Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans Tennessee and North Carolina. The park is nestled in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the most famous mountain ranges in the Appalachians. The wild landscapes of Great Smoky Mountains National Park represent what Appalachia looked like hundreds of years ago. Amplified by the kooky, fun tourist areas that have sprung up along the park’s Tennessee border, towns like Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Wears Valley are keenly aware that Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at over 11.3 million visitors a year, is the most-visited national park in the country. The many general stores, wild rides, mini-golf courses and bumper boat attractions sing their siren song loud and clear as you head into the park.
Equal parts Las Vegas and southern Appalachian kitsch, driving down the Parkway you will see giant, LED-lit installations from the Hatfields and McCoys Dinner Feud, to T-shirt stores with live sharks, to a near life-size King Kong scaling a skyscraper. It. Is. AWESOME!
The Home While We Roam gang agrees. Out of all the towns we’ve visited that border a national park and attempt to offer tourists some extra fun, this stretch along the Parkway does it the best.
1. Make a Base Camp
Since you have both a tremendous national park and a huge variety of activities geared to tourists to try, having a centrally located base camp is important during your visit to the Smokies.
There are lots of Good Sam RV Resorts to stay at in the area and we look forward to going back and trying them. On this trip, we made our base camp at River Plantation RV Resort in Sevierville, Tennessee. We almost overlooked this neat little town, which happens to be the birthplace of Dolly Parton (more on Dolly later), because we wanted to be close to the national park. When we were doing our research, it wasn’t immediately clear that Sevierville was just on the border of Pigeon Forge, which borders Gatlinburg, which borders the national park. Once we saw that these are small towns and it was a straight 20-minute drive down the Parkway from Sevierville into the park, we knew we picked a good place to make our base camp.
River Plantation RV Resort in Sevierville, Tennessee, has riverfront full-hookup sites. Photo: Home While We Roam
River Plantation RV Resort was a great place to enjoy our downtime. We reserved a site that was right on the banks of the West Prong Little Pigeon River. The full-hookup campsite was spacious and level with plenty of green space for the kids and pups to play in. It also had easy access to walk along the river.
River Plantation RV Resort has a spectacular pool area with a splash pad, two large pools, a hot tub and a lazy river. The pool is open from early summer through Labor Day until the daytime temperatures start getting too low. Remember, it does get cold in Tennessee so if you are fall camping keep that in mind.
The park has a great selection of amenities including a dog wash and RV wash but the Home While We Roam crew liked the lazy river the best. River Plantation RV Resort did a great job designing this fun water feature. It isn’t a huge lazy river but its well-placed jets and free-to-use tubes made for some great family fun.
We enjoyed our time at River Plantation RV Resort and will definitely stay again.
Home While We Roam Tip: Get to the pool early or go later in the afternoon when you might get the lazy river all to yourself. It was a special experience to get it all to ourselves after a long hike in the Smokies.
2. Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park Sugarlands Visitor Center
It wasn’t until we were in the Sugarlands Visitor Center that we learned Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a free entry national park. To make up for revenue not taken in park entry fees, there are many donation boxes and gift shops to help support this great park. The visitor center is not a grand visitor center like you might find out west, but it was full of wildlife exhibits, helpful info and friendly rangers. There is also a 20-minute film about the park that runs every 30 minutes. A stop here is a must to plan your visit if you only have a few days to spend.
Home While We Roam Tip: Do some shopping in the visitor center to support the park and take in the park film while you’re there. The short film kept our 9-year-old’s attention and we learned lots in those 20 minutes that made our first experience even more memorable.
3. Bicycle Cades Cove
The most memorable park activity we tried was bicycling Cades Cove. If you are familiar with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you may have heard of this area. It is touted as the single most popular area in the park. What we loved was that it is the only real valley you can explore in the park with huge, flat meadows and fields and with mountains on all sides. It was home to early settlers and there are well-preserved farmhouses, cabins and churches that you can walk into all along an 11-mile loop. The challenge is that this 11-mile loop is one way and attracts more than 2 million visitors annually. This means lots of car traffic. One camper told us that you should plan to take 4 hours to make the loop in a car.
We beat the lines by taking advantage of a summer program that closes the loop on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May to September to car traffic. Having the road to ourselves, some other cyclists and some hikers from sunrise until 10 a.m. was awesome! The loop can be shortened to either 9 miles or 5 miles depending on which shortcuts you take. Our gang was feeling pretty strong so we took the 9-mile loop. The early rise was worth it. We had a beautiful morning cruising through the valley watching turkeys and deer and looking hard to try and see a bear!
Home While We Roam Tip: Rent bikes for the easiest in and out. Bike rental for a family of four will be around $50 and includes helmets and a free ice cream for the kids when you finish. The bike shop is in the Cades Cove campground and opens at 6:30 a.m. on bicycle days.
4. Hike to Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee at 6,643 feet. This makes it only 40 feet shorter than Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, which is the highest point east of the Mississippi. Most of your time getting to Clingmans Dome is going to be spent on the drive up. Once you arrive, be prepared for a steep but very manageable half-mile hike to the top. The trail is paved but is not ADA accessible or recommended for strollers. That said, we saw three families easily getting their families up the hill in strollers. The observation tower is designed to give you 360-degree views of both Tennessee and North Carolina. It is a great place to do some time-lapse photography and capture some of that Great Smoky Mountains fog rolling in and out.
Home While We Roam Tip: Bring water and a hiking stick, and take frequents breaks on your way to the observation tower. The view is beautiful. It is even possible to see Mount Mitchell 73 miles in the distance on some clear days.
Explore Pigeon Forge
During our Great Smoky Mountains adventure, Pigeon Forge put on the best show so we will focus our attention on this area. We are looking forward to exploring some of the other towns when we visit the area again.
5. Dolly Parton’s Stamped
If you aren’t from the South, you may be surprised to know that Dolly Parton has created some great attractions in Pigeon Forge close to her hometown of Sevierville. We visited Dolly Parton’s Stampede for the dinner show and our family had a blast. They serve a “traditional” Southern dinner with all the fixin’s, including a whole rotisserie chicken, corn on the cob and biscuits. Everything is meant to be eaten with your hands, but fortunately for us, they apparently just started providing forks!
The real reason to take in the dinner show is to see the epic equestrian skills on display. Real cowgirls and cowboys ride real horses, wrangle long-horned steer and buffalo, and perform death-defying stunts that include fire! The show comes in chunks with a banjo-led musical pre-show, then dinner service starts, then the real fun starts and takes around three hours from start to finish. It was pricey for a family of four but the kids left beaming so we count that as a win!
6. Drive the Parkway
The main drag is Highway 321, called the Parkway by locals, stretching from Pigeon Forge through Gatlinburg to the park’s entrance. We spent a couple of hours between trips in the park just cruising up and down trying to decide which things we wanted to do and honestly, just enjoying the brashness of it all. We loved the outsized and sometimes upside-down buildings. Our kids voted that the best spots to stop were:
The Titanic Museum because it looks like the Titanic.
Hollywood Wax Museum, because King Kong is climbing it.
Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride, because dinosaurs.
Things left to explore during another trip
We spent three great days in the Great Smoky Mountains and the days were packed! When we go back, we plan to stay at least a week as we know we only got a taste of the national park, as well as of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Here are four things we plan to do on our next trip to the area:
7. Explore Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg is just south of Pigeon Forge and borders Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It boasts lots of restaurants and even a ski area for winter sports.
8. The Gatlinburg SkyBridge
This 700-foot-long bridge is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. If that isn’t epic enough, the middle section (and highest point) is a glass bottom. If you enjoy thrilling heights and spectacular views, we think you would enjoy this.
9. Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster
Only one of our twins likes roller coasters and since we were short on time we skipped this attraction. We want to go back and do it for sure. The tracks light up after dark for an added thrill.
10. Go to Dollywood
Who wouldn’t want to go to a theme park created by Dolly Parton? We think visiting Dollywood in the fall would be an incredible family experience. They have lots of rides that lift you high into the air for an incredible view of fall foliage and pumpkin lanterns on display.
Visit the Smokies
Whether you’re looking to drive along scenic roads leading to breathtaking vistas, discover the history and culture of early Appalachia, or feel the spray of waterfalls, the Smokies are the perfect destination. Great Smoky Mountains National Park met all of our expectations and is truly a great example of what a national park is designed to be and to preserve.We were pleasantly surprised with all the non-national park-related things to do as well. It was nice to wear hiking pants in the morning, then put on our blue jeans and get a bit dressed up to take in some Southern night life. We loved our time visiting Tennessee and can’t wait to get back to the Smokies.