One of the largest protected areas in the United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also one of the most visited national parks in the country. This UNESCO World Heritage Site straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, with the main entrances located in the towns of Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina. The park is known for its ancient mountains, careful preservation of Southern Appalachian mountain culture and diversity of plant and animal life – an incredible celebration of natural wonders.
Families Will Love These 10 Activities In Great Smoky Mountains National Park
1. Go on a Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage
The park is well known for its wildflower diversity. There are more than 1,500 kinds of flowering plants within the park, which is more than in any other North American national park. Wildflower walks in the area are particularly popular, but for a true Great Smoky Mountain experience, sign up for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. This annual five-day event is the ultimate chance to explore the region’s wildflowers, wildlife and ecology through scenic strolls, motorcades, classes and seminars. This year, the 66th pilgrimage will be held from April 19 to 23. Register online from February 14 or in person at the Mills Conference Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee starting April 19. The flower-filled event is sure to get your senses tingling.
2. Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show (Dollywood)
Photo credit: Jen/Flickr
You don’t have to be a Dolly Parton fan to enjoy the Dixie Stampede, an action-packed dinner and show that’s bound to wow guests of all ages. The iconic attraction is available in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee or Branson, Missouri. Watch over 30 horses and a cast of spectacular riders thrill the audience with tricks, dancing, music and special effects. There’s comedy enjoyment for all, as well as a celebration of the pride and spirit of America in the patriotic grand finale. The entire clan will appreciate the four-course family feast and the class act performances by some of the most charismatic folks in town.
Address: 3849 Parkway, Pigeon Forge, TN 37868
3. Book a room at Wilderness at the Smokies Waterpark Resort
Some consider the Smokies Waterpark Resort the Disneyworld of the Smoky Mountains. This fun-filled oasis features three waterparks, an indoor miniature golf course, a three-story ropes course and a huge Family Entertainment Center. If that’s not enough excitement for all, the facilities also include affordable room service, restaurants, snack bars and a candy shop. The staff is friendly, the amenities are plush and nature’s playground of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is just outdoors.
Address: 1424 Old Knoxville Hwy, Sevierville, TN 37876-1358
4. Tour historic homes
The next time you’ve got a pair of quibblers fighting for their own rooms, take them on a tour of the historic homes scattered throughout the park. They might find new appreciation for the fact the whole family isn’t crammed into a single-room log cabin. These old structures are great living history lessons and a chance for visitors to visualize life in the wild. Start off on Cades Cove Loop Road, where you’ll see buildings dating back to the early 1800s, or head for Elmont Road, where you’ll find remodeled structures painstakingly recrafted from century-old cabins.
5. Become a junior ranger, or a not-so-junior ranger
Image credit: daveynin/Flickr
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, like many other national parks in the United States, offers a Junior Ranger program for youth ages 5 to 12. But in addition to this opportunity, the park has a Not-So-Junior Ranger program, where visitors between the ages of 13 and 130 can become a park ranger as well. All you have to do is pick up a Not-So-Junior Ranger card at one of three visitor centers, attend three of the ranger-led programs listed in the Park’s free Smokies Guide newspaper and have the ranger card stamped by the program leaders. You can trade in your card for a ranger patch at the visitor center, and become an official Not-So-Junior Junior Ranger.
6. See Craftsman’s Valley at Dollywood
Image credit: Darryl Kenyon/Flickr
Dollywood isn’t your average theme park. It’s one of the biggest “ticketed” tourist attractions in Tennessee, drawing more than three million guests in a typical season. Thrill rides and games are a given, but Dollywood amps up the amusement park experience with even more. Dollywood features traditional crafts and music of the Smoky Mountains area, as well as concerts and musical events throughout the year. Dolly Parton and her family also make appearances at the park. Tickets are $67 for teens and adults, and $54 for children ages 4-11.
Address: 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd. Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
7. Discover the Forbidden Caverns
Take a tour of the Forbidden Caverns, a spectacle of towering natural chimneys, numerous grottos and clear streams. There are more than 8,000 registered caves in Tennessee, but the Forbidden Caverns are something else, with special lighting effects, a stereophonic sound presentation and tour guides who know their stuff. It’s a learning experience for all, with the thrill of an adventure to boot. Tickets are $16 per person.
Address: 455 Blowing Cave Rd, Sevierville, TN 37876
8. Check out these off-the-beaten paths
The park encompasses over 800 square miles, an area too vast for a single-day trek. Instead, why not round up the entire gang and take a scenic drive on some of the lesser-used, but still stunning, routes through the park? Foothills Parkway East or West, Blue Ridge Parkway and Rich Mountain Road are some off-the beaten path destinations ideal for escaping the crowds. If you don’t mind sharing the road with other motorists, Newfound Gap, Cades Cove, Cataloochee and Clingmans Dome are popular auto-touring courses within the park.
9. Dine on flapjacks at the Log Cabin Pancake House
A hearty breakfast is just the fuel you need before a big day of exploring the Great Smoky Mountains area. Head on over to the Log Cabin Pancake House located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for a breakfast your family will remember. The 40-year-old Gatlinburg landmark dishes up all the breakfast classics, from omelets to flapjacks to country ham and biscuits. It starts a hot buffet lunch service – southern style – after 11 a.m. Best of all, the restaurant has “special treat” pancakes and French crepes for carbo-loading for the activities ahead.
10. Comedy Barn
Image credit: Catherine/Flickr
The Comedy Barn Theater has been providing family-friendly entertainment for over 20 years. With more than 9,000 shows under their belt and 5 million guests who’ve already passed through the venue, Comedy Barn has honed its act. The show features performing animals, magicians, jugglers, music and more in a state-of-the-art theater built in 1996. The Super Combo special is a bit pricey, at $54.95 for adults and $24.95 for kids for dinner and a show, but theater tickets are a bit more affordable at $29.95 for adults and $9.95 for kids.
Address: 2775 Parkway, Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
This article was written by Hanna Choi.