In March, our family had the opportunity to visit the Great Smoky Mountains for six days. When planning a spring break trip we were looking for some place we could easily drive to with a two-year-old, some place that offered a lot of activities, both indoor and outdoor, and some place we hadn’t been to before as a family. We picked two towns surrounded by the Smokies, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN, and we could not have been happier.
The drive from Pittsburgh was about 8.5 hours (which included stretch breaks and a long lunch). We stayed in a cabin that we rented through Outrageous Cabins. We chose to do this over a hotel or resort because it gave us more room, full kitchen to be able to cook and have groceries for the time we were there, and some pretty cool amenities – game room in loft with pool table, video games, air hockey and a hot tub. There are so many options when it comes to booking a cabin. We looked for a few weeks at many options and ended up deciding on the one we did more because of the outside views from that cabin, than specifically what was inside. Our location was less than 10 minutes off the main stretch and offered some amazing views – morning, noon and night.
The first full day, we went down to the Pigeon Forge Visitor Center and talked to the guide in there. He was able to give us a lot of information on the area, suggestions for places to visit, ways to access different trails within the National Park and insight on things we may or may not want to check out. If you plan to visit this area, I highly suggest stopping in to the Visitor Centers that are available. Everyone we went in to was really helpful and very friendly.
When planning our trip late last year, I was a little hesitant on whether we should visit because of the devastating forest fires that they experienced in the fall. While talking to the guides, we learned that while a handful of the roads through the National Forest were still shut down due to the fire, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge had been saved from a heavy rain, that was not forecasted, that occurred and put the fires out. They indicated that they were probably within hours of losing Gatlinburg itself and that many families and lifetime residents evacuated and were gone for days, before returning to their unharmed homes. The guides at the Pigeon Forge Visitor Center told us that tourism is still down in the area due to many visitors thinking that the entire area had been hit by the fires, so they are working to get the word out that these beautiful towns are open for business and a great place to visit.
For part one, of this three part series, I’m going to focus on our adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and some tips for visiting the area.
Whether you are a family that likes to hike or not, the Great Smoky Mountains offers so much to any kind of adventurer, you would miss a lot of fun if you didn’t take even a day to explore.
One (Big) Tip for a Trip to the Smokies: Ask About Which Trails Are Best for Your Family – It was suggested to us to stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg and ask the Park Rangers where we should explore. This is one of the largest Visitor Centers in the National Park and there were a number of Park Rangers there when we stopped in, talking to other visitors and giving suggestions on what trails were the best, what roads were open and other useful information for exploring. After talking to the Park Ranger, we decided to make a trip to Laurel Falls, which is about a mile away from that particular Center.
Laurel Falls is a paved path, but completely uphill and pretty crowded. The sign at the beginning of the path says “no strollers or wheelchairs permitted” but there were many people that took strollers anyway. Closer to the top the path gets very steep and crowded with people going up and coming down. The falls are beautiful at the top. You can cross a small footbridge to stand at the bottom of the first falls and if you’re the risky type (we were not with a two-year old) you can climb down the rocks to the bottom of the second falls. Very pretty and worth the climb, but was very crowded too. If you have a backpack carrier, I’d suggest using one for this trail. We did not, but by the end I know my husband would have loved having it. Overall it is about 2.5 miles. We started our hike around 10 am and by the time we got back to our car it was a little after 12. I’d suggest doing this in the morning. Even on a day where the weather was mild and a little breezy, by the time we were done it was very warm and we were sweating. I think if you did it in the afternoon, given the elevation, it would be pretty hard, especially with small children.
Newfound Gap – a mountain pass located at the center of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; here lies the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina offering some pretty amazing views at the top of the mountains. We drove to this destination after having lunch in Gatlinburg (during nap time). The views going up the mountain were beautiful. Numerous pull off locations to get different views of the Smokies and this was probably where we saw a good bit of fire damage to the trees and vegetation from the fires this area experienced in late fall of 2016.
Cades Cove is an 11 mile, one-way loop, which circles the cove. On our way into Cade’s Cove we got to see phenomenal wildlife firsthand. We, and some other tourists, spotted a mother bear and her three cubs on a ridge in the woods, not even 30 yards off the road. It was amazing to see. Cade’s Cove was beautiful and offers a lot of places to stop on your drive through, with many old structures that have been there since the 1800’s. There are a number of pull-off areas to get out and explore. The road is very narrow and traffic can be heavy at certain points. If you are planning to visit, allow yourself a few hours to get through so that you can enjoy the scenery, wildlife, and history this area has to offer. Many websites that I looked at prior to going mentioned that you could bike the loop and it made for a nice ride. There is a bike rental facility at the parking area/general store right as you come into Cade’s Cove, but once there, we discovered they did not have bikes with children’s seats, despite their website saying they did. In the end, we were very glad we didn’t bike. As I mentioned before, the one-way road was very narrow, lots of traffic, and throughout the ride there were a handful of very steep grades that would have been very hard to navigate with a toddler on a bike. I’d say stick with the ride and hop out as many times as you’d like along the way.
After a few days of following the guides, we decided to just drive and see what we could find off the beaten path. We ended up driving from Gatlinburg through the Smokies to Rt. 321, which brings you through Townsend, back to Pigeon Forge. While exploring we came across Metcalf Bottom Trail. We had no information on this trail, but decided to go out on a limb and see what it was all about. We did put Luke in the backpack carrier, which proved to be a good choice. The trail was a nearly 2 mile loop, starting out on gravel, going into the woods on a dirt path, leading visitors out to an old school house and graveyard. There were a handful of other visitors that we passed along the way, but overall it was relatively quiet. The second half of the hike went up into the mountains a bit and then back down to the access road, bringing you back to the parking area. For as accessible and maintained as it seemed, we were very surprised there weren’t more people, but enjoyed hiking “on our own” at least once on the trip. There was also a really cool, man-made bridge on this trail that took some balancing to get across, but kids would really enjoy.
There are quite a few places throughout the National Park where you will see signs along the road that say “Quite Walking Trail.” These are great for kids – or even if you’re just looking to get out and walk for a bit, but don’t want to go too far or do anything too strenuous. They are not marked on any of the maps that we could see, but seem to pop up along the roads where you’re between bigger tourist sights.
Here are some suggestions for other ‘kid friendly’ trails recommended by the National Park Service: www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/kid-friendly-hikes.htm
Some tips for preparing for your adventures:
- Bring a Backpack – We packed maps, snacks, diaper changing supplies, water bottles, juice, hats, bug spray, additional layers of clothes and more, each time we went into the park. We also packed a small cooler, which we left in the car with more drinks, fruit, and yogurt. Hikes will take longer than you anticipate, it’s better to be prepared.
- Pack Extra Shoes – We had hiking/rain boots for all of us, which we never had to wear, but we kept them in a small plastic container in the car. We also had extra socks and sandals for each of us. There were a few times our feet got damp or muddy and it was nice to have a change of shoes for the ride back.
- Get a Paper Map (or five) – There is absolutely zero cell phone service when you get into the park. You’re off the grid. You don’t want to rely on that for GPS, on hikes or while driving. Pick up any map you can find when you’re at the Visitor Centers. Some are more detailed than others and we definitely used them to navigate more than once.
Outside of the National Park there are a million other things to see and do throughout the area, here are a few highlights that we enjoyed and would encourage others to try when visiting:
The Island: We had no idea what this was when we first got there, (an Island in Tennessee?) but we kept seeing signs for it and hearing about it. So one evening we went on a mission to find out. It turns out it’s a fun spot with The Farris Wheel of Pigeon Forge, a huge selection of restaurants and shops, live music and nightlife, plus a huge arcade and a few other small rides that you can buy passes for, based on what you or your kids want to do. It would be a great evening spot for families who want some downtime and kids who want some play time.
Area Antique Shops: We came across so many antique shops that were busting at the seams with stuff. We only checked out a few, but if you’re visiting on an adults only trip or grandparents have the kids for the day, take a drive down any of the local roads and you’re bound to run into a number of local shops that are fun to explore.
Roadside BBQ: Don’t be afraid to stop and try the local food. We had lunch one afternoon in a small local deli and their food was delicious. There are also a number of BBQ smokers and huts along the road that smell amazing. Stop and try some, even if its only 10am.