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.
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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.
Trip Advisor Forums – Gatlinburg & Great Smoky Mountain National Park
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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!
Angie S. says
Excellent tips, especially the tip about waking up early. We visited over Fall Break, and while I knew it would be busy I wasn’t prepared for just how crazy busy Gatlinburg can get. Pigeon Forge felt a little more manageable, but one afternoon in Gatlinburg about did me in! We don’t have young children that wake up early, but I’ll chime in and say that “early” seems to be relative to the Smoky Mountain crowd. We did several popular hikes and arrived at the trails around 9 a.m. on weekdays. We were able to easily find spots and hike with minimal crowds. By the time we returned to the trailheads, however, the parking lots were packed. I’d also add to do some research beforehand and choose a few of the lesser known trails or lookout points. Everything in the park is stunning, so you won’t be missing out! We skipped the crowds at Clingman’s Dome and visited Look Rock Walking Trail and Tower on the west side of the park instead. The views were gorgeous and we were the only ones there!
Oh, I love all of those suggestions, Angie! Especially finding the lesser known hikes. You’re right, you can’t go wrong with visiting a bad place anywhere in the park and having some peaceful hiking is worth finding those out of the way hidden gems!
Cassandra Pixey says
We also went over Fall Break in ’16. Our youngest wasn’t yet two so we kept hiking to a minimum and still had a great time. We did early rising, it’s a must. There are two options for “wagon rides”. There is one on the south end (I think) of the park where you can make a reservation. Do this and you don’t have to wait for hours at the other touristy area. We were there early and had the whole wagon to ourselves. Also if the adults want a nice meal ( it’s your vacation too) do it at lunch. No wait at the nicer places at lunch, the prices are cheaper and our kids are more manageable at lunch. Then for dinner do a counter service place or take in pizza. Evening dinner crowds were mayhem.
These are such good tips! We love doing lunch out on our travels and it’s always easier for everyone. Thanks for sharing all your ideas 🙂