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!
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.
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!
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!