5 Best Things To Do On A Family Vacation To The Great Smoky Mountains

by | Jan 22, 2021 | Destinations, Family Adventures, South East, Traveling with Teens, USA

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Between Tennessee and North Carolina lies a vacation paradise tucked between foggy mountains and old-growth forests. From honeymoon retreats to kid-friendly cabin rentals, generations of our family have enjoyed the gorgeous scenery and countless things to do with kids in the Smoky Mountains. Family-friendly hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, unbelievable attractions in Gatlinburg, and endless fun in Pigeon Forge bring many families — including mine — to the Smoky Mountains year after year. 



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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the headliner of this area. Nature lovers will want to tackle exhilarating hikes, discover beautiful waterfalls, or explore the park on horseback.



 Pro-Tip: Check for kid-friendly hikes and stroller-accessible areas ahead of time.


The park also displays the Appalachian history of the area by preserving old cabins and settlements. The rustic valley of Cades Cove is a great place to watch for wildlife (bears!) and take a walk through history. However, if traveling with young children, consider saving Cades Cove for another time — touring the site requires a 2- to 4-hour drive on a one-way road. 


log cabin - things to do with kids great smoky mountains

Cades Cove has primitive cabins, beautiful scenery, and the best opportunities for bear sightings.  Photo by Keith McCamish.



The city of Gatlinburg became a top travel destination when the national park opened, providing popular lodging on the Gatlinburg strip and restaurants for park visitors. Now it draws tourists for its own sake, thanks to attractions like Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, a haunted mansion, and countless candy shops. You can even walk across a 150-foot-tall SkyBridge that overlooks the city. Head up the mountain to Ober Gatlinburg for skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and ice skating. Hungry yet? Stop in at Pancake Pantry for a true Tennessee tradition.


people walking on bridge - things to do with kids great smoky mountains

The Gatlinburg SkyBridge features glass floor panels that allow you to look down as you walk across the bridge (No thanks!). Photo by Amy Baugess on Unsplash.



Pigeon Forge

Pigeon Forge is the most indescribably touristy place I have ever been. It’s glorious. There’s an upside-down museum, a Titanic replica, dinner theater, mini-golf, go-karts, and more. While the town became popular as a less crowded alternative to Gatlinburg, it has taken on a life of its own. Don’t miss the quieter spots, though, like the Old Mill Restaurant (a great stop for southern comfort food). One of my favorite memories of this area is walking down to the Little Pigeon River and feeding the ducks. 


log cabin and water fall - things to do with kids great smoky mountains

The main drag of Pigeon Forge is filled with neon lights and exciting attractions, but quieter spots, like the Old Mill, are just a couple of blocks away. Photo by Keith McCamish.



Tennesseans have a special affinity for Dolly Parton, and why not? She’s a bestselling songwriter, sends books to our kids, and provided aid to victims of the 2016 Gatlinburg fires. So this might help you understand why there’s an entire amusement park named after her. 




Dollywood has all the classics of a standard amusement park — exciting coasters, a river raft ride, and even an adjacent water park. But the best parts of Dollywood are the things that make it unique, like the eagle sanctuary, a coal-powered train, artisan demonstrations of the region’s skilled crafts, and a good helping of bluegrass music and Appalachian friendliness. Be sure to stop at the Taffy Kitchen or Showstreet Ice Cream for an afternoon snack!


Don’t Miss Our List of the Best Things To Do at Dollywood!


man glass blowing - things to do with kids great smoky mountains

Kids will love watching artisans make hand-blown glass creations at Dollywood (but maybe don’t take them to the glass-filled gift shop right next door). Photo courtesy of Dollywood and Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation.



While visiting the Smoky Mountains, take some time to drive over to Cherokee, North Carolina. As the capital of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee offers a deep look into the history and culture of the people who occupied the Smoky Mountains long before tourists arrived. In warmer months, families can tour Oconaluftee Indian Village and experience Cherokee life in the 18th century. Oconaluftee Islands Park offers spots for swimming, tubing, and fishing. 


show around a campfire - things to do with kids great smoky mountains

From late May through early October, visitors can experience bonfire storytelling at Oconaluftee Islands Park in Cherokee, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Swain County TDA/Chamber of Commerce.


Other Things To Do at the Great Smoky Mountains

If you have time, check out the local tours and guides!

To get discounts on tours in the area, we recommend Get Your Guide or Viator (which offers 51% off last-minute tours!).

When You Go



Getting To the Great Smoky Mountains From LA

McGhee Tyson Airport near Knoxville, Tennessee, is the closest airport and is served by several major airlines. (I don’t recommend flying into Nashville and driving; it’s almost a four-hour drive.)

An excellent discount site for flights (and cars, hotels) is Expedia!



Getting Around

While there are trolleys that circle through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, you’ll want your own vehicle for the most reliable transportation, especially if you plan to visit the national park. 

Find great deals on car rentals through Expedia!


Where to Stay: Smoky Mountain Hotels, Cabins, and Lodging

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has tent and RV camping available. Hidden Mountain Resorts offers condos and cabins throughout the Smoky Mountains, while VRBO, Turnkey, and Vacasa have options for renting mountain chalets with hot tubs and private pools. For a premium family experience, try Wilderness at the Smokies in Sevierville, which includes an indoor water park, or The Island in Pigeon Forge, with hotels just steps away from restaurants and shops. Hampton Inn in Pigeon Forge is a reliable budget option.



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Christy Nicholson is a writer, editor, and recovering perfectionist from Nashville, Tennessee. When not traveling with family, she enjoys cozy days at home reading, gardening, making music, and wrangling two awesome kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about travel and sustainable living.