We visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park last June. We explored the Tennessee side of the park, though there are access points from North Carolina. This Great Smoky Mountains trip was our first stop on our cross-country adventure.
Consistently topping the list of the most-visited national parks, the Smoky Mountains offers more than 850 miles of hiking trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail. Inside the park you’ll find waterfalls, colorful wildflowers, especially in the spring, and plenty of trails for biking and horseback riding.
We entered the park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which is just a few minutes drive from Pigeon Forge, TN. My kids loved the mix of hiking and exploring by day, then riding the ferris wheel and playing arcade games at the Island in Pigeon Forge at night.
Take a look at 10 things you must do if you take a Great Smoky Mountains trip. Have fun. 🙂
1. Stay Near the Park Entrance. If you aren’t planning to stay inside the park, I always suggest staying as close as you can to one of the park entrances. We stayed at Music Road Hotel. It’s just off Parkway in Pigeon Forge and has a huge water slide, a lazy river and a diving board. Even I went down the water slide a dozen times. It was the best iPad-free time we’ve had together as a family in some time.
2. Attend a Ranger-Led Program. It’s a no-brainer, but if you take a Great Smoky Mountains trip, it’s a must to attend a ranger program. Pick up the free Smokies Guide newspaper when you arrive at the park or go online ahead of time to check out the schedule for the day(s) you’ll be at the park.
3. Hike Up to Clingmans Dome. The entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 5-6 miles from Pigeon Forge. Stop in the Sugarland Visitors Center, then drive 45 minutes to Clingmans Dome. It’s another .5 mile hike (I can’t lie, it’s steep) up to the observation tower, but the views from the highest point in all of Tennessee are fantastic.
4. Visit the Mountain Farm Museum. Adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side of the park, stop in the Mountain Farm Museum to learn about how families lived 100 years ago. Look for a farmhouse, a barn and a working blacksmith. There’s also a short, stroller-friendly trail that starts near the museum entrance and runs along the river.
5. Hike the Appalachian Trail. Wait. What? Okay, fine, don’t hike the entire Appalachian Trail, but if you do decide to hike up to Clingmans Dome, look for the “Appalachian Trail” sign on the way down. Take a few steps on the trail and strike a pose in front of the sign to impress your friends.
6. Bike the Cades Cove Loop. Cades Cove Loop Road is popular among cyclists. Even better, the 11-mile road is closed to motor vehicles on Wednesdays and Saturdays until 10 am from early-May through late-September, so be sure to enjoy this car-free time on your bikes. Stop in Cades Cove for a short hike or to check out the historical buildings.
7. Enjoy a Scenic Drive Around the Park. Most visitors that take a Great Smoky Mountains trip explore the park by car, so you won’t be alone if you opt to drive to various scenic lookouts across the park. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop and Newfound Gap are among the most popular destinations among park motorists.
8. Become a Junior Ranger. My kids love earning badges and patches at various national parks through the Junior Ranger program. You can pick up an activity booklet at any visitors center inside the park for $2.50. Complete a certain number of activities to receive a Junior Ranger badge.
9. Get Your Parks Passport Stamped. Buy a National Parks Passport and head to one of the park’s visitors centers and you’ll get three cancellations stamps (one for the national park, one for the Appalachian Trail, which goes through the park, and one for the Trail of Tears).
10. Ride Aboard a Steam Train. Take a scenic rail trip on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Excursions star at the historic depot in Bryson City, NC. These four-hour adventures offer incredible scenery and sightseeing layovers to see even more of the area. There are also packages that include a train trip as well as zip lines or a rafting adventure.
Have you taken a Great Smoky Mountains trip? I’d love to hear your must-do activities while at the national park.