The Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited Park in the US and has been luring visitors since its creation in 1934. Travellers arrive in search of old settler hiking trails, wild bears, tranquility and a sprinkling of adventure.
The Smoky Mountains rise along the Tennessee and North Carolina border in the South-Eastern United States and are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains. The Smokies as they are lovingly referred to are home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which protects the range.
We chose to visit the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to escape the Miami summer heat, embrace the great outdoors, and enjoy socially distant activities such as hiking and wild swimming.
We wanted to visit the Smoky Mountains with kids so that they could spot a bear in the wild and discover the early Pioneers’ trails. The trip was better than we expected – we saw bears, the kids swam in the rivers, we enjoyed shopping in the quaint cultural loop and we found an excellent place to stay. If your’e thinking of visiting the Smoky Mountains then here’s what you need to know.
Post and photos by Philippa Langrish
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The Smoky Mountains with kids
There are a number of places to base yourself in the Smoky Mountains including Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Townsend and Cosy. We decided to stay in the Gatlinburg area, which is known as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Where did the Smoky Mountains get their name from? The name “Smoky” is due to an organic fog, caused by the natural vegetation, that sometimes hangs over the range and looks like large smoke plumes from a distance.
Maybe this fog is why the Cherokee were so inspired by the area, inbuing it with tales of medicine men, a great Rabbit god and magical lakes. By the 18C European settlers began arriving and making their mark. Much of the earlier settler’s history has been preserved at Cades Cove.
Is the Great Smoky National Park worth visiting?
Are the Smoky Mountains worth a visit? Over 12 million people think so! The Great Smoky National Park is the most visited National Park in the U.S. year after year.
Visitors come for the spellbinding views, the diverse wildlife, the adventure activities and to witness the Southern Appalachian mountain culture. They also come to visit Dollywood, a must-visit for all Dolly Parton fans.
Getting to the Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains sit on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The two nearest towns are Knoxville to the North and Asheville to the South. The McGee-Tyson Airport (TYS) in Alcoa, TN, is just south of Knoxville if you are planning to fly in.
Most visitors enter through Sugarlands on the park’s north side by driving through Gatlinburg, TN. This is an hour’s drive southeast of Knoxville on US 441. Gatlinburg is charming but also the busiest, and most touristic place to stay in the area. If you are in search of pure calm head to lesser-known Sevierville which is 14miles north of Gatlinburg (about 30 min drive).
We drove to Gatlinburg TN from Miami FL and it took about 15 hours including rest stops. We chose to drive there in one hit, but a good place to stop on route is St Augustine in Florida (the oldest town in the US) or Charleston in South Carolina.
Things to do in the Smoky Mountains
My two kids love an adventure whether it’s hiking to look for bears or seeking out waterfalls, they love an excuse to clamber over rocks and jump into streams. So for us, the Smoky Mountains is the perfect place for a family adventure.
The trick is not to overdo it on the first day. Take the kids for short hikes, with plenty of yummy treats along the way (gummy bears are a favorite with my clan). Know what your brood is capable of – don’t exhaust them so they will never want to walk again!
Hiking in the Smoky Mountains
The best kid friendly hikes are Ramsey Falls – Greenbrier Road (uphill but good chances for bear spotting), Old Settlers Trail (Greenbrier Road) – totally flat (good for little ones), and Rainbow Falls (long and undulating)– busier than most but a spectacular variation of scenery and a huge waterfall at the end.
If you have a toddler head to Gatlinburg Trail by Sugarlands visitor centre. Cataract Falls is brilliant for little kids, toddlers, strollers. Each hike only about 30mins. There are lots of logs for climbing over and stepping stones over shallow streams where little ones will spot dragonflies gliding through the forest.
All Trails is a great site for checking out the trails before you venture out. You can also check out the government National Parks website, which has extensive information on all the National Parks in the U.S.
There are also many more challenging (and quieter) hikes at Cades Cove, which is a 30min drive from Gatlinburg. Park at the visitors center and head to one of the many historic trails.
The famous Appalachian trail passes through the Smoky Mountains for more than 71 miles and the highest point of this epic trail can be found in the Smokies.
I had forgotten how much fun mini golf is before visiting the Smoky Mountains. There are a few different mini golf sites in Gatlinburg. We tried 18 easy holes and for $1 extra we went back the next day. Some of the mini golf courses we tried in the Smoky Mountains are:
Swimming in the Smoky Mountains
Honestly, I thought there is no way my tropical babes are going to get into the freezing waters of Pigeon River. However, they couldn’t get enough of it. The river is fresh and clear. Wearing goggles makes the experience even more magical as I tried to spot trout and local crawfish.
Here are some of the popular swimming spots along the Pigeon River. For adrenalin junkies there is also the opportunity to go white water rafting on the river.
Biking in the Smoky Mountains
We took our bikes. However, the only decent biking spot is Cades Cove (1.5 hours from Gatlinburg but worth the trek). On Wednesday cars are not allowed entry onto the 11 mile loop. You can shorten the 11miles by cutting of the loop half-way or ¾ of the way at two intersections.
It was amazing to see the life of the Pioneers as they lived in the 1800s and catch some glimpses of woodland wildlife. Be sure to pick up a map from the visitors centre which tells you the history of each building, who lived there and what there life was like.
The area is home to historic churches, animal barns, and plenty of wildlife. This was definitely a highlight of our trip even though the heavens opened up and we got absolutely soaked on our bikes!!
If you are walking, park the car and go for a hike on the John Oliver Trail or Abrahms Falls trail.
Smoky Mountains Ziplines
For the more adventurous Gatlinburg has a thrill seeking zip line course, the Climb Works, which my husband took my daughter on. They loved flying through the skies, while I took some well-deserved “me time”! The tours are guided, educational and immersed in nature. It’s also a great opportunity to drink in those amazing views.
The Anakeesta Theme Park also offers a zip line experience. The family owned park aims to embrace the environment while delivering a family-friendly mountaintop experience in the Smokies with a promise to maintain the authenticity, heritage and natural beauty of the land.
Anakeesta is a Cherokee Indian word which means “the place of the balsams.” There are rope courses, zip lines, chair lifts, large scale wooden sculptures, rides, relaxation areas and dining options. However, it does attract crowds (not great during a pandemic)!
There are age and weight restrictions for both zip line options. Children must be over 7 years of age and participants must be between 70lbs – 270lbs.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in the Smoky Mountains (if not the most popular tourist attraction) is Dollywood, owned by country music superstar Dolly Parton. Dollywood opened in 1986 with just one amusement park and a handful of rides and shows. Today it’s one of the biggest tourist attractions in Tennessee spanning 160 acres offering more than 50 rides, entertainment and also a water park, Dollywood’s Splash Country.
Shops in Gatlinburg
Glades Road Artisan community is the largest independent organization of artisans in the United States. The 8 mile loop is peppered with 100 artists and craftsmen showcasing beautiful collections of local handcrafts in gorgeous little properties bordering tiny streams.
The shops are usually family owned with names like Ogles broom shop and Annies Apples. I spent a few hours browsing the curiosities here. Pick up some great gifts from paintings to pottery, jams, handmade candles, baskets, weavings, wooden sculptures and everything in between.
Gatlinburg high street is bursting with tourist shops selling t-shirts, magnets, and other items which seem to be primarily made in China. I would recommend picking up souvenirs from some of the brilliant local artisans instead.
Where to eat in the Smoky Mountains
Because we visited the Smoky Mountains during the pandemic we chose to mainly self-cater but we did venture out to a couple of restaurants.
We didn’t love Gatlinburg town; it’s crowded and very touristy and doesn’t share any of the charm that the rest of the Smoky Mountains has. If you need a quick fix and don’t have the energy to cook after hiking pick up a take-away meal from one of the chain restaurants like Bubba Gump or TGI Fridays.
We’re a British family so we really wanted a true American pancake breakfast. We enjoyed a pancake feast at the Little House of Pancakes. The kids opted for sweet treats with loads of cream and blueberries while I went all out with eggs, bacon and maple syrup.
Some other good options for pancakes in Gatlinburg include the Log Cabin Pancake House, The Pancake Pantry, and Flapjacks.
There are a couple of idyllic places to get ice cream, coffee and browse curiosities along Glades Road Artisan Community. My favourite was the super rustic Happy Pinecone where I sat outside by a little stream while the kids caught crawfish. I was able to pick up some homemade jams here too. The Morning Mist Café and Desserts was also a crowd-pleaser.
Another good place to eat in Gatlinburg is the Red Oak Bistro on Glades Road. We spoilt ourselves here with a beautiful meal prepared by the Bulgarian owners. This is a really romantic spot with delicious food and wine. However, there were no options for kids meals.
Picnic spots in Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains
In the spirit of staying in touch with nature and in tandem with social distancing we opted for picnicking on a daily basis for lunch. Mynatt Park is a great place to picnic by a little stream. After the picnic the kids loved playing in the stream and on the rocks. It’s also conveniently located near the town.
Greenbrier Road has picnic areas in the woods with benches and grills for bbq. There are also some lovely tranquil spots along Pigeon River to eat with the relaxing river sounds as background music.
There are 12 official picnic areas at Greenbrier with a table and grill at each. Charcoal is the only heat source allowed in the grill; wood fires are a no-no in grills. For bigger groups about 1 mile down the road is the Greenbriar picnic pavilion.
Restrooms are available and pretty rustic. My advice is to go before you leave the cabin!
You can check out all of the designated picnic areas in the National Park.
Where to stay in the Smoky Mountains
As we visited the Smoky Mountains during the pandemic we decided a holiday rental home would be the best option to keep safe.
Did you know there are a few rival sites to Air BnB in the US which often have great deals too? We booked through Evolve but there is also VRBO which is a great alternative.
The map below will help you compare hotels and holiday rentals in the Smoky Mountains area. All you have to do is insert your travel dates and group size and they will show you the best deals available.
We stayed at the Red Bird Nest a cabin that could easily sleep our family of four. Our lovely hosts left a super welcome pack of maple syrup, maps, trail mix bars and water.
The cabin also had office space for my husband to work and an outdoor porch area complete with rocking chairs where I could write and paint The cabin had incredible views over the Smoky Mountains from the breakfast room. It was a great place to base ourselves for exploring the area.
Gatlinburg is busy and very touristy, even the bridge is overly commercial. If you chose to stay here the gems of the town can be found on the hiking trails, by Pigeon River and strolling through the artist’s community.