Wind your way through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and beyond on a family road trip. (Photo: Kristin Luna)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park hits all the high notes for a perfect family vacation road trip destination: It’s got views, wildlife, waterfalls and trails galore, and it’s home to a certain theme park opened by Tennessee’s beloved songbird, Dolly Parton.
The most visited national park in the country sees a boom of visitors during summer months when the kids are out of school, the mountains are awash with greenery and the weather is prime for exploring. Planning a road trip through the Smoky Mountains? Consider adding these stops to your itinerary for your family vacation.
If you’re flying in, your Smokey Mountains road trip will likely begin and end in Knoxville. Home to the University of Tennessee, this mid-sized city with its iconic Sunsphere (a landmark commemorating the 1982 World’s Fair) has become a favorite stop among families thanks to its revitalized Market Square and a bevy of outdoor pursuits.
Start by exploring the square with its weekend markets and many nighttime events; then head down bustling Gay Street to see a performance at the historic Tennessee Theatre and test your ability to roll a strike at the underground, 11-lane Maple Hall Bowling Alley in the old J.C. Penney building.
Carve out time for an ice cream sundae the size of your head at old-fashioned drug store Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain before making your way to Ijams Nature Center, 300 acres of terrain with plenty of space for canoeing, paddleboarding and rock climbing. For the adventurous at heart, Navitat’s canopy offerings include both zip lining and a complex and challenging aerial adventure park.
Before you move on, don’t forget to stop by Zoo Knoxville to see its brand-new tiger habitat, baby gorillas and adorable red pandas.
Stop 1: Sevierville
Distance from Knoxville: 29 miles
Your next stop on your Smoky Mountains family vacation is Sevierville, which lays claim to Dolly Parton and her eponymous family amusement park.
Grab a dozen from Courthouse Donuts to start your day — after all, calories don’t count on vacation — before arriving at Dollywood, in operation since 1961 (though the locally born country music artist purchased and rebranded it 25 years later).
It’s now one of the state’s most prized parks, with myriad roller coasters, shows, food and shopping in addition to a bald eagle sanctuary. Next door to the main park, Dollywood’s Splash Country is open daily all summer. A trip here is the perfect way to wear the kids out.
Sevierville’s offerings extend beyond Dollywood. Moderate and a bit steep, Laurel Falls Trail is the best family-friendly hike in the area, and — bonus — it’s also one of just a few trails in the entire park that’s paved.
Sevierville also boasts more than a dozen zip-line companies, though with a cider mill, BBQ joint, hiking trails and ATV tours, Foxfire Mountain Adventure Park is the crème de la crème: a one-stop shop for all your family fun.
No visit to Sevierville is complete without a meal at the Apple Barn Cider Mill & General Store; go between peak dining times as the wait for a table can top two hours.
For travelers who like a bit of kitsch, the Pigeon Forge area between Sevierville and Gatlinburg is speckled with oddball museums and dinner shows aplenty. Those with young kids will find the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud a whole lot of fun (and the all-you-can-eat buffet filling).
Distance from Sevierville: 14 miles
Gatlinburg sits right at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making it the perfect place to visit in the Smoky Mountains. Though the town was hit by a major wildfire in 2016, its businesses are open and ready for the rush of summer visitors.
Start in Herbert Holt Park, home to a trout farm and children-only fishing area, fuel up with a chili dog from Parton’s Deli, and then check out the Junior Ranger experience at any visitor’s center inside the park (only open to children between the ages of five and twelve).
If tubing’s your thing, head to the park’s Greenbrier area; if not, pack a picnic and venture over to Chimney Tops where kids can play in the creek.
The highest point in the Smokies at 6,643 feet tall, Clingmans Dome has an observation tower with a soaring aerial view of the mountainous surrounds.
Back in downtown Gatlinburg, even pint-sized travelers who aren’t of age will dig Ole Smoky Distillery‘s impressive compound, which is more of an entertainment complex than a mere moonshine tasting room. Adults can indulge in samples (pro tip: Try the moonshine-soaked cherries) while the kiddos dance along to live music that takes place daily.
If you need an escape from the beating sun, cool off among the tanks of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Only have a few quick hours to explore? Drive the 5.5-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail loop before you head back to Knoxville for your flight home.