Did you know the most visited US National Park is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? There is a reason for this it is absolutely beautiful and has tons of fun things to do with kids. Plus it has a great location in the middle of the country.
The Smoky Mountains of Tennessee are easy to drive to and packed with great family adventures. You will find so many fun things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids from popular hikes, to the Appalachian Trail, Cades Cove driving tour, climbing Clingman’s Dome, Pioneer History, and more.
Plus you can’t miss the touristy towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Follow along with me to learn the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids for an amazing family vacation.
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Top Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Kids in 2023
Table of Contents
Smoky Mountains Map & Entrances
One of the best parts of visiting the Smoky Mountains is the beautiful view. The bad part is, GPS often doesn’t work in the mountains.
I would suggest either printing off the park map before you go or stopping at the Visitors Center for directions when you arrive. The park covers 520,000 acres and 800 square miles through Tennessee and North Carolina. With this many miles, a map will be a huge help.
There are three entrances to the park in Gatlinburg TN, Townsend TN, and Cherokee NC. The National Park Service staffs a visitor center near all three entrances to help get you acquainted with the park.
Of the three entrances, Gatlinburg is the bigger town with lots of hotels and cabin options plus many restaurant choices. More on Gatlinburg below.
Entrance Fee & Hours
There is no fee to enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, as of March 2023, there is now a parking fee for any cars parked for more than 15 minutes. So unless you are going to just drive through the park and only make quick stops you’ll need to pay for a parking tag.
These can be purchased at a kiosk outside of the visitor centers or inside the visitor centers. The kiosk looks like the one above and is found in the parking lot. You will need to know your driver’s license plate number when purchasing your parking tag.
Fees as of March 2023
Daily – $5
Weekly – $15
Annual – $40
Park Hours – Roads are open 24 hours a day (there are some seasonal roads that are closed in the winter)
Cades Cove Hours – Sunrise to Sunset for motorists
Sugarland Visitor Centers – 9 am- 5 pm (4:30 pm close in winter)
Find the most up-to-date Fees & Hours.
Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains
Visit the Visitor Centers
The first thing to do when you arrive at the park is head to a visitor center. There are three main visitor centers in the park all close to the three main entrances.
At the visitor center take advantage of the park rangers to discuss any questions or hiking trail suggestions you may have. Pick up a map and the park newspaper to find out about daily activities.
Make sure to check if there are any current road closures in the area with the ranger. Or visit their website about road closures before you get to the park. This will help you plan where you are able to hike while in the park.
All the visitor centers have bathroom facilities and a parking area. Some of them have a small general store and gift shop too. This is also where you can buy your parking tag.
While at the visitor center check out the exhibits on display. Each site has different exhibits on nature, the park, southern mountain life, and culture. This will give everyone a better idea about the park’s history and what you are going to see while visiting. Plus the kids will enjoy it.
Sugarlands Visitor Center is the largest and has a nice natural history exhibit to walk through displaying all the wildlife that lives in the National Park. You’ll also find a large store inside.
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center has a Mountain Farm Museum located right next to it with a collection of historic log structures.
Clingman’s Dome Visitor Center is very small but works to get park information, for bathrooms, and to look at their small bookstore. This area is closed in the winter.
If you want to look at the park map before you go you can download it here from the National Parks website.
Ranger- Lead Tours
While at the visitor centers make sure to find out the daily schedule for Ranger-led tours that are offered from Spring through Fall. You’ll find this in the free park newspaper.
They have a variety of guided tour options from learning about local wildlife, hiking, and learning about the people who lived in the area.
You can look at this program events page before you go to help you plan what day to visit the park.
We took a great Ranger lead tour from the Sugarland Visitor Center about the local people who lived in the area. The Ranger takes you on a walk to visit local homes and a school that is still left on the property.
On the tour, you learn what daily life was like for the people who lived in this area and how it became a National Park. It was an easy walk for families and the ranger did a great job of engaging the kids to keep them interested. Bonus: These tours are free.
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There are not a lot of places to get food inside the Smoky Mountains National Park so I would suggest you pack a picnic lunch. You’ll find picnic tables open all year at Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, and Metcalf Bottoms.
In the summer months, there are picnic areas at Big Creek, Chimneys, Cades Cove, Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Heintooga, Look Rock, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks.
On our last trip, we ate at the Metcalf Bottoms picnic area and at the entrance to the Cades Cove picnic area (shown in the picture above) off Laurel Creek Road.
Both are by the water with a really pretty setting. They had BBQs, picnic tables, and bathrooms that were not porta potties. Yeah! In the summer the kids can go down and play by the water. Both were great spots for a break after hiking.
You can find them on this park map.
Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park
While you are visiting the park you’ve got to get out and do some hiking. There are tons of options with miles of trails for you to choose from based on your family’s ability level.
Tip: When you’re at the visitor center talk to the Ranger about the best options for your family. They’ll show you where to locate the different trails and which ones would be best for your age group & ability.
Hiking With Kids Tips
Need some tips on how to make hiking with the kids enjoyable for the whole family?
Check out my Ultimate Guide to Hiking with Kids. You’ll find clever family hiking tips, the best hiking gear, and fun trail games & activities to keep your kids excited about the hike.
Bonus get my Free Printable Hiking Checklist that we use for our hikes. It will help you remember everything you need to pack.
Favorite Family Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains
Here are some of the most popular hiking trails for kids and families in the Smoky Mountains. Including some waterfall hikes that are pretty cool to see.
These first two trails are located by the Sugarland Valley Visitor Center and are very kid-friendly hikes. If you enter through the Gatlinburg entrance these are great first hikes to get the kids excited about the park.
Sugarland Valley Nature Trail
Trail Length – 0.5 Mile Round Trip
This is a short and easy 0.5 mile nature trail by the Sugarland Visitor Center. The trail is paved so it’s wheelchair & stroller accessible. It runs along a creek to explore as you walk along.
Cataract Falls Trail
Trail Length – 1 Mile Round Trip
Cataract Falls trail is a fun and short hike for families. It’s located right behind the Sugarland Visitor Center making it easy to get to with the kids. The trail is a mix of paved and gravel paths that is a 1-mile round trip hike.
You’ll walk along the creek and then up a few stairs. It’s pretty uneven so this trail would not be easy with a stroller or wheelchair.
At the end of the trail, you’ll come to the pretty Cataract Waterfall. It’s especially nice to see after it rains. Kids can scramble up the sides of the waterfall and get to the top. Or stay at the bottom and take pictures.
Cove Hardwood Self-Guiding Nature Trail
Trail length – 3/4 loop trail
This is a great hike in the springtime as the hills are all covered in wildflowers. It’s pretty cool to see. But honestly any time of year it would be a nice easy trail for families.
The trail is located by the Chimneys Picnic Area and there is a parking lot. You’ll head up a slight hill to get to the trailhead.
At the beginning of the trail, there is a brochure posted that tells you about each numbered post along the trail. Take a picture of this on your phone so you can read it as you pass each trail marker. We enjoyed learning about the area as we walked the trail.
This trail is a loop that does go uphill but not at a steep incline. You’ll walk over small streams as you go and see how the trees and flowers change as you walk.
Metcalf Bottoms Trail to Little Greenbrier School
Trail Length – 1.2 Miles Round Trip
This is a fun trail that starts off at the Metcalf Bottoms parking lot and will lead you to the Little Greenbrier School. There is a nice picnic area and bathrooms here also.
This trail will take you about an hour to hike round trip but also give yourself some time to explore the school at the end.
The trail starts by walking across a bridge to the other side of the river from the parking lot area. You’ll be walking a hill up to start that is gravel. Then you will head downhill on an uneven path that will eventually have you walking by a stream. The path is in the trees and pretty shaded.
At the end of the trail, you will cross a little bridge and come to the Little Greenbrier School which you can go in and explore. You’ll find students’ desks still inside the school. There is also a sign outside telling you about the history of the school and an old graveyard.
Little River Trail
Trail Length – 4.9 Miles
This trail is by the Elkmont campgrounds and there is a parking lot by the trailhead. It was an old logging road so it was a relatively easy walk that gradually goes up.
As you start the trail look around at the remains of the old vacation cabins that were along the road on both sides. You’ll see the chimneys and some other remains still in place. This was pretty neat for the kids to explore.
At about 2.2 miles you will come to the 20 ft. Husky Branch Falls. You can continue on after the Falls or turn back around at this point.
One of our kids loves to hike and did the whole trail the younger one was done and turned around about halfway through. The great part about this hike is you can go as far as your kids want and turn around at any time. The view is pretty as you walk along the river and look at all the trees and growth. So even if you don’t make it to the waterfall it’s still a nice hike.
The best time to hike this trail is in the spring to see wildflowers & the fall to see the leaves change.
When you leave the parking lot take a drive through Daisy Town a row of vacation homes from the 1920s and 30s as well as the Appalachian clubhouse which was the social hub for the wealthy vacation enclave. You can park and get out and walk along the homes to read the signs too.
Laurel Falls Trail
Trail Length – 2.6 Miles
The Laurel Falls trail is a hugely popular trail for familes. The picture above is only half of the waterfall as it pools and starts again.
It is not stroller friendly but we saw kids of all ages hiking along the path. This picture above is half of the waterfall
The path is paved but very uneven and broken up so it’s not stroller friendly. Laurel Falls trail is considered an easy to moderate hike but I’d call it moderate.
Plan to go early in the morning or later in the day as finding parking is difficult. Just keep in mind it’s about a 1 1/2 – 2 hour hike so make sure you’re done before it’s dark.
The path is cut along the mountain and does have steep drop-offs so you will need to watch the kids. To get to the waterfall you will go up the trail to get there and down to get back to the parking lot. There are great views of the park as you walk towards the waterfall.
Laurel Falls is a pretty cool 80ft waterfall especially if there has been a lot of rain. Families can climb and scramble around the waterfall on the rocks. There is a small wood bridge along the path that is located in the middle of the waterfall and is a great picture spot.
Trail Length – 2,200 Miles (71 miles in the park)
The Appalachian Trail was originally a footpath that was changed into hiking trails in the 1920s and now runs from Maine to Georgia. The whole trail stretches 2, 200 miles long and 71 miles of it runs through the Smoky Mountains.
My family thought it was really cool to hike on paths that had been used by local Native Americans to local settlers and now hikers.
It’s a relatively easy dirt path to hike but can be uneven with tree roots popping up.
Alum Cave Trail
Trail Length – 5 Miles Round Trip
If you’re up for a more challenging hike that older kids can still do try the Alum Cave Trail.
This hike has more of a steep incline as you head up toward Mt. Leconte. For the Alum Cave Trail, you will turn around at the Alum Cave Bluff but you could go on to climb all the way up to Mt. Leconte Summit which is 11 miles round trip.
Besides great views, the first cool thing to see is Arch Rock with a staircase running through it. You’ll find it at 1.3 miles into the hike. The gap in the rock was formed by the repeated freezing and unfreezing of the rock from a long-ago icy era.
The second is reaching the Alum Cave Bluff at 2.5 miles into the hike. This area was used to mine salt before and during the civil war. There is a unique smell to the area from the mix of minerals found there.
At this point, you will choose to go back down the trail to your car or continue on to Mt. Leconte Summit.
This is a great place to take an easy hike with the kids on the Appalachian Trail. From the parking lot, kids can climb some rocks to get to the trail which is pretty fun, or just walk to the opening.
Then walk along a well-marked path for as long as your family can make it. This stop is also the dividing line between Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s pretty cool for the kids to stand with one leg in each state. Also a great photo op.
To get to Newfound Gap you need to take Newfound Gap Road. What you will find in Newfound Gap is a large parking lot, restroom, and picnic facilities.
Enjoy the beautiful views from the parking lot and the Rockefeller Memorial.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains. At the very top is a huge observation deck & tower where you get amazing views of the whole area views on a clear day. It’s pretty cool.
From the parking lot, it’s a 1/2 mile paved walk to the top. However, it is a very steep grade and can be a difficult walk. It would be hard to push a stroller or wheelchair although we did see some people pushing strollers.
I will be honest I was out of breath when we got to the top but it’s worth the 360-degree views of the park.
Tips – The parking lot is very small so I would suggest getting there earlier in the day. Also if it’s cloudy you may not be able to see anything from the top so decide that before you climb up.
There should be a ranger at the bottom to answer any questions at the Clingmans Dome Visitor Center. There are also bathroom facilities.
Lastly bring a jacket with you, as it is significantly cooler and often damp on the walk up to the top.
Make sure to be ready for your hike with water and snacks. We love the fanny pack below to hold your water bottle, phone, snacks & keys. It keeps the weight off your back and shoulders.
Also, check out this great baby carrier for kids while you hike. It’s comfortable weighing only 5.5 pounds and holds kids up to 33 pounds so it can grow with your child.
Find a list of all our favorite hiking gear in our Ultimate Guide to Hiking with Kids.
A fun adventure in the park is to go horseback riding. There are tons of places to offer horseback rides outside the park but if you want to go in the park you need to go to Caves Codes Riding Stables in Townsend TN.
You’ll find the stables right before the start of the Cades Cove Loop Drive.
What we like about this tour is you get to actually ride through the Smoky Mountains National Park for an hour on horseback. The horses are trail horses and just follow each other so it’s pretty easy. You will not be galloping or going fast.
Another option is to do a horse-drawn carriage ride. This is a great option for anyone unable to ride a horse and the driver will tell you about the history of the area as you go.
Tip: The stable does not take reservations so try and get there earlier in the day as they do sell out. We had a two-hour wait so we took our packed lunch to the nearby picnic area and hung out with the kids.
Find more information and pricing on the Cades Cove Riding Stables Website.
Historic Structures in the Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains National Park has one of the best collections of historic log buildings in the US. You will find over 90 Historic structures throughout the park. These range from houses, churches, schools, barns and a grist mill.
I think what makes this National Park stand out from the others is the cool historical aspects of the park. It gives an extra element of interest to the whole family.
Kids will love seeing how people use to live and where they went to school. Seeing the actual structures make it easier for families to relate to what life was like growing up in the area.
Cades Cove loop is a family-friendly drive and one of the best places to explore historic sites and pioneer history in the park. You might even catch a glimpse of black bears in the fields. The cades cove loop road is an 11-mile one-way scenic drive that takes you through rolling meadows with mountains views in the background.
Early settlers came to this area between 1811 & 1821 and left a wide variety of historic structures. You’ll find log cabins, churches, a gist mill, and more in this historic area. The working gist mill was really fun for the whole family to see.
The drive through Cades Cove is broken up into several stops along the way where you can get out and take a closer look at the structures. Watch the fields as you drive by to try and catch a glimpse of black bears.
Guide to Cades Cove – We found it helpful to have a guide to Cades Cove to understand better the history of the structures. You can purchase an inexpensive self-guiding tour booklet at the entrance to the Cove.
The other option we really like was an audio tour that we could listen to while we drove. The tour was broken up by each stop and explained each structure to us before we stopped. It made the drive and buildings much more meaningful.
We downloaded this app to our phones. It was great for the kids to listen to also.
Tips for Cades Cove:
**Give yourself 2-4 hours to complete this drive. In the summer months, it is more crowded and takes longer so give yourself even more time. Plus you will be getting in and out to view the buildings.
**From May to late September the drive is closed to cars on Wednesdays to allow for bicycles and hikers.
**Suggestion -Hike in the morning and do the Cades Cove drive in the afternoon when the kids are tired. This way they can rest and won’t be as crabby.
**Do not forget to bring snacks and water in your car. You won’t find much on the drive.
Don’t forget to grab your Free Printable Hiking Checklist
Junior Rangers Program
A great way to keep the kids excited about hiking in the park is by joining the Junior Rangers program. Kids ages 5-12 can participate in the program.
They buy a booklet ($2.50) by their age group from the visitor center and complete all the fun activities. When they’re done, bring it back to the visitor center and receive a badge.
I would suggest getting this booklet at the beginning of the trip as it does take awhile to complete.
Where to Stay – Cabins, Camping & Hotels
Gatlinburg TN Cabins
There are a variety of options for where to stay while in the Smoky Mountains. On our last stay, we rented a cabin in Gatlinburg, TN, which was great. We were in the mountains with great views and had tons of room for the whole family.
Plus a kitchen to make breakfast in the morning and pack lunches for the park. It’s the perfect home base for families while exploring the area.
There are tons of options for Cabins in the Gatlinburg area but we used Park Side Cabin Rentals and really liked it.
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Camping is another great option and you can stay in the park. How fun would it be to wake up in the Smoky Mountains! The park offers a variety of options and you can learn more here.
The last option is to find a hotel or resort in the area. Some suggestions I have are the Hilton Garden Inn located right outside the entrance to the park. We always find Hilton Garden to be a reliable hotel when we travel and love their free breakfast.
Another option is to stay in downtown Gatlinburg so you can walk to all the attractions. We like Bearskin Lodge on The River near Ober Gatlinburg.
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Things to Do in Gatlinburg TN
The town of Gatlinburg is right outside the entrance to the park which makes it a perfect base for visiting the park. This touristy town offers lots of activities for the whole family.
Just be ready to put on your tourist cap and dive into things like Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies with its cool underwater tunnel.
You will also find several restaurants and shops to buy souvenirs. Along the main downtown, strip are a few hotels that would be within walking distance of everything you’d need.
Another attraction in Gatlinburg is Ober Gatlinburg located in the downtown area. It’s a fun ski area in the winter and an Amusement park in the summer. The cool part is it’s all located at the top of the mountain.
Ride an aerial tramway from the town center up to the top where you will find a whole village filled with activities for the entire family. Hop on the chair lift to get even higher for spectacular views.
It’s a great way to spend the day or just a few hours. However, it is a pretty popular place so I’d suggest going earlier when it’s less crowded.
Learn more about Gatlinburg’s best family attractions – 7 Fun Things to Do in Gatlinburg TN with Kids.
Things to do in Pigeon Forge TN
Pigeon Forge is another touristy town close to the entrance to the Smoky Mountains. Here you’ll find tons of activities for the whole family.
Their main tourist attraction is the famous Dollywood Amusement Park. You will also find top attractions like miniature golf, go-karts, arcade games, laser tag, souvenir shops, ice cream shops, and an array of theater dinner shows throughout the town.
Another really fun attraction is the mountain coaster that will have you whipping through the mountain on a super fast coaster.
Pigeon Forge has tons of lodging options too. You can find lots of chain restaurants here also if your kids need something more familiar. We bought some cheap souvenirs from a store with a giant Shark door which the kids loved. But it’s all very touristy so just keep that in mind and go with it.
Are you ready now to explore the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park? With so many things to do in the Smoky Mountains, your family is sure to find something to love.
Do you have any questions or have you found another great spot to visit? Please share in the comments so we can all learn together. Make sure to check out what to do in Gatlinburg TN too.
More National Park Vacations with Kids
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