Great Smoky offers sweeping views that are easy to get to, many old historic buildings to explore, and picnic spots galore, making it one of the most family-friendly national parks in eastern United States. Here is our list of the top family outings in the park.
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1. Ride Bikes through Cades Cove
Cades Cove is a very popular spot to go for an auto tour, but the park also makes sure there is opportunity to bike the dirt road. Every Wednesday and Saturday from mid-May to mid-September, the loop road is closed to cars until 10 a.m. Bring your own bikes or rent them at the Cades Cove Bike Rental Shop (cadescovetrading.com/bikes/) in the campground. Two roads bisect the main loop road so you can adjust your ride distance according to your kids’ ability. Exit the loop at Sparks Lane to catch the loop on the way back for a 4-mile bike ride. Take Hyatt Lane for a 8-mile ride. Or ride the full 11-mile loop.
2. Explore the Park’s Insects
One of the 19 species of fireflies in the park has a fancy flashing pattern. The insects seem to flash in unison for a two-week period in June. The best place to watch them is in the Elkmont area from 10 pm to midnight.
Monarch butterflies do an annual migration and put on an impressive show in the park during the fall migration, August through October. Watch them fly in formation from the higher elevations in the park such as a bald or Clingman’s Dome. They love the warm weather so the best time to see them is mid-morning to late afternoon.
Pioneers who lived in the park area had a sweet tooth. They made maple syrup, sweet sorghum molasses, and farmed bees for their honey. Check out the bee gums made from hollow black gum tree trunks at the Mountain Farm Museum, a working farm in the Oconaluftee area of the park.
3. Forge a Bell or go on a Hayride to Earn your Junior Ranger Badge
Great Smoky’s Junior Ranger Program has activities for four age groups. Participation in ranger programs counts towards your badge. Seasonal ranger programs include GPS orienteering hikes, blacksmithing, hayrides, wildlife viewing, making an old-fashioned mountain toy, learning to play the dulcimer, and hunting for salamanders. See the park’s seasonal newspaper for current program offerings.
4. Climb up to See a View from Up High
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has many mountain peaks and balds with 360-degree view, but you don’t have to do a strenuous hike for some of the best views. Clingman’s Dome is the most well-known viewing spot in the park. A road (closed in winter) takes you within a half mile of the tower along the Appalachian Trail. Then a steep half-mile ramp takes you up to the highest spot in Tennessee. The ramp is doable for strollers but too steep for wheelchair users.
For a quieter lookout point, head for Look Rock on the west edge of the park off of Foothills Parkway (closed in winter). Take the one- to two-mile round trip hike (depending on where you park) to the Look Rock Tower for 360-degree views of the mountains.
5. Join a Family Adventure Program
The Institute at Tremont (www.gsmit.org) has Family Adventure Weekends in winter and a 5-day Family Camp in summer. Activities include hiking, crafts, swimming, campfire fun, and wildlife demonstrations.
The Smoky Mountain Field School (www.outreach.utk.edu/smoky) has family programs that include waterfall hikes, wildlife watching, and searching for animals tracks.
6. Go Horseback Riding
Four popular places to go on a guided trail ride include Smoky Mountain Riding Stables (865-436-5634, www.smokymountainridingstables.com), Sugarlands Riding Stables (865-436-3535, www.sugarlandsridingstables.com) and the Cades Cove Riding Stables (865-448-9009, www.cadescovestables.com) in Tennessee, and the Smokemont Riding Stable (828-497-2373, www.smokemontridingstable.com) in North Carolina . Some stables also offer horse-drawn rides which are safer for small children. (Stables are closed in winter.)
Have your own horse? Over half of the park’s trails allow horses and there are five drive-in horse camps. For more information, read the official Great Smoky Mountains trail map available at park bookstores.
7. Have a Picnic
Great Smoky has 10 formally-designated picnic areas but don’t ignore the creekside that invites you to sit a spell. Our favorite is the picnic area is streamside in Cades Cove – finish your meal with an ice cream from the Camp Store’s Snack Shop. Have a large group such as a birthday party? Reserve a picnic pavilion at Twin Creeks, Greenbrier, or Metcalf Bottoms (www.recreation.gov).
While picnicking, remember that Smoky is bear country. There are bear-proof trash bins at all picnic areas. Also don’t leave any food scraps at picnic tables or on grills.
8. Explore old buildings
Before Great Smoky was a park, it was a group of communities. Cades Cove has log structures including homes, a mill, and churches. It is the largest collection of historic buildings in the park. Down in the Oconaluftee area you will find later-built timber buildings, the grandest mill in the park, and a farm. At both mills you can watch millers grind corn into meal during the summer season. For a self-guided adventure, do the Noah “Bud” Ogle nature trail close to Gatlinburg. There you’ll explore Noah’s 1800’s home, farm, and a small tub mill.
9. Float Down a Lazy Creek
Although the park frowns on swimming or tubing in most areas of the park, you can rent an inner tube and float past a waterfall in the Deep Creek of Great Smoky. On the north side of the park? Head to Townsend for family-friendly tubing just outside park borders. Learn more about ways to get wet in the Smokies.
10. Hike to a Waterfall
Many waterfalls require only a short walk or are close to the road. Three falls you can drive to are Mingo Falls on the Cherokee Reservation, Place of a Thousand Drips on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and Meigs Falls on Little River Road.
In the northern Sugarlands area of the park, the trail to Cataract Falls starts behind the visitors center. It’s an easy 0.7 mile flat walk to the falls and back.
In the southern section of the park near Bryson City, there are three very-short hiking trails to waterfalls: Juney Whank Falls on its self-named trail (0.6 miles RT), Indian Creek Falls starting from the Deep Creek Trail, then the Indian Creek Trail (1.6 miles RT), and Tom Branch Falls on the Deep Creek Trail (0.5 miles RT).
Need a map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Great Smoky at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, geologic history and much more printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.