Great Smoky Mountains NP: 10 Things to See & Do w/ Little Kids
We recently took a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We arrived on a Friday, late evening, and left for home on Monday afternoon. That gave us two full days, plus half the day on Monday, to explore, play, and hike. We could have spent more time there, but for the time we had, we saw and did A LOT!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 520,000 acres spanning through Tennessee and North Carolina. That is over 800 square miles of National Park! AND, it is free to get in! Most National Parks have a fee to enter the park, but this one did not. So. Awesome!
The park was established in 1934, saving the area from commercial logging threat. The area was also home to the Cherokee Indian Tribe for centuries before the European settlers took their lands and forced them to leave. Those who weren’t forced to leave, known as the Eastern Cherokee, stayed and their descendants now live on their reservation in the town of Cherokee on the southeastern side of the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has four different visitor centers, which kind of splits the park into four different areas; Cades Cove, Sugarlands, Clingmans Dome, and Oconaluftee. During our time in the park, we spent it in three of the areas; Sugarlands, Clingmans Dome, and Cades Cove. With the park being so large, we visited each area on it’s own day, to break up the amount of driving and having to make the kids sit in the car for long amounts of time.
We were there the second weekend of October, and the weather was perfect! Jackets were required only if you wanted them in the late evenings and early mornings, but other than that, it was t-shirt and shorts temperatures without the crazy heat! We did get some rain, but it came and went and never really messed with any of our plans.
Also, the fall colors were beginning to come out, which made for some gorgeous scenery! When we popped into the Sugarlands Visitor Center for maps and trail info., one of the park rangers told us the fall colors have been less than usual this year. This is because of the fire that occurred in 2016, the worst fire in the Smoky Mountains in over a century. He told us, the trees are trying to recover and have gone into “sleep mode” essentially to survive. The colors, which are usually much more vibrant and include reds, oranges, yellows, and browns, were less than previous years but still quite a sight! Pictures will not do justice to what we were able to see.
There are a lot of great hiking trails throughout the park, but we found most of them were much longer than we cared to make our kids walk. If it had been just the Hubs and I, we would have hiked everything! Ok, maybe not everything, but most everything! You can click here to find a list of hikes, plus links to other things to do/visit, in the park.
That being said, there was plenty to do WITH the kids! We hiked, explored and saw some pretty cool stuff. Everyone had a good time, and we were busy all weekend.
Here are our 10 things to see and do with kids in Great Smoky Mountains National Park…
1. Newfound Gap Road
Saturday afternoon, after relaxing in the hotel all morning, we ventured into the park by starting with a drive on the Newfound Gap Road. It was the perfect introduction to the beauty of the park.
As a 31-mile, paved road, it is the only route over the Great Smoky Mountains, and connects Gatlinburg, TN with Cherokee, NC. About half way between the two cities you will reach the road’s highest elevation at 5, 046 feet. Here you will find a parking lot for Newfound Gap, which is a low point in the mountain range, and is great for picture taking and getting a glimpse into Tennessee and North Carolina, because it straddles both states.
And, it’s like standing in two places at once!
Walking up some stone steps will put you high enough to get an excellent view for miles and miles into both directions- North Carolina and Tennessee.
*** Tip: Don’t wait to go in the afternoon! By the time we got to this spot, there were TONS of people. Morning would be much less crowded I bet. And, this would be a beautiful spot to catch a Tennessee OR North Carolina sunrise!
Here you will also find the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook parking lot and a spot to hop onto the famous Appalachian Trail.
2. Oconaluftee Valley Overlook
We were told, if we didn’t want to do anything, like hiking, but wanted to see some gorgeous views of the park and mountains, Oconaluftee Valley Overlook was the place to go. In the same location as Newfound Gap, this overlook gives you more views into the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains. A paved walkway takes you along the top edge of a sprawling valley that stretches for miles and miles in a sea of trees. The colors were breathtaking!
We spent some time taking pictures and walking along the path. The kids were enthralled by throwing sticks and acorns “into” the valley. Again, I would recommend coming to this spot earlier in the day. It was a little crazy with tourists!
3. Appalachian Trail
Hitting three stops in one is always a winner! While checking out the Newfound Gap and Oconaluftee Valley Overlook, make sure to take some time to walk on the famous Appalachian Trail!
As one of the longest, continuous footpaths in the world, the Appalachian Trail covers 2,150 miles and winds through 14 states from Georgia to Maine! The part of the trail through the Smoky Mountains is some of the most remote and difficult section of the trail, and it follows the Tennessee-North Carolina border for 70 miles.
We hopped on and walked the trail for about 50 yards before turning around. If we had kept walking for 1,972 miles we could have reached Katahdin, Maine, but we didn’t think the kids would have made it! Ha! But, now we can say we have been on the Appalachian Trail! The Hubs is already planning a guys trip to do the whole thing!
Little Miss was getting tired and refused to walk, but instead wanted to park it and collect every tiny rock she could find! We only made it 50 yards, because Hubs offered her a shoulder ride, and luckily she accepted it!
4. Clingmans Dome Road
Instead of continuing into North Carolina on the Newfound Gap Road, we turned and followed the states border along the Clingmans Dome Road. This 7-mile road leads to, and ends, at the parking lot for the Clingmans Dome trail.
The trail is a half-mile “walk” to Clingmans Dome Tower, but BE WARNED, although the trail is paved, it is VERY, VERY steep! We were all huffing and puffing by the time we reached the top. The kids needed breaks (and lets be honest, I did too!) multiple times along the way. Conveniently the trail has benches placed every 10 yards or so just for that reason. Although it was steep, our 5 year old was able to walk the whole thing and our 2.5 year old walked most of it, with occasional piggy back rides.
At the top, we reached Clingmans Dome Tower. Unfortunately for us, the tower is currently closed for renovations and we couldn’t do anything except stare at it. When open, the tower gives you the highest viewing point in the Smokies at 6,643 feet.
We were still able to see some fantastic views without being in the tower though! The entire hike up and down gave us time to take in the beauty of the mountains and surrounding area from a lofty elevation. If you have family members with asthma or other health issues be prepared for this trip up to Clingmans Dome, because the elevation will affect some people.
Just look at that view!!! And, the mountains really do look SMOKY! They are gorgeous.
5. Sugarlands Visitor Center
No trip to a National Park is complete without stopping by the visitor center (or in this park’s case one of the four visitor centers) for information and souvenir buying.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center is the closest park visitor center to Gatlinburg. It houses many plant and animal exhibits (the kids loved looking at them), a theater that plays a 20 minute movie about the park, and a bookstore for National Park memorabilia. The information desk is very informative and supplied with plenty of handouts and maps, and the rangers are more than glad to help answer any questions or give suggestions. You will find restrooms and drinking fountains, even vending machines, here as well.
Also, beginning at the visitor center are several short nature trails and ranger-led walks. We thought about doing the Fighting Creek Nature Trail and Cove Mountain Trail to Cataract Falls (both super short and easy), but the afternoon we were at the visitor center was the same afternoon we had some rain, and the kids were already done for the day anyway. But, these would be great options for little legs to wander and explore!
6. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Starting in Gatlinburg, the 5.5 mile road offers a scenic drive through a small section of the park. The road is very narrow and only flows one way, and no RV’s, trailers or buses are allowed. From this road you will find the trail to Rainbow Falls, Grotto Falls, and other pullouts for scenic viewing.
Being as this is part of the “old-growth” section of the park (meaning it wasn’t affect by the fire), the fall colors were blossoming into full display here! It was lovely and so relaxing. We stopped at a few pullouts to let the kids wander and explore. Bubs found a crevice to climb up and almost reached a small waterfall. It was the perfect amount of driving with the right amount of exploring for the kids to stay interested and involved.
7. Grotto Falls
Along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, you will find the trail head for Grotto Falls. A 3-mile round trip hike, takes you to a overhanging waterfall.
The awesome part about this waterfall is you can stand behind it!! The trail leads right behind the falls and out the other side. But, beware! The water is FREEZING! Great for hot days, but not so much on cool Fall days.
We were there on a Sunday afternoon and it was crazy busy. Everyone wanted a picture of the falls and I was lucky to snap this one with no one in it. But other than the crowd of people at the actual falls, the trail was clear and we were mostly walking with ourselves there and back.
We were told it was a VERY kid-friendly hike. The word VERY was used loosely, because it was much steeper than we expected, and had a lot of obstacles along the trail. Obstacles like small creek crossings, crazy tree roots, and lots of rocks. The 5 year old did great and had a lot of fun, but the 2 year old had to be carried most of the way. I would say it is family/kid-friendly, but is more on the difficult end for most kids. Just be prepared to take lots of breaks and possibly carry kids.
8. Cades Cove
This was my favorite part of our trip!
Cades Cove is located in the western end of the park with access during daylight hours. A one-way, 11-mile loop road takes you through a beautiful valley between the mountains.
This is the best area in the park to view all different types of wildlife!
We were told to get there EARLY in the morning. The later you go in the day, the busier and the more traffic there will be. It is one of the National Park’s most popular places to visit. Plus, all of the animals tend to be out and about early in the morning or closer to sundown. So, we woke up bright and early, left the hotel just after 6AM and made it to the entrance of Cades Cove a little after 7Am.
When you get there, make sure to grab a $1 Cades Cove Tour booklet at the Orientation Shelter right before entering the loop. It tells you all about the area and the different stops along the drive. The cove use to be home to early settlers and evidence of their lives is still here. You will drive past old churches, homes, barns, and a grist mill. The visitor center is about half way around the loop (the perfect timing for a stretch), and it is a great place to get out and look around on a self guided walking tour.
But, the best part of exploring Cades Cove was seeing all the animals! We were so lucky and got to see 3 stags, a lot of deer, dozens of wild turkeys, a woodpecker, and FIVE black bears! We saw a mama and her two cubs, another single bear RIGHT NEXT to our car on the side of the road, and another along the side of the road in a creek bed eating breakfast. It was amazing!
The kids loved Cades Cove! We let them unbuckle from their seats (we were driving 10 miles per hour most of the drive), and they were able to look for animals. Seeing bears was the highlight of our whole trip for them. They really liked exploring the visitor center area, too. They were able to see and walk through old settler buildings, and run around before getting back into the car.
9. Meigs Falls
On our way out to Cades Cove we passed Meigs Falls, so we stopped at it on our way back afterwards. A pullout takes you on a short walk to an overlook for a view of the falls. If you climb the stone stairs past the overlook, you will find another spot for a view of the falls, and also a trail leading to the left. We didn’t follow the trail, but it looked like a beautiful area to hike through.
Oh, how I love clear, rushing, mountain water!!
We LOVED Gatlinburg! We will be visiting there again, and hopefully soon!
This cute, little resort town is packed with things to do for ALL ages. Food, mini golf, museums, an aquarium, candy shops, and so much more! Every night of our trip, we enjoyed walking the main street and exploring the main things it had to offer.
Check out my post 8 Don’t Miss, Kid-Friendly Activities in Gatlinburg, TN for more details of our time there!
I encourage you and your family, no matter what your ages, to go explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park!! You will not be disappointed, that’s for sure.