On a Budget? We Can Help. A Guide to Free Things to Do in the Smokies

The area in and around the Smoky Mountains is one of the best for family vacations. The area’s many attractions offer plenty of things to do in Gatlinburg and nearby towns, and you’ll find that the chances of being bored, even for the teens in the group, are slim. Aside from the many famous attractions, the music and arts culture throughout the area offers many entertainment options. And the area’s rich history and heritage are still alive and well today, making the Smoky Mountains one the most visited regions in America each year.

Money Adds Up

But taking the family on any vacation can be expensive. Especially if you have kids, the cost of a vacation can get well into the upper hundreds, if not thousands of dollars by the time you factor in lodging, food, and transportation. And those are just the basics. Once you get to your destination, you’ll want to have as much fun as possible while you’re there. And often that fun comes with an added cost.

Exploring the Area

The towns in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park provide hours of exploration, entertainment and adventure for your family. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and the surrounding areas offer something for everyone and you’ll have lots of fun just exploring these towns on foot. Old-time Appalachian heritage is alive and well in this region of the country and you’ll see that reflected in the towns you visit. The national park itself, unlike most national parks, is free to visitors year round. It’s a great starting place for a cost-effective family vacation and is like no other place on Earth!

Free Things to do in the Smokies

To help make your family vacation in the area more affordable, we’ve put together a guide to help you find free things to do in the Smokies. Check out these suggestions for family fun.

Hiking: With over 800 miles of maintained hiking trails (approximately 150 of them!) through pristine mountains and wooded areas, hiking is one of best free things to do in the Smokies. All you need is a good pair of boots or shoes and a trail map and you’re on your way! The trail system offers everything from easy walks to more rugged back-country hikes so you can choose the level that’s right for you. You can easily combine hiking with most of the other things listed below for a double dose of fun!

Wildlife: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to an estimated 1,500 black bears as well as a number of other protected species of mammals including deer and elk. You’ll also find birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. The park is sometimes called the “Salamander Capital of the World” because it’s home to over 30 species of salamanders. Bring your binoculars and make sure you brush up on bear safety tips before you head out.

Waterfalls: Many visitors say that the waterfalls within the park are the main reason they visit. Most of them are located on or near a hiking trail so are easily accessible. You might want to start with one of these:

  • Grotto Falls: Located just minutes from Gatlinburg, this waterfall is easy to get to via a short walk. It’s one of the most popular waterfalls in the park because you can walk behind the falls and view it from the inside looking out. The kids will love it!

  • Laurel Falls: If you’re up for a slightly longer walk, this 80-foot waterfall offers stunning photo opportunities. Accessible via a 2.6-mile paved path, it’s a stroller and wheelchair-friendly destination for the whole family.

Scenic Drives: The roads that wind through the national park have some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll ever experience. Load the family in the car and take a drive. Take a picnic lunch with you. Once you start exploring, you might not want to stop!

  • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: This 5.5-mile one-way loop is a great way to see the park. As the name implies, the trail follows the Roaring Fork River which is one of the larger and faster flowing rivers in the park. You’ll want to allow plenty of time to pull off the trail and explore along the way. There’s so much to see!

  • Cades Cove Loop Road: Located a short drive from Gatlinburg, Cades Cove Loop Road is another popular drive. This 11-mile one-way loop offers stunning views of the valley and is one of the most popular free things to do in the Smokies. You’ll want to give yourself plenty of time so you can pull off the road to take pictures and enjoy the scenery.

Fishing: Gatlinburg offers great fishing in its many rivers, creeks and streams. Hundreds of miles of streams flow throughout the area and fishing is allowed year-round, although it does require a valid fishing license from either Tennessee or North Carolina. Fishing licenses can be obtained in any of the towns around the park. Check fishing regulations for the area before starting out to make sure you’re abiding by them while you’re here.

Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community: If you’re looking for things to do in Gatlinburg, the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community offers your family the opportunity to learn more about the rich history of the region. Teach the kids about quilting, pottery, silversmithing and much more as you tour the shops of local artists and craftsmen. They’re happy to tell you about what they do and show you how they do it.

Local Events: There are often local events, concerts, and festivals in the area that don’t cost a thing. Check the calendar of events for the area while you’re here. You’re sure to find something your family would like to do!