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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 center and gift shop as well as bathrooms. Here you will see Cable Mill demonstrating a flume and mill wheel. Throughout the year, there are times with presentations allowing you to see skills used by the early settlers, such as making molasses.

Wade's parents enjoyed GSMNP with us

The Miller’s home is also in this area. You will see this was one of the families with more money, having a nice 2 story home, not a log cabin. A favorite stroll is to go past the home and explore the paths through the wooded area. Hardly anyone is there. You will be right by the creek, and it is beautiful, level land. This whole area encourages you to imagine what life was like in the 1800’s in a beautiful but isolated valley surrounded by imposing mountains.

If you want to try something different, you can take a guided horseback ride, carriage ride or hayride with Cades Cove Stables. The hayride is the least expensive at $20 per adult, the carriage ride is $22, and the horseback is $40. There is a small discount for children.

Historic Cabin in Great Smoky Mountians

Because all this is free,(with the expectation of the stable options mentioned above) we suggest you drop a dollar or so at the end of the loop in the Friends of the Smokies box to help support the expense of keeping this area open and maintained. With millions of visitors yearly, a toll is taken on the land and homesites. If every car gave a dollar, there would be no shortage of funds to keep the park operating at an optimum level.

While doing the Cades Cove loop you are driving so slow that kids take off their seat belts and hang out sunroofs and windows or sit in the back of trucks. There are places where you ford the creek in your vehicle. This drive is a unique experience. People of all ages will enjoy what Cades Cove has to offer and the best part? It is FREE!!!


Cades Cove and the Cades Cove Campground are open year-round and are wonderful and different any season of year you visit while in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The cost for a campsite is $25 year-round with about 160 campsites available.

Elk are commonly found on the NC side of the park

It is fairly primitive but there are restrooms with flush toilets and cold-water sinks, but no hot water or showers. There is no electrical hook-up but there is a section of the campground that allows generators from 8 am to 8 pm. There are both tent and RV sites. Six sites can accommodate up to 40-foot vehicles. There is a water fill and a dump station. You can reserve a site up to 6 months in advance. Summer and autumn fill up quickly so book early. For reservations 877-444-6777 or online at

There are campgrounds located a short distance outside the park in Townsend, TN. You will find everything from resorts, KOA’s, and small family owned campgrounds to choose from. However, you find that the rates in this area start at $75 and go up. So if you want to visit the Great Smoky Mountains on a budget, do your best to get a spot inside the National Park for just $25.


An extremely popular swimming hole is at the “Y” located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near the Townsend park entrance. The area allows access to crystal clean Little River for swimming, tubing and lounging by the river. The location offers gorgeous views of rock formations and the surrounding forest and a fun way to cool off during the hot summer days.

Lots of water to explore in Great Smoky Mountains

This area is free to enjoy. Bring your tubes and floats along with a picnic and enjoy a day on the river bank. If you forgot something you can get food, buy floats and stock up on supplies in nearby Townsend, TN.

The “y” is convenient to major roadways in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has an official parking lot and port-a-potties. The lot is located at the intersection of East Lamar Alexander Parkway and Little River Gorge Roads. If you are traveling from Townsend, the parking lot will be on the left-hand side, just before the road forks towards Gatlinburg and Cades Cove.

To learn more about Townsend and Gatlinburg, the two gateway cities on the Tennessee side of the park, as well as more free things to do in the park read Part 2 which is coming soon. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook so you don't miss it.

Thanks Lynn for your help with this piece.

Happy Trails,

Melissa & Wade

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