Family Vacations to Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains
Cades Cove, Smokies (courtesy, TDTD)

Great Smoky Mountains Family Travel Tips

  • Drive to scenic overlooks for a view of the mist-shrouded hills.
  • Hike to waterfalls.
  • Ride horses through the woods.
  • Learn about the Cherokee Nation at the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
  • Watch the spectacle of Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama.

The vistas from the overlooks of the Great Smoky Mountains offer a series of craggy peaks and soft ridges that roll, seemingly endlessly, into the soft, blue, smoky mist from which the mountain chain takes its name. For 70 miles these dramatic mountains straddle the border of Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers scenic drives and easy hikes for families with young children, as well as more challenging trails. The natural beauty of the waterfalls, gorges, and the mountains, plus the history of stalwart pioneers and the culture of the Cherokee Indians combine to create a getaway that is both educational and scenic. But remember that you won't be alone: the park is the most visited national park in the U.S., with almost ten million yearly visitors.

There are three gateways for the park. Near the Oconaluftee entrance, three miles north of Cherokee, North Carolina, is the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of log buildings including a blacksmith's shop that illustrate the hardy lifestyle of the early area residents. A half-mile north at the water-powered Mingus Mill, there are often demonstrations of corn and wheat being ground the old-fashioned way. The two park visitor centers in Tennessee are Sugarlands, two miles south of Gatlinburg, and Cades Cove, southwest of Townsend.

The 32-mile-long Newfound Gap Road connects the Sugarlands and Oconaluftee visitor centers and offers several scenic pull-offs as it traverses the spine of the park. For a panoramic view drive the Clingmans Dome Road. From the parking area, you can hike the steep half-mile trail to an observation tower situated atop the park's highest peak at 6,642 feet. Several trails lead to waterfalls. (Please note the Park Service does not recommend swimming anywhere in the park.) Three of the most popular trails on the North Carolina side include the mile-and-a-half (round trip) hike to Indian Creek Falls, the mile-long trail to Juney Whank Falls, and the quarter-mile trail to Toms Branch Falls. The easiest waterfall hike on the Tennessee side is the 2.5-mile loop to Laurel Falls, which cascades some 60 feet. If the kids tire of walking and driving, four stables—Cades Cove, Smokemont, Smoky Mountain, and Sugarlands—offer horseback rides.

Outside the park, near the Oconaluftee entrance, is the Cherokee Indian Reservation, set on a beautiful 56,000-acre mountainous spread. The reservation offers campgrounds, crafts, Cherokee historical and cultural attractions, and some exceptional trout fishing. Stay to see Unto These Hills, a summertime outdoor drama that's a visual history lesson of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Some 100 actors in authentic dress dance, sing, and act out a historical timeline. At the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a recreated 1750 Cherokee reservation, men with bear-claw necklaces demonstrate chipping flint into arrowheads and fashioning a dugout canoe, while women with long skirts and beaded necklaces weave baskets from river cane and white oak saplings.

Tip: The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont offers a Family Adventure Camp in early July with hiking, salamander searches, and evening campfires. Book well in advance.

Recommended Side Trips: Dollywood (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee)


Away.com's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from Amazon.com.

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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