Find your family’s adventure in the country’s most-visited national park.
More than 10.7 million people make their way to the Tennessee-North Carolina border to visit the country’s most popular national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cherokee described these mountains as shaconage, meaning “blue like smoke.” While there’s a natural bluish haze, air pollution, unfortunately, has also contributed to the park’s misty veil. These mountains don’t have the grandeur of ranges in the U.S. West, but the rolling hills thick with forests and hidden waterfalls are certainly inviting. However given that the park is a day’s drive from several metro areas, you will need to share her beauty.
Cost: Free; GSMNP is one of the few national parks that does not charge an entrance fee.
KidTripster Tip: Stop at one of the four visitor centers to pick up your child’s Junior Ranger book and return it completed for a Junior Ranger badge. Also, make sure to watch the park movie, so you’re primed for your visit.
What to do?
There are countless ways to explore the park - by car, bike, foot, and raft.
There are several auto loops that you can drive. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, is the most popular because of the many historic buildings and wildlife viewing opportunities. But if you're visiting on a Wednesday or Sunday, I’d recommend biking the loop. From sunrise until 10 a.m., the road is closed to vehicles, making it a safe and enjoyable family ride.
When I hike with my boys, we like to have a destination in mind. In the GSMNP, the chance to dip your feet in a waterfall provides all the incentive that my kids need. Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, and Rainbow are popular falls in the park, but nearly every hiking trail will pass by some kind of cascade. If you’re fit and ambitious, hike the strenuous, 4-mile (round-trip) trail to Chimney Tops in the center of the park for the best views. The hike includes a rock scramble at the end for added challenge.
One of the best ways to experience the Great Smoky Mountains is on the river. Two of the area’s rafting outfitters are located in Hartford, a 1-hour drive from the Sugarlands Visitors Center. You’ll want to dedicate at least a half day to this excursion; know that there are no trips on Sunday. With Smoky Mountain Outdoors (3299 Hartford Rd., Hartford), you can choose a guided trip based on desired length and thrill level. Teens will likely opt for the 6-1/2 mile Upper Pigeon River run with bigger waves and bigger drops than the 5-1/2 mile Lower Pigeon River trip. Lower River cost: Youth (3-8) $39.95; Adult $39.95; Upper River cost: Youth $45.95; Adult $45.95; $12-off online discount for both trips. A similarly-priced Upper River trip is offered by Rafting in the Smokies (3595 Hartford Rd., Hartford) for ages 8 and up, as well.
While summer is a convenient time for families to visit, the park is bursting with its full beauty in autumn. Fall colors peak in October, but try to avoid weekend visits because of the crowds. For a fall color report, click here.
Where to stay?
There are 10 developed campgrounds in GSMNP. If you’re traveling in a larger RV, I’d recommend Smokemont. Just off Newfound Gap Road, it has sizable spots but no hookups. It borders Bradley Fork, providing some nice spots for kids to play in the water, especially around the group camping sites.
LeConte Lodge (generally open mid-March to mid-November) is the only lodge in GSMNP and only accessible by foot, a 5- to 8-mile hike depending on the route, making it an unlikely choice for families with young children.
Alternatively, there’s plenty of hotel and campground choices in neighboring Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee or Cherokee, North Carolina.
GSMNP is a 3-1/2-hour drive from Nashville, a 3-hour drive from Atlanta or 3-hour drive from Charlotte.
A word about the mountainous roads inside of GSMNP: They are narrow and winding with blind curves and low shoulders. RVs and trailers are prohibited on some roads; others I wouldn’t recommend attempting. It’s critical that you consult a park map and the website before plotting your course. We did drive the Newfound Gap Road that cuts through the center of park easily in our 38-foot RV.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s RV.