What To Do with Kids in the Smoky Mountains

When we found out we would be in Tennessee for a family conference, we were excited to experience the Nashville area with both kids – but we also took advantage of the location and spent three days in the Smoky Mountains first!

Ever since getting a taste of Yellowstone four years ago, I’ve been slightly obsessive about experiencing the wondrous beauty of our country’s national parks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was so pretty, easy to get to, accessible and affordable – perfect for a family trip!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of all of the country’s national parks – and it was highly populated during our summer trip! That’s not surprising, though – it’s easily drivable for much of the eastern, southern and midwestern U.S. And there are no entrance fees to get into the park itself.

The Smokies are also extremely kid-friendly and motor-friendly, which is a huge selling point for families, especially those with mobility issues or other special considerations. We knew if it was too hot for our daughter Brenna (since she is unable to sweat and has trouble with extreme temperatures), we could still enjoy much of the beautiful scenery from our air-conditioned van!

We packed in as much as we could during our three days and really lucked out with the weather – it rained some but wasn’t overly hot, despite being late June.

So, what to do with your family in the Smoky Mountains? Here are the highlights of our trip and what I have been recommending to other families…

Visit Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a really neat 11-mile, one-way loop through the west side of the park. Driving it took about 2 hours, though, because it was bumper-to-bumper traffic for most of the way – plus we took our time and stopped several times. We got out and ran around, we explored the historic homes, and we climbed up in a 150-year-old barn. We even got to see a black bear munching on blackberries!

In the early 1900s, there were about 125 families living in Cades Cove, so today, you can get a feel for how this time period by touring their homes and churches. The Cable Mill area is really neat, with a blacksmith shop, barn, smokehouse, mill and dam, and more. Unfortunately it was pouring when we drove through; otherwise we definitely would have stopped here! 

Go to Clingman’s Dome

I really wanted to see a sunset from a peak in the park, so we headed to the highest point in the Smokies one evening: 6,643 feet of elevation at Clingman’s Dome. We totally didn’t plan for the big temperature change (rookie mistake), and between the temp drop and the wind, it was SO cold when we got to the top!

But despite the chill, it was so worth it. Being at Clingman’s Dome seriously felt like standing at the top of the world. Connor said it is his favorite part of our Smokies trip.

Once you drive up, there is a parking lot, which is as high as the kids and I made it. But there is a 360-degree observation tower you can walk up to that Evan trekked without us. It is really steep to walk the half-mile up and down, but on a clear day, you can reportedly see for 100 miles!


Drive Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Right past Gatlinburg at the edge of the park, there is a 5.5-mile, one-way nature trail you can drive through (yay for more drivable park scenery!) Some of this area was destroyed in the park fires several years ago, but new growth is already noticeable. It’s a really quiet and peaceful drive. Probably the most popular attraction is a hiking trail off the road, Trillium Gap Trail, that leads to Grotto Falls – a waterfall you can walk behind.  There are also  streams, log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings, which provide really pretty places to stop and enjoy the woods!

Hike

The Smokies offer more than 800 miles of hiking on 150 trails! There are short trails and more intensive, longer trails, and even little paths along the river – so you don’t have to be a dedicated hiker to enjoy the scenery. Be sure to stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in TN or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in NC for a trail map. We loved spending some time along the trails in the shade of the trees.

Visit Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg is the nearest town to the park and is a hot spot for tourists. We spent a rainy afternoon here at the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which a really neat attraction and the kids loved it. We really wanted to ride the tram at Ober Gatlinburg too, but it wasn’t open because of the rain!

Picnic

We seriously didn’t eat out one time while staying in the Smokies (besides a takeout pizza!) When we arrived, we went to the grocery store and stocked up on picnic-friendly foods. Each day, we packed up sandwiches, etc. so that we could enjoy our meals outside. The picnic area at the Sugarlands Visitor Center is really nice, or you can just find a cozy spot along a creek (be sure to pick up all trash and be aware of your surroundings – there are bears!)

Play at the creeks

There are beautiful streams and creeks all over the park! It was really easy to find an area to pull off the road, so we could get out and get closer to the water. With little agenda besides enjoying the nature, it was enjoyable to stop and play in and near the waters and rocks. With the cool rocks and cool breeze coming off the water, it was a wonderful opportunity for Brenna to get to experience the raw of nature that sometimes she can’t due to heat.

(Warning, though: the water was quite chilly in June!)

Drive Newfound Gap Trail

Another drive I highly recommend is the Newfound Gap Trail, which starts from either Cherokee, North Carolina or Gatlinburg, Tennessee. During the drive, you ascend 3,000 feet and get to see such an array of forest. At an elevation of 5,046 feet, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Even the kids were impressed as we stopped to enjoy several lookouts – including this one where it rained the entire way until we came around a bend to see the sun breaking through…stunning!

Where to stay?  There are RV parks, hotels in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Townsend and other surrounding towns, and cabins to rent. We opted to stay in Townsend, which bills itself as the “peaceful side of the Smoky Mountains” – which was certainly true! We booked a cabin for our whole stay through Smoky Cabins, and it was wonderful.

I think Brenna’s favorite part of the trip was simply spending time out on the porch swing at our cabin (it was the first place she headed in the morning!)… enjoying the outdoors with a view of the mountains was just the ideal way to soak up the peaceful beauty of our family’s time in the Smoky Mountains!


Champion Ambassador Tour Comes to Close in Big Way

It was an early morning our last day in Florida with Children’s Miracle Network, but the kids were roused awake with the promise of a breakfast buffet and it did not disappoint. When Brenna went for seconds, she came back with a plate full of bacon!

Brenna was really excited, and a bit shy, about getting to meet Miss America at breakfast…

And then, Children’s Miracle Network had a surprise for us – they brought in all of the Disney characters! Everyone around us was laughing because Brenna just about jumped out of Evan’s lap with excitement when the characters waltzed in waving. 

After a filling breakfast and time with our favorite characters, it was time to gear up for the Big Finale – the Momentum Closing Ceremony hosted by Nick Cannon!

CMN broadcast the whole ceremony on Facebook Live to raise awareness about the organization and its mission to support children’s hospitals across the country. All of the major corporate sponsors, CMN staff, some hospital staff (like ours!) were there for the big event, and each of the state’s Champions were introduced and walked across a stage.

Brenna was so nervous leading up to her big stage entrance. I was a well of helpful information, trying to prepare her (walk carefully! speak loudly if Mr. Nick asks you a question!) and she was clinging to my leg, saying she wanted me to walk with her. But as we watched the other kids, she grew calmer about it, and when the 10-year-old girl from Indiana behind us began Facebook Live-ing it, Brenna was making goofy faces into the phone and forgot about her nerves.

They called her name, and she strutted up like a BOSS.

 

High fives and cheers! (the three people closest to her are from our local hospital!)

I was trying to videotape but had to turn it off. Not that I was crying or anything. No sir.

That wave. That smile.

I asked Brenna a few weeks after we returned from our trip how she felt when she walked on the stage at the ceremony. She smiled and said “special.”

Yes, my girl. Special indeed.

Nick Cannon was real pumped about Brenna’s purple kicks, which had light-up laces (a gift from our children’s hospital CMN team!), and then she got to give Miss America a hug at the end of the walkway.

After each of the Champion children was introduced and they ran through various promotional videos and activities, it was time to wrap it up, and all of the kids walked back across the stage as a group, giving high fives. They collectively sat on the walkway leading to the bigger stage, but Brenna was sauntering along with another little friend and they apparently didn’t feel like stopping with the group.

They walked all the way up to the presenters, and Marie Osmond pulled Brenna right into her lap! Marie is one of CMN’s co-founders, along with John Schneider,who played Bo Duke in Dukes of Hazzard.

Marie’s giving her loving squeezes and John’s rubbing her back, and Nick says “Let’s keep the applause going for Brenna and all of the Champions!” And it’s such a surreal moment for us, to think about how she’s grown from a critically ill infant to a now five-year-old child who, although she still has many daily health care needs and challenges, is learning how to step outside of her comfort zone and show the world her confidence in who she is as God made her.

And if that’s not enough, to top it off, Brenna got to wear the beautiful Miss America crown too!  She thought that was pretty cool – and pretty heavy!

I’m not sure I could truly recount the emotions and experiences of not only this trip but the entire year of Brenna serving as the CMN Champion Ambassador for Illinois. Not only have we gotten to experience and see so much, but working alongside the other families has transformed our hearts as we’ve gotten to hear their stories and learn their journeys. The experience has instilled in my children a deeper appreciation for what other people are living with, and they have had the opportunity to get to know children with a vast spectrum of conditions, backgrounds and differences.

It was a privilege to be entrusted to represent our state within this wonderful organization this year, and it was a privilege to be a part of this journey with all of these other amazing children and families. Thank you, Children’s Miracle Network, for this incredible opportunity!