Gatlinburg, TN sits at the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States. While Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge are packed with tons of fun things to do with kids, we wanted to spend most of our time in the Great Smokies.
We spent three super-fun days in Gatlinburg with our kids (aged 3 & 5) as part of our Southern USA road trip. We found plenty of kid-friendly hikes in the Smoky Mountains and enjoyed some of the best thing to do with kids in Gatlinburg, TN.
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3 Kid-Friendly Smoky Mountain Hikes
1. Clingmans Dome
As we ate breakfast in Gatlinburg on our first morning, the weather forecast called for mostly sunny skies with only 20% of showers in the morning, so we thought it’d be a perfect day to drive up to Clingmans Dome and see some views of the Great Smoky Mountains.
As we hopped into our rental car it started to rain, but as Clingmans Dome is an hour’s drive from our rental cabin near Gatlinburg, we figured we’d go anyway, after all, the rain won’t last long right? Wrong…
It rained pretty steadily the whole hour we drove to Clingmans Dome. We saw a momma black bear and one cub as we pulled onto the Clingmans Dome road, so that was worth the drive in-of-itself.
The rain stopped as we pulled into the parking lot. Hey – we might get a break! We optimistically started walking up the easy paved trail to the summit of Clingmans Dome
(Note: there is a sign at the trailhead recommending that strollers are not used on the trail).
Despite being up in the clouds and having absolutely no views, the four of us had a great time on this short kid-friendly walk. As luck would have it, there were lots of ripe raspberries along the trail, so our daughter had a ball running along picking all she could eat.
At 6,600 feet above sea level, Clingmans Dome is the highest mountain in the Great Smokie Mountains. There are many benches along the way for people to rest as some people experience altitude-related difficulties with the walk. Our kids are from the Canadian Rocky Mountains, so the altitude didn’t affect them. They used each bench as a mini-stage for their “shows”.
The part I liked best about Clingmans Dome in the rain was the forest in the clouds – I absolutely love a spooky forest!
By the time we reached the spiral viewing platform at the top of Clingmans Dome, our small glimpse of a chance ended. It started POURING rain on us. We went to the top of the Clingmans Dome viewing platform just because we were there, but there wasn’t a view to be found anywhere…
Oh well, one thing we’ve learned in our travels is that the only way to guarantee failure is to not try. Nature got the best of us today, but I’m happy we tried. Besides, we still had a lot of fun along the way.
When you visit Gatlinburg, be sure to visit Clingmans Dome rain or shine – it’s one of the most fun things to do with kids in the Smoky Mountains.
Have a blast singing these hiking songs with your kids.
2. Gatlinburg Trail
Even though we had rain jackets on at Clingmans Dome, we were still pretty wet so we drove back to the cabin to get into dry clothes.
By this time the rain had stopped, so we decided to find another kid-friendly hike in the Smokies. We drove back to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to enjoy the short & easy hike on the Gatlinburg Trail.
The trailhead actually begins at the end of the park HQ road, just north of the visitor center turnoff.
The Gatlinburg Trail is a very easy trail with a groomed gravel path making it easy for kids to keep up. The trail starts off a little yucky as you walk past the park maintenance yard, but soon enough you are in deep Smoky Mountain forest walking alongside the west prong of the very charming Little Pigeon River.
The kid-friendly Gatlinburg Trail goes for nearly 2 miles (3.2km) in a single direction. Along the way, the deep forest stops and you enter a zone of recently burned forest from the massive 2016 fire. It was encouraging to see so much robust regeneration of the forest plants in such a short time.
It’s often hard to find a reasonably flat, medium length, kid-friendly hike in the Smoky Mountains, so we were happy to stumble across this easy hike. Our kids enjoyed the Gatlinburg Trail a lot and wished we could have done the whole thing. Sadly, we didn’t have a ton of time, but we managed to hike a total of 2.4 miles (4km) in just over a two hours.
Get a copy of the Gatlinburg Trail map on your phone using the AllTrails app.
3. Porters Creek Trail
On our second day in Gatlinburg, TN, the forecast was for light rain all day, so rather than seek out some mountain views, we elected to do another kid-friendly hike in the Smokies with a forest setting.
The kid-friendly Porters Creek Trail follows Porters Creek through a gorgeous thick forest. The first few miles the trail is on a service road, so it is well maintained and is nice and wide.
We love hiking with kids on trails like this as the kids don’t need to watch their footing and everyone can walk side-by-side, making interactions a lot easier than single-file trails.
Eventually, the Porters Creek Trail transitions to a more narrow, natural hiking trail with trickier footing, but it wasn’t too bad. There are several scenic spots to stop and admire Porters Creek along the way.
There are a few creek crossings via bridges; the path on these bridges is narrow with high railings, so watch your kids closely!
You can expose your kids to some US history on the Porters Creek Trail. There are some remnants of 19th century settlers along the first few miles of the Trail. Watch for old stairs, stone fences and a cemetery.
We managed to see some of the stone fences, but somehow managed to miss the historic settlements. There are many spur trails along the way – we tried a few but didn’t see anything of interest. We must have not chosen the right ones…
This was a fun and easy kid-friendly hike in the Smokies. The kids had fun all day with their bug viewer box, catching and looking at all kinds of bugs they don’t see back home.
All told, they hiked to the narrow bridge across the creek and back all on their own. This was approximately 4.3 miles (7km) in distance and it took about 3h30m.
We had a lot of fun on the beautiful Porters Creek hike, but we wish the old settlement ruins were a little better marked.
Things To Do in Gatlinburg, TN with Kids
Anakeesta with Kids
There are so many things to do in Gatlinburg but we knew Anakeesta would be a great choice for our family.
We started our third day by driving into the heart of downtown Gatlinburg for a visit to Anakeesta, a family theme park featuring the natural beauty of the region.
Anakeesta is a great things to do in Gatlinburg with kids. The visit starts off with a chairlift ride to the top of Anakeesta Mountain. The kids sure loved being that high up! The fun begins the moment you get off the chairlift.
Anakeesta take their hosting job very seriously; the staff are all super friendly, the place is spotless, there is catchy local music (banjo, country, etc.) played in the background everywhere you go, there are fans blowing cool mist on you, etc,etc, etc.
We began our visit to Anakeesta with kids by walking up the main street to the Tree Canopy Walk. This is a beautiful elevated canopy walk over 16 connected sky bridges through the forest at heights of 40-60′. The canopy bridges are very sturdy, but just wobbly enough that the kids loved walking on them.
At the end of each bridge on the Tree Canopy Walk is a little wooden landing where you can stop and admire the views of the Great Smoky Mountains.
We were initially concerned about walking the Tree Canopy Walk with kids, but we were happy to see the level of safety the handrails provide – between the handrails and the wooden bridge steps is a mesh fence of interwoven rope.
The safety of the Tree Canopy Walk was put to the test when our 5 year old daughter hip-checked our 3 year old son as he tried to run past her… we were relieved when the mesh fence easily stood up to the challenge!
Next, we paused for a quick lunch in a shaded little picnic area with amazing views of the surrounding Smoky Mountains with Gatlinburg in the foreground down below. The kids wolfed their lunches down as they knew a visit to the Anakeesta Treehouse Village Playground was next.
This Anakeesta playground is a super fun thing to do for kids. It’s a mini-version of the tree canopy walk, with many platforms connected by small, sturdy bridges. There are lots of places for the kids to climb and hide, making our kids favorite thing to do at Anakeesta.
Our daughter quickly made some new friends on the playground and played hard with them for a very long time. Our little guy was content to explore on his own and try his skills at the different types of bridges. Any time he was allowed to join the bigger kids was a big thrill for him.
When the kids started to tire, we had to drag them out against their will – they loved Anakeesta. We made our way back to the chairlift by taking the canopy tour one more time.
The canopy tour was even more fun the second time as you spend less time taking pictures and more just soaking the experience in… The chairlift ride down is fun as you get to enjoy views of Gatlinburg and the surrounding Smoky Mountains.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Next we crossed the street to visit Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies with the kids. Despite its distance from the ocean, the Gatlinburg Aquarium has been named among the best aquariums in the USA.
Most aquariums are in places near the ocean and they are filled with local sea life, with a few big ticket items to help draw in the crowds. What I liked best about Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies was that it was chock-a-block full of crowd pleasers. They have sharks, stingrays, hundreds of clown fish (“Nemo”), penguins, octopuses, sea horses, etc, etc, etc.
From the moment you enter the Gatlinburg Aquarium you can see how kid-friendly it is. There are fish tanks the kids can climb inside of, two giant playgrounds, an area where they can touch jelly fish and horseshoe crabs, many hands-on exhibits for the kids to tinker with and much more.
Our kids loved the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. They had fun from the second they walked in the door to the second we had to drag them out of the gift shop.
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