The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best places for a family vacation. There’s a reason it’s the most visited national park in the U.S, with over 14 million visitors in 2021!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has everything you could want for a family vacation, quality family time spent in the great outdoors combined with the endless entertainment and dining options in nearby tourist towns Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Having been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park numerous times as a kid and having taken my own kids a few times, I can assure you this makes for a wonderful, memorable family vacation.
Here are the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids.
Best Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains with Kids
Explore the Visitor Centers
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has four visitor centers. These include locations at Cades Cover, Oconaluftee, Clingmans Dome, and the most popular, Sugarlands. Visitor centers are a great way to learn about the park, look at exhibits and pick up a souvenir or two.
1. Sugarlands Visitor Center
Sugarlands Visitor Center, located near the Gatlinburg entrance of the park is the main visitor center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Plan to come here at the beginning of your trip, so you can pick up maps and get any information you might need.
Why is Sugarlands a must-stop when visiting the Smoky Mountains with kids? There are animal exhibits, nature exhibits, a bookstore, a movie about the park, and a gift shop. There’s also a fun easy, hiking trail located behind the visitor center here.
I have memories of stopping at Sugarlands Visitor Center as a kid. It’s just a great way to start your memorable Smoky Mountain vacation.
Location: 107 Park Headquarters Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
2. Become A Junior Ranger
A fun activity in the Smoky Mountains for kids ages 5-12 is completing the junior ranger booklet and earning their junior ranger badge!
A junior ranger booklet can be picked up at any of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor centers and the campgrounds at Cades Cove and Elkmont. The cost is $2.50 for the junior ranger booklet.
This is a great souvenir for the kids to take home! Your kids will love showing off their badges to their friends!
Kid-Friendly Hikes in Smoky Mountains
Definitely one of the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids is hiking. This is the best way to really get a feel and appreciation of what the Smoky Mountains are all about.
Here are the best kid-friendly hikes in the Smoky Mountains.
3. Cataract Falls Trail
Cataract Falls is a short, easy 0.7-mile hike located behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center. This trail takes you to the beautiful 40-foot Cataract Falls.
This is a great trail for those with toddlers and young kids or for those wanting to see a waterfall, but don’t want to hike a long distance.
Location: Located behind Sugarlands Visitor Center
4. Laurel Falls Trail
Laurel Falls is one of the most popular trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s very popular because it’s an easy hike at only 2.5 miles round trip and includes the beautiful, photographic Laurel Falls.
Because it’s an easy hike and one of the shortest waterfall hikes, this makes a great trail for hiking with kids. We’ve hiked this trail even when our oldest was a baby. My husband, Chris carried him in a backpack carrier.
Not only does this trail have a beautiful waterfall, but also some amazing mountain scenery. It’s just a great all-around fun hike with kids.
The last time we hiked this trail, we came across a baby bear cub in the trees. Its mom was watching a short distance away. It was so exciting, but at the same time very scary! Always use caution and be alert when hiking the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
TIP: No restrooms are located at the Laural Falls Trailhead. Be sure to use restrooms before parking. The closest restrooms are at Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Location: From Sugarlands Visitor Center, turn towards Cades Cove on Little River Road. From here, it’s about 3.5 miles to the trailhead.
5. Clingmans Dome Trail
Clingmans Dome is one of the most popular places to go on a Smoky Mountain family vacation. It’s the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at 6,643 feet. The drive to get there is only open between April and November.
The 7-mile drive up to the parking area is very steep. Once you reach the parking area and get out of your car, you will feel how noticeably cooler it is. The parking area offers great sweeping views of the Smokies.
The Clingmans Dome Trail starts right at the parking lot. Here you will also find a visitor center, gift shop, and restrooms.
The trail is only half a mile, but VERY steep. Even those in great shape might find themselves stopping a few times for a break because it is such a steep hike. However, it is very doable with kids.
At the end of the trail is an observation tower that offers amazing views of the park.
TIP: Since Clingmans Dome is at such a high elevation, it is much, much, much cooler than the rest of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You might be surprised to find yourself needing a jacket here even on those hot, summer days.
Location: Take the turn off Newfound Gap Road 0.1 mile south of Newfound Gap. You will drive the long and steep 7 mile Clingmans Dome Road to the parking area. The trail is located off the parking lot.
6. Grotto Falls Trail
I think the Grotto Falls Trail might be my favorite hiking trail in the Smoky Mountains. This trail is located along the beautiful Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail.
Grotto Falls Trail is a 2.60 mile out and back trail. It has some slight inclines, but nothing too difficult.
It’s a fun trail with great scenery. There are several stream crossings that are fun to cross over.
What makes Grotto Falls different from any other waterfall in the park is that you can walk behind the waterfall! We all really enjoyed this!
Make sure to get some pictures taken behind the waterfall!
Location: Located along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail scenic drive. The parking lot for this trail is located on the left side about 1.6 miles down. Restrooms are located in the parking area.
Scenic View Drives
Some of the best things to do in the Smokies involve not even getting out of your car if you don’t want to! Here are the must-do scenic drives in the Great Smoky Mountains with kids.
7. Cades Cove
Cades Cove is a must-see when in the Great Smoky Mountains with kids. It’s one of the most popular places to go in the park.
Cades Cove is an 11-mile loop road that you can drive or even bike. There are many spots to pull over to admire the beautiful scenery and historic buildings.
It’s common to see a variety of wildlife here including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and bears! So always be on alert because you never know what will pop up!
About halfway around the loop road, you will find a large parking lot; stop here. Located here are a visitor center, restrooms, the Cable Mill historic area, and the beautiful river.
TIP: Traffic can be VERY heavy, especially during summer and fall. Arrive EARLY to avoid crowds.
Location: Located near the Townsend, Tennessee park entrance. It’s about an hour’s drive from Gatlinburg.
8. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one-way, 6-mile long scenic drive conveniently located in Gatlinburg. I just love the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It’s a must-see every time I go to the Smokies.
On this drive, you will take in the beautiful mountain scenery, rushing streams, and historic buildings including log cabins and grist mills.
There are a few trails located off Roaring Fork Motor Trail, including the kid-friendly Grotto Falls Trail.
A great place to jump out of the car here is at the waterfall, The Place of a Thousand Drips. No hiking is required, just take a few steps out of your car, and you are there! It is especially beautiful after rainfall.
Location: Turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg at traffic light #8. Follow Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance.
9. Newfound Gap Road
Driving the Newfound Gap Road is a must when visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids. The drive starts near the Gatlinburg entrance at Sugarlands Visitor Center and continues to Cherokee, North Carolina.
To get to most of the must-sees in the Smoky Mountain National Park, you will probably find yourself on Newfound Gap Road anyways.
Newfound Gap Road is an absolutely stunning drive with some of the most amazing mountain scenery you have ever seen. There are many turnoffs where you can park your car, get out and take pictures.
Definitely get out at Newfound Gap and take some family pictures.
Newfound Gap is also the location of the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. Get your kid’s picture here! The kids will have fun putting one foot in Tennessee and the other in North Carolina.
TIP: This is also a great spot to use the restrooms before getting back in your car and continuing your drive.
Location: Newfound Gap Road begins near the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg and continues all the way to Cherokee, North Carolina.
Other Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains with Kids
10. Be On the Lookout for Black Bears
Black Bears are commonly seen in the Smoky Mountains National Park. Be on the lookout at all times because you never know when you might come across one.
I have seen them on many trails in the park and even walking around the streets of Gatlinburg! Yes, even walking around town!!
Finding a black bear is a must when in the Smoky Mountains with kids!
11. Whitewater Rafting or Float Trip
Whitewater Rafting is a fun activity to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids ages 7 and up.
We went with Nantahala Outdoor Center, located in Bryson City, North Carolina, and had an amazing time. This was our first-time whitewater rafting and I highly recommend them!
We choose this particular one because our youngest was 7 and none of us had even been before. This was the perfect combination of relaxation with some adventurous Class II and III rapids!
Warning, the water is freezing though! 🥶 We went rafting in June and the water was still SO cold. Every time the water splashed on me, it was unbearable!
Nantahala Outdoor Center also has a restaurant, gift shop, and picnic tables. We enjoyed hanging out along the river and the boys enjoyed throwing stones into the river.
For those with younger kids age 3 and up or for those looking for a more relaxing trip on the river, a float trip might be just what you’re looking for. Rip Roaring Adventures offers a peaceful trip down the Lower Pigeon River.
When in the Great Smoky Mountains with kids, you must have a picnic. There’s just something about picnicking here amongst the beautiful scenery and fresh air.
We are definitely going out to eat type people, but when in the Smokies, not only is it enjoyable to picnic, but also very convenient.
I recommend the Chimney Picnic Area. It’s located off Newfound Gap Road, conveniently located between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Clingmans Dome.
What I love about the Chimney Picnic Area is that many of its picnic sites are on the Little Pigeon River. They even have grills if you want to make something hot. There are close to 70 picnic sites located here.
However, you don’t need a designated picnicking site to enjoy picnicking in the Smoky Mountains. Pull over and park along the Little Pigeon River or on one of the many beautiful turnouts on Newfound Gap Road and enjoy the scenery while eating.
Biking is a great family activity to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids. The best place to take the kids biking is Cade Cove.
Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11-mile one-way road perfect for biking. Bicycles can be rented in the Cades Cove Campground Store during summer and fall.
A great time to go biking in Cades Cove is on Wednesday between May 5th and September 1st. The road is closed to vehicles so that people walking and on bikes can enjoy the roads to themselves.
14. Swimming and Playing in the Little Pigeon River
When in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you will see the Little Pigeon River flow alongside the road. Pull over at a spot that you see is great and enjoy swimming and playing in the river. The kids will enjoy hopping from rock to rock.
It’s so peaceful with the crisp mountain area and the sound of the rushing streams.
15. Pink Jeep Tour
A Pink Jeep Tour in the Smokies is a fun adventure for the whole family!
This is one of those memorable experiences your kids will not forget. It’s an exciting off-road adventure in an open-air pink jeep. Stops are made to jump out and enjoy the scenery and take pictures.
16. Stroll Downtown Gatlinburg
Strolling Downtown Gatlinburg or the “strip” as some might call it, is a must when visiting the Smoky Mountains with kids. There is so much to see, do and eat here.
You will find everything from Ripley’s Museums, mini-golf, laser tag, bumper cars, a mirror maze, a car museum, the Space Needle, and much, much more!
Anakeesta is a beautiful and well-designed theme park on top of a mountain where you can play, eat, shop, dine, and relax.
To get to the top of the summit, you will take a gondola or an adventure vehicle. Once you get to the top, you will be amazed at how beautiful Anakeesta is. There are so many great photo spots here.
Anakeesta has many fun family activities including treetop bridges, kid play areas, gem mining, a splash pad, a mountain coaster, and ziplining.
If you are hungry while here, I recommend eating at Cliff Top Restaurant. This outdoor restaurant offers some amazing views!
Location: 576 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
18. Ride a Mountain Coaster
Riding a Mountain Coaster is a fun activity while on a Smoky Mountains family vacation. There are many mountain coasters in the Smokies, but after some research, we went with Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster.
The Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster is deemed the longest downhill ride in the United States. Over 1 mile of track! You can control how fast you go by the hand brakes. The mountain scenery as you go winding down is amazing!
19. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a great place to take the kids for a break from all the hiking and exploring in the National Park.
This is a fun aquarium with lots of great features. My favorite thing here is the underwater tunnel where you are surrounded by sharks and many other different kinds of fish.
The penguin tunnel is fun for kids to crawl in and pop up in the middle of the penguin exhibit! The aquarium also has a fun play area, great for toddlers and younger kids.
For an additional fee, you can ride the Glass Botton Boat Adventure. This is a boat ride in the aquarium where you can see sharks, turtles, and other fish swimming below you!
Location: 88 River Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
20. Ober Gatlinburg
Ober Gatlinburg is a great place to visit in the Smoky Mountains with kids during every season.
Throughout the year, fun activities include riding the Aerial Tramway, scenic chairlift, wildlife encounters, mountain coaster, ice skating, alpine slide, mini-golf, rock wall, a carousel, chair swings, ice bumper cars, and kiddie rides.
During the summer there is the addition of summer tubing and water raft rides.
Beginning in late fall, they have the addition of snow tubing which runs through late March. During winter, skiing and snowboarding are popular activities here.
Location: 1001 Parkway Suite 2, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
21. Gatlinburg SkyLift Park
Gatlinburg SkyLift Park is a great place to go take in some amazing mountain scenery. The SkyLift will take you up to the top of Crockett Mountain where the Gatlinburg SkyBridge is located.
The Gatlinburg SkyBridge is the longest pedestrian cable bridge in North America! It is longer than two football fields!
If you are afraid of heights though, this might not be for you. The bridge has 30 feet of see-through glass flooring! 😱
Location: 765 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Dollywood is one of the best family destinations in the Smoky Mountains. It includes a fun theme park and a waterpark.
The theme park has a great mixture of fun things for the whole family. There is a great kiddie section for those with toddlers and young kids.
There are also many thrill rides for those rollercoaster lovers. Dollywood also offers great shows and entertainment for those non-riders.
The waterpark is open seasonally and is fun for all ages. There is a great splash and slide area for kids and a great lazy river for the whole family to float down.
Location: 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd, Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
Where to Eat in the Smoky Mountains with Kids
There are so many good places to eat in the Smoky Mountains, so make sure to go hungry!
Here are the must-eat places. These are not just places to eat, but some of the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids!
I promise you won’t regret any one of these.
Restaurants in Gatlinburg
23. Crockett’s Breakfast Camp
Crockett’s Breakfast Camp is amazing! Not only is the food amazing, but the theming and atmosphere really stand out to make this such a fun place!
This restaurant has just about anything you could want including pancakes, waffles, french toast, eggs, omelets, and giant cinnamon rolls!
Location: 1103 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
24. Pancake Pantry
Pancake Pantry is a staple in Gatlinburg. It’s been around forever and is one of the most popular restaurants in the area.
As you might guess, they have pancakes and a lot of different kinds including banana bread, apple walnut, chocolate chip, pecan, and blueberry.
They also have waffles, french toast, crepes, omelets, pigs in a blanket, and sandwiches.
Some fun dishes for the kids here include “Bears in the Snow” which is pancakes shaped like bears with powdered sugar and “M&M pancakes” which are pancakes with M&M’s covered with powdered sugar and served with peanut butter syrup.
TIP: The only downside to Pancake Pantry is finding parking. You will have to park at one of the nearby paid parking lots.
Location: Located in Villages Shoppes; 628 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Restaurants in Pigeon Forge
25. The Old Mill Restaurant
The Old Mill Restaurant is another one of these must-eat restaurants in the Smoky Mountains with kids. This is country-style cooking at its best.
They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I have never eaten breakfast here, but I’m sure it is pretty amazing! I have had lunch and dinner here and let me just say the portions are HUGE!!
You’ve got to try their corn chowder and corn fritters. Amazing!
This restaurant is VERY popular and you can expect to find a wait. But no worries if you have to wait, part of the Old Mill Restaurant area has a few shops to browse while waiting.
Location: 164 Old Mill Ave, Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
Restaurants in Sevierville
26. Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant
Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant is another amazing restaurant you have to try while in the Smokies. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
This is another country-style cooking restaurant with lots of great options for the whole family.
What brought me to this restaurant was the raving reviews of the apple fritters and homemade apple butter. It definitely did not disappoint. So, so good!
All meals breakfast, lunch, and dinner get complimentary apple fritters, apple butter, and Applewood Julep.
Location: 240 Apple Valley Rd, Sevierville, TN 37862
Must Have Gear for Visiting the Smoky Mountains with Kids
It’s important to be prepared when traveling, especially when traveling with kids. Here are must-have items for ensuring a great time in the Smoky Mountains with kids!
Venture Pal 40L Lightweight Packable Travel Hiking Backpack Daypack
I love the Venture Pal 40L Lightweight Packable Travel Hiking Backpack Daypack! It’s affordable, lightweight, and easily packable in a suitcase.
Backpacks are a necessity when hiking. You can throw the important items in your backpack you don’t want to leave in your car such as your wallet, keys, and cell phone. Also, throw a water bottle and some snacks for the kids in there.
I own this in the beautiful blue color, but it also comes in a wide variety of other colors.
CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. Kids Hydration Backpack, 50 oz
The CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. Kids Hydration Backpack, 50 oz is an amazing backpack for kids. What’s so cool about this backpack is that you can drink water through the hydration tube without taking off the backpack. This makes it so easy for kids to stay hydrated.
It holds 1.5 liters of water! It also has a safety whistle! This is such a fun backpack, your kids are never going to want to take it off!
It also comes in a variety of colors for both boys and girls.
2. Baby Backpack Carrier
Luvdbaby Premium Baby Backpack Carrier for Hiking with Kids
The Luvdbaby Premium Baby Backpack Carrier for Hiking with Kids is a great backpack carrier for hiking with babies and toddlers.
This enables you to bring your smallest kiddos on the trails, so you don’t have to miss anything!
Coleman 48-Quart Performance Cooler
The Coleman 48-Quart Performance Cooler is a great, affordable large cooler for a family. Having a cooler is a necessity in the parks. Store drinks and lunches for picnics.
If flying, I recommend purchasing a styrofoam cooler from a grocery store or convenience store once you get into town.
4. First Aid Kit
Swiss Safe 2-in-1 First Aid Kit (120 Piece) + Bonus 32-Piece Mini First Aid Kit
The Swiss Safe 2-in-1 First Aid Kit (120 Piece) + Bonus 32-Piece Mini First Aid Kit is a great kit to have when traveling with kids.
Kids are accident-prone, especially on hiking trails. Be prepared with this affordable first aid kit that has bandages, antibiotic ointment, and more.
What is the Best Time of Year to Visit the Smoky Mountains?
The best times of the year for visiting the Smoky Mountains are in the summer and in the fall. I have been during both and they are both wonderful in their own way.
What I like about visiting during the summer is the weather is comfortable for hiking and exploring everything outdoors. You can also enjoy swimming at your hotel or in the Little Pigeon River. Whitewater rafting is also a fun activity that can be enjoyed during the summer.
Fall is a beautiful time to visit because the leaves are changing colors and the foliage in the mountains is stunning! The streets of Gatlinburg are also decorated beautifully for fall. There’s just something about the fresh, crisp mountain air in the fall with the changing of seasons.
How Many Days Do You Need in the Smoky Mountains?
I recommend at LEAST 4 full days to visit the Smoky Mountains. This allows at least 2 full days to see the Smoky Mountains National Park and then another couple of days to explore Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and the other nearby towns.
Ideally, a week would be perfect to take in as much as you can!
How to Get to the Smoky Mountains
If flying to the Smoky Mountains, the closest commercial airport is McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is about 40 miles from Gatlinburg.
For tips on scoring cheap flights, subscribe below to see how to fly your whole family more affordably.
You will definitely need a car when visiting the Smokies. I recommend renting through RentalCars.com for the best prices.
One of the reasons the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is so popular is that it is a convenient drive for much of the United States. Here are the approximate mileage and driving times from the following cities to the Gatlinburg entrance of the park.
Atlanta, Georgia: 194 miles; 3 hrs 52 minutes
Chicago, Illinois: 586 miles; 9 hrs 8 minutes
Nashville, Tennessee: 225 miles; 3 hrs 40 minutes
Orlando, Florida: 628 miles; 10 hrs 2 minutes
Mobile, Alabama: 522 miles; 8 hrs 22 minutes
St Louis, Missouri: 530 miles; 8 hrs 2 minutes
Washington D.C.: 492 miles; 7 hrs 40 minutes
New Orleans, Louisiana: 645 miles; 9 hrs 35 minutes
Where to Stay in the Smoky Mountains with Kids
There is only one place to stay in the National Park, LeConte Lodge. It’s only accessible by hiking. Yes, you can only get there by hiking!
There are a few trails that will get you to Leconte Lodge. The shortest is 5 miles and could take you between 4-6 hours to get there!!
Since most of us are traveling with kids here, this is probably not a good option unless you are a super, adventurous family.
The closest and most popular towns for visiting the Smokies are Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Both of these towns offer PLENTY of accommodations, dining, and entertainment!
Below is a listing of hotels I recommend in the Smoky Mountains with kids. However, these are not your only option. Cabins are another popular place to stay in the Smoky Mountains.
Greystone Lodge On the River
I’m recommending Greystone Lodge On the River due to its amazing location within walking distance of some of Gatlinburg’s best attractions. They also offer balcony rooms overlooking the Little Pigeon River. It’s so relaxing to sit on the balcony and enjoy the sounds of the river.
The Park Vista-A DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel-Gatlinburg
Park Vista-A DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel-Gatlinburg is another great hotel to stay in the Smoky Mountains with kids. To get to this hotel, you will be driving up to a higher elevation, so the mountain views are absolutely amazing. Your kids are going to love the fun indoor pool here with a waterslide.
Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg
Another great hotel recommendation in Gatlinburg is Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg. The theme of this resort is amazing. The rooms are beautiful, clean, and modern.
There is also an indoor and outdoor pool here. The outdoor pool area is an amazing area to relax, while the kids enjoy swimming and riding down the waterslide.
Pigeon Forge Hotels
Courtyard by Marriott Pigeon Forge
The Courtyard by Marriott Pigeon Forge is a wonderful hotel for families. The rooms are large and clean. They have an indoor and outdoor pool. The outdoor pool even has a lazy river!
Can’t forget to mention the hotel parrot either. We loved visiting this parrot every time we came in and exited the hotel.
This hotel is also within walking distance of The Island of Pigeon Forge, a huge destination with dining, shops, and entertainment.
The Inn at Christmas Place
Stay at The Inn at Christmas Place and it will feel like Christmas all year round. This hotel is a Bavarian-style themed hotel.
There are many reasons why this should be one of the top hotels to look at when visiting the Smoky Mountains with kids. When staying here you get a complimentary hot breakfast, visits with Santa, and cookies at night.
This hotel also has an indoor and outdoor pool. The outdoor pool has a fun waterslide! There’s also a splash pad area for the little ones.
The Wrap-Up: Smoky Mountains with Kids
As you can see, a Smoky Mountains family vacation offers plenty of things to do for that memorable family trip!
You get the best of both worlds; the incredible outdoors combined with the countless family entertainment and dining options all in one place!
I hope my guide of 26 Best Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains with Kids has helped you fill your itinerary with amazing things for you and your family to do!
For more Tennessee fun with kids, check out my post 19 Best Things to Do on a Nashville Family Vacation!
For other East Coast national parks to explore with your family, check out 14 Amazing National Parks on the East Coast for Families to Explore.