A Guide To Great Smoky Mountains National Park With Kids

A mom with her child in front of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park Entrance.

If your family is planning a visit to Tennessee, start with this full Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Kids! Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, offering families multiple jumping-off points to explore one of the United States’ most beautiful and exciting national parks. With multiple places to base your family, so many activities to enjoy like hiking and unique attractions, and the many lodging options, you’ll enjoy your trip even more with a little planning. Without a doubt, a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a memorable vacation, so keep reading and discover family-friendly recommendations for your trip!

What to Know Before You Go

A group hiking with alpacas in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Photo Courtesy: Anna Grace

Together with the help of our community of traveling families, we’ve compiled important tips to remember before you head out on a Great Smoky Mountains family vacation. Given that you’ve got enough details to keep straight, read through these tips as you start researching with our Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Kids!

Best Time to Go to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Kids

Parents with their kids hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Photo Courtesy: Kelli Levesque Wein

Like many national parks, the most popular time to visit GSMNP is during the summer months when the kids are off from school. But there is so much to offer families throughout most of the calendar year. Fall foliage provides a gorgeous backdrop and is another popular reason to visit this national park. Winter holiday-focused activities, like the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Polar Express, provide a magical reason to travel. Even a later spring break can offer families sometimes relatively mild weather to take in the Great Smoky Mountains. Essentially, there’s no wrong time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids!

Plan Ahead to Avoid Large Crowds

A child doing a split on an observation platform in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Photo Courtesy: Kaitlyn Brix

Compared to some other national parks, there’s more flexibility with lodging and activities at Great Smoky Mountains National Park where pre-booking is not as essential so far in advance. However, during popular travel times, traffic, restaurant wait times and some activities could be challenging, so consider slightly off-peak times to hit the trail or dine to try and mitigate waits. And allow for a little more travel time just in case! Also, keep an eye out for road closures around inclement weather, especially in winter and the shoulder seasons.

How to Get to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A stunning view up river at Cades Cove, near Gatlinburg.
Photo Courtesy: Megan Tucker

Wondering how to reach Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids? Families can base themselves in the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge, Tennessee area to enter from the north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Cherokee-Bryson City, North Carolina area to enter from the south. The nearest airport is Knoxville, about an hour from Gatlinburg and a little over two hours from Bryson City.

Book your homestay near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park here with Vrbo!

Things to Do In Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Kids

If you’re looking for things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids, check out these options to plan your next family vacation to Tennessee and North Carolina!

Take The Family On A Hike

Father and daughter posing for picture in forest at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Photo Courtesy: Jessica Prechtl

There are so many hiking trails for families to choose from. Closer to Gatlinburg, some more kid-friendly trails include Grotto Falls and Laurel Falls. Both trails are about 2.5 miles roundtrip, with a waterfall at the end! Meanwhile, Cove Mountain Trail to Cataract Falls is 3/4 of a mile with flat ground. Up for a scenic drive with some optional hiking? Spend hours meandering the 11-mile loop of Cades Cove. In between both the Gatlinburg and Bryson City areas sits Clingman’s Dome, a popular spot as it’s also short hiking and scenic, being the highest peak in GSMNP. Or head to the Newfound Gap nearby for a high-elevation hike. Closer to the North Carolina cities is the Deep Creek Waterfall loop, just 2.4 miles, with a waterfall as an added treat. Be sure to get to the trailhead early to find a parking spot, especially at these popular spots.

Looking for more ways to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids? Kids can also join the Junior Ranger Program to go on guided hikes through the park, learn more about its ecosystem and wildlife, and even collect badges!

Hit the Water

A group tubing down the river in Great Smoky Mountains.

Tubing and whitewater rafting provide a fun and exciting backdrop to Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the warmer months. In fact, it’s one of the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids! On the Tennessee side, places like Smoky Mountain River Rat Tubing & Rafting offer both options. Families based in North Carolina can look at outfitters like Smoky Mountain Tube & Raft and Wildwater for the same experience closer to their home base. Reservations are generally required with some age restrictions (3-5 years old and up for tubing and 6-7 years old and up for rafting, for example).

Check out this Upper Pigeon River White Water Rafting Tour through Getyourguide here!

Visit Nearby Attractions

A family of four sits outside, in front of the sign for Dollywood Flower & Food.
Photo Courtesy: Kelli Levesque Wein

Looking for more things to do in the Smoky Mountains with kids? In Gatlinburg, get a bird’s eye view at Anakeesta, a mountaintop outdoor adventure park with play areas, ropes, and a mountain coaster. Ober Mountain offers another sky-high experience, with seasonal activities from skiing to an alpine coaster. And there’s always Dollywood, a theme park with more than 40 rides, a seasonal water park, and more entertainment. Have a rainy day ahead? Check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which provides an unforgettable experience for families interested in exploring life underwater.

In the Bryson City area, train lovers will be in heaven touring the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Explore the model trains, take a scenic ride, and enjoy the quaint shops and restaurants. Farm enthusiasts will get a kick out of Darnell Farms, an agro-tourism experience with ongoing events like family-friendly concerts and festivals and plenty of access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Looking for a thrill? You’ll get it with Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours, with zipline options for travelers ages 4 and up.

Check out the Great Smoky Mountains Sightseeing Pass for discounted admissions on attractions!

Best Restaurants Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Kids

Several men on horseback, holding American flags, perform in Dolly Parton's Stampede at Pigeon Forge.
Photo Courtesy: Dolly Parton’s Stampede

Families won’t go hungry exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In Tennessee, breakfast is the most important meal of the day at pancake houses like Crockett’s Breakfast Camp. The unique Frizzle Chicken Café offers both breakfast and lunch. Local chain Calhoun’s as well as Local Goat are great options for lunch and dinner. Want dinner and a show? Dolly Parton’s Stampede dinner show and Pirate’s Voyage dinner and show are two family favorites. Or just need a snack? Don’t sleep on The Donut Friar or Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen in a quaint section of downtown Gatlinburg.

If you want a great spot to bring your own meal within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, check out Chimneys Picnic Area with its picnic tables, grill, and restrooms. And if you find yourself on the North Carolina side of the park, start your day at Peter’s Pancake and Waffles for breakfast and brunch fare. Granny’s Kitchen offers a wide variety of homestyle cooking with buffet options for three meals a day. Anthony’s offers Italian and American food to suit all tastes. And don’t forget about desserts at spots like Heavenly Fudge Depot and Honey Bear’s Cupcakery and More.

Where to Stay Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Kids

The on-site water park at Westgate of the Smokies.
Photo Courtesy: Westgate of the Smokies

Need somewhere to stay with kids in the Great Smoky Mountains? Most options are based just north or just south of the park entrances in Tennessee and North Carolina, respectively – just a handful of the most unique and exciting options are below!

If you want to base yourself in the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge area, Dollywood isn’t just a theme park; there are resort and cabin options featuring pools, hot tubs, game rooms, and more! Other resorts with pools and plenty of kid-friendly amenities include The Resort at Governor’s Crossing, with condo-style lodging and an indoor-outdoor water park, kids camp, and playgrounds; Wilderness at the Smokies, with a wide variety of rooms and cabins, plus newly expanded water parks, kids club, and arcade; and Westgate of the Smokies, another resort with a water park, spacious rooms and suites and a spa!

The North Carolina side of GSMNP is not without the perfect lodging for families enjoying all the region has to offer. Nantahala Village Resort provides families with a wide variety of options, from a cozy lodge room to family-friendly suites and well-appointed cabins. There’s even a pool, zipline course, and hiking trails on-site! Best Western Plus River Escape Inn & Suites features spacious rooms, a hot tub and a pool, and it’s walkable to downtown Dillsboro. For some fun glamping, Sky Ridge Yurts offer gorgeous views with their yurts and cabins, some quality time around a campfire, and easy access to Bryson City. Families can find a similar vibe at Falling Waters Resort with yurts among the trees and a group lodge that could be a home base for your next family reunion as it sleeps 44!

Reserve a home near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park here through Vrbo!

The Great Smoky Mountains Await!

Three kids overlooking the landscape on a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Photo Courtesy: Noelle Stockman MacGregor

We hope this Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Kids helps you plan an amazing family getaway in one of the United States’ natural treasures. Looking for more national park inspiration? Also, check out our list of the Top 10 National Parks For Families! 

*This post may contain affiliate links that may earn us a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links in no way inform the hotels, sights, products, or other recommendations included in our articles. All opinions and recommendations expressed here are compiled from submissions submitted by the generous members of our Families Who Love To Travel community.

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Megan Tucker

Megan Tucker is a public relations professional, wife, mom and lover of all things travel and travel planning, based in Arlington, Virginia. While she grew up in New England, she's lived in the Washington, DC area, London and Abu Dhabi, and has traveled across the United States, the Caribbean, Western Europe, South America, Asia, Africa and Oceania with and without her husband and two sons.