At over a half-million acres, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers families a cornucopia of opportunities to explore wilderness unspoiled. One of just 22 sites in the U.S. to have been placed on the distinguished UNESCO World Heritage List, the National Parks Service (NPS) recently spotlighted GSMNP in a their new, online itinerary. Travelers can hike to a secluded waterfall, investigate preserved historical structures, observe thousands of species of wildlife (including the elusive synchronous fireflies each spring), join a Junior Ranger Program, tube down a river and sleep under the stars. The million-dollar question is, “How the heck do you choose?”
Here is a three-day itinerary full of Smoky Mountain highlights to help families narrow their choices, get off the grid, and immerse themselves in the best this beautiful region has to offer—black bears, mountain streams, fiddles on the porch and the dreamy blue sheaves of the Smokies in the distance.
Day One: Sugarlands
Just a short distance into the park past Gatlinburg, Sugarlands serves as park headquarters and is the perfect place to begin your adventures. Pick up the park’s seasonal newspaper, the Smokies Guide, for park news, maps, tips and a listing of ranger-lead programs. Perusing the offerings—guided nature study, storytelling and a full-moon hikes—I found myself wishing we had several days to spend in the park to take advantages of all the activities run by the National Park Service. The center also has an excellent bookstore, a 20-minute film about the park, and plenty of rangers on site to answer your questions.
After the Sugarlands, get your first taste of the park with a drive on the 5.5-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This one-way, scenic loop features mountain views, an historic farmstead, and burbling forest streams. Along the way you can hike to your first Smoky Mountain waterfall along the Grotto Falls trail, an easy 2.4-miles out and back. Grotto Falls is the only cascade in the park that you can actually walk behind.
Another nearby waterfall hike that’s great for kids is Laurel Falls. After a 1.1 mile uphill trek that isn’t overly strenuous, (our six year old daughter had no trouble) hikers are rewarded by majestic, eighty-foot falls that spill into several small pools at its base. Our girls spent over an hour splashing, wading and hunting for critters in the crystal clear water.
Day Two: Cades Cove
One of the most idyllic experiences in the Smoky Mountains is a bike tour around Cades Cove, a lush valley with sweeping mountain views and abundant wildlife. The cove is closed to vehicle traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings throughout the summer and bikes can be rented at the Cades Cove Campground store. Plan to arrive first thing in the morning on the two traffic-free days as bikes often sell out. The one-way loop is 11-miles long but there are two roads that cut across the cove and shorten the distance.
After your tour, return your bikes and drive to the Cades Cove Visitors Center. Spend an hour or so exploring the historic buildings here, have a picnic and take part in a Junior Ranger program. The rangers here are wonderful and our girls enjoyed learning about family life in the cove in the 1800s while making corn husk dolls.
When you leave Cades Cove, make your way along Laurel Creek Road to where it meets Little River Road. This intersection is known as the Townsend ‘Y’ and is another favorite Smoky Mountain swimming hole and is probably the easiest to reach. Spread your blanket on the wide, sloping lawn and spend the afternoon swimming, sunbathing and relaxing with a book.
Day Three: Newfound Gap
Today’s the day you’ll make your way through the park to North Carolina on the Newfound Gap Road. Along the 33-mile route from Gatlinburg to Cherokee you can make stops at several scenic overlooks, including Newfound Gap itself, where FDR dedicated the park in 1940. Also on the way is the road to Clingman’s Dome where a half-mile hike from the parking area takes you to a 45-foot observation tower. The highest point in Tennessee, it is said you can see seven states on a clear day from the top.
The final stop is the Ocanaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum. Junior Ranger Programs, guided hikes and demonstrations of 19th century farm life are offered several times each day. Some Saturday afternoons the front porch of the visitor’s center is home to an old time jam session of Appalachian music.
On the way back to Gatlinburg you have the opportunity to stop at one more swimming hole at the Chimney Tops trailhead. While the trail itself, a steep, 2-mile climb ending in a rock scramble to the summit, is best left to families with older kids, there is a lovely area at its base is perfect for a picnic, a quick dip, and some time just sitting on the rocks listening to the sounds of the stream.