In a Nutshell: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park welcomed nearly 13 million visitors in 2022, more than any other US national park. As beautiful as the park is, it’s only the start of what families and vacationers find when they visit the area. The park spans North Carolina and East Tennessee, and the vibrant towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville, Tennessee, are gateway towns to the park. Millions turn to The Smokies travel blog for authentic, up-to-date information on the area’s many attractions. Make this friendly, family-run blog your primary source if you’re looking to plan an affordable family vacation in the Smokies.
There’s something about that smoky sky. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of America’s most appreciated national resources. Other parks may get headlines for spectacular natural features — the Grand Canyon and Old Faithful come to mind — but nothing tops the Smokies for consistent, family-friendly beauty wrapped in historical and cultural significance.
The park is there to protect the Smoky Mountains, considered a subrange of the Appalachian chain that runs from Georgia to Maine. A long segment of the 2,100-mile-long Appalachian Trail runs through the park, and millions of hikers flock to the Smokies to challenge themselves or stretch their legs.
Winter is a tough season there, but the southern Appalachians are better preserved than those further north. That makes Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park at more than 6,600 feet, one of the tallest mountains in the East.
The best things in life are free and thanks to deed transfer restrictions associated with state highways leading to the park, there’s no entrance fee to pay a visit.
And because the park attracts millions of annual visitors (nearly 13 million in 2022), gateway towns, including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville in Tennessee, have learned to welcome travelers from all walks of life.
It’s a combination that can make visiting the Smokies surprisingly affordable if budget-mindedness is your goal. A great way to get a handle on savings in the Smokies is through The Smokies, a travel blog lovingly curated by Smoky Mountains travel expert Morgan Overholt, her husband James, and her sister Alaina.
Morgan said the best way to appreciate the Smokies on a budget is to learn from locals like her, who have treasured the Smokies since childhood.
“When the opportunity arose to create a website to provide travel advisories and information for our many visitors, of course I had to jump at the opportunity,” Morgan said. “I feel like I was born to do this job.”
A Seasonal Savings Destination for Family Adventures
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800,000 acres of North Carolina and East Tennessee. It’s an awe-inspiring region filled with lush forests that change with the seasons, year-round wildflowers, and streams, rivers, and waterfalls that flow down and through the mountains.
It’s a place of rebirth as winter turns to spring, a stage set for the abundance of summer, and a paradise for fall leaf-watchers.
But when Morgan recalls her childhood growing up in the foothills of the Smokies in the little town of Morristown, Tennessee, Dollywood Theme Park comes to mind first. Dollywood is the brainchild of country music legend Dolly Parton.
“I’m a bit of a coaster junkie, so I tend to enjoy going there,” Morgan said. “If you told me as a kid that I could have a job visiting Dollywood, I would have thought I hit the lottery.”
It’s a prime example of the diversity of the area’s attractions, making it a perfect fit for families. Morgan deeply loves the park, too, and through her website’s blog, she loves recommending ways for visitors to make the most of their dollars there.
In the park, the savings start with parking passes that cost only $5 per day or $15 for an entire week. That allows you to leave your car and enjoy a hike along the trails. Drivable trails such as Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Cades Cove Loop are free because there’s no parking pass required.
Morgan also recommends visiting the park on holidays such as Martin Luther King Day (January 16), the first day of National Park Week in April, the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act on August 4, National Public Lands Day on September 23, and Veterans Day on November 11, as there are no parking pass fees.
All you need is a car and the soul of a romantic to appreciate the park’s inspiring natural beauty on those days.
“Cades Cove Loop offers lots of historic buildings and cultural stops along the way where you don’t even need a parking pass,” Morgan said.
Enjoy Fun Activities and Culture in Gateway Towns
There’s so much more to learn about the lore and lure of the park that it’s best to sit down, relax, and go on the site and explore. The Smokies contains copious resources on family-friendly activities from amusement parks to shopping destinations, outdoor activities including horseback riding and ziplining, shows and music, and arts and crafts.
Many of these activities center on the picturesque Tennessee towns of Gatlinburg (with a free trolley system), Pigeon Forge (site of Dollywood), and Sevierville (somewhat less crowded during peak seasons).
Morgan said visitors often overlook the area’s free city parks, but they can be way less crowded than top attractions and a great way to enjoy mountain views in serene settings.
Herbert Holt Park in Gatlinburg offers a children’s fishing stream and playground, for example, while Mynatt Park adds tennis and pickleball courts to the mix. Mills Park offers a disc golf course and a basketball court, perfect for letting off steam.
Morgan said enjoying the many available in-town attractions gives you the chance to spend less money than you planned. But saving on one part of a trip might open the opportunity to spend on another.
“We’ve got a lot of crafts and restaurants, and I’m not saying these options are without temptation,” she said. “But it’s possible to participate in some of these attractions without spending any money in some cases and very little money in others.”
One way to save is to rent a cabin instead of a hotel because hotels in the three gateway towns tend to run a little higher due to high demand. Morgan’s number one recommendation for in-town activities in Gatlinburg is to walk — as this town is highly walkable and accessible to visitors.
“The other hack, particularly in Gatlinburg, is you can take the free trolley around town, which is cool because not only does it hit up a lot of major attractions, like Ripley’s Aquarium, but it also gets you out of parking.”
Plan and Budget with Coupons, Discounts, and Tickets
The Ripley’s Aquarium connection points to another considerable benefit of consulting the site: It’s ideal for accessing coupons and discounts to make saving easier. There’s also a filterable section on the site for booking tickets to many area attractions.
For the adults in the crowd, moonshine and wine tasting can be affordable ways to relax. Morgan said visiting one of the many famous moonshine distilleries, including Ole Smoky Moonshine and Sugarlands, is a great way to learn about the early cultural history of the Smokies.
“A lot of the moonshine places in Pigeon Forge don’t charge for samples,” Morgan said.
Another, perhaps more sedate, way to enjoy a budget-friendly experience in Gatlinburg is to visit the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, a collection of — you guessed it — salt and pepper shakers that evoke the timeless past of mountain culture. A $3 ticket gets you in and allows you to save on a souvenir shaker to take home.
“It’s a perfect idea to keep in your back pocket, especially if you’re having a rainy day in the Smokies,” Morgan said.
Worth saving for and visiting on sunnier days is The Island in Pigeon Forge, which provides the ultimate shopping and family fun experience. The Island’s Great Smoky Mountain Wheel is a 200-foot-high observation wheel offering thrills and great views.
The Island also offers a free fountain show that’s a super relaxation opportunity. Morgan said one of her favorite things to do in Gatlinburg is to pull up a rocking chair and enjoy the fountains.
The Smokies and all the area’s gateway towns are mainly accessible by car. It’s possible to fly there, but the closest airport is in Knoxville, Tennessee, about 40 miles from the Gatlinburg entrance to the park.
Check out the site’s calendar to learn more about peak times to target your visit. Morgan, James, and Alaina continually update offers and information to make your stay in the Smokies more enjoyable.
“We’re proud to say we’re the most visited national park in the US — any local you talk to will tell you all about it,” Morgan said.