Tennessee is home to one of the most beautiful places to visit in the country and many families bypass it for nearby popular tourism attractions. Don’t fall for that mistake! Instead, check out all of the fabulous things you can do when you visit The Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids. It is one of the most visited parks in the country because it’s a great place to camp, hike, and explore nature, especially for families.
Even if you are visiting nearby Pigeon Forge, Tennessee you’ve got to save one day (at least) for a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is only a short drive away from popular tourist attractions (like Dollywood), but it seems like hundreds of miles.
As soon as you hit the park, you’ll be left speechless by the sprawling forest and year-round blooms of wildflowers. There’s plenty of streams, rivers and hidden waterfalls just waiting to be discovered. You might even be lucky enough to see one of the park’s bears!
With so many great things to do, it’s the perfect park for families. You can plan a multi-generational family trip or a quick day trip. Here’s my list of the top things to do at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids.
Looking for more great National Parks to visit as a family? I’ve got you covered:
- 6 Breathtaking National Parks To Visit In The Winter
- 4 Florida National Parks To Visit With Kids
- Fort Frederica National Monument: Things To Do In St. Simons
Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park With Kids
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans across two states: Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s a beautiful drive, and the park is free to visit – which is rare for National Parks – so it’s a fantastic choice for a budget-friendly family vacation! If you’re planning a road trip (no matter the time of year), it’s a beautiful scenic drive with mountain views that seem never-ending.
When heading into the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s important to plan enough time to visit so you aren’t rushing. Even if you’re visiting for a day trip, plan on doing 2-3 things from my “must-do” list below. That way you won’t feel rushed to explore the whole park. It’s almost impossible to explore the whole park in day anyways.
In fact, the park is so large (#19 in size out of all of the National Parks), it’s best to divide your itinerary and conquer your favorite activity choices. Choose which side of the park you’ll be visiting first, then do one side one day and the other side the other day – or whatever works for you.
Best Time To Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park With Kids
The best time to visit the park is from April to October. The temperature never reaches over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but it dips to the 20s in the winter! If you’re driving into the park during the winter, be cautious. The mountain roads are twisty and turny, with inclines and declines, so plan enough time to get through them safely while enjoying the experience.
Each season offers its own bounty in the Great Smoky Mountains. If you want to see the flowering trees and wildflowers, Spring is your best bet. Summertime brings mountain streams and stunning forests. Fall is a wonderful time to hike and enjoy the Autumn colors, and winter brings different views because of the leaves no longer being on the trees.
How To Start Planning Your Great Smoky Mountains National Park Trip With Kids
If you’re driving into the park, plan on bringing a cooler full of snacks and water. So many of the park activities are physically exhausting and you’ll want the added energy or hydration. There are several entry points where you can easily access your family vehicle again and take breaks, if needed. With over 1,000 black bears living in the park, you want to store your food properly too – never leave any food out and unattended.
Plan on experiencing spotty cellular service once you’re inside the park. Many guests are surprised by this. Take your smartphone for the camera, but know that you probably can’t receive any texts or calls because cell towers aren’t nearby.
Lastly, this is one of the most popular National Parks. Some of the more popular park attractions, like waterfalls, could attract crowds depending on the time of the year. I like to make sure little ones (or kiddos with sensory issues) are prepared for this ahead of time, especially if large crowds or over-crowded parking lots tend to stress them out.
Plan For Plenty Of Walking And Areas Without Stroller Access
If you’re bringing littles ones that can’t walk long distances, you want to plan back-up options for the areas that aren’t stroller-friendly. Want to bring a stroller anyways? Bring an off-road jogging stroller that offers great suspension. You don’t want to be caught with a folding umbrella stroller on these mountain trails.
An option that’s better than the stroller is using a backpack carrier for your kids that aren’t able to walk the park. You can transport them throughout the park, with ease, and can access the areas that don’t allow strollers. Pro tip: practice hiking, with your child in the backpack carrier, at home before your trip.
Check Out The Park Visitor’s Center
The first thing you should do on your trip is stop by the Visitor’s Center. The volunteers and Park Rangers have a wealth of information they can share. Want to see the beautiful wildflowers? What about the most picturesque spots? They will help you with all of your planning. This can also help you narrow down your itinerary if it’s jam-packed.
Plus, there’s a film you can watch that dives into the history and information about the park, which can be educational for kids and adults alike.
Don’t forget to pick up your Great Smoky Mountains National Park Junior Ranger Program book. Kids can complete activities in the park to earn their Junior Ranger badge. They absolutely love these hands-on activities and it’s educational too.
Family-Friendly Hiking & Trails At Great Smoky Mountains National Park
If you’re planning some family hikes, come prepared with the proper gear. Don’t be afraid to ask, at the Visitor’s Center, which path is right for your family. Consider your children’s ages and endurance level. Park Rangers can tell you the difficulty of the trails, what you can expect to see, and even how long it takes (on average) to complete the hike.
Off the main park, you’ll drive another seven miles to reach Clingman’s Dome. It’s the highest point in the Smokies, at over 6,600 feet. Even though this hike is steep, it’s only about a mile round trip. It’s also paved and rated as kid-friendly since you can use a stroller. The panoramic views, along with the wildlife and wildflowers, are second to none – and worth every steep step!
Want the best view when you get to the top? Plan this hike on a clear day, when the local fog isn’t bad. You won’t get the best views if it’s rainy or foggy. This will also give you the best opportunities for fantastic photos.
Up for more of a challenge? Cades Cove is a 11-mile one way loop that takes several hours to complete on foot, or 2-ish hours by bike. The park has designated days where vehicles aren’t allowed in the area – check the park event calendar on your visit. That’s the best time to visit if you want to bike this popular attraction.
When visiting Cades Cove, you’ll see a variety of historic buildings, including a working corn mill, barns, churches, and log houses built in the 18th and 18th centuries.
Grab the self-guided tour booklet at the entrance to the loop road to learn more about the history of Cades Cove. If you go early enough, you may be lucky enough to see wild turkeys, elk, and deer.
The Easiest (And Shortest) Hikes For Young Kids
If you have kids who aren’t able to take long hikes, it’s best to pick a shorter route. You can always add onto your hike if they’re up for more. You can always do an “out and back” path versus a full loop too. Check out these beginner hikes to do:
- Kephart Prong Trail (4 miles round trip)
- Porter’s Creek (2 miles round trip)
Hiking Trails With Waterfalls
Just a quick peek at Instagram and you’ll see that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has some of the most beautiful waterfalls to photograph. You can’t leave the park without a family photo in front of one! They might feel hidden, but they aren’t too far out and you can plan them into your family hikes.
If you’re determined to see a Smoky Mountain waterfall, you’ll enjoy these trails:
- Abrams Falls: 20 foot waterfall, 3-4 hours for the round trip hike
- Hen Wallow Falls: 90 foot waterfall, 3-4 hours for the round trip hike
- Rainbow Falls: 80 foot waterfall, 3-5 hours for the round trip hike
Best Family-Friendly Hotels Near Smoky Mountains Park
There is only one lodging choice inside the park and that is the LeConte Lodge – which is only accessible by foot. In my opinion, that doesn’t make it the most family-friendly option because kids tend to have lots of gear. It’s also closed during the winter months, which makes it difficult to book.
The surrounding areas will offer the biggest range of lodging options for families. Plan to stay nearby in Bryson City (North Carolina), Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge or Sevierville. These cities offer family suites, a wide range of highly rates and even RV options.
No matter what time of year you plan to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, your family is sure to have a memorable time. Find your little corner of peace, inside the park, and embrace the moment with your children. The days are long, but the years are quick and it’s never too late to plan a family vacation.