10 Free Things to Do with Your Kids in the Great Smoky Mountains
We’ve been visiting the Smokies every spring for the past 20 years. March is a great time to travel to Tennessee because so many of the Spring Breakers want to go farther south to the ocean. Spring is not considered peak season in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, so you can get better hotel rates than you would during summer vacation or in fall when travelers go to see the autumn foliage.
Because we have four children, attending expensive shows or paying for admission to museums can really add up quickly. A tight budget has never stopped us from having a wonderful time. There’s just so much to do and see around the Smokies that even when we’ve set aside money with the intention of visiting a museum or show, we’ve often not had time to do it because we’ve been so busy enjoying all the exciting free activities.
These are our favorite free (or almost free) activities in the Great Smoky Mountains:
There is no entrance fee to enjoy The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are numerous hiking trails throughout the area. Most of the hotels in the area have pamphlets and maps for hiking, or you can find information on the various trails.
The hike to Grotto Falls is one of our favorites because you can walk behind the waterfall and even splash around in the pools of water. When the kids were little we would dress them in their bathing suits under their clothes for the hike. They were usually almost dry by the time we made the trek back to the van, except the year it poured on us, and they all slipped in the mud. Bring something to cover your car seats for the ride back just in case.
2. Sugarlands Visitor Center
Sugarlands is more like a small museum. There are nice restrooms, a gift shop, and a few different hiking trails with cabins and a waterfall. The natural history exhibits inside the building are the most impressive feature of the facility. All types of animals native to the area have been preserved by the art of some skillful taxidermists, and they are arranged in appealing displays. There’s also a short video with information about the area. Read more information about the visitor center.
3. Sevierville City Park
This park has one of the most amazing playgrounds we’ve encountered. My kids were fairly old when we first discovered this gem, but they still ask to visit it. The playground is an expansive fort structure with all kinds of fun features. This is a great place to bring a picnic lunch and let the kids run off some energy. There are several other cute parks in the area.
4. Cades Cove
Driving the scenic loop at the Cades Cove settlement is absolutely free. There are many historic buildings including churches, barns, cabins, and a working mill. Opportunities to see wildlife are plentiful, especially in morning or evening. Most of our black bear sightings have occurred during our drives through Cades Cove. If you have binoculars, bring them.
5. The Island
This is a relatively new attraction at Pigeon Forge. There are tons of shops and restaurants. There are rides, like the giant Ferris Wheel, and arcades. You could spend a lot of money at The Island, but you don’t have to spend a dime to take in all the sights. It’s fun to watch the fountains, especially at night when they are lighted. There have always been coupons in the coupon books found on the information racks all over the city that will get you $2.00 worth of free play per person at Arcade City. We usually let the kids get the free $2.00 of play, and sometimes they add a few dollars of their own. We also like to visit the salsa store and sample all the different salsas. Just be sure to have a drink with you if you want to try the ghost pepper.
6. Feeding the Ducks
There are many different places to feed the ducks in both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. If you walk along the river in Gatlinburg, there are always ducks. If you visit the shops near The Old Mill restaurant there are ducks. If you stay in any of the Pigeon Forge hotels along the river, you will have ducks right in your backyard. When my oldest daughter was a toddler, this was her favorite activity of the entire trip every year. I would bring zipper bags of cracked corn from home and keep them in the van. Then I would throw a couple of snack-sized zipper bags of corn into my backpack each day.
7. Cooter’s Garage
This family fun center in Gatlinburg has a small museum full of Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia. Admission to the museum part is free. There are also paid attractions like indoor go-karts and indoor miniature golf which we’ve never tried. The real Cooter sometimes makes an appearance, as well as other Dukes of Hazzard cast members.
We’ve only known about this attraction for the last few years. I don’t think it existed before that. You can watch the goats for free. There are even observation windows if you go upstairs to the gift shop, and you can see the goats wandering around on the roof. If you want to feed the goats, you must buy the cones of food, but those are inexpensive. I don’t think we’ve spent more than $5 any of the times we’ve visited. This place could be a tourist trap if you let it because there’s also gem mining and the “goat coaster” which are paid attractions. The items in the gift shop are reasonably priced for a tourist attraction. My kids love this place even though we once had the same type of goats at our house, but they would never pay attention to them at home.
9. Smoky Mountain Knife Works and Bass Pro Shops
Located right next to each other, both stores you need to see. Bass Pro always has a huge aquarium with fish native to the local area. The themed décor of the store is something to see with animals galore. The Knife Works is its own beast of a place. It’s not just knives. You will find kitchen gadgets you never even imagined existed. There’s also candy, snacks, clothing, camping gear, novelty gift items, and so much more.
10. A Late-Night Trip to Walmart in Pajamas
We accidentally started this tradition many years ago when I forgot to pack enough bedtime pull-ups for a toddler. We didn’t realize my mistake until all the kids had been showered and dressed in their pajamas for the night. Rather than switching four kids to regular clothes again, we just hopped in the van for a late-night run to Walmart. I didn’t think much about it. At the beginning of every trip, I ask each of the kids to tell me the one thing they really want to do that trip, and then we try to include it. When questioned, my middle daughter (who was so young the year before that I didn’t even think she could possibly remember) only wanted to go to Walmart in her pajamas again. It’s now become one of the favorite vacation traditions for my kids.