Your camera zooms in on the perfect shot. Your kids are all smiling, the pristine waterfall in the background, and as you go to push the shutter button down, you hear the mob burst from trail as the masses arrive, reminding you that you’re not the only family that thought this would be a perfect vacation spot.
A beautiful vacation in the Smoky Mountains is a bucket list item for lots of families. The natural beauty of the area makes Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the nearby town of Gatlinburg one of the top destinations in the US, but that means when you’re trying to take a deep breath of nature and bask in the solitude, you’re likely to be interrupted by a few thousand of your closest friends.
But don’t let crowds keep you from discovering this gem of a place. With these tips for avoiding crowds in Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll make sure to capture that perfect shot and soak up lots of the beauty of this popular park without getting stuck in the crowds.
Tips for Avoiding Crowds in Gatlinburg
Go in the off-season
Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) are really popular tourist destinations which means that summer and fall are the two busiest seasons, but you can expect crowds just about any time schools are out since lots of families use those vacation breaks to travel. To really avoid the crowds you’ll need to pick dates that are outside of those peak travel times. We visited in mid-May and while it was already getting a little hot and sticky we saw lower crowds and cheaper rates for hotels.
Stay close to a park entrance
There are several entrances into GSMNP and it’s worth spending some time to study the map and see where you think you’ll want to spend the most time. The busiest entrance is in Gatlinburg but there are the most lodging options near this entrance. Shoot for a cabin or hotel that is closest to the park itself to avoid a lot of traffic on the main road. It backs up quickly during busy times. There’s also another entrance in Wears Valley that we stayed closer to, but keep in mind that distances are very deceiving on a map since you’re winding around mountains. We were only a few miles from the park but it took us more than 20 minutes from our cabin to get to the park entrance.
Get up early
This is my best tip to avoid crowds, even if you’re there during the busiest weeks. You’ll beat a huge portion of people by getting up early and starting your hikes before everyone else arrives. Parking at many of the popular hikes is limited so being early also ensures you have a legitimate place to park. We found this strategy works even for things like playing mini-golf in town or grabbing breakfast at the popular Pancake Pantry. Sure, it takes a little effort on our part to get going early but with young kids, it’s not like we’re sleeping in anyway!
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Food options are plentiful in Gatlinburg and the surrounding towns but they’re also really popular and you’ll spend a lot of time coming out of the park and back into town for food. One of our favorite parts of our trip was finding great picnicking spots and pulling out our cooler. There are lots of places with picnic tables, grills, and restrooms throughout the park. If you hiked early then you’ll be ahead of the crowds and can score a premium spot right next to one of the creeks. My kids would have been happy spending all day climbing over the big boulders and splashing in the water. If crowds are really big, you can also create your own picnic spot, just make sure to clean up ALL trash before you leave.
Hike in the rain
Since we were there in the spring, we saw plenty of drizzly days. It’s pretty common for this area, which gets its name from the low clouds that hang in the valleys between the mountains. Lots of people skip hiking when the rain comes out which means crowds go way down. Pack your raincoat and shoes that can get wet and keep going. You’ll have the trail to yourselves! Obviously, keep an eye on a weather app if you can and head inside if you hear thunder, but lots of time the rain is more of a slow drizzle that’s easy to keep going in.
Have a plan
GSMNP is a huge park with tons for families to do. We were there for a week and barely scratched the surface of all that the park offers. To avoid some of the crowds, it’s great to have a plan and do some research ahead of time for the hikes you’d like to take, hours for certain activities, etc. Obviously, you can be flexible as you go but a well-thought out plan can help you avoid some of the peak locations when they’re most crowded.
Planning Tools for your Great Smoky Mountains National Park Trip
Here’s a few of my favorite websites for planning your trip. All have great resources for avoiding the crowds in Gatlinburg and GSMNP and suggestions for less crowded hiking spots, crowd calendars and more.
Have you visited the Smokies as a family? What was your experience? If you’ve got an upcoming trip and have a question, leave it below and I’ll do my best to answer it!