The Smoky Mountains can be a wonderland for small travelers. There are adventures aplenty, with mesmerizing wildflower-filled hikes, horseback rides, rafting trips and star-filled nights gathered around the campfire. To make the most of your family holiday, it helps to plan ahead.
Best Activities for Kids
With hundreds of miles of trails, you won't lack for options. Easy trails such as the half-mile Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail or the Oconaluftee River Trail are good options for pint-sized visitors.
Watch herds of elk feeding at dawn or dusk near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center or in the Cataloochee Valley.
- Horseback Riding
Take a short but fun one-hour ride through the forest after clomping through a river near Smokemont Riding Stables.
- Fun on the Farm
Near the Oconaluftee River, you can check out the log cabins and the seasonal livestock (chickens and pigs) at this old-fashioned, open-air farm museum.
- Bike Riding
Hire bikes and take a spin along the 11-mile-long Cades Cove Loop Rd – best on Wednesday and Saturday mornings when it's closed to automobile traffic.
Like some other national parks in the US, the Smoky Mountains has a junior ranger program, which is geared towards kids from ages five to 12. You can participate by picking up a junior ranger booklet ($2.50) at one of the visitor centers, then having the kids complete the activities in the book. Afterwards, present the book to a ranger at one of the visitor centers, and they'll be on their way to earning a junior ranger badge. While it might sound a bit hokey, it can be a fun way for young minds to get involved and learn about the park in a non-traditional setting.
During the summer, the park offers a number of free ranger-led programs. These cover a wide range of topics, with rangers describing mountain medicines people used in the past, what it was like to go to school in a log cabin in the 1880s, sleuthing strategies in the wilderness (in the ever popular 'Whose poop is this?' talk), wildlife in the park (beavers, bears, elk) and fun facts about geology and the park's formation. Ask at a visitor center or check the website for upcoming activities.
Great Smoky Mountains for Kids
Welcome to one of the most family-friendly national parks in the US. There are loads of outdoor activities, including outstanding hikes (short and long alike), ample picnic areas, open spaces to run around and explore, and intriguing exhibitions with kids in mind.
That said, there are some challenges to keep in mind. Dining services are nonexistent in the park, so you'll need to load up on snacks and picnic fare before entering the wilds. Have plenty of water on hand (or a filtration device), as there are no water fountains at the trailheads.
Drives can be long within the park, so make sure you look at the map when planning the day's activities. The heavy crowds can also be a big turnoff in the summer. You can beat the worst of the holiday parade by heading out early, and avoiding the most popular areas during peak hours.
Lastly make sure everyone is properly outfitted with good shoes, warm clothes and rain gear. The weather can change in the mountains and can vary from one side of the park to the other.
- Gatlinburg Trail Leave the carnivalesque atmosphere of Gatlinburg behind on this fairly flat 2-mile trail through forest along the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
- Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail An easy, paved half-mile trail with the remnants of 100-year-old cabins and scenic spots along the river.
- Oconaluftee River Trail A lovely gateway to the Smokies' wonders, this smooth 3-mile round-trip trail skirts the edge of the pretty Oconaluftee River.
- Laurel Falls Check out the pretty waterfalls and hillside views on this popular 2.6-mile hike.
Children Age 12 & Under
- Clingmans Dome Making the short but steep walk up to the flying-saucer-like tower, which has a magnificent 360-degree panorama.
- Junior Ranger Learning about the park by completing the activity book for a badge.
- Park Programs Touching a furry pelt and learning about baby bears during a hands-on ranger talk at a visitor center.
- Mountain Farm Museum Peering inside log cabins and saying howdy to the chickens and pigs at this open-air spot.
- Horseback Riding Heading off for a fun one-hour ride (or all-ages hay ride) at Cades Cove, or another of the park's stables.
- White-water Rafting Feeling the cool spray as you paddle along churning class III rapids near Gatlinburg.
- Camping Roasting marshmallows over a crackling fire as the sky fills with stars at Deep Creek Campground.
- Picnicking Having lunch at Chimneys Picnic Area, followed by a bit of rock skipping along the West Prong River.
While it's always a good idea to allow free time for some serendipitous discoveries, you'll definitely need to do some planning before hitting the road.
For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
When to Go
As America's most visited national park, the Smoky Mountains can get frustratingly crowded in the warmer months, particularly during peak season (June to August). That said it's a fine time for water sports such as rafting or tubing, hitting the higher-elevation trails and taking advantage of the park's full program of ranger-led activities.
From September to mid-November, the bright colors of autumn transform the park into a blazing wonderland of red, yellow and orange. The park still draws plenty of visitors, though weekdays are somewhat quieter.
During the spring (March through May), the park offers fewer activities for kids, but it's a good time to beat the crowds if you don't mind the chilly weather (nights can dip below freezing).
The wintery months of December through February draw only the hardiest of souls. Many roads are closed and hikes to the higher elevations can be dangerous. Expect snow and icy temperatures.
If your kids are good hikers, and you've reserved well in advance, you can overnight in the LeConte Lodge, the only non-campground accommodation in the park. The lodge begins taking reservations in early October for the following year, and dates fill up quickly. Note that it closes from mid-November to mid-March.
Reservations for park campgrounds are accepted up to six months in advance. Plan as far ahead as possible if coming during the summer. Cancellations or date changes to a campsite reservation incur a $10 fee.
Outside the park there's a wealth of family-friendly options, including lodges, cabins and hotels, some of which have appealing extras such as swimming pools and play areas. Most accommodations outside the park do not charge extra for children under 12, though policies vary from place to place.
What to Pack
You’ll be able to find just about anything you could need at major towns outside the park, but to avoid a long winding drive out of the park while you're enjoying the forest, it's best to be prepared.
- Children’s paracetemol and ibuprofen Always good to have on hand for the unexpected fever that arises in the middle of the night.
- Fleece Even in the summer, nights in the mountains can be chilly.
- Rain jacket Precipitation is always a possibility in this wet region.
- Hiking shoes Bring something sturdy that ties and covers the toes, and socks.
- Sun hat A must at any time of year.
- Sunscreen and bug repellent Mosquitos and ticks are the concern, and you'll want repellent during the warmer months (May through September).
- Water bottles Keep everyone hydrated and happy throughout the trip. Consider buying a water purification device to avoid all the plastic by-products.
- Beach towels For exploring creeks and streams throughout the park, and perfect for picnics.
- Water sandals You’ll want to splash in creeks without worrying about sharp rocks and stubbed toes.
It's easy to forget, as you’re browsing the exhibits in the visitor center, that you're on the edge of a vast wilderness area. Trails can be narrow and slippery, with dangerous drop-offs. Rushing streams might look enticing for a wade, but can quickly knock a child (or even an adult) off his or her feet. There's also the threat of poison ivy, not to mention the wildlife – snakes, bears, elk, yellowjacket wasps (be sure to carry an EpiPen if your child is allergic to bee stings).
With all this in mind, it's best to lay down some ground rules before you arrive in the park. Young children will undoubtedly see other kids scrambling up loose rocks off the trail, trying to climb around slippery waterfalls and other risky activities and may want to do the same. Make sure you keep small children close on hikes. As an added precaution, it's wise to have all children carry a whistle in case they get lost.
The bigger threat than falls or drowning is of course the human threat – or rather vehicular one. Car accidents are the leading cause of injury and death in the park. Be particularly careful when parking at trailheads. Sometimes you'll have to park beside the road, without much room to maneuver, and other drivers don't always slow down for young families wandering across the road.
Local law requires that children under four years of age ride in a car seat, while kids aged five to eight must ride in a booster-seat system. Most car-rental agencies rent rear-facing car seats (for infants under one year of age), forward-facing seats and boosters for about $10 per day, but you must reserve them in advance.
Even the most upscale restaurants outside the park welcome families. Throughout the park you'll find plenty of picnic spots – many with grills for those who want to do a bit of daytime barbecuing. Since there are no traditional restaurants within the park itself, be sure to pack a cooler and load up at a grocery store first. The best places to procure supplies are Gatlinburg and Townsend for the north side of the park, and Cherokee and Bryson City for the south side of the park.
Cades Cove Campground has a small snack bar that sells sandwiches, soup, pizza, ice cream, drinks and other fare. Elkmont Campground has a smaller concession stand that doles out a few snacks. At either you can also buy ice and firewood.
Beyond the Park
Families with children of all ages could spend several days enjoying the sites outside of the park. Gatlinburg is a wonderland for some (and hell on earth for others). Its people-packed main street is littered with attractions of all types – from haunted houses and mini-golf courses to fudge shops, candy stores and souvenir stands. Two open-sided chairlifts whisk you up a mountain for fine views.
If you prefer to avoid the circus-like atmosphere of Gatlinburg, you'll find other options. Bryson City, near the Deep Creek section of the national park, is the starting point for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which offers scenic journeys aboard vintage steam- or diesel-powered trains.
Another kid-pleaser is Dollywood, a theme park and water park near Pigeon Forge offering endless days of amusement (it's also a resort with cabins, pools and plenty of kid activities, plus evening entertainment). Further afield to the west, you'll find Chattanooga, famed for its riverside trails, pedestrian bridges, outdoorsy activities and fun restaurant scene. East of the park, Asheville is another buzzing city offering ample rewards for young and old alike.