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Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids overview
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the United States, with over 12 million visitors in 2020. The park, which doesn’t charge an entry fee, straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border and offers some of the most spectacular views in the Southeast.
We just returned from an amazing trip to the Smoky Mountains with kids, and we got to experience some of the best things the park has to offer. I’ve put together this comprehensive guide to visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park with kids including where to stay when visiting the park, the most kid-friendly hikes in the National Park, packing tips for hiking with kids, and other kid-friendly activities that we enjoyed.
Hopefully this guide is useful and you can use it to make the most of your trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids!
Where to stay to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The easiest place to stay near Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in the park itself, or in nearby Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, both of which are right outside the park.
There is only one lodging option inside the park and that is LeConte Lodge; since the lodge is only accessible on foot after a 5-8 mile hike, I probably wouldn’t necessarily recommend this option when visiting the Smoky Mountains with kids, but it is an option.
There are plenty of camping options in the park, however; you can find more information on camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park here.
We chose to stay in Gatlinburg, and this is a great option if you’re visiting with kids. Downtown Gatlinburg has some family friendly restaurants as well as plenty of other things to see and do. You can find hotels in Gatlinburg here.
We stayed at the Park Vista by Hilton, which was about half a mile from the main street in Gatlinburg, where most of the restaurants can be found. The hotel was just minutes from the National Park and we could walk into Gatlinburg to get dinner (granted, it was down – and then back up – a very steep hill, but the option was there!) We loved the hotel and would definitely return.
My biggest piece of advice when looking for hotels in Gatlinburg is to find one within walking distance of the main street. There is zero free parking in Gatlinburg, with very few of the restaurants even having parking lots, and unless you want to pay up to $20 each time you go into town for dinner, it’s best to find a hotel as close as possible!
Pigeon Forge is the next town over, and although a little further from the park, it’s another great option for families with kids with plenty of restaurants and other things to do. You can find hotels in Pigeon Forge here.
Driving and parking in the Smoky Mountains
If you’re not used to driving in the mountains, then driving in the Smoky Mountains might be something of an adventure! Coming from Florida, I am used to very flat landscapes and the first time I encountered a mountain road, I discovered I wasn’t a fan. Last year I found out on a Miami to Key West road trip that I didn’t like driving over bridges, and it turns out I don’t like driving up and down mountains either!
My best tips for driving in the park is to take it slow if you’re not comfortable, pay attention to speed limits and warning signs, and use pull offs if you find a long line of cars behind you.
We did see a couple of near misses on our trip: two cars came around a corner too close to the middle of the road and clipped each others wing mirrors, and another car came down a steep slope too fast and barely made a turn (literally missing driving off the side of the mountain by mere feet!) So I’d definitely recommend being cautious, especially if the weather is windy or wet.
Parking in the mountains can also be a challenge. The popular trailheads get busy quickly, leaving people to find parking outside of the main lots. This can lead to some creative parking decisions, and we saw several cars stuck in mud or down steep embankments. Pay attention to no parking signs, they’re there for a reason, and don’t park anywhere dangerous; basically, just use common sense.
One other thing to mention about driving in the park is to prepare before you enter the park. There is obviously nowhere to get gas in the park, so make sure you have plenty before you enter – there are a couple of different gas stations in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge just a few miles from the park entrance.
Internet signal is also pretty much non-existent in most of the park, so figure out where you want to go before you enter and consider take a physical map with you (or pick one up at a visitor center).
Kid-friendly hikes in the Smoky Mountains with kids
Trail length: 2.6 miles round trip
Bathrooms at trailhead: No
Where to park: Laurel Falls trailhead, which is 3.5 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center headed towards Cades Cove.
Laurel Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the park, seeing upwards of 38,000 visitors every day during the summer months! Because of its popularity, it’s really recommended to get to this trail early in the day or later in the evening, not only to avoid crowds on the trail but to find parking without having to park miles down the road.
The trail is paved so it’s great for kids, although there are steep sections and sharp drops off the side of the trail so it’s not considered stroller friendly (and you might need to hold little one’s hands if they’re prone to not looking where they’re going!) It took us about an hour and a half to complete the trail, including a few minutes to take pictures at the falls.
Laurel Falls is an 80 foot waterfall that is one of the most accessible in the park. There is a bridge that intersects the falls about halfway down; you can cross the bridge to a small flat rock section to take pictures of the upper falls, or climb down to the lower section. It’s important to climb down the side of the falls, not down the rocks themselves as they can be unstable and slippery.
The climb down is fairly easy with older kids as long as you take it slow, but I think very young children would struggle; Harrison managed on his own, but Grayson needed some help.
Since parts of this trail are steep and there are some unshaded parts, definitely bring plenty of water. The hike is considered moderate to difficult, but I would say most kids would be able to manage it. Harrison was running up the trail like it was nothing, but Grayson’s smaller legs meant he went a little slower. Neither asked to stop though, and it ended up being me who asked to pause for a water break!
Bears can often be sighted on the trail, although this is much more likely in the early morning or the evening when the trail is quieter. Obviously the main advice if you see a bear is always not to approach them under any circumstances and never try to get them to approach you; stand still, and let the bear pass. Chances are they’ll just take a look at you and be on their way.
Trail length: 2.8 miles round trip
Bathrooms at trailhead: No
Where to park: Trillium Gap trailhead, which is on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail – this motor trail is a steep, narrow, winding, one way road that allows cars but not RVs or large trucks. The trailhead is at stop number 5 on the road.
Grotto Falls is another popular choice for hiking in the Smoky Mountains with kids. It’s less than three miles but has a little more difficulty than Laurel Falls due to the unpaved trail and slightly steeper sections. It’s not stroller friendly and smaller children might need a little help on the steeper parts.
The parking lot for this trailhead is very small, so most cars park off the side of the road. If you have to do this, please be courteous of the fact that the road is very narrow anyway, and it’s hard to squeeze between cars. Also be wary of parking in the mud or on very steep sections; we saw more than one car that was very stuck and needed help getting out!
Grotto Falls are 25 feet high, so not as dramatic as Laurel Falls, but they are the only falls you can walk behind. Be careful if you do this; it’s wet and slippery and while there’s not really anywhere behind the falls that you could get seriously hurt, I did see several people slip.
The trail has a number of fun elements that should keep kids engaged as they go. There were a few places where you had to step over streams or walk across stepping stones, there was an amazing fallen tree, and some smaller waterfalls as well. We also saw more butterflies on this trail than we did on any of the others.
Grayson struggled a little on this trail; we had to stop a couple of times for water and to rest his legs, but we went slowly and he made it in the end. It took us two and a half hours to complete this hike but we did stop for quite a while when we were at the falls for a small lunch since it was nice and cool there.
We did see people swimming in these falls, but it’s not recommended. These falls have quite a long run off and the water is very fast; the pool at the bottom of the falls also isn’t very deep with sharp rocks and tree roots at the bottom that could cause injury.
We sat on a rock and dangled our feet in, but I wouldn’t let the boys actually climb down into the water because of how fast moving it was.
Trail length: 1 mile round trip
Bathrooms at trailhead: Yes
Where to park: Clingmans Dome Visitors Center, which is at the end of the 7-mile long Clingmans Dome Road.
Note: Clingmans Dome is closed from early December to late March.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,643 feet. There is an observation tower at the end of the trail and on a clear day, visibility can stretch over 100 miles (although most days air pollution and clouds limit it to about 20 miles).
This is another very popular trail, and parking can be tricky during peak times. Unlike the other trails where you can park down the road if the parking lots are full, there is nowhere else to park here if there are no parking spaces so you might have to be patient.
We arrived at the trailhead at 8am and the parking lot was only about a quarter full. This is a great time to visit since crowds will be low, but it was pretty chilly (only 60 degrees) and early morning clouds meant our visibility wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. The visitor center is also not open until 9am so bring warmer clothing; there will be nowhere to buy a sweater or a jacket once you get up there.
Sunset is a very popular time to visit for spectacular views, but you’ll need to get there early for a parking space. The trail is also so steep that you’ll want to head back down as soon as the sun has set and light begins to fade.
Although this trail is paved and only half a mile to the top, it’s very, very steep (and not stroller friendly at all!) This was the only trail where we had to stop multiple times, and by the end of the trail I was physically pushing Grayson up the path! A lot of people we saw had hiking poles and that would be a really good idea to bring! Bring lots of water and be prepared to take plenty of breaks!
Once up at the observation tower, the 360 degree views are spectacular! We arrived to complete cloud cover (and two very disappointed children who had been promised amazing views once they reached the summit!) but as we waited, the clouds cleared and we were able to see more. It was actually amazing to watch the clouds move and the mountains become visible in the distance.
Trail length: 3/4 mile round trip
Bathrooms at trailhead: Yes
Where to park: Sugarlands Visitor Center, two miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
This is a very short trail from the back of the Sugarlands Visitor Center down to the small Cataract Falls. It’s a great starter hike for kids to get their feet wet (figuratively and literally!) with hiking in the Smoky Mountains before setting out on longer trails.
The trail starts out as a paved trail but turns to gravel fairly quickly and you’d struggle a bit with a stroller. There are bridges over little streams (that are very shallow and have slow flowing water, so great for kids to paddle in) and fallen trees to climb over. It’s a very kid friendly trail and even toddlers would probably be able to manage with supervision.
Cataract Falls stand at 18 feet high so not as impressive as Laurel Falls or even Grotto Falls, but perfect if you want to see a waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park without going on a longer hike. We arrived at the trail mid-morning and found it to be moderately busy, but crowds were definitely manageable.
My kids were taking part in the Junior Ranger program (read further down for more info on that) and were given a scavenger hunt to complete on the way down to Cataract Falls. This included things like different varieties of tree, insect, plants etc. that made the trail really fun for the kids and they paid much better attention to what was going on around them.
We also saw a few people using this as a running trail, so if you’re in Gatlinburg and looking for somewhere to run, this would make for a great, free option for somewhere to run with some pretty views.
Oconaluftee River Trail
Trail length: 3 miles round trip
Bathrooms at trailhead: Yes
Where to park: Oconaluftee Visitor Center, two miles from Cherokee, North Carolina.
On the other side of the park, closer to Cherokee than Gatlinburg, is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. This was the first visitor center we came across on our entrance to the park (driving north from Florida) and it has a fantastic, easy, stroller/bicycle/pet friendly trail just off the visitor center.
The trail begins at the visitor center and leads down to the outskirts of Cherokee. It’s a pretty flat trail for the most part, and the views of the river are fantastic. We walked for about half a mile before turning back, but we got to see some beautiful views.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center is also a great place to see historic buildings and learn more about the park and the history of the area. There are also a ton of wild chickens, which my kids were obsessed with!
The open fields around Oconaluftee Visitor Center also make for great places to see bears, elk, and deer. We saw a few deer in a field in the distance, as well as plenty of turkeys.
Cades Cove driving trail
Trail length: 11 miles
Bathrooms at trailhead: Yes
Where to begin the trail: Cades Cove road
Although this is a driving trail, I wanted to include it as a great kid-friendly trail for kids since they can stay in the car and just watch the scenery go by. My kids ate snacks and enjoyed the air conditioning on what turned out to be a hot day as they looked out across the valley. If you’re traveling with a baby or toddlers, this would be a great trail for them to take a nap!
There’s a few things to consider with this trail however. Firstly, it’s an 11-mile loop heading in one direction with one lane; there are one or two places where you can make an exit in the first couple of miles, but otherwise you’ve got to follow the trail round.
Traffic can be very heavy so it can be slow going. The trail took us three hours to complete (with just a short stop at the Cades Cove Visitor Center to use the bathroom and refill our water bottles.). Definitely use the bathrooms before you start the journey, make sure you’ve got water and snacks with you, and be sure you have a few hours to spare.
The trail can be steep and winding in places, and there are pull-offs dotted around so you can pull to the side if you need to. If you’re trying to look at the views or spot wildlife, or even if you just want to slow down a bit, pull to the side to let other cars go by.
Cades Cove is the best place to see wildlife during the day. Bears, elk, deer, and turkeys are very commonly seen in the fields in the valley, although you have to keep your eyes peeled for them. We didn’t see any bears, but we saw plenty of deer; one even walked across the road in front of us, so make sure you drive slowly!
Other activities in the Smoky Mountains with kids
Junior Ranger badge at Sugarland Visitor Center
If you’ve never completed the Junior Ranger program in the National Parks then you’re missing out! It’s an amazing program designed to get kids engaged and interested in the park through completing different activities, and at the end, kids can earn their Junior Ranger badges.
We first took part in this on our trip to Everglades National Park and were very excited about taking part in the Smoky Mountains !
We picked up our Junior Ranger packets at the Sugarland Visitor Center, which is the closest to Gatlinburg. There are different packets depending on the age of the child, but supplies were low when we were there since the park was so busy and we settled for two of the 7-8 year old packets. You don’t have to complete all of the activities in the packet to earn your badge, but a good portion of them.
One of the activities listed in the packets we had was to complete a Park Ranger led program, but those are currently not operating so instead, the kids were given a scavenger hunt to complete.
The scavenger hunt included several items to find on the trail towards Cataract Falls, as well as a place to complete a leaf rubbing, to draw an imaginary creature they thought might live in the park, and to write about something special they saw. My kids absolutely loved this!
Looking for things as part of the scavenger hunt meant that we all took much more notice of our surroundings as we walked along the trail. We noticed different types of trees and plants, looked down at the ground to find different insects, and were just generally much more engaged. We were also encouraged to take photos of the things on our scavenger hunt and it means I’ve got much more interesting photos that I would normally have!
Once the packets were completed, we turned them back in to a Park Ranger, who asked the boys to talk her through the activities they’d done and to tell her what they’d learned. They were both so excited to tell her about everything they’d seen and to correctly answer her questions, it was wonderful to see that they’d taken in so much.
They then took a pledge to protect the National Parks and teach others about what they’d learned, and received their badges. Now we’re home, their badges are in pride of place with their Everglades ones, and they can’t wait to earn more! This was honestly their favorite activity for in the Smoky Mountains for kids, and I can’t recommend it enough.
While you’re at the visitor center, don’t forget to stamp your National Parks passport and your kids Junior passports. Each of the visitor centers have different stamps, so be sure to collect them all!
Newfound Gap is where Franklin D. Roosevelt first established Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1940. It also sits on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, and has some fantastic views over the mountains.
We passed by Newfound Gap on the way both in and out of the park, and stopped to take pictures of the state border signs in both directions (one side of the sign says North Carolina/Tennessee, the other says Tennessee/North Carolina). It’s a fun place to take pictures; people did cute things like stand with one foot in each state, or put their kids on different sides to them.
Parking here can get crowded, but since the only real things to do are admire the view or use the bathrooms, people tend to move on quickly. We came upon a full parking lot but waited just a few minutes and a spot opened up.
Carlos C. Campbell overlook
This was one of my favorite overlooks in all of the park, and it’s literally minutes from Gatlinburg.
We took some amazing photos from the top of the mountains, but this overlook is lower and down and I think you get a better scale of the mountains from this vantage point.
It’s also a great place to stop if you want a photo with the mountains framed in the background, but your kids are very little and you’re nervous to let them stand close to a sharp drop at a higher overlook.
Swimming in the river
There are lots of places to paddle and even swim in the Smoky Mountains with kids, and I’d definitely recommend packing a bathing suit and towels when you head into the park.
Obviously you need to use caution when choosing where to swim. Some areas have very fast flowing water that travels over rocks, and the current can be pretty strong. We happened across the place we went swimming by accident, but it was the perfect place; shallow areas for paddling, little rock pools full of fish, and some deeper areas you could actually swim.
Our specific location was on Townsend Entrance Road, by the Chestnut Top trailhead; if you want to put the exact location into Google Maps, it’s listed on there as Middle Prong Little River parking. There was plenty of parking here, and lots of shade as well.
Considering we live in Florida and have access to hundreds of beaches, pools, and natural springs, I was surprised my kids were so excited to paddle in a freezing cold river, but they loved it! Especially in the summer when temperatures can climb, this is a great way to cool off and rest weary feet after a hike.
Hiking with kids: tips and what to pack
Let me start by saying that I am by no means an expert when it comes to hiking with kids; we live in Florida and there are zero mountains to go hiking in! But I did some research beforehand, and I thought I’d share what we packed that ended up being really useful during our trip to the Smoky Mountains with kids.
- Backpack – first things first, make sure you have a good quality, comfortable backpack to carry all of your belongings in. I’ve had this Osprey backpack for years and it’s always held up really well; it’s durable, lightweight, and comfortable enough that I can wear it for hours and it doesn’t dig into my shoulders.
- Change of clothes – I packed a complete change of clothes for both of the kids, as well as an extra pair of socks for all of us. The kids ended up needing the changes of clothes twice (once when they basically got into a waterfall and then complained that they got wet, and once when we got caught in the rain) and the extra socks got used every day!
- First Aid Kit – I didn’t want to go overboard and pack a mobile hospital or anything like that, but I did pack the basics: Band-Aids, Neosporin, alcohol based wipes, sterile gauze, tweezers, and pain relief. You can put one together yourself, or buy a premade first aid kit if that’s easier.
- Plastic bags – we brought old plastic bags with us for things like packing up trash on a trail until we could find a trash can, and wrapping up wet clothes.
- Wet wipes – to be used for anything from wiping down cuts after a fall (Grayson seemed to trip and fall every few minutes), to cleaning muddy hands before eating, to wiping down sweaty faces. I used these biodegradable wipes.
- Sunscreen and bug spray – both are absolutely necessary on the trail, especially in the summer! Sunscreen and bug spray can be safely used together, and the CDC recommends applying the sunscreen and then the bug spray.
- Reusable water bottles – we travel everywhere with our reusable water bottles, and carrying plenty of water on the trails was necessary! We filled our bottles in the morning before we left the hotel, and then refilled them at every visitor center.
- Snacks – traveling with kids under any circumstances requires a big bag of snacks, but especially on a hike. They’re needed to keep energy up and, in some cases, to be used as bribery to get kids to keep going! I packed things that didn’t have to be refrigerated: granola bars, dried fruit, whole wheat crackers, and – in case of serious bribery – gummy bears!
We absolutely loved our time in the Smoky Mountains with kids, and I’m pretty confident we’ll be back to visit again one day.