesmerized.
The author, Erica Bray, enjoying and relaxing in the hot tub
AMAZING (PRIVATE!) AMENITIES
We loved that we could shop for a rental cabin based on amenities that would make our vacation special. For my family, we wanted a hot tub, a grill and a porch with unobstructed views. Many Vrbo homes in the Smoky Mountain region offer these amenities—plus much more. Among some of the coolest amenities we encountered while researching the options: fire pits, game rooms, indoor movie theaters, community pool access, and even indoor pools with giant movie screens to accommodate “dive-in” movies.
Grilled hot dogs for a great lunch
SAVE MONEY BY COOKING MEALS
We made full use of each home’s kitchen and outdoor grill to cook our own meals. This allowed us to save on food costs that might be incurred by dining out—not to mention we could enjoy these homemade feasts with spectacular mountain views from our private porch. The mostly chain and fast-food restaurant options in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge weren’t our cup of tea anyhow, so we were very happy to eat healthier from the comfort of our private perch in The Smokies.
Most hotels are not pet-friendly—but there were plenty of Smoky Mountain cabins that we reviewed that welcomed hosting the furriest members of the family. While we opted not to bring our family dog on this vacation, having the option would certainly appeal to those who just can’t part with their pet. It also eliminates the need to pay for a pet sitter or a stay in a kennel while on vacation.
Bray's husband showing their daughter the amazing view of the homes and mountains in the distance
SMOKY MOUNTAIN MEMORIES
Some of my family’s best memories were made in our cabins. The quiet sanctuary of each space fostered quality bonding time that was simultaneously comfortable and magical. I’ll never forget my daughter reaching out her hand to try and “touch” the mountains from our porch when she awoke that first morning of our trip. Or swaying with her on a porch swing where pristine views of the park spread out as far as the eye could see. Or staying up with my husband to play arcade games and shuffleboard in the game room when we probably should have been sleeping. We had a wonderful time outside of these cabins to enjoy the natural bounty of the national park—that’s what drew us there, after all. Our Smoky Mountain cabins, however, ultimately became prominent fixtures in the special memories we created on that first family vacation.