Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 3 Day Adventure

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is over a half a million acres of beautiful mountain ridges, stunning waterfalls, grassy prairies and hundreds of different species of wildlife, which is the reason this park sees over 14 million visitors a year. The park can be found on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and is worth every bit of the drive or plane ride there. Below is a three day itinerary that will take you to most corners of the park. Most days we went from 8am-6 or 7pm at the park. I know that is not for everyone, so you could easily spread this itinerary out to 4 days if that works better for your crew. We did this with a 4-, 6-, and 7-year-old so everything thing is kid friendly, and I tried to put miles instead of hours to complete because every parent knows with kids, it is ALWAYS slower than if the parents were hiking solo馃槉 Let me know if you have any questions!

Entrance Fee: FREE. Park maps are $2 each at any visitor center.

Lodging: There is only one lodge that can be found inside the park, and it is only accessible by foot. More information can be found here- LeConte Lodge. There are 10 campgrounds within the park that offer frontcountry camping. All reservations for frontcountry camping can be made at Recreation.gov. This park also offers back country camping, however, you will need a permit which can be found here- Backcountry Permit. Lodging outside the park can be found in the many surrounding cities, the closet being Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Dining: Limited food and drink options are available at any visitor center. There are plenty of options outside of the park, in the cities of Gatlinburg, TN and Pigeon Forge, TN. We ate outside the park for dinner but would recommend bringing food into the park if you plan on staying the whole day. Food options we would definitely recommend in Gatlinburg include Flapjack鈥檚 Pancake Cabin, Log Cabin Pancake House, Cherokee Grill, and El Sonador Mexican Restaurant.

Must Know Before You Go:

1. Make camping reservations early. The campgrounds fill up quickly!

2 .This park is full of spectacular wildlife, including black bears! Please review all Wildlife Safety before you visit.

3. Please review all park Water Safety Recommendations as well.

4. Fall is my favorite season in the Smokies. It is also a little cooler, making the long hikes a little easier!

5. Parking, all year, is very small and very crowded. The earlier you start your days, the less waiting for spots!

Cell Service: We had no service inside the park.

Day 1:

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail– This is a 5-mile, one way, scenic drive and the perfect way to start off your Great Smoky Mountains adventure. Most stops on this “trail” require you to park and get out of your car to explore, however, the parking lots on this road are very limited and very popular so be prepared to wait or do a little extra walking.

Rainbow Falls Trail– This is the only hike on this list I would not recommend with really little ones, unless you plan on wearing them for the hike. The waterfall is spectacular, but it is 5.4 miles roundtrip, and does have significant elevation changes and difficult terrain. I still put it on the list for those feeling extra adventurous or those with a little bit older kids. Our kiddos did complete this but my husband carried our 4 year old at the time most of the way, while our 6 and 7 year old were able to walk it, but they are both used to weekly hiking!

Trillium Gap Trail (Grotto Falls)- This 3-mile roundtrip hike is a must! The hike is uphill and moderate in difficulty but definitely doable with little ones. There are lots of streams for them to jump over or play in on the way up and the waterfall at the end is beautiful. Plus, you can walk behind the waterfall which our kiddos thought was so much fun!

Jim Bales Place- This is a great place to get out and just let the kids explore. There are several log cabins, a barn, and corn crib on a farm from the 1800s belonging to the Bales family.

Ephraim Bales Cabin

Alfred Reagan Place and Tub mill

Place of a Thousand Drips– This waterfall is so close to the road you don鈥檛 even need to get out of the car馃槉

Ely鈥檚 Mill- Another place to get out and look around at historic buildings and there is a small craft and treat shop.

Day 2:

Newfound Gap Road (33 miles-Starts right at Gatlinburg entrance)- This scenic drive has multiple pull offs- this took us longer than it should have but the views were so wonderful I had to keep stopping to take pictures! Also, this scenic drive can be done throughout your day as the next few stops are right off the road. They are in order, if you are traveling north to south.

Laurel Falls Trail– This entire trail is 6.2 miles roundtrip, but we just did the 2.4 miles roundtrip to the falls. This was by far the easiest hike of the trip and part of the trail is paved but not the entire thing so I would not bring a stroller. Make this the first or last stop of the day because the falls area, where you can actually stand to see the falls, is small and this is a popular spot馃槉

Newfound Gap– This stop is about halfway down Newfound Gap Road and has a 鈥渓arge鈥 parking lot and restrooms. It is a great place to get out to stretch your legs and take in the amazing views. They also have restrooms available.

路 Drive up to Clingmans Dome Visitor Center from Newfound Gap Road. It is likely this drive will be slow, since everyone is waiting for parking at the top.

Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail– This is a 0.5-mile hike straight up hill, but rewards you will the best view in the park. It is also paved so you could bring a stroller for the kiddos. It is steep, but the views are worth it, I promise! You can also jump on part of the Appalachian trail from here, if you were wanting to check that off your bucket list馃槉

路 Head back to the car and drive back down to Newfound Gap Road and continue south towards Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center– We arrived here in the evening and there were elk EVERYWHERE in the field and by the river, right next to the visitor center. We walked the Oconaluftee River Trail and explored the Mountain Farm Museum.

Oconaluftee River Trail- This trail is 3-miles roundtrip and is both easy and stroller accessible. Perfect for all ages and elk sightings in the evening!

Day 3:

Cades Cove Scenic Loop– This is an 11-mile, one-way, scenic loop. It is a gorgeous drive, especially in the early morning, with plenty of historical points to stop along the way. There is even horseback riding, for those interested. Something to note-the road is closed to cars on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10am.

Abrams Falls Trail– Parking for this trail is about 5 miles into the Cades Cove Scenic Loop. This is a 5.2 mile roundtrip hike that is moderate in difficulty and will take you to another amazing Smoky Mountains waterfall!

The Sinks– We stopped here on our way back from Cades Cove. The parking lot is small, but the impressive waterfall is worth the wait! This is also where you can pick up the Meigs Creek Trail for your next hike.

Meigs Creek Trail- This entire trail is 7 miles roundtrip. The trail is not labeled very well, but this ended up being one of our favorite hikes. You will cross over water 4 times (and there are no bridges) before you get to the falls, which the kids LOVED. We even had the falls all to ourselves that day so it was a great place to rest before finishing up the rest of the hike! Also, feeling like we had the very busy Smokies, all to ourselves, was a great way to end the trip! *If you just walk to the falls and back the trail is 4 miles instead of 7.

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Hope you have a wonderful adventure!

family photo for Always Exploring

Meet the Johnsons

Welcome to Always Exploring! We are the Johnsons. We would love to have you follow along as we explore the world one adventure at a time! Here you will find itineraries to all of our explorations that will hopefully be helpful in your own adventure planning!

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