The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the highest visited National park in the U.S. With over 816 square miles of beautiful Appalachian Mountains, it’s not hard to realize why. It has also been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Below is a summary of what we would recommend based on our trip. At the time of our family vacation, our boys’ ages were 18, 17, 15, and 9. We stayed at an incredible cabin (“Unbridled Memories”) which was located in the beautiful green foothills of the Smokies in Gatlinburg.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Forks Motor Trail is a MUST DO. This driving loop is less than 10 miles and the speed limit is 10mph. I would leave yourself an extra hour for stops. The ride is like a safari. We drove with our windows down and took in the sights, sounds, and smells. We saw a young black bear on our drive; there were dozens of waterfalls; several scenic overlooks; and some historic cabins and pioneer structures. I would recommend doing this early in the morning, as this is when wildlife is usually most active (& visible) and traffic is the lightest! Here are a few pictures from our ride:
Clingman’s Dome is not only the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it is the highest point in all of Tennessee at 6,643 feet! On a clear day, this is one of the best views in the park. Unfortunately when we were up there a storm quickly blew in and cut our hike on the Appalachian Trail a bit short. There is a viewing tower at the top of the dome and this is a VERY popular spot for your fellow tourists. I would recommend seeing this early in the morning, or if you’re lucky enough to be travelling in the Fall (off-season).
There are over 850 miles of hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Here are just a few of the popular hikes that you might enjoy:
Rich Mountain: This is a moderate 8.5 mile whose trailhead is at the start of the Cades Cove Loop Road. It has good views of Cades Cove, mountain laurels, and fall foliage in autumn.
Cucumber Gap: An easy 5.5 mile hike that starts near Little River Trail above the Elkmont Campground. It’s a nice Springtime hike, as you’ll see all of the wildflowers in bloom.
Clingman’s Dome: As mentioned above, this is one of the MOST popular areas in the park, so get there early. This 1 mile hike is a moderate, paved, steep, walk from the parking area up to the viewing tower. You will not be engulfed in the wilderness like some of the other trails, but you’ll be at the highest elevation in all of Tennessee!
Abrams Falls: This a moderate 5-mile hike that starts at Stop #10 on Cades Cove Loop Road.
Laurel Falls: This is an easy 2.6 mile, paved trail hike. The trailhead is located between the Sugarland Visitor Center and the Elkmont Campground. Because of the view and open accessibility, this is a very popular hike.
The above are just a few of the several hikes that you can do within the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. When you’re at the visitor center, talk to the rangers and volunteers about their suggestions. You can also pick up a nice trail map for $1 donation that details the trails and directions. This map was VERY helpful for us, as there is a lot of area in the National Park, and wrong turns were easy to make!
Sugarlands Visitor Center
Located just inside the park entrance near Gatlinburg, the Sugarlands Visitor Center has restrooms, a small gift shop, a theater with a short movie, and most importantly – National Park Rangers! As mentioned above, NPS rangers are a great resource for tips, ideas, and recommendations. Ask them for ideas based on your group’s desires, abilities, and schedule. They won’t disappoint you!
Fun things to do in Gatlinburg &
In addition to the National Park, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge offer a lot of family activities. We REALLY enjoyed our Gatlinburg Whitewater Rafting & Ziplining day! This was just a short drive away and was one of the vacation highpoints!
The towns have museums, movie theaters, mini-golf, dinner shows, dune buggy rentals, and more. They have capitalized on the fact that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the highest visitors! This can be nice if you’re looking for something to do…or annoying if you’re trying to drive through Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge midday. Keep this in mind – traffic through these towns can be heavy!
On our last evening, we went to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede dinner show in Pigeon Forge based on a friend’s recommendation. This was excellent. There’s a pre-dinner country music show (awesome), and then you’re escorted to your seats (north side vs. south side). You’re fed a delicious dinner of roasted chicken, barbeque pork, corn on the cob, corn bread, and a tasty apple fritter for dessert! No utensils…kids loved it! The show was really entertaining – horse races, pig races, audience participation…lots of laughs! This show was really well done. I’d highly recommend it, if you’re looking for a fun family dinner show.