• All trips planning starts with good maps. Click here to see the Great Smoky Mountains National Park map. For hiking trail map inside the Park, click here.
• During the peak season, expect crowdsand plan accordingly: The Great Smoky Mountains are the most popular national park in the U.S. If heading to a popular place, start early. Also be sure to make reservations with activity operators as early as you can.
• Watch wildlife: Biologists estimate there are more than 1,500 bears, 6,000 deer, and more than 150 elk now in the park, so you have a good chance to see some of them. Your chance will increase, if you are at the mountains early morning and dusk.
• Do some hiking and play in the water: Enjoy the Smokies up close and personal. There is always a beautiful waterfall you can see, regardless of the age of the kids. You can swim, tube, kayak, whitewater rafting or just hang out in the river.
• Be water-play ready anytime: Smoky Mountains have so many beautiful waterfalls and rivers. Even simple picnic spots are next to swimming, fishing spots. Always have swimsuits, towels, nets, sunscreen, insect repellents and tubes ready, so you can play in the water when you find a good spot.
• Be alert when tubing among rocks: You may tip over and some part of the river is very deep.
• Check the weather and/or park rangers if you're doing a water activity: Even if it's sunny where you are, a flash flood might happen if it's raining up the river. You can read the park's water safety here.
• Check for discounts (including Groupon): Activity costs can add up quickly when you just want to have fun. Check the activity website for discounts and combo deals. Many places also offer discounts when you book on their own website.
• Check the Great Smoky Mountain National Park website for the latest update on hiking trails and the park condition.
• Wear good water shoes/hiking shoes near water: The rocks near the creek and waterfalls are very slippery due to mist and algae. Be cautious when walking on them.
• Download the driving direction: GSP may be unreliable when driving through the mountains. Also the direction from GPS may not be the best way to arrive at your destination. Check for the recommended direction from the activity website.
• If you want more mountain solitude, stay in the North Carolina side: Consider staying at Bryson City or Cherokee, NC, if Gatlinburg, TN seems to be too busy. Gatlinburg is the most popular gateway to the Smoky Mountains and it can be overwhelming especially during the peak season. But if you love theme parks and such, jump right in.
• If you're whitewater rafting, more exciting class III and IV rapids are on TN side, while younger kid friendly class I, II rapids are on NC side, which has a more remote feel.
• Watch the aerial view of Smokies to get inspired!
• Watch the 4 seasons of Smoky Mountains videos to decide when to visit.
Kids may not be keen on world renowned plant diversity of the Smokies, but animals like black bears and llamas and hanging out in the water - calm or whitewater- will surely excite them! A combination of the following activities will turn any average family vacation into an unforgettable one.
1. Do one or all waterfall hikes: Laurel, Rainbow, Abrams, Mingo, Spruce Flats (less crowded). Some trails are very popular, and it will be much more enjoyable if you have an early start during the peak season.
Abrams Falls Trail
2. Bike the famous Cades Cove Loop Road (only on Wed. and Sat., from sunrise to 10am, between May and Sept.). It's a lot more relaxing when you're not stuck behind other cars. Plus, you may see the wildlife closer.
5. Have a picnic area near creek.Metcalf Bottoms, Chimneys, Greenbrier (less crowded). Kids can wade, look for salamanders and skip stones, while you relax or join them!
Chimneys Picnic Area
6. Tube down the creek with your family. You can rent, or bring your own and tube at the Townsend Wye. If you rent, be sure to ask if the creek has rapids. If it does, it will add some excitement and rocks, which your family may or may not want.
Tubing Down the Little River
7. Hike with your own llama at Smoky Mountain Llama Treks. Hiking is a lot more fun when a cute llama carries your water bottles and snacks. Kids and llamas can even share yummy treats like carrots and apples.
Hiking with Llamas
8. Whitewater raft in the Smokies. If your family wants more adrenaline and action, choose Tennessee outfits as their river has class IV rapids. If not, head to North Carolina for more tame rapids. Click here to see all the whitewater rafting places.
Whitewater Rafting in the Smokies
9. Zorb it! Roll down the hill inside a giant wet hamster ball! Zorbing was first invented, not surprisingly, in New Zealand and folks at Outdoor Gravity Park thought it was a perfect activity to complement the tranquil Smoky Mountains. This activity was the top choice for my kids when visiting Smoky Mountains.
Zorbing Down the HIlls
10. Visit the 210 ft. underground waterfall and the river at Tuckaleechee Caverns. It just is really impressive and it's always 59 degrees so it's perfect for a hot summer day.
The Waterfall at Tuckaleechee Caverns
11. Check out synchronous fireflies and spring flower blooms, if the timing is right. If you are lucky enough, you will catch these fantastic events at the Smoky Mountains. Both events require some early planning though. The synchronous fireflies happen during late May and early June. You also need to be lucky enough to win the permit lottery. You can check out NPS website for more information.
The spring wildflowers are also famous at Smoky Mountains. You can participate "Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage" walk, where you'll be professionally-guided and learn about plants and animals of the Smokies. You can check their website to find out more about the timing of the event and to register.
Gorgeous Synchonous Fireflies
12. Visit Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, Gatlinburg, TN. It's named the "best aquarium" by USA Today in 2017 and it's a great rainy day activity. You can also check out other tourist spots like Mountain Coaster and Sky Lifts.
Ripley's Aquarium has fish, penguins, sharks and more.