As a family, there are so many wonderful experiences you can share together. Creating cherished memories through adventure and new discoveries will strengthen your bond and give you inside jokes to laugh over for years to come. If you’re looking for an idyllic family getaway, head to the breathtaking Great Smoky Mountains. Nestled on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, this stunning national park offers a plethora of fun activities for families of all ages. From scenic drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway to thrilling rides at Dollywood, you’ll never run out of things to do. Get ready to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Smokies and partake in some good old-fashioned family fun. Adventure awaits!
Go Hiking on One of the Many Beautiful Trails
As an outdoor enthusiast visiting the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the best ways to experience the natural splendor is to go hiking on one of the many beautiful trails. There are over 800 miles of trails in the national park, ranging from easy nature walks to challenging mountain hikes.
For families with young children, some excellent easy hiking options include the Laurel Falls Trail, the Spruce Flats Falls Trail, and the Oconaluftee River Trail. These kid-friendly hikes are all under 3 miles round trip on flat or gently rolling terrain. Along the way, you’ll enjoy scenic mountain streams, verdant forests, and stunning waterfalls.
For those seeking more strenuous day hikes, consider the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte, the Chimney Tops Trail, or the Ramsey Cascades Trail. These intermediate to advanced trails offer panoramic views, glimpses of historic cabins, and the thrill of climbing over rocks and boulders next to thundering waterfalls. Be sure to start early and pack rain jackets, snacks, water, maps and a compass.
An ideal way to experience the scenic wonder and natural diversity of the Smokies is by hiking. With trails ranging from easy to difficult, the national park accommodates hikers of all skill levels. By taking safety precautions, you’ll be rewarded with memories of gorgeous vistas and close encounters with nature to last a lifetime. The hiking trails of the Great Smoky Mountains offer an exciting outdoor adventure for families and thrill seekers alike.
Take a Scenic Drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway
To experience the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains, take a drive along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. This 469-mile road winds through the Smokies and showcases stunning vistas, hiking trails, and attractions.
To access the Parkway, head to Parkway visitor centers at Cumberland Knob, Doughton Park, or Folk Art Center. From there, drive north or south to enjoy scenic overlooks, trails, and stops along the way. Some highlights include:
- Linn Cove Viaduct: An engineering marvel winding around Grandfather Mountain. Stop at the visitor center and take a stroll on the viaduct.
- Moses H. Cone Memorial Park: Features carriage rides, crafts, hiking and cycling trails. Don’t miss Flat Top Manor, the former estate of Moses Cone.
- Julian Price Memorial Park: Campgrounds, hiking trails, canoe and paddleboat rentals on Price Lake. Picnic while enjoying mountain views.
- Linville Falls: A series of scenic waterfalls in Pisgah National Forest. Hike to the base of the falls or view from overlooks along hiking trails of varying difficulty.
The Blue Ridge Parkway offers opportunities for outdoor recreation surrounded by the beauty of the Appalachian Highlands. Whether driving the full route or just a portion, you’ll find adventure, natural wonder, and mountain tranquility. Plan your trip, pack snacks, bring the family, and enjoy a scenic escape in the Great Smoky Mountains. The memories you make will last long after you return home.
Go Tubing Down a River
Go Tubing Down a River
For an exciting family adventure in the Smokies, consider going tubing down one of the area’s scenic rivers. River tubing, also known as river rafting or river floating, involves riding downriver in an inflated tube, allowing you to enjoy the natural surroundings at a leisurely pace.
Choose a River
The Pigeon River and Little River are popular tubing rivers, with sections suitable for all skill levels. For a calmer float, the Pigeon River from Hartford to Newport is a good choice. The upper Little River near Townsend offers small rapids for those wanting more excitement. Outfitters like River Rat Tubing and Smoky Mountain River Rat offer tube rentals and transportation.
Get the Right Gear
You’ll want to wear a swimsuit or shorts and a t-shirt, and pack extras in a waterproof bag. Other essentials include:
- Life jacket – For safety, a life jacket should be worn at all times while on the river. Rentals are available if you don’t have your own.
- Water shoes – Protect your feet from rocks with shoes that can get wet like flip flops, Crocs or water socks.
- Sun protection – Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat to avoid sunburn while on the river.
- Waterproof accessories – Keep essential items like keys, ID and cash in a waterproof pouch or zippered bag.
Know What to Expect
Tubing down a river is usually a 2 to 3 hour experience. You’ll start at an outfitter where you’ll rent your tube and gear before being shuttled to the river launch point. After a quick safety briefing, you’ll float downriver until reaching the take-out point, where the outfitter will transport you back to your vehicle. Along the way, you can paddle to navigate, connect tubes together, stop at shore to swim or picnic, or just sit back and drift while enjoying Mother Nature’s beauty. An exciting ride for all ages, tubing the Smokies is sure to provide lifelong memories.
Go Whitewater Rafting Down the Pigeon River
One of the most thrilling ways to experience the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains is by navigating the rapids of the Pigeon River. Whitewater rafting down this river offers stunning views and an exciting adventure for families.
Choose a Rafting Company
Several outfitters offer guided rafting trips down the Pigeon River, ranging from mild to wild. Select a company based on the level of thrill you desire, as well as factors like cost, trip length, and minimum age. For families with younger children, a Class I-II rafting trip is probably your best option.
Dress for the Occasion
You will get wet on this excursion, so dress accordingly by wearing clothes that can get soaked, like swimwear, shorts and a t-shirt. Also wear water shoes, a hat, and sunscreen. The rafting company will provide helmets, life jackets and paddles.
Learn the Safety Essentials
Before shoving off, your guide will teach you some basic paddling and safety techniques to keep your crew afloat. Follow all instructions carefully to avoid capsizing or collisions. Remain seated at all times with feet pointed forward, and hold onto safety lines when going over rapids. Paddle forward or backward as directed by the guide.
Take in the Views
While navigating the rushing river, take time to appreciate the natural surroundings. Towering peaks, lush forests and glimpses of wildlife abound. The most scenic section of the Pigeon River is the upper portion near Hartford, Tennessee which cuts through the foothills of the Smokies.
Some rafting companies offer additional activities like riverside picnics, hiking and zip lining. Multi-day rafting trips with overnight camping are also available for those wanting an extended getaway in the heart of the Smokies’ wilderness. An exhilarating whitewater rafting adventure down the Pigeon River is a perfect way for families to bond while experiencing the wonder of nature.
Visit Dollywood Amusement Park
Thrilling Rides for All Ages
Dollywood is home to over 40 rides and attractions, with something for visitors of all ages. Experience the thrill of rollercoasters like the Wild Eagle, Dollywood’s first wing coaster, which reaches speeds up to 61 mph as you soar over the Smoky Mountains. Families with young children will enjoy calmer rides like the River Battle, Scrambler, and Dodgem’ cars.
Dollywood is known for its stage shows celebrating the arts and culture of the Smoky Mountains. Don’t miss “Dreamland Drive-in,” a musical journey through the 1950s, or the “Heartsong” show featuring inspiring stories of faith. Several theaters feature bluegrass, Southern gospel, and country music. Strolling through the park, you may encounter comedic characters, cloggers, and other roaming entertainers.
Crafts and Culture
Artisans demonstrate traditional Appalachian crafts like blacksmithing, wood carving, and lye soap making. Visit Dollywood’s “Heart of the Smokies,” a recreated historic village where you can watch pottery throwing, candle dipping, and glass blowing. The Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame showcases the history of Southern gospel music.
Dollywood also offers:
-Picturesque gardens, waterfalls and a 50-foot mountain stream.
-Over 25 dining options from barbecue to funnel cakes.
-15 gift shops selling Dollywood collectibles, toys, homemade fudge and more.
-The Dollywood Express, a 110-ton coal-fired steam engine train ride.
-The Dollywood Foundation which has donated over $1 million in scholarships and funds children’s literacy programs.
A trip to Dollywood amusement park immerses you in the culture, music, history, nature and adventure of the Great Smoky Mountains. With experiences for guests of all ages, Dollywood should be on the top of your list of family-friendly things to do in Pigeon Forge. Plan your visit and buy tickets on Dollywood’s official website.
Check Out Cades Cove
Cades Cove is a lush, open valley situated within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that provides a glimpse into the lives of settlers in the 19th century. Once home to Cherokee Indians, European settlers began arriving in the 1820s and the population grew to over 700 people. Today, Cades Cove offers the largest collection of historic log buildings in the Smoky Mountains.
Log Cabins and Mills
Numerous log cabins, barns, and churches have been preserved in Cades Cove. The John Oliver Place, Carter Shields Cabin, and Tipton Place are a few of the cabins open for exploration. You can also visit historic mills like the Cable Mill and Cades Cove Grist Mill. The grist mill, built in the 1870s, still operates today, grinding corn and wheat into meal and flour. These historic structures provide insight into the rustic lives of early settlers in this mountain community.
In addition to the historic structures, Cades Cove’s natural beauty makes it a popular destination. You may spot black bears, deer, turkeys, and other wildlife in the open fields and forests. Cades Cove Loop Road, an 11-mile one-way road loop, offers opportunities for wildlife viewing, hiking, biking, and horseback riding with stunning views of the cove and surrounding mountains. Trails like the Gregory Bald Trail and Rich Mountain Loop Trail lead to scenic overlooks and waterfalls.
Preservation for All
Cades Cove aims to preserve the natural and cultural history of this mountain community for all to enjoy. The one-way loop road and historic areas are wheelchair accessible. Ranger-guided programs are also available seasonally. Cades Cove embodies the spirit of community that settlers found in the Smokies centuries ago. A visit to this special place allows families today to reconnect with nature and history.
Take a Trip to Clingmans Dome
A trip to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a must for any visit to the Smokies. At 6,643 feet, the observation tower at the summit provides 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains.
The Clingmans Dome Road
The 7-mile Clingmans Dome Road twists and turns its way up the mountain to the parking lot near the summit. The road is only open seasonally, typically from April through November, depending on weather conditions. There is an entrance fee for the park road.
Hiking to the Top
From the parking lot, it’s a steep half-mile hike up to the observation tower. The trail is paved but still strenuous, climbing over 300 feet, so take your time. Those not up for the hike can still experience the views from the parking lot.
At the top, the 45-foot observation tower offers unparalleled 360 degree vistas of the Smokies. On a clear day, views can extend up to 100 miles, all the way to Mount Mitchell in North Carolina! Sunrise and sunset are particularly stunning times to take in the scenic overlook.
What to Bring
Be sure to pack essentials for a trip up the mountain:
- Comfortable walking shoes – the trail can be steep!
- Layered clothing – temperatures are often 10-15 degrees cooler at the higher elevation
- Rain jacket – weather can change quickly at the top of the dome
- Camera to capture the scenic views
- Binoculars to spot wildlife and distant peaks
- Snacks/water – there are no services at the top
A trip to the dome is a memorable way to experience the beauty and grandness of the Great Smoky Mountains. The stunning panoramic vistas from the top of Clingmans Dome make the journey up the mountain well worth the effort. Don’t miss this iconic Smokies destination on your next family adventure!
Explore the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center
Learn About the History and Culture of the Smokies
The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center provides an overview of the history, culture, and natural heritage of the Smoky Mountains region. Through interactive exhibits, artifacts, multimedia presentations, and educational programs, visitors can discover how the Smoky Mountains developed over time.
Native American History
The Heritage Center highlights the native Cherokee people who first inhabited the land. You can see tools, weapons, pottery, baskets, and other artifacts of daily life in the Cherokee villages that date back thousands of years. Learn about their forced removal from the region along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.
Settlement of the Mountains
European settlers began arriving in the late 1700s, clearing land for farming and establishing communities. Exhibits showcase log cabins, quilts, musical instruments, and other materials demonstrating how early settlers lived, worked, and found entertainment in this isolated region.
The Birth of Tourism
In the early 1900s, the Smokies became a vacation destination. The Heritage Center documents the rise of tourism in the region, including the development of hotels, campgrounds, and attractions to serve visitors. The formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934 cemented the area as a premier outdoor recreation spot.
Ongoing Educational Programs
The Heritage Center offers educational programs, events, and activities for both children and adults. Visitors can participate in traditional craft demonstrations, cultural talks and performances, and hands-on activities to gain an even deeper understanding of the Smokies’ heritage.
A visit to the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center provides context to help you better appreciate the natural beauty and cultural significance of the Smokies. By exploring the history of the native peoples, early settlers, and modern tourists who have called this region home, you can gain insight into how the Smoky Mountains came to be the popular destination it is today.
Go Horseback Riding Through the Mountains
One of the most memorable ways to experience the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains is by horseback. Riding horseback allows you to leisurely explore mountain trails with scenic vistas and get an up close look at the local flora and fauna.
Guided Trail Rides
For your first horseback riding adventure in the Smokies, a guided group trail ride is highly recommended. Guided rides provide experienced guides, well-trained horses suitable for all skill levels, and trails that have been vetted to ensure proper difficulty and safety. Some highly rated options include:
- Cades Cove Riding Stables – Offers 1 to 2 hour guided rides through Cades Cove. Perfect for families and beginners.
- Sugarlands Riding Stables – Provides scenic 2 hour rides along the Little River and in Elkmont. More experienced riders can opt for the challenging 4 hour rides.
- Five Oaks Riding Stables – Features 1 to 3 hour rides with mountain views. Private rides and carriage tours are also available. Five Oaks has over 40 years of experience and is ideal for novice and experienced riders alike.
Some key things to keep in mind for a safe and enjoyable horseback riding experience:
- Choose a guided ride if you are an inexperienced rider. The trails can be challenging, and the guides will ensure you have a mount suitable for your skill level.
- Wear appropriate clothes, including long pants, boots with a small heel, and weather-appropriate layers. A helmet, provided by the stables, is also required.
- Listen carefully to the instructions from the guides before the ride begins. They will review proper riding technique, trail rules, and how to handle your horse.
- Ask questions if there is anything you do not fully understand. It is better to clarify before hitting the trail.
- Enjoy the scenic views but also pay attention to the trail. Watch out for potential hazards like low-hanging branches, uneven terrain, and narrow passes.
A horseback riding adventure through the Great Smoky Mountains provides an unforgettable way for families to experience the beauty and grandeur of the park. With the proper precautions taken, it can be a safe and rewarding activity for riders of all ability levels. The stunning vistas and opportunity to connect with nature from horseback make it a perfect family-friendly thing to do in the Smokies.
Visit Clingmans Dome, the Highest Point in the Smokies
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
To reach the top of Clingmans Dome, you will need to hike a paved half-mile trail from the parking lot. The trail has a steep incline, gaining over 300 feet in elevation, so take your time. The rewards at the top are well worth it, with panoramic views stretching out in every direction. You can see into seven states from the observation tower at the summit.
On the trail up, look for plant life like rhododendron, mountain laurel, and Fraser fir trees. The Fraser firs are the only tree that can survive the harsh, windy conditions at the higher elevations. Many of the oldest Fraser firs, over 200 years old, died due to damage from air pollution and insect infestations, leaving ghostly dead snags along the trail. Conservation efforts aim to protect the remaining old growth forest.
Once at the top, you have the option to climb the observation tower for 360 degree views or take the paved path around the summit area. Either way, you’ll want to soak in the vistas and bring your camera to capture shots of the surrounding peaks and valleys.
- The best time to visit Clingmans Dome is early morning when the air is often clearest and the colors are most vibrant. Sunrise and sunset also make for dramatic photos.
- The road to Clingmans Dome closes December through March due to snow and ice. The trail may still be accessible for snowshoeing or cross country skiing.
- Facilities at the top include restrooms and a small visitor center open seasonally. There are no picnic spots, so bring snacks to enjoy while taking in the views.
Clingmans Dome offers an opportunity to experience the beauty and solitude at the top of the Smokies. The challenging hike and sweeping vistas from the summit create memories that will stay with you long after you’ve left the mountains. A must-see natural wonder, Clingmans Dome is a perfect family adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Family Things to Do in Smoky Mountains FAQs
When planning a family vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains, you likely have many questions about what there is to do in the area. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions from families regarding activities in the Smokies.
What are the top things for families to do in the Smokies?
Some of the most popular family-friendly activities in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park include:
- Visiting Cades Cove to see historic cabins, churches, and a grist mill. You may spot wildlife like deer, turkeys, or black bears.
- Hiking one of the many kid-friendly trails like the Laurel Falls Trail or the Clingmans Dome Trail.
- Riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad through scenic countryside.
- Exploring the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum to learn about the cultural history of the area.
- Driving the scenic Newfound Gap Road across the mountain range. Stop at the many overlooks for gorgeous views and photos.
- Visiting Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s amusement park in Pigeon Forge with rides, shows, crafts, and more.
What attractions are good for toddlers and young children?
For little ones, some of the best options include:
- The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center which has interactive exhibits on the native plants, animals, and people of the region.
- Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies which features a giant shark tank, penguin exhibit, and other marine life.
- Anakeesta, an outdoor adventure park in Gatlinburg with canopy walk trails, gem mining, playgrounds and scenic views.
- The Island in Pigeon Forge with bumper cars, carousels, arcade games, shops and an enormous Ferris wheel.
What is the best time of year to visit for good weather and smaller crowds?
The spring, especially April and May, and fall, particularly September and October, are excellent times for families to visit the Smokies. The weather is pleasant, the summer heat and humidity hasn’t set in yet, the autumn foliage is stunning, and the big crowds of summer vacationers have dwindled, meaning shorter lines and waits at attractions. Hotel rates are also more affordable outside of the peak summer season.
Your family will find adventure around every bend in the Great Smoky Mountains. From scenic views and outdoor recreation to culture, history, and entertainment, this article provides many options to please every member of your family. Whether you prefer an easy hike to a stunning waterfall or an educational visit to a historic village, the diversity of activities means you can craft an itinerary to match your own unique interests. The stunning natural beauty provides a perfect backdrop for lifelong memories you will create exploring the Smokies together. Discover your own family favorites and return again to experience the wonder anew through the eyes of your loved ones. The Smoky Mountains await your exploration.