Did you know the most visited US National Parks is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? There is a reason for this it is absolutely beautiful and 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 Smoky Mountains from cool hikes, the Appalachian Trail, Cades Cove driving tour, climbing Clingman’s Dome, Pioneer History and more. Plus the touristy towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to visit. Follow along with me to learn the best things to do in Smoky Mountains with kids.
Top Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Map & Entrances
The great part about visiting the 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 Visitor 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. You will find 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 hotel and cabin options plus many restaurant choices. Read more about Gatlinburg below.
Entrance Fee – Unlike most National Parks there is no Entrance fee to the Smoky Mountains. Yeah!
Things to Do in Smoky Mountains
Visit the Visitor Centers
First things 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 daily activities. You will also find bathroom facilities at all the centers.
While at the visitor center check out the exhibits. Each site has different exhibits on nature, the park and southern mountain life & culture. This will give everyone a better idea about the park history and what they are going to see while visiting. Plus the kids will enjoy it.
Ranger- Lead Tours
While at the visitor centers make sure to find out the daily schedule for Ranger-lead tours. They have a variety of options from learning about the local wildlife, hiking and learning about the people who lived in the area.
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 are 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.
Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park
While you are visiting the park you have got to get out and do some hiking. There are tons of options to choose from based on your family’s ability. While at the visitor center talk to the Ranger about the best options for your family.
Cataract Falls trail is an easy and fun hike for families. It’s located right behind the Sugarland Visitor Center making it easy to get to with the kids. Plus you are rewarded with a Waterfall at the end. If you enter through the Gatlinburg entrance this is a great first hike to get the kids excited about the park.
The Appalachian Trail was originally a footpath that was changed into hiking trails in the 1920’s and now runs from Maine to Georgia. The whole trail stretches 2, 200 mile 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.
Newfound Gap 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 beautiful view 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 tower where you get amazing views. 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 wheel chair 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. There are also bathroom facilities. Lastly bring a jacket with, as it is significantly cooler and often damp on the walk up to the top.
Historic Structures in the Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains National Park has one of the best collection of historical 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 for the whole family. Kids will love seeing how people use to live and where they went to school.
One of the best places to explore Pioneer History in the park is the Cades Cove loop. This 11 mile one way scenic drive takes you through rolling meadows with mountains in the background. Early settlers came to this area between 1811 & 1821 and have left a wide variety of historic structures. You’ll find log cabins, churches, a gist mill and more. The working gist mill was really fun for the whole family to see. The drive is broken up into several stops along the way where you can get out and take a closer look at the structures.
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. Or what we like is 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: 1.Give yourself 2-4 hours to complete this drive. In summer months it is more crowded and takes longer. Plus you will be getting in and out to view the buildings. 2. From May to late September the drive is closed to cars until 10 am to allow for bicycles and hikers. 3. Suggestion -Hike in the morning and do the Cades Cove drive in the afternoon when the kids are tired.
Junior Rangers Progam
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 a little bit to complete.
Where to Stay in the Smoky Mountains
Gatlinburg TN Cabins, Hotels and Camping
There are a variety of options of 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. There are tons of options for Cabins but we used Park Side Cabin Rentals. I receive nothing for you staying here, just letting you know a place we liked on our visit. Another perk of a cabin is getting a break from all the tourists areas.
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. Last option is to find a hotel or resort in the area. The towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge both offer tons of options and are close to the entrance of the park.
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. You will also find several restaurants and shops to buy souvenirs. Along the main downtown strip are a few hotels that would be in walking distance of everything you’d need.
Another attraction to Gatlinburg is Ober Gatlinburg located in the downtown area. It’s a fun ski area in the winter and Amusement park in the summer. The cool part is it’s all located at the top of the mountain. Ride an Ariel Tramway from the town center up to the top where you will find all kinds of fun family activities. A great way to spend the day or just a few hours.
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 attraction is the famous Dollywood Amusement park. You will also find miniature golf, go-karts, souvenir shops and an array of theater shows throughout the town. Pigeon Forge has tons of lodging options too. You can find some 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.
Are you ready now to explore the beautiful Smoky Mountains? With so many things to do in 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.
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