FREE Activities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park-Wildflowers, Cades Cove and Swimming Holes

I grew up just outside the Great Smoky Mountains. In fact, the house we sold recently was at most 30 minutes to the entrance of Smoky Mountain National Park. I think this is what started my love affair with our National Parks.

We love visiting National Parks and we are on a mission to visit all of them. But the great smoky mountains are special.

Did you know that the Smoky Mountain National Park is one of only a few parks that doesn’t charge an entrance fee? Plus it's located conveniently to I-75 and I-40 making it an affordable National Park option.

Wade enjoying one of the many waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

As we have been on the road in our RV for a while now and away from the great smoky mountains area I asked my friend Lynn to help me write about me. Her and her husband do lots of hiking, photography and kayaking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park so I knew she would be perfect for this.

National Parks are protected and set aside for everyone in the country to enjoy... but (provided you're not visiting during one of the NPS's many free admission days each year) a visit to a national park can be expensive. It's $30 to bring a carload of people into the Grand Canyon, or $15 per individual if you hike in, and that doesn't even count parking fees, camping costs, or the price of lodging and extra activities!

Smoky Mountains waterfall

However, there are a few National Parks that don't charge admission fees at all. Of course, there might still be other costs (boat rentals, camping permits, etc.) but it's still a lot cheaper to visit one of the free National Parks! One of those free parks is Great Smoky Mountain National Park.


The Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the National Park System. If you have ever visited, you understand why that is so. First, it is one of the few FREE national parks left. Most others cost from $35 to $70 per day to enter! The nice thing about the great smoky mountains is that you can keep busy all day playing in the creeks, hiking, biking, fishing, sitting by the campfire (s’mores!) and enjoying the natural area without spending an extra penny. Next it covers a huge area, so there is a great variety of places to visit within the National Park as well as in the surrounding towns.


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is designated as an International Biosphere Preserve due to its incredible biodiversity. In fact there are over 1600 known flowering plants in the Smoky Mountains. Viewing the plant life in great smoky mountains is a main attraction with people coming from all over the country for wildflower walks during the wildflower bloom season.

The season usually runs from late February thru September. With the peak wildflower season being mid-to-late April in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There is even a Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage each year in late spring in the park. The event started in 1950 and features professionally-guided walks, exhibits, and other learning opportunities to explore Great Smoky Mountain National Park.


Two good walking trails for viewing wildflowers in Great Smoky Mountain National Park are the Deep Creek trails and the River Trail at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, North Carolina. As well as Schoolhouse Gap Trail, Middle Prong Trail, Little River Trail, The Old Sugarlands Trail, Baskins Creek Trail, and Porters Creek Trail.

Smoky Mountains Iris

You may want to purchase an area specific plant book. Townsend, Sugarland’s and Cades Cove Visitor Centers are great resources for books and all things Great Smoky Mountains National Park and would be a great resource to help you plan your visit. To carry with you on a trail, we would recommend a handy, waterproof fold-out for $8.95. While not comprehensive, it identifies by photo over 100 regional wildflowers and gives you the bloom season. is a great resource for these types of guides.


Cades Cove is the most visited area in Great Smoky Mountains National park with an 11 Mile loop that you can drive, bike or walk. The road is closed to motorized traffic each Wednesday, May 5 to September 1 for walkers and bikers to enjoy it a bit more.

Lynn's grandson having fun at a historical structure

Along the loop you will also hopefully see some wildlife to include turkey, deer and bear. Be sure to keep your distance, especially from bears. The Park Service says to use the Rule of Thumb—Put your arm straight out in front of you and your thumb up straight ahead in your field of vision. Aim your thumb toward the bear; if it appears larger than your thumb, you are too close. You can also carry bear spray.


It will take a few hours to drive the Scenic Cades Cove Loop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, traffic goes slowly and totally stops when wildlife is seen. There are two cut-through roads (Sharp Lane and Hyatt Lane) if you decide you do not want to do the whole loop. Despite the time it takes, we recommend taking the whole drive.

You can also walk through the fields and picnic in them too. There are some nice hikes like 5.5 mile long Abram Falls. About halfway through the loop is the visitors c