How to Explore the Great Smoky Mountains if You Don’t Hike or Camp

I’m saying it from the start: I am not a hiker. Or a camper. I think I like to hike and camp. I think I like being in the wilderness and communing with nature. I think I like to be without technology and modern day conveniences like running water. But when push comes to shove, I like it for about a day.

So here’s the disclaimer: I spent one day in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I want to be up front: you could spend weeks- months- inside this national park that spans over 500,000 acres across two states (Tennessee and North Carolina). But I know my limitations, and I knew at the start of an almost four week road trip it was going to be a marathon and not a sprint, so I couldn’t get burnt out right away. I researched the Great Smoky Mountains and found the most manageable places to explore that would still give me the sense of accomplishment of hiking/camping/communing with nature. Here’s what I recommend if you want to get a feel for the mountains without camping for days:

We stayed in Pigeon Forge, on the Tennessee side of the park, at the Inn at Christmas Place and I highly recommend it. It is such a magical place! Read about our adventures here. There are plenty of other lodging options here and camping options here. And while you’re clicking, make sure to bookmark the locations of restrooms throughout the park.

You’ll enter the park via the parkway and Route 441 (fact check). If you were to drive to the other side, going north to south, it would take you about four hours (the average speed limit is 35 MPH). The roads are very very windy. Disclaimer: if you get motion or car sickness, I would hesitate before coming. Make sure you gas up your car before you enter the park. My itinerary has travel times and mileage leaving from and arriving back to Pigeon Forge.

1. First stop:  Sugarlands Visitor Center (one of four inside the park) (approximately 12 miles from the entrance). The Center opens every day but Christmas at 8am and park rangers can provide maps and suggested hikes and overlooks. Make sure to collect four National Parks passport stamps. There is a small museum with displays of forest vegetation and animals indigenous to the area. A small theater shows a film about the area every half hour. Restrooms are available.

2. Second stop: Clingman’s Dome (approximately 20 miles from Sugarlands). It is open from April- November. Turn off Route 4411 onto Clingman’s Dome Road and drive 7 miles up a very windy road. There is a large parking lot with restrooms (really, just glorified porta potties with no running water) and a couple of overlooks with great views if it’s not too foggy. Stop by the small gift shop for two more passport stamps, souvenirs and water. The path is a very steep half mile (I swear it felt waaay longer) hike on a paved path to the highest peak in Tennessee and one of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi (it’s an elevation of 6600 feet). You cannot/should not bring strollers on this path. Wear sneakers and take it slow. Drink water. Take breaks- there are benches to rest along the path. And cross your fingers the famous fog that gives the mountains their name doesn’t roll in before you get at least one photograph.

3. Third stop: Mingus Mill, approximately 22 miles from Clingman’s Dome. It is open April- October. This was such a pleasant surprise! Park in the lot (there are restrooms) and take a short walk over the bridge (hold on to little children) to the Mill, built in 1886. Inside, volunteers will show you how cornmeal is made in a working mill. Climb to the second floor to see a bolting chest, which sifts flour and separates it into various grades. You can purchase samples of flour produced on site. Take a five minute walk to see where the water flows. Little children will love this. Be prepared for them to get at least a little wet and muddy.

4. Fourth Stop: Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the Mountain Farm Museum: approximately two miles from Mingus Mill. Park rangers are available starting at 8am every day (but Christmas) with suggestions and recommendations. Make sure to collect four passport stamps. There is an exhibit on the history of the area, a display of farming tools, a butter turning machine, and a collection of recordings of 20th century villagers. There is a large parking lot and restroom. Follow the path (and the running river next to the path) to the Farm Museum. You can follow the path in a loop and see eight to ten structures, including an apple house, barn, and blacksmith shop. According to the park website, many of the structures were built in the late 19th century and were moved to the current location in 1950. The site offers demonstrations and tours throughout the day and there are two family friendly walking trails.

5. At least once along your drive, pull over (safely) to one of the paved lots and check out the cascading rivers and small waterfalls. Hold on to little children closely as there is no fencing or barriers. There are dozens of spots along the route and listening to the babbling water and watching the water flowing freely might just convince you to become a hiker and camper. Check out a map of waterfalls here.

For those of you who enjoy hiking or want a bigger challenger, check out all the options here. If you enjoy National Parks as much as my family, make sure that Acadia National Park is on your list!

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