There is so much to do and see in the Great Smoky Mountains. In Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge there are plenty of places to spend money. If you are traveling with children or teenagers we suggest giving them a budget so they can decide how they will spend their money. From shopping, shows, miniature golf, go-carts, Ferris wheels, bungee jumping, indoor sky diving, arcades, mountain coasters and more! Set your parameters with the kids ahead of time so the flashy lights and attractions don’t sink you from the start.
We prefer to head to the woods. Don’t get me wrong, we partake in some of the attractions, but we prefer the woods. Here are three motor trails that would only cost you gas and time. Pack a picnic (remember to bear proof it), load the cooler and hit the road. Even if you never step foot out of the car you’d be glad you made these drives. Each one is packed with things to see and do. Plan ahead if you want to do some hiking, swimming or hammocking.
- Roaring Fork Motor Trail: from the Parkway (441) in Gatlinburg coming from Pigeon Forge the traffic lights are numbered. Take a left at #8 Historic Motor Trail Road. Follow the road until it forks to the right. At first, the road will be two lanes but once you get into the actual 5.5 mile motor trail it narrows to a ONE WAY loop. It is paved but buses, trailers, and motor homes are not permitted on the motor nature trail. Leave plenty of time to stop at the pull-outs for great pictures or to explore the old cabins. There are several great hiking trails along the motor trail but you should prepare/plan ahead of time. Do your homework! The only easy family friendly, spur of the moment, “hey, get out of the car and come see!” is the Bud Ogle Trail. It is a short loop less than a mile. It is easy and mostly flat. There is an old mill beside a beautiful mountain stream that everyone will love. The huge moss covered boulders are gorgeous. There are several more stops along the Motor Trail. Enjoy, watch for bear, snakes and wildlife and leave nothing behind. Plan 2-4 hours depending on how much you get out to explore and traffic.
- Cades Cove: from the Parkway (441) in Gatlinburg head South toward Cherokee (our through Gatlinburg if your coming from the Pigeon Forge side, you can also take the Gatlinburg Bypass). You will see signs for the Sugarland Visitor’s Center. Take a right onto Fighting Creek Gap Road. It’s the second street outside of Gatlinburg. You might want to stop for a potty break at the visitor’s center because you’ve got 27 miles of a beautiful winding road all next to a stream. If your from Texas don’t think 27 miles equals 27 minutes. This is a twisted road and the speed limit is between 20-35mph. USE pull-offs if cars are stacking up behind you or if you want to stop for pictures. This drive alone is scenic with waterfalls, the stream and tunnels. Make note of Laurel Falls, you’ll want to come back to this or stop on the way. It’s a paved 2.5 mile round trip hike to an always beautiful waterfall. This is where the road changes to Little River Road. There are also four other falls, Upper Meigs at the Sinks, Spruce Flats in the Tremont area, and Abrams and Crooked Arm Cascades in Cades Cove you may want to do along this road so plan to see which one fits your level or which ones you want to come back to. The Sinks is a nice stop. This thunderous cascade is worth it. After leaving the sinks, keep an eye out for Meigs Falls. There will be a pull out on the side of the road. Worth the stop! Both the Sinks and Meigs Falls is a quick in and out of the car or you can linger at the Sinks. There are also several camp grounds to explore along the way. Once you get to Cades Cove follow the signs to the restroom before you hit the loop. Traffic is slow going and if you hit a bear jam you could be there for a while. We have spotted bear here every trip except one. There are several old churches to stop at and a visitors center, restroom and working old mill about half way around the loop. Please be courteous and use pull offs! The loop is only 11 miles but can get backed up if drivers don’t pull off for every picture. Up for a swim? You can splash in the cold river where Little River Road intersects Laurel Creek Road just before the Townsend turn off after leaving the cove. If you’ve had a full day and want to get back to town quicker, cut through Townsend. Look for the signs after leaving the cove. You will take a left on E. Lamar Alexander Parkway. Then take a right on 73/321/Wears Valley Road this will bring you out across from The Island in Pigeon Forge. Important note: Cades Cove is closed to motor vehicles until 10am on Saturday and Wednesdays so bicyclists can use the loop safely. You can rent bikes! Plan for a full day. Pack a picnic and bring a cooler. There is so much to do and see!
- New Found Gap: from Gatlinburg take 441 South toward Cherokee. This road has the Sugarland Visitor Center on the Tennessee side and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side. Plenty to see when you stop in the middle! 360 degree views! Appalachian Trail entrance is right by the restrooms, check it out. Again, not in Texas anymore this 32 mile trek will take you over an hour during heavy tourism. Don’t ride your brakes! It smells bad and well, you might need them later. Learn how to drive in lower gears. You will be going up the mountain to the state line and then down the mountain either back to Tennessee or into North Carolina. Again, there is plenty to see along the way and hikes to make note of are Alum Cave, Chimney Tops and Clingman’s Dome. All of these are hikes and should be planned. While Clingman’s Dome is paved, it is the highest elevation in the park at 6,643 feet and you feel it walking up the little paved road. It’s worth it! Plus, it’s one more place you can step onto the Appalachian Trail. If you decide to go into Cherokee, you might see Elk herds in the grassy area by the Oconlauftee Visitor Center. Definitely go all the way to the dead end on 441 until you get to 19. Take a left and you will see nice shopping centers on the right and left. There is plenty to do in Cherokee as well. Free things, chase more waterfalls in the Cherokee-Deep Creek area, find Mingo Falls, and Soco Falls which is just a windy way down 19. Soco is a nice little pull off with an over look or you can climb down to the falls. Both Mingo and Soco are good falls for little effort. Paid things include shopping, eating at unique places, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino (no children), and to really get a feel for the culture check out Unto These Hills. Plan a day if you are going over into Cherokee, depending on if you are hiking or how many pull-offs you stop at. Don’t rush it as there is so much to see and there will be others enjoying the beauty as well.
Okay, so I said three free things but as you can see the GSMNP is full of free things to do and see. We’ve been at least once a year for the past ten years and haven’t seen or done it all. We love it! My best advice would be to always have some snacks and water on hand so if you get side tracked you’ll be prepared. For more information on what to have in your backpack click here.
We want to hear from you. Tell us what free things you like to do in GSMNP or if this will be your first visit, let us know if this was helpful.
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