More than 520,000 acres of multifaceted, fog-draped, mountain euphoria await you at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a terrain that appeals to the full spectrum of ages, kids included.
There are some key considerations to keep in mind if you're visiting the Great Smoky Mountains with kids in tow. Our top tips will help keep the whole family safe, happy and planning the next trip before you even leave.
Is Great Smoky Mountains National Park good for kids?
Entry to the park is free, making this a cost-friendly destination for families. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is loaded with activities for children to enjoy, including guided horseback rides in Smokemont, 20-minute carriage rides in Cades Cove, trout fishing along the Little River and paved, stroller-friendly trails. The key here is pinpointing what you know your child will love.
As at all national parks, you’ll need to keep a close eye on wandering little ones, particularly along waterfall hikes (adjacent cliffs can be steep). And, yes, there are black bears here that your kids – and perhaps you – may want to see up close, but that's a very bad idea.
1. Where should we begin our trip?
When traveling with children it is inevitable that questions will arise: Why is it called the Smoky Mountains? How did these mountains come to be? And, what can we do to help preserve it? To stay ahead of the game, get informed at the Sugarlands and Oconaluftee Visitor Centers.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has four visitor centers to explore, with Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg being the largest and most focused on the geography of the park. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee has an extensive selection of taxidermic critters.
2. When can we see the famous firefly show in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Rivaling peak foliage in September and October, the summer months bring blooming wildflowers and melted snow that trickles to the park’s waterfalls. If you’re really looking to nail a timeframe that will dazzle your kiddos, keep an eye on June for a firefly mating season spectacle (if you snag a rare ticket).
Each year, near the Elkmont Campground, the photinus carolinus firefly species synchronously lights up the night sky, one of two places on Earth where this phenomenon happens.
To experience it with your children keep an eye on the National Park Service’s website which announces the firefly viewing dates annually in mid-April. From there, you’ll have to enter a ticket lottery for the chance to witness it in person.
3. What is the junior ranger program?
Select national parks have a junior ranger program, in which kids between ages 5 and 12 can earn an honorary badge by completing educational activities on site – Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of these sites. Snag an activity booklet at any visitor center for $2.50 and, from there, embark on adventures within the park.
Recent activities within the park have included tours of the one-room, 1880s-era Little Greenbrier School, geology talks at Metcalf Bottoms and wildlife-centric chats at Sugarlands Visitor Center.
4. Can we rent bikes at Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
The Cades Cove Loop – an 11-mile scenic drive within the park with trailheads aplenty, a campground and a historic European settlement dating back to the 1800s – is one of the most popular destinations within the park. With that, the loop itself tends to get backed up with traffic, which can take some of the fun out of the experience for younger visitors.
If you’re looking for a biking adventure, this is the spot for it – specifically Wednesdays from May through September. On these days, vehicular traffic is prohibited. It is car-free and open solely to bikers and walkers. If you don’t have bikes, there is a shop adjacent to the Cades Cove Campground that has kid-sized as well as adult bicycle rentals.
5. Are there kid-friendly trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Amid the park’s skyline that’s dotted with soaring hardwoods and mysterious fog, you and yours will inevitably want to hit the trails. Make sure to pack the right goods to mitigate some of the elements that can quickly become an annoyance down the line.
Key essentials include ample water (few trails have water stations), snacks, bug repellant for the occasional mosquito or tick, sunscreen and sun gear, plus rain jackets (which can provide a nice reprieve from the rain and sun).
With the goods in tow, pick a waterfall hike to experience the best of the Smokys’ dry and wet terrains. Laurel Falls – approximately 2.4 miles round-trip – has a primarily smooth asphalt trail leading to its 80ft (24m) waterfall.
For children wanting a longer and more difficult adventure, Abrams Falls is it. Accessible near Cades Cove and a 5.2-mile round trip, count on rocks to hop and ridges to top. There is a rushing 20-foot waterfall at the end, but steer clear as it is too dangerous for anyone to swim in.
6. Can children go white-water rafting in the Great Smoky Mountains?
Whether basking in the summer sun or taking in a crisp autumn day, don’t be fooled: the waters within Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be a frigid 60°F (15 °C). While refreshing for some, it may be a day-ruiner for others, so pack (or rent) a wetsuit for the little ones.
There are guided rafting trips suitable for those as young as three-years-old available through Smoky Mountain Outdoors. The local company has 1- to 2-hour excursions down the Pigeon River that strikes the right thrilling-yet-safe balance.
7. What should we do if our kids get bored?
Nature’s majestic charms can wear off for some children. Fortunately, modern activities await in the nearby tourist havens of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Offerings include the 50-acre Soaky Mountain Waterpark, the Titanic Museum Attraction, with hundreds of artifacts from the real ship, plus mini-golf options galore.
Gatlinburg also has a handful of Ripley’s attractions (including a Penguin Playhouse, and Believe It Or Not!), a pinball museum and, yes, even more mini-golf. If your children get bored of walking and wildlife watching, there is no end of ways to amuse them here.
Where to stay with kids
There is one non-camping lodging option within Great Smoky Mountains National Park: LeConte Lodge. In addition to needing to book months in advance, it can take upwards of 8 hours to hike there via the Alum Cave Trail. Unless your kids are up for the adventure of a lifetime, do not be tempted to book the lodge. Instead, explore options just outside the park like the Dollywood DreamMore Resort, which has nightly story-telling around a fire pit or Under Canvas, which has expansive, family-friendly glamping options on 182 acres of wooded terrain.