Going on a road trip through the Great Smoky Mountains is a must-do for families. You can practically feel your pulse slow as you follow the park’s 384 miles of blacktop, twisting through wildflower meadows and old-growth forests.
Along the way, you’ll see cabins and roadside waterfalls. You might spot elk or see a black bear. And you’ll definitely find remnants of 19th-century farm life: log barns and churches, smokehouses, and wooden bridges.
Why Visit the Great Smokies?
The Great Smokies is America’s most visited national park for a few reasons. First, the park is easy to get to compared to others that are more remote. It’s a one-hour drive from McGee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s also nearly smack-dab in the middle of the eastern part of the U.S. That means it’s within driving distance of a bunch of states and cities. It also happens to be beautiful, wild, and pristine.
A weekend trip is all you need to explore this sprawling park that straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. And it doesn’t cost much either. There’s no park entrance fee and a ton of free and inexpensive things to do with kids.
Last but not least, centering a family vacation around visiting a national park practically guarantees a good time. You can count on having awesome adventures in national parks. In the Smokies, it’s all about good, old-fashioned fun.
For all these reasons, we piled three generations in the car and left the city and suburbs far behind. If you go too, take this list with you – it’s some of my family’s favorite experiences:
#1: Catch a Firefly Show
Once a year, thousands of fireflies flash in unison making the park’s nighttime forest glow chartreuse. It’s a magical display that lasts about a week and falls somewhere between late May and mid-June.
There are only a few places in the world to observe synchronized fireflies, so this is a popular event. If you can be flexible about your vacation dates, then you should definitely apply for the required pass – about 8,000 of them are given out. The park posts firefly event information in the second half of April.
#2: Stand on a Mountaintop
To get to the highest peak in the park, you don’t have to have mountaineering skills. You don’t even have to own hiking boots or break a sweat. It’s as easy as driving the seven-mile detour off of Newfound Gap Road and the payoff is spectacular.
Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in Tennessee and from the ridge, there are endless views in every direction. Here, you’ll really get a sense of the scope of the mountains – layer after misty layer of bumpy green tops as far as the eye can see.
On a clear day, you can see out for 100 miles. The view from the parking lot alone is breathtaking, but a half-mile paved path leads to an observation tower. It’s a steep walk, but it has the best vantage point.
#3: Step on the Appalachian Trail
Talk about stepping back in time: The path for the famously long Appalachian Trail dates back to 1937, when the Maine-to-Georgia route was completed. Ever since then, avid backpackers have been setting out on life-changing journeys.
But let’s be real: Hiking the whole trail or even the 71 miles of it that run through the park isn’t for kids. For bragging rights though, you and your family can plant a foot on the trail and take a picture with the trail sign at Clingman’s Dome (the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail!).
#3: Hike to a Waterfall
Rivers and creeks run through the Smoky Mountains, tumbling down over rocks and creating more than 40 waterfalls in the park. Some you can see from the road. But most are at the end of hiking trails – a good incentive for kids to keep on trekking.
Among the tallest waterfalls in the park are Hen Wallow Falls, Rainbow Falls, and Juney Whank Falls. The trails to get to these waterfalls are moderately difficult and range from less than a mile to five miles round trip.
Get a two-for-one waterfall viewing on Deep Creek Trail. It’s great for families because it’s an easy 1.6-mile hike roundtrip and you can see Indian Creek Falls and Tom Branch Falls. Both have pools of water that you can splash in on a summer day.
The park’s most popular waterfall hike though is Laurel Falls Trail. The there-and-back path is paved, under three miles and although the park says it’s moderately difficult, I would say it was relatively easy. My kids (ages 6 and 8) handled it with no problem. The bonus was getting to see a black bear cub hanging out in a tree by the path. (The Great Smokies have a large black bear population so it’s common to see them. But keep your distance.)
#4: Have a Picnic
The perfect place for a picnic lunch or a snack break is at Chimneys Picnic Area. Bench tables and grills are set up near Little Pigeon River. The best part about hanging out here is that the riverbed is filled with huge boulders you can climb on. My kids would have spent the entire afternoon scrambling over them if we had let them. It’s also a great place to take a family picture right in the middle of the river.
#6: Explore Life in the Olden Days
Think kids can’t handle museums? You haven’t been to the park’s Mountain Farm Museum then. You don’t have to keep your voice down or read a thousand placards to understand the significance of something. At this farm turned outdoor museum your kids can run wild and learn about daily life in the 1800s.
There are nine historical structures you can peek into including a two-story, furnished farmhouse, a henhouse, and a smokehouse. In the summer, it turns into a working farm. You can find tomatoes and squash growing in the garden, animals in the field, and costumed workers doing demonstrations of old-timey activities. Be sure to swing by the blacksmith shop and see if you can make a dinner bell to take home.
You can also meander along the 1.5-mile Oconafultee River Trail that starts behind the museum. It’s a stroller-friendly, gravel path along the water.
#7: Spot Salamanders
Did you know that the Great Smoky Mountains are the best place on earth to spot salamanders? Known as the “Salamander Capital of the World,” the Smokies are home to 30 different species that like to hang out near creeks, streams, and waterfalls.
These amphibians range in size from the one-inch pygmy salamander to the hellbender, who can grow to over two feet long. Salamanders are most active at night, but you can find them during the day if you turn over rocks and logs in water or near wet areas. Your kids will get super excited if you happen to see a flashy black-chinned red salamander, which is pretty common in the park.
You can look for salamanders near any water. But the Kephart Prong Trail is especially good since the four-mile path runs along a creek. Plus, kids will enjoy crossing four log bridges and seeing relics from a 1930’s logging camp, including a stone drinking fountain.
#8: Explore Downtown Gatlinburg
Walk along Parkway – Gatlinburg’s main drag – and you’ll see no end of touristy delights, especially for kids. They can play in arcades and choose their favorite sweets at candy shops. Give your kids some souvenir cash and watch them scour the stores in search of that perfect something to take home.
You might want to pop into Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium or their aquarium that’s just off of Parkway. But street performers playing bluegrass music and clog dancing may be all the entertainment you need.
#9: Ride a Horse
The park’s shady woods and green valleys are perfect for a family horseback ride. There are three park-approved stables that offer surprisingly good prices for one-hour trail rides.
Smokemont Riding Stables has the most interesting trails. Their rides cross through creeks, go through tunnels and take you to hidden waterfalls. If your gang doesn’t want to saddle up, Cades Cove Riding Stables offers carriage and hayrides, too.
#10: Go for a Bike Ride
If you’ve done any research on Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ve likely heard of Cades Cove. It’s a serene, green valley surrounded by mountains. It’s arguably the most popular spot in the park.
Most people drive the 11-mile loop road to see it, stopping at old churches, log homes, and a grist mill from the first European settlement here around 1818. But the drive takes hours because there’s so much traffic.
A better way to see this special area of the park is to bike the loop. On Wednesday and Saturday mornings the road is closed to automobiles until 10 a.m. Only bicycles and pedestrians are allowed. You can rent bikes from the store at Cades Cove Campground and take your sweet time looking for early morning wildlife.
Kristi Valentini is a Detroit-based travel writer who has been featured in Redbook, Parenting, and Good Housekeeping. She’s the founder of Readymade Travel Plans, where you can get her awesome Great Smoky Mountains weekend itinerary for less than the cost of a margarita. You can also follow her fun on Instagram.