Sitting between eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country, in part due to the fact that the area is within a day’s drive from numerous U.S. states. With 14 million annual visitors, parking hassles and overcrowded trails can be hard to avoid. During our recent family trip to the region, seeking out less frequented areas of the park and rising early to beat crowds was key. It was also important to adopt a less-is-more attitude so that our kids enjoyed what we did do. Below are our best tips on where to go, what to do and where to stay.
A subset of the Blue Ridge Mountains and, in turn, the larger Appalachian Mountain range, the Smokies get their name from organic compounds vaporizing off the trees and vegetation, creating an impression of smoke or fog rising into the air. This fog often gives the mountains a bluish hue. As a temperate rainforest, the Smoky Mountains receive plentiful precipitation, which means dozens of cascading waterfalls and flowing streams throughout the park.
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Families will enjoy the easy 1.3-mile Lynn Camp Prong trail, accessed from Townsend, Tennessee. Consider hiring a guide to provide a bit more context about the park’s history and ecology. We were accompanied by Dave from Smoky Mountain Guides, who shared stories with our kids about the park’s logging past, pointing out remnants of old railroad tracks as we hiked, as well as facts about animals like black bears, salamanders and snakes that call the park home. We were the only ones on the trail the morning we hiked to the Lynn Camp Prong Cascades, in contrast to all the foot traffic we encountered the next day at the 80-foot high Laurel Falls — one of the most popular spots in the park, where parking is extremely limited.
For families with older kids or teens up for a longer hike, the 5.4-mile out and back Rainbow Falls trail leads to an impressive 80-foot-waterfall where the sun and mist together produce rainbows on sunny afternoons.
The highest vantage point in the park, Clingmans Dome Observation Tower, is a must-visit. Walk the half-mile paved ramp up to the 6,643-foot overlook for spectacular views of the mountains from all sides. The spot is particularly popular at sunrise and sunset, as well as during the fall leaf-peeping months, when photographers flock to the dome. On clear, sunny days, it’s possible to see as far as 100 miles into the distance and into seven neighboring states. It’s also worth noting that temps at Clingmans Dome can be 10 to 20 degrees cooler than below, so dressing in layers and having warmer clothes on hand is helpful depending on the time of year.
If Clingmans Dome is closed, the Newfound Gap overlook is a fantastic and less busy alternative. It’s also possible to access the famous Appalachian Trail, or A.T. as it’s also known, at Newfound Gap. From here, you can walk a portion of the 2,100-mile trail that extends from Georgia to Maine. Our family of four met an inspiring hiker who was on his way to Maine while we walked a short stretch.
Make Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a base while exploring the Great Smoky Mountains. From a nature-inspired theme park to a strong arts and crafts community, the small mountain town has several family-friendly attractions in its own right.
Our family spent one morning at Anakeesta, walking along 16 suspension bridges in the treetops and riding a mountain coaster. From glassblowing and woodturning to painting and pottery, the rich legacy of craftsmanship in the area was another highlight. Fowler’s Clay Works can set up private family pottery classes for a memorable afternoon of getting hands in clay and shaping bowls at a wheel. The pottery studio will later glaze and mail pieces directly home. Though we didn’t have time during our trip, nearby Dollywood theme park, named for Dolly Parton (a native of this region), is an extremely popular destination with more than 40 rides.
Come dinner, Red Oak Bistro, is a delicious, albeit upscale, option in town. And parents might like a sample of the craft blackberry moonshine from Ole Smoky Distillery.
Stony Brook Cabins’ portfolio of vacation rental homes is among the best in the region, with breathtaking mountain views and spacious, well-furnished digs. After a day of hiking and exploring, it’s wonderful to retreat to a house with common area for bonding as a family over meals and games. Our home came with a pool table and shuffleboard table that our kids looked forward to every evening. The piece de resistance, however, was a wraparound deck that framed sweeping views of the mountains.
Alternatively, consider a stay at stunning Blackberry Farm, an hour west of the Smokies in Walland, Tennessee. The exclusive property is set on 4,200 acres, with 68 rooms, suites and cottages, along with an onsite bakery, creamery and gardens filled with edibles. The culinary program here, with several classes, demonstrations and tastings, is a major draw, but the farm is family-friendly too, offering activities such as animal care, canoeing, archery and more.
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