Best Things to Do With Kids


Have you visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? The park straddles Tennessee and North Carolina, and is one of the most visited national parks in the entire nation. And the best part? It’s less than three hours from Greenville.

This article includes:
Visitors Centers: Start Here
See Wildlife at Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Where to Hike in the Smokies with Kids
Whitewater Rafting in the Smokies
Swimming Holes in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
River Tubing in the Smokies
Fishing in GSMNP
Unique Things to See in the Smokies
Best Views in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Things to Do Near GSMNP
Where to Stay Near Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Where to Eat Near Great Smoky Mountain National Park

This park has been on my bucket list of places to visit for a while and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to take a trip there with my kids. When I finally got the chance, it blew me away. The scenery is overwhelmingly beautiful. The mountains stretch for miles, green upon green upon green. The fall colors are unreal. The park has the highest concentration of black bears in this part of the country, two per square mile, along with other abundant wildlife like elk, deer, turkeys, and coyote.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in the country, with more than 14 million people setting foot there in 2021. While the park is majestic and beautiful, it is also highly accessible to a big part of the nation and there is no entrance fee. I’ll tell you all about places to visit in the park plus where to stay, eat, and play.

Find a place to stay near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This article contains Stay22 affiliate links.

GSMNP Visitors Centers

Sugarland Visitors Center & Nature Trail

If you are visiting the Tennessee side of the park, start your visit at the Sugarland Visitors Center, only a ten minute drive from nearby Gatlinburg. You can pick up maps and booklets and explore a small nature center that has stuffed snakes, turtles, boar, and other wildlife native to the park. You can also attend a short presentation by a Park Ranger and learn about different aspects of the park. We listened to a fascinating presentation on elk, where the ranger showed us an elk skin, rack, hoof, and cast skull. It was really cool.

There is a one-mile round trip easy nature trail you can take along a creek that goes to the small but pretty Cataract Falls. It’s perfect for families with small kids. We saw parents even pushing strollers along the flat path.

If your kids want to become Junior Rangers, they can fill out a book ($2.50) that has several activities divided by age and then have a ranger sign off on the book and get the pin. My oldest did this with her scout pack and we had a blast. We learned about different vegetation, trees, and wildlife in the park. It’s fun and educational and I highly recommend it as a great introduction to the park.

Oconaluftee Visitors Center

On the North Carolina side of the park, the Oconaluftee Visitors Center is super cool. You can also do the Junior Ranger program there but one of the big draws is the elk that roam the grassy area outside of the building. I’ve seen elk almost every time I’ve visited there. The best time of year to see the elk there is in mating season, which is September mostly, because the bull elk make a bugle call and it’s just incredible to hear.

The Visitors Center there also has an amazing bookstore, topographical map of the park, clean bathrooms, and plenty of Park Rangers to answer your questions. There is also an old village you can tour as part of the Junior Ranger program on that side of the park. My kids and I really enjoyed doing this as part of our homeschooling field trip there.

Where to see Wildlife in the Smokies

This is the question I see on every major social media page about the Smokies. This isn’t a zoo so you can’t just go and see animals whenever you want! While there are places you are more likely to encounter wildlife, the most important part of visiting the Smokies and seeing wildlife is to be respectful of the animals and keeping your distance. In fact, you can be fined thousands of dollars if you are too close to the wildlife. And do not, under any circumstances, leave trash or food outdoors in an unsecured area because as you’ll see on signs all over the park, a fed bear is a dead bear.

Now that you know to keep your distance and take out your trash, here are a few places to possibly see wildlife in the Smokies.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is about an hour drive from the Sugarlands Visitors Center through a winding road. It’s beautiful and goes by quickly since there is so much to view along the way. The Cove is a one-way 11-mile road that snakes through a valley amongst the mountains. It is rich in history and wildlife. Be sure to stop at the information center on your way in and grab the Cades Cove guidebook for a $1. It helps to explain what you’ll see along the way.

Cades Cove was one of the earliest settlements in the area dotted with log cabins and primitive churches. The coolest part is that you can explore them all. My kids absolutely loved checking out these buildings that dated in the 1800s. They look like something out of an old movie and are a unique part of the experience.

My favorite stop is always at the Primitive Baptist Church, which dates back to the mid-1800s and set off the main road. We love to explore the old building and twice have stumbled upon people singing or making music – once was a youth group and their leader with a guitar singing worship songs and the other was an older gentleman playing a harp. The setting, the music, all of it made it easy to picture what this place may have been like when people lived there all those years ago.

As we traveled through the Cove, we pulled over many times, as signs instruct you to do if you want to stop, and jumped out to take photos of the mountains and log cabins. We have seen bears and other wildlife every time we have visited Cades Cove.

There are multiple signs along the route that urge visitors to stay 50 yards away from wildlife because they can be dangerous and result in injury or death. Nevertheless, we saw many people getting way too close to these bears, including a mama and her cubs. Remember you are in their home and you have to be careful. Basically, use common sense.

There is no charge to enter Cades Cove. With the weather changing quickly at times and icy winters, always check with the Visitors Center or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Twitter account to make sure the road to Cades Cove is open.

Biking Cades Cove

Cades Cove is closed to vechicles every Wednesday during the summer months and in my opinion, this is the absolute best way to see Cades Cove. It is so peaceful without the noise from the cars and motorcycles. I’ve done this twice with my kids and both times were amazing. We camped there one of the times, which made it easy to get an early start on the bike loop and the other time, we stayed about 45 minutes away and just got there early, around 8:30am. Both times I’ve biked the loop, it took us about four hours just because we stopped so many times at the cabins to check them out.

We brought our bikes but you can rent them from the Cades Cove campground store. They don’t take reservations so you need to get there early. They start renting bikes at 7 am and are usually sold out by 8:30 am. They rent by the hour so if you decide to go later in the day, there’s a decent chance they will have some bikes back from those who went out in the morning. Prices are $10/hour for age 15 and under and $15/adult.

Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Accessed from traffic light #8 off the main strip in Gatlinburg, the Roaring Fork Motor Trail is a 5.5 mile one-way loop that includes access to popular hiking trails like Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. You can also stop at the Noah Bud Ogle cabin and take the short hike to the creek and back, which is just beautiful. There are other historical spots to stop at along the way.

Since the road is very narrow, if a bear is spotted, you’ll likely be caught in a bear jam for awhile as tourists will want to stop and take photos. Keep your distance from those cuddly creatures. I’ve seen bears and turkeys during my travels through Roaring Fork. The first time I drove through the trail was with the Pink Jeep tour – it was fascinating because I learned so much about the history of the area. I highly recommend that tour!

Oconaluftee Visitors Center

As mentioned above, there is an elk herd at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. They are usually out in the open field next to the Visitors Center or down the road a bit. If you don’t see them, they are probably just in the woods. I have been at this place at all hours during the day and have usually seen elk there. I’ve also seen elk on the way over to Cherokee, NC just outside the borders of the park.

Where to Hike in the Smokies

There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and tourists always go to just a few of the trails, notably Laurel Falls, Alum Cave, and Grotto Falls. The only one I have not been to of those is Laurel Falls because I don’t want to deal with the crowds. My best piece of advice is to get to wherever you want to go early, like at sunrise, if you want to find parking and avoid the mass of tourists. While there is no admission fee to enter the Smokies (they cannot charge one by law), the Park will likely start instituting parking fees because the Park is severely underfunded to handle 14 million visitors a year.

Need to know: Dogs are not allowed (except on two trails)

One important point to note about hiking in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is that dogs are not allowed on any trails except two (and they must be leashed): the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconoluftee River Trail. This is for the safety of both the dogs and wildlife. If you are caught with your dog on a trail by a Ranger, you will be asked to leave and likely fined.

Alum Cave

This trail is so cool and it’s not hard to figure out why it’s beloved by tourists and locals alike. The pinnacle of the hike is to a cave-like rock outcrop that is more like a bluff than a cave. The views are beautiful and you can walk through stunning scenery the whole way. It’s about a five-mile round trip hike to Alum Cave and back. If you want to keep going to Mt. LeConte, another popular place, then you’ll be hiking about 10 miles in total. You can stay at Mt. LeConte at the lodge there but reservations are hard to come by!

Grotto Falls

This is a beautiful waterfall you can walk behind and the route that the llamas take up to Mt. LeConte (we got to see them when we went, which was super neat!). Grotto Falls is only 2.6 miles roundtrip and it’s not a difficult hike. But you need to get there early as there is not a lot of parking at the trailhead off Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

Abrams Falls

Abrams Falls is a moderate 5.2 mile round trip hike that you have to access through Cades Cove. It’s about halfway through the 11-mile loop and you can park in a gravel lot. I loved this trail. It winds through a beautiful forest and comes out at an incredible waterfall. We went over the summer and lots of people were swimming. We even saw a family of otters!

Midnight Hole

On the North Carolina side of the park is a super popular trail to Midnight Hole, a crystal clear swimming hole that is freezing – but gorgeous! It’s only a three-mile hike and not hard. We even got to see some horseback riders on the trail. If you go only about a quarter mile further past Midnight Hole, you’ll get to see Mouse Creek Falls.

Deep Creek

Deep Creek is also on the North Carolina side of the national park and consists of three waterfalls and a great spot for river tubing. It’s not a hard hike but again, it’s a popular place so if you want to hike there, go early as the parking lot fills up, especially during the summer. We saw some dogs on this trail – they are not allowed – and a Ranger was about to go fine them and ask them to take their dogs out. So be aware of that rule and leave your pups at home.

Other Trails

There are a lot of amazing trails throughout the park and it doesn’t take much time to find some of the less traveled ones – Google is helpful, as is this popular Facebook group. We have also hiked the short trail to the Elijah Oliver homestead in Cades Cove – it’s just a mile but is off the beaten path and totally worth the walk. I have a long list of other hikes I want to do in the Smokies like Chimney Tops, Mt. Cammerer, Charlies Bunion, and many more. Do your own research and find your next adventure on the trails there!

Where to Get in or on the Water

During the warmer months, there are plenty of places to cool off and have fun on or in the water.

Kids and adults Whitewater rafting in the Smokies

Where to Go Whitewater Rafting

We took a whitewater rafting trip on the Lower Pigeon River with Smoky Mountain Outdoors and had a blast. They have several different trips but the one we did was best for smaller kids – they allow kids ages 3 and up, which is great for families. The Upper Pigeon River has more rapids and kids need to be at least 8 years old for that trip. Make sure you check their website when making a reservation since they often have great deals online.

Other places to go whitewater rafting are Smoky Mountain River Rat and Rafting in the Smokies.

Swimming Holes in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

  • Townsend Wye
  • Midnight Hole
  • Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area- No Hiking is required to get to the swimming hole
  • Elkmont Swimming Hole- On the Little River Trail

The Townsend Wye swimming hole is a lot of fun in the summer. We brought our own tubes and towels and hung out there for a couple hours. You can chill in the water or take your tube down the small rapids or swim as it is deep enough. It’s right at the Townsend, TN entrance to the park and not too far from Cades Cove.

Townsend Wye swimming hole

You can also swim at Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area and Greenbrier swimming hole outside Gatlinburg. You may see that The Sinks is a popular swimming hole but we do not recommend this place as several drownings have happened there. Always use caution wherever you choose to swim.

River Tubing in the Smokies

I’ve tubed in Deep Creek a few times and while the water is really cold, it’s also a lot of fun! You have to walk the trail back to the starting point every time but it’s totally worth it and pretty cheap, especially if you bring your own tubes. A new rule that the national park has instituted is that every child ages 13 and under must wear a life jacket while tubing. Here are some places to go tubing in the Smoky Mountains:

Deep Creek Tube Center

1090 West Deep Creek Road, Bryson City

  • $7/per tube rental, life jackets available for kids.

Smoky Mountain Tube & Raft

1847 Tsali Boulevard, Cherokee

  • $14/person, includes shuttle service.
  • Children must be 5+ years old to participate.
  • Open 10 am – 5 pm daily

JJ’s Tubes

1399 West Deep Creek Road, Bryson City

Deep Creek Store & Tubes

1840 West Deep Creek Road, Bryson City

  • This is a campground that offers tube rentals on site April – October

Creekside Tubing

1881 West Deep Creek Road, Bryson City

  • Closest tubing rental place to the Deep Creek entrance
  • $8/tube

Smoky Mountain River Rat Tubing

They have two tubing locations in East Tennessee near the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area:
205 Wears Valley Road, Townsend (Ages 3+)
8435 State Highway 73, Townsend (Ages 6+)

  • Tubing passes for both outposts are $14.99 (6-12 years old) and $19.99 (13+ years) in advance online. Day of tickets are $24.99/adult and $19.99/kids.

Tube River Rage

8303 State Highway 73, Townsend

$16.99 + tax (ages 6-12) and $19.99 (ages 13+)

Fishing in the National Park

Every time we’ve got to the Smokies, we have seen fisherman in the creeks and rivers that run through the park. As long as you have a fishing license, you can fish the 2,900 miles of streams and creeks within the park. Take a look at the Smokies website to get all the best information and rules on trout fishing within the park.

Unique Things to See in the Smokies

I think the park harbors many secrets just given its history (read about it before you go!) but there are some pretty incredible things to see here that you’ll find hardly anywhere else.

Synchronous Fireflies

These fireflies are very unique because unlike other fireflies, they will light up all at the same time, which is quite the show. Because they are so cool, the Park severely limits visitors during May and June to the areas where the fireflies light up because humans have done so much damage to the environment over the years. To see the fireflies, you have to enter the lottery, which costs a dollar. If you manage to win (I have to win a golden ticket), you’ll pay a parking fee at Elkmont -around $25 – to take a shuttle into the park to see the fireflies. The lottery opens in late April just for a few days and you will be notified by mid-May if you won.

Walker Sisters Cabin

Pick up this trail to the Walkers Sisters Cabin at Metcalf Bottoms picnic area. The cabin was built in 1859 where John and Margaret Walker lived with their 11 children. Only one of the girls married, another died a decade later, and the last five Walker sisters ended up living at the cabin together as their homestead. They stayed after the park was acquired by the U.S. Government and sold handmade items to visitors who happened upon their cabin. The trail isn’t hard and goes past an old schoolhouse and cemetery as well.

Where to Find the Best Views

I have never gotten tired of the views of the Smokies no matter how many times I see the majestic peaks and clouds weaving through the tree tops. Here are a few places to see some incredible views.

Newfound Gap

In the other direction from Cades Cove is Newfound Gap, which is on the way to Clingmans Dome. There is a large parking lot at the pull off for the site, with plenty of viewing points and photo opportunities.

Newfound Gap views at Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Newfound Gap sits at just over 5,000 feet above sea level and is the lowest possible pass through the park. Since it’s so high up, it gets a hefty amount of snow a year, average is 69 inches, and is about 10 degrees cooler than Gatlinburg.

The Appalachian Trail crosses here so you can take a stroll to enjoy the view and stretch your legs.

Clingmans Dome

At 6,643 feet above sea level, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smokies, in Tennessee, and on the Appalachian Trail as well as the third highest point east of the Mississippi River.

Clingmans Dome is about 40 minutes from the Sugarlands Visitors Center and just seven miles from Newfound Gap. The road to Clingmans Dome is closed from December 1 through March 31st, although the observation tower is open year round, but can also close at other times for weather to be sure to check to make sure its open before you go.

The drive up there is stunning. You feel like you’re one top of the world and can see into Tennessee and North Carolina on clear days. The parking lot for Clingmans Dome sits a half mile from the observation deck and it’s a steep hike up there. It’s straight up and not suitable for people with health problems, strollers, or wheelchairs. Don’t worry too much if you can’t make it to the top because the views from the parking lot are amazing.

Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The storied Appalachian Trail runs through the Great Smoky Mountains and up to Clingmans Dome and you can take a short part of it on the way up or down to the observation tower if you like. It connects to the Clingmans Dome Trail for a total length of almost a mile to the parking lot or back, one way. The vegetation is so vastly different from that of the parks and trails near Greenville that is feels like you’re in another world. It’s beautiful.

Once you huff and puff your way to the top of the observation tower, you’ll be rewarded with a 360 degree view of the park. I’ve seen so many stunning photos of both the sunrise and sunset from this point and while I’m not hiking up there in the dark, the views during the day are breathtaking. It is absolutely worth it to hike up there (maybe bribe the kids with a snack when you get to the top).

The history of the area surrounding Clingmans Dome goes back to the Cherokee tribe as they were pushed out of their lands and walked through what is known as the “Trail of Tears.” Even with the crowds up there, I found the area to be peaceful, especially as we took the trail from the observation tower back down to the parking lot where we only saw a handful of people. Perhaps those spirits of the Cherokee still linger.

Foothills Parkway

Don’t miss the less traveled Foothills Parkway, where you’ll be rewarded with less traffic and beautiful views of the Smokies. This was the first place I stopped on my maiden visit to the national park and it did not disappoint.

Coolest Attractions Near the Smokies

I’ve done a lot of things in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and it’s really hard to choose my favorites but I’ll try. You can see more things to do and reviews in our larger guide to the Gatlinburg area.


I think this mountaintop village is amazing. You can either take an open air chondala or ride up to Anakeesta in a huge truck to the top. Once there, you can run through the treetops on swinging bridges, eat lunch or dinner while enjoying beautiful views, climb the highest tower on a mountain, go zip lining and ride the mountain coaster, play on the forest-themed play areas, and cool off in the splash pad.

Sky Bridge

You can see the Sky Bridge from downtown Gatlinburg and it’s no wonder you can: it’s the longest pedestrian bridge in North America. They have two glass floor partitions on the swinging bridge which will probably test your courage. There are short trails at the top and a new Tulip Tower to climb plus a cool gift shop and snack bar.


The iconic theme park is a lot of fun for families as it has areas for little and big kids plus a locomotive train and awesome shows. Dollywood at Christmas is especially fun with the unique shows and massive display of Christmas lights.


Soaky Mountain, Dollywood Splash Country, and the Wild Bear Falls Water Park at the Westgate Resort are all a lot of fun if you like the thrill of waterparks. Wild Bear Falls is indoors so you can go anytime of year.

Lost Sea Adventure

Take a boat ride in an underground lake at the Lost Sea Adventure. This is absolutely as cool as it sounds.

Smoky Mountain Llama Treks

This is on my bucket list and one of the things I really, really want to do in the Smokies. You can hike with llamas with Smoky Mountain Llama Treks and I am sure this is super cool.

Where to Stay Near Great Smoky Mountain National Park

There are lovely campgrounds in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I’ve stayed at both the Cosby one (quiet and spacious) and the Cades Cove one, which is beautiful and also pretty spacious, plus right next to the Cove. Elkmont and Greenbrier are other popular campgrounds.

There are so many great spots to stay: the Margaritaville Island Hotel in Pigeon Forge, Greystone Lodge in Gatlinburg, the Go Lodge, Westgate Smokies, Smoky Hollow Outdoor Resort, Camp LeConte, Camp Margaritaville RV Resort & Lodge, and Wilderness at the Smokies. This Gatlinburg area guide has several options and reviews.

Where to Eat Near Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Your best bet is to bring food with you for a day at the park. We enjoyed probably the best pancakes I’ve ever had at the Little House of Pancakes in Gatlinburg one of the mornings and brought lunch and snacks the rest of the time. The nearest Walmart Supercenter is 25 minutes north in Sevierville.

Townsend is the nearest town to Cades Cove and there are a few places on the way back to Pigeon Forge if you drive through there. We ate at Paw Paw’s Catfish Kitchen, which had a great selection of catfish, crawfish, and gumbo.

With one of our national treasures being so close to Greenville – and free! – it is absolutely worth the time to make a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

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