When I plan our summer road trips, I usually have an end destination in mind. We add stops along the way to flesh out the trip, but there is usually one driving force behind the whole itinerary. This year, it was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We had visited quite a few national parks, but none on the East Coast. In fact, we hadn’t been east of New Mexico. So we set our sights high this year and decided to hit the most visited park in the National Parks System. 😆
There really is so much to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding area, that we are going to have to break this up into a few posts. I started writing about all the amazing things we did, and this became a ridiculously long novel. I’ll give you a brief overview here, and over the next couple of posts, I’ll elaborate. Let’s just say that if you are looking for a place that will keep the kids entertained for days, this is it.
WHERE WE STAYED
We were really prepared for crowds of people. We’ve visited Yellowstone and Yosemite in the summer, so we know busy. Because we decided on a game plan a little late this year, we didn’t expect to find many spots to camp in the park. The teenagers also really wanted access to amenities. Warm showers are non-negotiable with them since we don’t have A/C. We had heard so many rave reviews about Townsend/Great Smokies KOA that we took a shot and booked a spot there. The campground is nestled up against the Little River, and there just happened to be a river site open when we booked. We grabbed that sucker up as soon as we saw it.
It was a great spot in a quiet little town not too far from the towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and the Smokies are right on Townsend’s doorstep. This is by far the best KOA Kampground we have ever visited. Our site backed the Little River, and every day we’d come home from a long day of activities, pull up our camp chairs, and watch the fireflies light up over the water while we ate dinner. It sounds too good to be true, right? I had to pinch myself several times to make sure it was real. It was so picturesque.
Sites are a little pricey. We paid around $70/night (and we have a KOA membership, too) for a full hook-up site. It was pretty level and even had a paved patio with a picnic table and fire pit. The facilities were great, and I feel like the place justified the high price. The bathrooms were always clean and the showers always warm. The entire campground was full, but we never had a cold shower. There are also laundry facilities, a camp store, and tube and bike rentals onsite.The staff was so warm and friendly, too. Check-in was a breeze, and a staff member in a golf cart showed us to our site and helped us back in. We’d buy ice and firewood at the store in the afternoons, and the staff would deliver it to our site that evening. The service was amazing. If you are looking for more detailed info (with lots of pictures) on Townsend KOA, check out this campground review by my friends Stephanie and Jeremy over at RV Family Travel Atlas. It is the main reason we picked this spot. 😉
THINGS TO DO IN GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Since we were primarily in the area for the national park, we hit that first. Great Smoky Mountains has some great day hikes, and we wanted to get the low-down on which ones were on the “must-see” list and which ones we should skip. We headed out for the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center so we could plan our day. On the way, we stopped for a quick hike at the iconic Laurel Falls.
This was an easy 2.6 mile roundtrip hike along a well maintained trail. In fact, the path is paved most of the way. There are a couple of potholes in the asphalt, but we still saw a few brave people pushing strollers up the path. And when I say up, I mean up. The way out is mostly uphill, but we didn’t find it overwhelming. We all made it no problem, and the falls are oh so pretty. Laurel Falls makes a great little family hike, and I highly recommend it. Parking is a little scarce, though, so like we recommend for any popular national park hike, get there early.
Just up the road from the Laurel Falls trailhead, we found the Sugarlands Visitors Center. We originally only stopped to plan out our day and hit the restrooms, but we found so much more. There is a great display of the wildlife that makes GSMNP its home. We spent a good hour there walking through the displays and checking out the 20 minute introductory film. Sugarlands was also a good place to find out about trail closures and construction work within the park. We armed ourselves with as much info as we could and headed to out to see the park.
We packed as much of the park in as we could for the time we were there, hiking Chimney Tops, seeing Clingman’s Dome, and hitting Cades Cove. It was all so beautiful–especially Cades Cove. It think it is literally impossible to take a bad picture in that place. The lighting is perfect and the scenery is gorgeous. They’ve got a great visitors center there, too.
I will definitely have to do another post just on the Smokies, because it was gorgeous. It is also large enough that we didn’t encounter the hordes of visitors that we have in other parks–like Yellowstone. Sure, Cades Cove was busy, but we didn’t feel claustrophobic in the park. It was absolutely perfect.
PIGEON FORGE AND GATLINBURG
The towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are both near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, there is a national park entrance just outside Gatlinburg, which means the town gets pretty touristy. It is definitely a cute town, though, and there are quite a few things to do there. There are also some great restaurants, making Gatlinburg a perfect place to spend some time shopping for souvenirs and grabbing a bite to eat after a long day in the Smokies.
Okay, so I know everyone raves about Pancake Pantry–and we ate there–but we found a cute little cafe we loved even more. On a suggestion from a sweet reader (thank you so much, Lori! 😉 ), we hit Best Italian Cafe & Pizzeria in Elks Plaza. Lori told us to definitely eat outside on the patio and to order the garlic rolls because–as she put it–they were swimming in a river of butter. That is totally up our alley, so we spent an afternoon lunching on the patio over the Leconte Creek. It was so relaxing after a long day of hiking, and the garlic rolls really hit the spot. YUM!
Pigeon Forge is also near the national park and equally touristy. There is so much to do in Pigeon Forge, we hardly scratched the surface. We did visit Dollywood, though, and the kids had a blast. Dollywood is Dolly Parton’s little amusement park. It is clean and well run, and we definitely got a taste of that Southern hospitality there. We actually had several local visitors give us tips on the Smokies while we were standing in line. I guess our Arizona accents gave us away, but we met so many nice people in the park. I highly recommend a visit to Dollywood if you are in the area. The kids will love it!
HELPFUL TIPS FOR VISITING GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
- Make your reservations early. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the National Parks System. Reservations, particularly in summer, are hard to come by. There are several great national park campgrounds inside the Smokies, and some awesome private campgrounds nearby that make great home bases. Either way, plan ahead and make your reservations ASAP.
- If your budget allows, get a riverside site at the Townsend/Great Smokies KOA. You won’t regret it!
- There is plenty to do in the Smokies. The place is huge, so plan adequate time to see everything the park has to offer. We visited two amazing visitor centers, hiked some gorgeous terrain, saw waterfalls, tubed in the Little River, visited a working wheat mill inside the park, and even saw a couple of bears. Even if you only plan to visit the park–not the neighboring towns–you’ll be busy. Give yourself some time to take it all in.
- Don’t miss Cades Cove. If it all possible, try to hit it in the early morning on a Wednesday or Saturday. The loop is closed to car traffic from 6-10 am, and you can rent bikes at the campground. Our teenagers weren’t up for the early call time, so we didn’t get to do a bike tour. Driving the loop was equally beautiful, though. It is a must-see for sure.
- If you have a few days in the Smokies, you’ll want to visit Pigeon Forge and/or Gatlinburg. Both are fun, touristy towns with plenty of activities to keep the kids happy. My own kids loved and highly recommend Dollywood. It was a surprisingly fun and affordable day and a good little break from hiking.
- If you are in Gatlinburg, stop and grab lunch at Best Italian Cafe & Pizzeria in the Elks Plaza. Eat on the patio overlooking the river and order the garlic rolls. They’re delicious! (Thanks again, Lori!)
I know I keep raving about Tennesee, but it really is an amazing state. We had such a great time here, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the perfect family vacation spot. There is so much to see and do in the area, and there really is something for everyone. If you’ve never visited, do yourself a favor and put this national park on your bucket list. Your kids will thank you. Mine did. 🙂
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