Great Smoky Mountain National Park On A Budget - Things To Do

Alum Cave Trail
"If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."  
President Lyndon B. Johnson

One of the best vacations a family can take is to a national park.  National parks are a great way for families to disconnect from the stresses of everyday life and just relax and enjoy the beauty of nature. For the budget conscious family, national parks provide unlimited entertainment at a price that is easily affordable. If you do not have a national park near your home, then visit state parks. It will be an adventure!

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is located in Tennessee and North Carolina.  It spans over 521,000 acres and has over 2,900 miles of streams. Within the national park you have hiking, biking, fishing, camping, ranger-led programs, zip lining, white water rafting, and many other activities to keep your days filled with good times! My family visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park during the summer. However, the park is open year round.Did I mention the fee for visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park is FREE?  That's right! You can visit this beautiful park with no cost to you!  The only fee you might incur would be for camping or pavilion rentals. So now that I have sold you on price, the next question is what can you do at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park?
  • Visitor Center - Before heading out on your adventure, make plans to visit one of the 7 visitor centers located in and around the park.  In addition to history and facts about the park you will also have access to brief videos that tell you more about the park.  Also, the park rangers will be able to notify you of trail closings. You can find three visitors centers outside Great Smoky National Park in the towns Gatlinburg, TN, Sevierville, TN, and Townsend, TN. There are four visitor centers within the national park - Cade's Cove OconalufteeSugarlands and Clingmans Dome.
    Alum Cave Trail

  • Hiking - There are "officially" 150 trails to hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Since we are not avid hikers, and our son was only 8 years old, we hiked mostly moderate and easy trails. See my blog on hiking trails for more information. My best advice is to get a good map before heading out on a hike.  After being lost on the Appalachian Trail, I can honestly say you need a detailed map of trails. I recommend purchasing the paper maps at the visitor's centers because your cell phone is likely to run out or battery and/or signal and then you don't have a map. The national park service has a map with all the trails marked on it available online by clicking here. There are wonderful online resources for hiking trails and the level of difficulty at sites such as Hiking the Smokys or Backpackers. I also like EveryTrail because it has an app you can download for Android or iPhone for you to make customized maps.  When hiking wear proper footwear. I saw countless numbers of people hiking in flip flops! Even the moderate trails are not easy enough to wear flip flops while hiking. When hiking take plenty of water and non-perishable snacks. The temperature changes at Great Smoky Mountains based on elevation.  You will need to stay hydrated throughout your hike - take water. Bear pepper spray is permitted for hikers in Great Smoky National Park. There are over 1,500 black bears in this park and they are not the cuddly bears they appear to be!  As a safety precaution, carry bear pepper spray. Hikers in the Great Smoky National Park move about 1.5 miles per hour.  Make sure you give yourself enough time to make the hike before dark. See the National Park Service hiking safety facts when planning your trip. 
  • Biking - The roadways throughout the park are NOT suitable for safe bicycling due to steep terrain and high automobile traffic. However, Cade's Cove has an 11 mile loop that is great for bicycling.  You can rent bikes near the Cade's Cove campground.
    Stream Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Fishing - Fishing is permitted year round in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  This fun activity can be enjoyed by any age.  Fishing is great for the family on a budget! The Great Smoky Mountain National Park also offers the rare southern opportunity of trout fishing. Fly fishing is the preferred method of fishing in this national park. There is a children's only section of the Little Pigeon River near Herbert Holt Park in Gatlinburg.  Licensing and other important information can be found on the National Park Service web page

  • Driving Tour - If you are not able to hike or bike the Great Smoky Mountains, you can always take a driving tour.  There are over 350 miles of scenic drives in this national park.  The average speed limit is 30 miles per hour.  Due to popularity of driving tours, expect A LOT of traffic, especially during high tourism season. Some of the most popular driving tours include: Cade's Cove, Clingman's Dome, Little River Road, Newfound Gap, and Roaring Fork. 
  • Camping -  Camping options include group camping, back country, and front country at a variety of locations throughout the park. You can find more information about camping at the National Park Service website. When I visited the area I chose to stay in a hotel. See my blog on lodging near Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
  • Zip Lining with CLIMB Works - Yes, I know there are other options for zip lining in the Great Smoky Mountain area, however I do not believe the other options could be as good as CLIMB Works. Zip lining with CLIMB Works was one of the best things we have ever done on vacation, 2.5 hours of shear exhilaration! Our guides were spectacular! By the end of the zip we felt a certain comradery with our guides as well as fellow zippers. Everyone should zip at least once in their lives and CLIMB Works Tours was a top notch choice. While the cost is not cheap, it is worth every  penny. 
    Zipping with CLIMB works
  • Whitewater Rafting - Does your family seek an adventure on water? If so, whitewater rafting is for you! In the Great Smoky Mountain area you have several choices for whitewater rafting.  For around $45 per person you will have an exhilarating experience your family won't soon forget!
  • Visit Nearby Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, Tennessee - If you tire of the great outdoors and seek some theme park style adventure then Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge are for you!  Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge, Tennessee have plenty to do for the family once you leave the national park. Activities include Riplee's Aquarium, The Village Shops, Hypnotized by Guy Michaels comedy show, MANY putt putt golf, arcades, & go-kart places, MANY old west family photography studios, Dixie Stampede dinner show, Dollywood Theme & Water Park, wax museums, dinner theaters, and any other kind of touristy destination you can imagine.  I personally found all the tourist trap offerings to take away from the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and tried to avoid the trap as much as possible. For the budget conscious family you will need to pick wisely which pricey touristy options your family will partake of as most are quite expensive.
  • To plan your trip to the Great Smoky Mountains click here & download the National Park Service app.