Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Family Adventure Just outside Gatlinburg
Driving past Gatlinburg’s light #10, you drop cell service and enter a world that calls to you on a completely different level- the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It doesn’t require a back-country camping permit or overnight rations, although it can be done that way should you be inclined.
The mountainscapes that beckoned to you from Downtown Gatlinburg are not only close, but inviting and accessible for all family dispositions and abilities.
Sponsored by Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau
Equine adventures can be had from the comfort of your own car or you can saddle-up while traversing across the mountain sides.
For the more reserved horse encounter, a drive along the Cade’s Cove 11-mile loop will afford you the opportunity to view them grazing in the field. You can also spot horse-back riders and horse-drawn carriages as you exit the cove.
Bring your camera for sightings, most likely in the morning and dusk, that could also include bear, deer, turkey, coyote, groundhogs, raccoon, and other animals.
Family hike in Gatlinburg
From short hikes to the Appalachian Trail, families can enjoy a stroll through nature. Trail maps of the park are available at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, just 2 miles south of Gatlinburg.
For even more submersion in the nature and history of the Smoky Mountains, consider taking a guided hike through the park. These can be found through the National Park Service as well as professional nature guide services.
Our guide, from A Walk in the Woods, led us through history, had us try Sourwood, and took the kids on a salamander hunt.
View from the Trolley
You don’t even have to get in your car to find yourself in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In the summer months, hop aboard Gatlinburg’s National Park Trolley. This $2 round-trip ride makes stops at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, Laurel Falls and Elkmont. Jump off to explore these areas or just ride it straight through for a more laid-back way to see the park.
Keep your eyes and your camera ready! Although tougher to spot, wildlife can sometimes be seen from the main roadside. We spied coyote puppies….a first for us!
Playing in the creek
With over 2,100 miles of streams and rivers in the park, it’s hard not to find yourself dipping your toes in the crisp mountain waters. Plan to make a day of it.
Before leaving Gatlinburg, stop by Pancake Pantry for a boxed lunch. If you are not going to be eating breakfast there, call ahead to avoid the line. This cash-only establishment is a traditional must for many families.
Take a folding chair and enjoy reading a book while the sounds of the stream serenade you. Don’t worry, the kids won’t bother you. They’ll be having too much fun exploring.
Sugarland Visitors Center
The visitor centers in the park are more than just a place to stretch your legs.
Explore natural history exhibits, grist mills and the Mountain Farm Museum; take in a free film about the park; even participate in ranger-led programs.
Our Visitor Center Favorites:
- Oconaluftee- spotting Elk
- Sugarlands- natural history exhibits
- Cades Cove- grist mill
Fishing Abrams Creek
Enjoy year-round fishing within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Many streams provide an excellent opportunity for even the youngest family members to hone their skills.
Our family favorite area is at the back of Cades Cove near Abrams Falls.
The City of Gatlinburg offers fishing right in the city limits. They have even designated ‘Children’s Streams’ for anglers under the age of 12.
Donate to the park
Any family can enjoy the treasures of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From weekend getaways to family vacations, there is a place for outdoor adventures.
Gatlinburg offers chalet rentals, hotels, B&Bs and even campgrounds to accommodate your style.
One trip and you will understand why generations of families return year after year. The nostalgia, peace, charm and uniqueness will etch a special place in your family’s memories.
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Writer, Photographer, World Traveler