Day Trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We didn’t intend to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were just miles out of Knoxville when we saw a sign on Interstate 40 advertising the short trip through Gatlinburg and into the park. The 25-mile trip takes about 45 minutes from the interstate in normal driving conditions.

Since travel is an adventure for us, we decided to take the detour (of course we did!) and just plan on a slightly longer drive in the evening. And so began our day trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - View
The drive from Gatlinburg to Great Smoky Mountains National Park features beautiful scenic overlooks.

3 Fun Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

1. Sugarlands Visitor Center
As is typical of many visitor centers at national parks, there were several park rangers and many educational centers available for individual exploration. Times for guided tours and talks were posted. We grabbed a couple of maps and set out to explore on foot.

Since we didn’t plan to visit on this day, we were not appropriately dressed for strenuous hiking. While I wouldn’t recommend being unprepared, we could accomplish everything we wanted in the trails located closest to the visitor center. The trails were very doable for family hiking with small children.

We visited in March and the weather was a bit brisk. I would recommend at least a light jacket. There are vending machines that sell drinks at this visitor center, but a backpack with water and light snacks would be beneficial on the trails.

2. Hike to Cataract Falls
We chose two short hikes that began near the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Both were well-marked trails where we encountered dozens of other visitors. Hiking near a visitor center is a good option for families with small children or those who are not accustomed to strenuous hikes. Be aware of the trail length and features before you leave the center. If you have any questions, speak with a ranger.

We started our adventure with a short hike to Cataract Falls. It is a short 3/4-mile round trip that is very easy for families with very young children and those most concerned about strenuous activities.

Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Hiking to streams
Rivers and streams are abundant and easy to find when hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

3. Fighting Creek Nature Trail
We decided to continue our trip by hiking the Fighting Creek Nature Trail, a loop that is approximately 1 1/4 miles long. Near the midpoint of the trail is the John Ownby cabin, one of the oldest remaining structures in the park dating to approximately 1860. The second half of the hike is slightly steeper, but it is well marked and very doable for non-hikers (like us!).

Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - John Ownby cabin
The John Ownby cabin, which dates back to 1860, is one of the fun things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with kids.

Planning your trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Be sure to visit the National Park Service website to download the Smokies Trip Planner. The most up-to-date information is available on the website, including closures due to the 2016 fires, inclement weather, and bear sightings.

While we visited solely using the maps obtained from the visitor center, you might consider downloading The Official Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a fully functional app available at the Apple App Store and Google Play. This app works offline, but I suggest previewing it prior to arriving. The app is free with basic visitor information,  but additional content is available for purchase and download for specific and in-depth publications.

Don’t rely on your cell phones or other mobile devices when in this park. Service was very limited when on the hiking trails and deep in the woods.

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3 Fun Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Kids

This post was written by Hilton Suggests Team Member, Heather C. Are you interested in traveling to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Let us know if we can help you with any other recommendations. Tweet us for more great local travel tips!

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