Just because you have an infant doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Few things are more impacting on your children than exploring nature with them. It sparks curiosity and starts conversations. It builds apathy and an appreciation for our natural world. It boosts immunity, gives an outlet for a child’s endless energy, and builds character and confidence.
And few places are as family-friendly as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hence the reason more than 12 million people visit the park every year, making it the most visited national park in America.
The downside? This popularity can lead to traffic jams, parking issues, and overcrowded trails. No bueno. Add in traveling with your toddler and even the most seasoned traveler would consider throwing in the towel.
But planning a family trip to the Smoky Mountains doesn’t have to be daunting. Armed with some tried-and-true tips, you’ll be strapping in bébé and hitting the trails with confidence.
Timing is EVERYTHING When Visiting The Smokies
If you Google the best times to visit the Great Smoky Mountains, you will be advised to visit during the summer months and October. Well, guess what, most of the 12.1 million other people planning to visit the park this year are going to visit then too.
At only a quarter of the size of Yellowstone National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts nearly three times more visitors annually. And with good reason. Ranging from around 850 to over 6,600 feet in elevation, GSMNP showcases a staggering array of diverse ecosystems.
It also boasts over 700 miles of rivers, streams, and waterfalls within the park. And leaf-peeping in the Smokies is the stuff of Instagram dreams.
Oh yeah, and it’s free!
All this translates into hours sitting in heavy traffic, no parking at trailheads, no space at picnic areas, etc. So how do you avoid such a headache? Timing.
Visiting in shoulder season gives you all the natural splendor of the Smokies without all the exhaust fumes.
For instance, we visited in May and woke to cool, sunny mornings that warmed into perfectly sunny 72 degrees days. Vibrant blue skies crowned lush and verdant forests. The rolling mountains echoed with bird song, wandering deer, and the cascading mountain streams.
Parking at popular trailheads was hit-or-miss but driving through the park and walking the trails were relatively easy going.
If you have your heart set on seeing the Smokies ablaze with color in the fall, no fear. All the forests surrounding the park for miles and miles also change at the same time lending multiple ways to leaf-peep without limiting yourself in the park. Try driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, hiking a portion of the Appalachian trail, or exploring scenic byways like the Cherohala Skyway.
Speak to a Park Ranger
No one, and I mean no one, knows the park better than the Park Rangers. They are up to date on wildlife sitings, trail closures, and weather conditions. So take advantage of the visitor centers, grab a Great Smoky Mountains National Park map, and pick their brains.
Ask their advice on the best trails to hike with a baby, the best time to hike to Clingmans Dome, or what’s their favorite place in the park for a picnic. They are more than happy to help you make the most of your visit.
Have an Itinerary
Now, having an itinerary may sound obvious but you would be surprised how often people totally wing a trip (guilty!). Don’t get me wrong, I love throwing caution to the wind, wandering aimlessly, and seeing where my feet take me.
But now that I have a toddler strapped to my back, having a solid game plan is paramount to finishing the day mentally intact. I still embrace spontaneity, but while exploring popular destinations such as the Great Smoky Mountains, a well-crafted itinerary ensures everyone remains on the same page.
But don’t go crazy by hyper-planning! Zealously cramming every minute of every day with as much activity as possible (also guilty!) leads to exhaustion, stress, and meltdowns (for both adults and the baby). Find a happy medium and build an itinerary the whole family will support.
Also, have realistic expectations. Everyone envisions their child scampering happily into the forest, eyes aglow with wonder and amazement. But if you are dragging your child up yet another trail when they were due a nap two hours ago, don’t be surprised when your explorer loses their zeal.
No one knows your child(ren) better than you. Use that knowledge to build a sensible game plan.
Case in point, my little gypsy just learned to walk and now despises being strapped down for more than a few minutes. With this in mind, I choose easier hikes close to our home base of Cosby/Gatlinburg for our morning outings.
I also know she can go for 3-4 hours before needing a nap. So after a couple of hours of hiking and a picnic lunch, she’d quickly fall asleep in the car, allowing us to peacefully cruise the scenic drives in the afternoons.
Even on my best days at home, things rarely go according to schedule so why would I think they would on the road? Leaving plenty of wiggle room for spontaneous outings (Gatlinburg has an Arts & Crafts Community?!? PULL OVER!) to unexpected delays (another bear jam?!?).
Also leaving room allows time for exploring whatever knowledgable gems the Park Ranger may point you to (see above).
But most importantly this allows for shuffling things around in the event of the unexpected.
Like the time I lost our car keys in a vineyard in New England. Or got a flat in Georgia. Or, on this trip, didn’t realize Cades Cove was closed to cars on Wednesdays.
I first started researching “family things to do” back in March before our visit in May. When sketching out our itinerary I initially planned on visiting Clingmans Dome on Tuesday morning then Cades Cove on Wednesday morning.
It wasn’t until we visited the park that we realized that starting May 5th, Cades Cove Loop closed on Wednesdays to motor vehicles to allow for pedestrians and cyclists. Since allowing for flexibility, this didn’t morph into an issue or throw off any of our plans. With a little rearranging, we easily managed to check off all of our “Must See” list.
Sample of our family’s Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary:
Monday – arrived in Cosby, checked into Airbnb, head to grocery store for provisions
Tuesday – breakfast at Airbnb, drive to Clingmans dome in the morning, walk to Clingmans Dome, picnic at Chimneys Picnic Area on the drive back down. Drive to Cades Cove, (NOTE: Worth the drive even if you don’t plan on driving the Cades Cove Loop) drive loop. Order take-out for dinner.
Wednesday – breakfast at Airbnb, hike Laurel Falls trail then picnic at Metcalf Bottoms picnic area, hike Gatlinburg Trail. Order take out.
Thursday – breakfast at Airbnb, Hike Grotto Falls trail, drive Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, picnic at Twin Creeks picnic area, explore Gatlinburg Arts & Craft Loop. Eat dinner in Gatlinburg.
Friday – check out of Airbnb
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Recommended Baby Friendly Hikes Close to Gatlinburg:
Clingmans Dome – while the half-mile walk from the parking lot to Clingmans Dome is completely paved and “stroller-friendly”, it’s rather steep and strenuous. It’s also windy and about 20 degrees cooler than the lower elevations so pack a light jacket!
Grotto Falls – rated moderate hike, 2.6 miles round trip – the only moderate hike we attempted, we decided to challenge ourselves. It was enjoyable but I wouldn’t try any more strenuous or longer hikes while carrying a 25lb toddler.
Laurel Falls – rated easy, 2.5 miles round trip – I don’t care what else you read, Laurel Falls trail is NOT stroller friendly. Maybe when that trail was paved with asphalt about 60 years ago, but not now. Don’t listen to the pamphlets! Our Deuter carrier would have served us better on this popular trail.
Gatlinburg Trail – rated easy, 4 miles round trip – one of only two trails where dogs are allowed, this easy, stroller-friendly trail runs along the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. It’s a smooth, flat walk linking Sugarlands Visitor Center to the Main Street park entrance. Along the trail, you’ll find fieldstone chimneys and remnants of old homesites.
Not into hiking? Many of the main roads run parallel to creeks and streams with plenty of pull-offs to get out and admire the view. There’s also a handful of waterfalls within the park that you can drive up to. Again, finding a parking space will depend on timing!
Drivable Waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
The Place of a Thousand Drips – Found along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (closed during winter months) towards the end of the loop.
Meigs Falls – located along Little River Road 13 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center (7 miles east of Townsend), at signpost #6. These falls are tucked into the forest and are easily missed while driving so keep an eye out for signpost #6!
The Sinks – just a mile from Meigs Falls, The Sinks aren’t the tallest waterfall but the sheer volume makes it impressive. The entirety of the Little River flows over this fall and the pull-off can be found on Little River Road at signpost #5.
The Right Gear is Essential
I’ve always prided myself on being a light, efficient, minimalist packer and the same applies when packing for my child. And after multiple road trips with an infant and several hiking trips later, I’ve narrowed down my favorite gear I never leave home without.
Infant Backpack carrier – as I mentioned in the last article, this awesome little workhorse came to us via hand-me-down and remains vital to our trekking success. It’s light, rated the most comfortable carrier on the market (for both me and the baby), and has plenty of storage so we aren’t carrying multiple packs. Basically, if you have a child and like to hike, this is a must.
Rugged stroller – for those “stroller friendly” (and not so stroller friendly…looking at you Laurel Falls!) trails, this stroller handles beautifully. It maneuvers smoothly and folds up one-handed, making it easy to load up when your hands are full.
Travel breast pump – I loved this thing so much I replaced my fancy Spectra with it and used it full-time. I’ve pumped exclusively since she was 2 weeks old and I put this pump through the wringer! It teeny-tiny, portable, and the silicone liners are so comfortable. It’s incredibly user-friendly with pre-programmed settings that quickly and efficiently collected milk at home and in the car. Oh, and did I mention how CHEAP this bad boy is?!? For around $50, it’s a quarter of the price of bigger, name-brand pumps and works better! Save yourself the money and storage space and get this little gem!
Travel bottle warmer with battery pack – full disclaimer upfront, this bottle warmer works great but it isn’t lightning fast. You aren’t going to rely on it if you need a bag of milk melted in minutes or even a cool bottle ready to drink in 10. This warmer is all about slow and steady and there is no fear of scalding the baby. It plugs into your car’s USB charger or a battery pack (not included) in the field. I place a bottle from the fridge or ice chest into the warmer when we start our trip (an hour or two before I’ll need it). By the time she’s due another bottle, it’s the perfect temperature.
Travel silicone plates – this little puppy has been a Godsend. It’s the perfect shape and size to fit in the side pocket of the diaper bag and I can pack her a snack to-go or whip this baby out at a restaurant for her to eat out of. It’s easy to clean up at the table or put back together to bring her leftovers (if any) home for later.
Small ice chest for milk – this ice chest is the perfect size the fit between the back seat and front console, making it easy to store and access while driving. I store frozen bags of breast milk, bags of freshly pumped milk and bottles prepped and ready to warm up. This keeps ice frozen all day even with me opening it up multiple times in an 8-hour road trip.
Travel high chair – not only do I try to practice minimalism when I pack but also when I’m home. When I saw this attachable chair while researching baby registry items, I knew this is what I wanted! And it hasn’t disappointed me. We use it 4 times a day, every day! It’s easy to disassemble and throw into the washer to clean, folds flat, and comes with a built-in travel bag. We attach it to the table or bar to eat meals together just like we do back home.
Embrace a Baby Friendly Trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
While white water rafting and moonshine tastings may be off the table this trip, that doesn’t mean the fun is out of the equation for you. Armed with the right knowledge and gear, you can build the perfect family itinerary and create invaluable memories while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains with your babies.