Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S.  Located within a day’s drive of half of the United States population, the park makes a wonderful natural getaway with easy access. The Great Smoky Mountains feature stunning natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and interesting history to appeal to travelers of all ages. Today, Sara Lesire, mom of two and founder of Midwest Nomad Family, shares the best tips for exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids. Whether this is your first time to the park, or your fiftieth, we hope this post will help turn your family vacation to the mountains one of your best trips yet! 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids

Tips to plan a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Embarking on an adventure to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with your little ones in tow promises to be a memorable experience filled with awe-inspiring landscapes, vibrant wildlife, and cherished family moments. Nestled on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, this enchanting national park boasts a unique blend of natural beauty and cultural heritage that appeals to visitors of all ages.

However, planning a successful and enjoyable trip with kids requires some preparation and research. In this comprehensive blog post, I’ll delve into a treasure trove of tips and tricks to help parents orchestrate an unforgettable visit to the Great Smoky Mountains, ensuring that both young explorers and grown-ups can fully immerse themselves in the wonders of this majestic wilderness. From interactive learning opportunities to family-friendly hikes and wildlife spotting, get ready to create lasting memories while fostering a deep love for nature within your children.

1. Best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains

The best times to visit the park are late spring through fall. Parts of the park reach elevations over 6,000 ft, which means winter can bring snow and closed roads. Early spring means fewer visitors but the weather can be cool and rainy. Late spring means abundant wildflowers, gushing waterfalls, and a chance to visit before the summer crowds arrive. Summer is the most popular and therefore, the busiest time in the park. The warmer weather means the option for water activities such as tubing, wading, and white water rafting. Fall is also a popular time with stunning fall foliage to view. 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids

2. Tips for avoiding crowds in the Great Smoky Mountains

As the most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountain National Park crowds are a constant problem. The parking areas at the most popular hiking trails and overlooks can fill up quickly, especially in the summer. If you are planning to visit a popular trail with limited parking, try to arrive as early as possible. If the lot if full, obey all no parking signs and do NOT park on the grass or roads without shoulders or paved pull-off areas.

On busy summer days, it can be best to seek trails and areas to explore that are more off the beaten path and further away from the tourist hot spots of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. 

3. Bring a map

Cell service in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is very limited. Bring along a paper map or download offline maps onto your phone (you can down trailmaps offline with the AllTrails Plus membership). The national park visitor centers can provide road and trail maps of the park. Google Maps also now offers maps of all national parks that you can download as an offline map. 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids

4. Prepare for changing conditions

The elevation within the park can vary by around 5,000 feet from the lowest valleys to the highest peaks. This means you could experience a 20-degree temperature difference when driving through or exploring the park. The weather can also change quickly at higher elevations and go from sunny and warm to cold and rainy in a short time.

It’s best to plan ahead for all the temperature changes by packing layers. Even in summer, a waterproof jacket is a good idea to bring along, especially if you’re doing waterfall hikes, as you could get wet! And a change of clothes to have in the car is always recommended (just in case). 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids

4. Pack a picnic

There are no restaurants within the park boundaries, and the visitor centers sell only limited snacks and drinks. It can be a long drive from the middle of the park back out to one of the nearby towns for a meal. It is best to pack a lunch, water, and plenty of snacks to explore the park with kids. There are numerous picnic areas within the park. 

5. Purchase a parking pass

While there is no general admission fee for visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there is a parking pass requirement. If you are parking in the park for more than 15 minutes, you must have a parking tag.

Parking tags can be purchased online in advance or at several park visitor centers or automated kiosks within the park. You can purchase a daily, weekly, or annual tag, which allows you to park anywhere within the park for that timeframe. 

6. Be bear aware

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is filled with wildlife, including deer, elk, turkeys, and more. This also includes a large black bear population. While attacks by black bears are very rare, be sure to talk to kids about how to react if you encounter one. Be sure to store and dispose of all food properly, and do not approach wild animals. 

Bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Where to stay at Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids

When it comes to finding the perfect place to stay at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with your kids, a range of options ensures that your family’s comfort and preferences are catered to. From rustic and charming cabins nestled within the woods to family-friendly campgrounds that invite you to experience the outdoors up close, the park offers accommodations that suit a variety of tastes.

LeConte Lodge

The only lodge inside the park is LeConte Lodge which sits atop Mount LeConte. The lodge is only accessible by foot, with several route options ranging from 5 to 8 miles each way. Advance reservations are required. 

Nearby towns

The nearby towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Bryson City offer an array of accommodations, from budget hotels to upscale resorts. You can also find an endless amount of cabins and vacation home rentals of all sized tucked away in the hills and valleys of the area.

Traffic can be an issue (especially in Gatlinburg), so be sure to choose your lodging location carefully to avoid being stuck in traffic. Some lodging locations can also be a longer drive from the more popular hiking trails in the park. 


There are many campgrounds in the national park boundaries that offer both tent and RV sites along with restrooms. However, there are no water, sewer, or electrical hookups within the park. Many campgrounds located just outside the park boundaries offer full hookups and more amenities. 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids

Best hikes for kids at Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great park to explore with kids. With over 800 miles of trails, there are many great options for all ages and skill levels. These are just a few of our favorite kid-friendly trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that we have found offer a great mix of scenery along with being suitable for younger ages. Keep in mind that most trailheads do not have restroom facilities, so plan accordingly!

1. Cataract Falls 

Cataract Falls is a short and easy waterfall hike. The trail is located right behind the restrooms at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. This hike is less than a mile roundtrip. The path crosses the creek over fun bridges and passes a cool hollow tree along the way to the 25′ tall waterfall. The waterfall is most impressive after heavy rain, but it is a pleasant hike any time. 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids Cataract Falls

2. Laurel Falls

The Laurel Falls trail is one of the most popular hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A 1.3-mile each-way hike leads to a beautiful 80-foot-tall waterfall. The parking area is fairly small, although there are plans to expand it. I recommend arriving before 8 a.m. in order to find a spot as well as to hike the trail with fewer people.

The path to Laurel Falls is mostly paved in order to help prevent damage to the trail. However, the pavement is buckled and damaged in spots making the path not very accessible or stroller friendly. 

The trail winds gradually uphill towards the falls. There are some interesting rocks and views along the way. While the trail itself is fairly easy, keep young kids extra close. There are dangerous drop-offs along one edge of the trail in sections closer to the end. This is another reason why I recommend hiking the trail early, as passing people going in the opposite direction along the drop-off sections can be trickier. Do not climb the rocks near the waterfall, which can be slick. 

Laurel Falls Smoky Mountains

3. Deep Creek Trail

The Deep Creek trail is located in the less busy North Carolina side of the park near Bryson City. You can see a total of 3 waterfalls on this 2.2-mile loop. For an even shorter hike, you can pick one of the two closest waterfalls to the trailhead and just hike to one or both of those. All three are beautiful, and the trail is fairly wide. If you visit in summer, you can even rent a tube and ride down the beautiful and clear Deep Creek. This is one of the few hikes on the list that does have restrooms near the trailhead.

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids

4. Middle Prong Trail

The Middle Prong Trail is one of my favorites in the Smokies. The trail follows an old railroad bed, so it is very wide, not too rough, and has a gentle incline. The trailhead starts right next to a rushing cascade as it crosses a bridge. Continue to follow the trail along the creek to see multiple waterfalls and cascades. The entire trail is 8 miles roundtrip, but you can just hike as far as you wish and return the way you came. 

Middle Prong Trail

5. Clingman’s Dome

What this trail lacks in length, it makes up for in steepness and views! Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the park and a very popular hike. The trail is paved but steep, so strollers are not recommended. If you can huff your way up the 0.5 climb, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the mountaintops. It’s a great place to take those iconic photos of the rolling hills. However, we have been here twice and have yet to see those views due to the common fog and clouds you can encounter at this elevation (they call it “smoky” for a reason). You can also find restrooms and a visitor center at the Clingmans Dome trailhead. 

Clingman's Dome fog

6. Look Rock 

If you are looking to escape the crowds at Clingman’s Dome, check out this alternative hike with great views. The trailhead is located on the scenic Foothills Parkway. The paved 1-mile round trip trail is paved and less steep than Clingman’s. The trail leads to an overlook tower with great views. Use caution with kids, as the wall around the overlook is not as tall as I would like with kids. 

Look Rock Tower

7. Grotto Falls

This 2.8-mile round-trip hike is longer and a little tougher than Laurel Falls but without the steep drop-offs. The trail leads to a 25-foot tall waterfall that kids can even walk behind. The trailhead is located along the scenic Roaring Fork Motor Trail. Parking can be a little difficult, so it’s recommended to go early. 

8. Spruce Flat Falls

Spruce Flats Falls is a true hidden gem hike. The trail is well-developed, but it’s not on the official park map. The 2-mile round trip hike starts at the parking area of the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont. The trail is moderate due to the many tree roots on the path as well as the gradual climb up the hill and then back down leading to the waterfall. The water is generally shallow below the falls and a nice spot for kids to splash.  

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids

8. Alum Cave Bluffs

Alum Cave Bluffs is the toughest and longest hike on this list, but it’s also my favorite! This moderate hike gains 1,200 feet in elevation over 2.5 miles on the way to the dramatic bluff overhang known as Alum Cave. Along the way, the path follows a rushing creek and passes through a natural rock tunnel known as Arch Rock. This trail also offers great mountain views. Older kids may be able to press on to reach the summit of Mount LeConte by hiking an additional 2.5 miles past Alum Cave. 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains Alum Cave Trail

9. Gatlinburg Trail

The Gatlinburg Trail is one of only two trails in the park that allow dogs and bicycles. It’s also a good path for jogging strollers. The trail is 1.9 miles each way between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the town of Gatlinburg. The trail offers views of the river and the remnants of old home sites. It’s an easy hike for most kids. 

10. Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail

This is one of the only fully paved trails in the park. At only 0.5 miles round trip, it’s a great beginner hike for little legs and probably the easiest of the kid-friendly hikes on our list. 

Cade's Cove

More things to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids

While hiking is a popular activity in the Great Smoky Mountains, there are many other ways to explore this beautiful park. Whether you wish to enjoy the scenic views by car, explore by horseback, cast a line in a stream, or learn about the history of the region, there are endless activities for all ages and interests to enjoy.  Here are a few of the best things to do with kids in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids. 

1. Visit Cade’s Cove

Cade’s Cove is one of the most popular driving tours in the park. An 11-mile scenic loop offers access to hiking trails plus the chance to see wildlife and historic structures. About halfway through the scenic drive is a large parking area. This parking area offers access to a visitor center, restrooms, and several historic buildings to explore. 

The Cade’s Cove loop road closes to motor vehicles on Wednesdays from early May to late September. This is a great time to walk or bike the road without worrying about traffic. In the summer months, this road can get very busy. 

Cade's Cove with kids

2. Explore the Roaring Fork Motor Trail

This one-way 6-mile scenic loop is located close to downtown Gatlinburg. The drive is beautiful, with rushing creeks and lush vegetation hugging the roadway. There are also a few historic structures you can stop and view. 

Roaring Fork Motor Trail

3. Earn Junior Ranger badges

For a few dollars, you can purchase a Junior Ranger book at any of the national park visitor centers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Junior Ranger program is a fantastic way to learn about the area you’re visiting in a fun way for kids of all ages. The National Park Service just rolled out a cool new book for Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is actually completed as a family. We were very impressed with the activities in the book, and they were creative and fun for all of us. Once completed, the kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge. 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids Alum Cave Bluffs

4. Visit a ghost town

Not many visitors realize there is a historic resort ghost town located right within the national park! Located in the Elkmont area, the restored Daisytown is a must-see. Visitors can explore inside old cottages when this area was once a popular resort town. When the national park was created, residents were eventually forced to leave. Many of the remaining decaying cottages were torn down, but the park service decided to keep and restore 19 of the structures. 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains Daisytown

5. See a “troll bridge”

Another fun area to explore in the Elkmont area is the old stone troll bridge. This bridge is located just off the Little River Trail. A few hundred feet down the path from the trailhead, keep an eye out for a gravel trail on your right. A short way down this gravel path, you will see the stone bridge on your left. The bridge is left over from the resort days and appears like something out of a fairytale. 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids

6. Drive Newfound Gap Road

Newfound Gap Road is the main road through the park. The road connects the towns of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina. The road offers access to many popular park trails and numerous stunning mountain overlooks. Kids will also love riding through the tunnels along the route!

Don’t miss stopping at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center along the way. This visitor center has great exhibits about the history of the park. Just outside the center, a short trail leads to the Mountain Farm Museum, complete with several old farm buildings. 

Newfound Gap Road

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains Newfound Gap Road

7. Horseback riding

There are numerous stables in the area that offer horseback rides along trails into the national park. Exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on horseback with your kids is a really unique way to create lasting memories. You’ll be able to access breathtaking vistas, meandering streams, and lush forests that you can’t from a hike or drive. Be sure to check minimum age and height requirements for trail rides if you have small children. 

8. Go fishing

Fishing is allowed in all streams at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park’s clear and sparkling streams are teeming with native trout, providing an ideal setting for young anglers to cast their lines and experience the excitement of catching fish. The park even protects one of the last wild trout populations in the eastern U.S. 

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains with kids

9. Visit the aquarium

In case you have a bad weather day but still want to connect to nature, check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in downtown Gatlinburg. While the aquarium is a little pricey, it is large and impressive, with different areas such as a shark lagoon, coral reef, tropical rainforest, and even penguins. It also has the longest underwater viewing tunnel that I have ever seen and a giant playground structure for kids to climb through. 

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

10. Watch a sunrise or sunset

There is nothing like watching the misty glow of the mountains at sunrise or sunset. For sunrise, try the Newfound Gap or Oconaluftee Valley Overlooks. Several overlooks along the Little River Road near the Laurel Falls trailhead also offer great sunrise views. 

A few good spots to view a sunset are the Morton Overlook (near the Morton Tunnel), Newfound Gap, or one of the overlooks along the Foothills Parkway.  If you don’t mind a short hike, Clingman’s Dome and Look Rock Tower over great views at both sunrise and sunset. 

sunrise Great Smoky Mountainssunset Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids

One visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and you will understand why this nature oasis is so popular. With the park located close to destination towns full of food, lodging, and entertainment options, it makes a great way to explore outside while still having creature comforts for the kids. The stunning natural beauty offers amazing overlooks, wonderful hiking options, and endless recreation options. A visit the park also offers a great lesson in history as you learn and discover about the families who once lived and vacationed within the park boundaries. 

Nearby explorations

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is absolutely amazing, but the crowds can be intense and overwhelming. However, there is another option for exploring the Appalachian Trail with kids nearby that is family-friendly and way less crowded, with spectacular vistas and stunning wildlife. If you find yourself in Southern Appalachia, you may want to consider checking out the Roan Mountain Highlands. The Roan Highlands are quite simply a gem of the American Southeast and have something for families of all abilities. We have a great post filled with favorite sections of the Appalachian Trail to hike with kids and tips for exploring the Roan Mountain Highlands.

Who is ready to fall in love with the Smoky Mountains?

About the author

Sara Lesire has been married to her high school sweetheart for 17 years, and together they have two children. Sara spent many childhood hours outside on her grandparents’ farm and strives for her kids to have similar carefree kid adventures. Based in the St. Louis area, she loves to share on her blog and social media all the scenic and fun places to explore around the St. Louis area and beyond. Hiking is the most popular activity for her whole family, followed by hitting up the best local playgrounds. Photography is also a passion of Sara’s, and she continues to be amazed at the natural beauty and wonder of God’s creation. When she is not hitting the trail, Sara works as a civil engineer.

You can find more from Sara online in the following locations:
Instagram: @midwestnomadfamily
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RWMC posts: Sara Lesire