Ultimate Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide & Itinerary 2024

Ultimate Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide & Itinerary

From seeing the beautiful mountain scenery to roasting marshmallows and sleeping under the stars, spending a few days away from the metropole is a great reset button for the entire family. One of our favorite places to do so is the breathtaking Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a true gem of natural beauty and outdoor adventure. The park spans more than 500,000 acres and is renowned for its stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife, and rich cultural history.

With so much to offer, it’s no surprise that the national park is the most visited in the US. In 2022, Great Smoky recorded nearly 13 million visits.

But can you visit this remarkable national park with kids in tow? Absolutely! The Great Smoky Mountains offer an array of family-friendly activities that will create lasting memories and inspire a love for nature in your kids.

In this article, we will look to offer you an ultimate guide of all you need to know for your trip to one of the US’ most picturesque outdoors;

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When is the best time to visit Smoky Mountain National Park?

The best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park is during the summer months (June, July, and August) and the fall season. Among these, July is the peak of the summer season, while October weekends beckon those seeking the breathtaking spectacle of autumn foliage.

The park’s terrain varies greatly, with elevations ranging from 875 feet to over 6,000 feet. Because of this, temperatures can differ by up to 20 degrees from the bottom to the mountain’s peak. So, it’s a good idea to pack layered clothing and a rain jacket, no matter when you visit.

Summer can be hot, with temperatures in the mid-60s at higher elevations and reaching the high 80s in lower areas. In winter, temperatures in higher elevations can drop to mid-30s, and road closures may occur due to snow. However, lower elevations have milder winters with temperatures in the 50s.

Fall foliage usually starts changing colors in mid-September when the summer crowds have thinned and lodging rates are lower, making it a great time to visit. However, expect higher rates for October weekends when the leaves are crispest.

Most of the snowfall happens between January and March. From March to May, early spring also offers fewer crowds and lower lodging rates. While the park is open year-round, some visitor centers, campgrounds, and historical sites may close during winter.

What to do in Great Smoky Mountain National Park with kids?

Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, this beautiful park offers visitors more than 800 miles of hiking trails, scenic drives, waterfalls, and diverse wildlife to amaze your family. The best part? It’s completely free to enter the park! You won’t need to pay an entrance fee. However, if you plan to park your car for more than 15 minutes, you must get a parking tag. Starting from March 1, 2023, they began charging for parking.

The tags cost $5 for a one-time use, $15 for a 7-day tag, or $40 for an annual tag. You can buy these tags online or at a park kiosk. Also, other national park passes, like the America the Beautiful pass, won’t cover the parking fee.

Before you begin your trip to Great Smoky, we suggest you get a map from one of the park’s visitor centers. The map will make it easier for you to find your way around the park. There are four visitor centers in the Great Smoky: Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Clingmans Dome, and the most popular one, Sugarlands. Without further ado, here are the best activities to do with kids in Great Smoky National Park;

Become a junior ranger in Great Smoky

A fun thing for kids aged 5 to 12 to do in the Smoky Mountains is to get a Junior Ranger booklet and earn a Junior Ranger badge! You can get a junior ranger booklet at the Smoky Mountains visitor centers or Cades Cove and Elkmont campgrounds. The booklet costs $2.50. The ranger program takes you to some of the most breathtaking gems in the park and imparts ideas on protecting nature and history.

These programs let children have fun while learning about the park and teach them how to conserve nature. The badge the kids get at the end of the program is an excellent souvenir to take home! They will enjoy showing their badges to their friends!

Go on a hike with the kids

Hiking is one of the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids. It’s a great way to truly experience and truly appreciate the beauty of the Smoky Mountains. The park has more than 800 miles of trails, so you will find plenty of options suitable for all ages and skill levels.

The kid-friendly trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park offer a mix of beautiful scenery and are safe for younger hikers. However, it’s important to note that most trailheads don’t have restroom facilities, so be sure to plan accordingly!

Some of the kid-friendly trails include Cataract Falls Trail, Clingmans Dome Trail, Laurel Falls Trail, Middle Prong Trail, Look Rock, Grotto Falls, Spruce Flats Falls, Alum Cave Bluffs, Gatlinburg Trail, and Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail. These trails offer a great outdoor adventure for families.

Take a scenic drive in Great Smoky Mountain

One of the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains doesn’t require leaving your car! Go on a therapeutic drive on any of the beautiful routes in Great Smoky. Here are some must-try scenic drives in the Great Smoky Mountains for families with kids.

  • Cade’s Cove: Cade’s Cove is a popular drive in the park. It’s an 11-mile loop that takes you to hiking trails and lets you spot wildlife and historic buildings. Halfway along the drive, you will find a big parking area with a visitor center, restrooms, and old buildings you can explore.
  • Roaring Fork Motor Trail: This is a one-way, 6-mile loop near downtown Gatlinburg. The drive is stunning, with creeks running alongside and lush plants all around. You can also stop to check out a few old buildings.
  • Newfound Gap Road: This adventure begins near the Gatlinburg entrance at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and goes to Cherokee, North Carolina. This route is gorgeous, with some of the most fantastic mountain views you will ever see. You will find places to park your car, step out, and take stunning pictures.

Remember, Cade’s Cove Road is closed to cars on Wednesdays from early May to late September, so that’s a great day to walk or bike the road without worrying about traffic. However, keep in mind that it can get pretty busy during the summer. Enjoy your family drive through the Smokies!

Visit the ghost town

Many visitors don’t know that there’s a historic resort ghost town right in the national park! In the Elkmont area, you can find the restored Daisytown. This is a must-visit for adventurous families. When the national park was designated, occupants of the town had to leave. Some of the old cottages were torn down, but the park service chose to keep and fix up 19 of them. You can go inside old cottages to see how the locals lived in this once-popular resort town.

Visit the troll bridge

Another enjoyable spot to visit in Elkmont is the old stone troll bridge. You can find this bridge near the Little River Trail. As you start walking from the trail’s beginning, look for a gravel path on your right after a short distance. Follow this gravel path, and soon, you will spot the charming stone bridge on your left. This bridge harkens back to the days of the resort and looks like something straight out of a fairy tale.

Go horseback riding in Great Smoky

There are several stables offering horseback riding tours in the national park. Riding horses in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with your kids is a special way to make great memories. On the back of the horse, you get to see amazing views, follow winding streams, and explore the beautiful forests. Just make sure to check if your little ones meet the minimum age and height rules for the rides.

Go cycling in Great Smoky

Cycling is another fun thing to do with the kids in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Many people ride their bikes along the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop. This route takes you past old homes and places where you can see lots of animals.

To accommodate cyclists, the National Park Service closes the Cades Cove Loop Road to cars on Wednesday and Sunday mornings until 10:00 a.m. They do this from early May to late September.

If you don’t have a bike but still want to go cycling, you can rent one at the Cades Cove bike rental place in the campground store during the summer and fall. Biking in Cades Cove is one of the fun things you can do in the Smoky Mountains, so make sure you don’t miss it!

Go fishing

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an excellent place for fishing. It has around 2,900 miles of streams inside the park, so you will surely discover the perfect spot to fish. You can enjoy various fishing experiences, from quiet, highland trout streams to more upbeat, refreshing smallmouth bass streams.

You can fish in the park all year long, starting 30 minutes before the official sunrise and ending 30 minutes after the official sunset. Fishing is allowed in all the streams within the park.

Visit Ripley’s Aquarium

If you encounter unfavorable weather during your visit but still yearn to experience the wonders of nature, consider exploring Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in downtown Gatlinburg. This expansive aquarium offers diverse exhibits, including a captivating shark lagoon, a vibrant coral reef, a tropical rainforest habitat, and even a delightful penguin habitat.

Additionally, the aquarium boasts an exceptionally long underwater viewing tunnel that immerses visitors in the aquatic world and a sizable playground structure that provides endless fun for children to explore and play on.

Where to stay in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Le Conte Lodge

No motels or rental cabins are inside the national park except for Le Conte Lodge. Le Conte Lodge is perched on Mount Le Conte, 6,593 feet high. You can only reach the lodge by hiking. It’s a good idea to book your stay before you start your trip. The lodge is open from mid-March to mid-November, but it’s always a good idea to call and double-check.


Alternatively, you can lodge in any of the several campgrounds in Great Smoky. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has ten front country campgrounds. All of them have cold running water and restrooms. But no showers, electrical hookups, or water hookups exist at any campgrounds. You can drive right up to each campsite, and each spot can have up to two cars and six guests. These include;

Please note: Cades Cove is very popular and open year-round, Big Creek doesn’t accept RVs, Deep Creek is primarily first come/first serve, and Look Rock prices vary depending on available amenities.

Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids is a fantastic way to introduce them to the wonders of nature while creating cherished family memories. Whether hiking to waterfalls, participating in the Junior Ranger program or enjoying a picnic with a mountain backdrop, Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers endless opportunities for family fun and adventure. So, pack your bags, prepare your little explorers, and embark on an unforgettable journey into the heart of the Smokies.

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