Great Smoky Mountain Family Vacation
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is certainly not up there along the list of awe inspiring Yosemite, Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone National Parks in the United States. Unlike the “bigger than life” parks, there is less pressure to try to do it all here. Whether you only have a few days or more to spend, Smoky Mountain’s rolling hills of green valley vistas should be on your to do list for travel destinations. It is small enough to take it easy and large enough for long day treks. The park’s 800 square miles has enough elbow room for its 9 million visitors year round. If the 150 maintained hiking trails won’t tire you out, singles, couples and families will find ample activity along the neighboring towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Most of all enjoy the warm local southern hospitality this region has to offer.
Drives and Hiking Tips
Before it was a park, the Smoky Mountains was home to explorers, adventurers and settlers. There are mills, log cabins and barns built from the 18th and early 19th century earning the park its Unesco World Heritage Certification. Take a break from the bustling car loops and find solitude exploring the many historical cabins and barns along the roads. Or head off the beaten path to Cosby where 90 Foot Hen Wallow Falls is a popular day hike. At 120 foot tall, Mingo Falls is a moderate .4 miles hike on the outskirts of the park in Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Cades Cove Loop is among the popular ½ day drive within the park. During the peak season of mid summer and October, try to start early along the route. Traffic moves at a moderate speed at most 30 mph. Lush open meadows along this loop provide ample opportunity for animal sightings. Elk as well as black bear sighting are not uncommon. The Smokies are one of the few remaining places in the eastern United States where black bears can live in their wild, natural surroundings. We even spotted a passing fox during the dust hours along our drive back to our campsite.
We camped at Elmonk, the biggest campground in the park. There are 220 campsites with most sites spaciously sized to meet the needs of families. It was August and we saw crowds of beautiful Red-spotted Purple butterflies. Little River runs parallel to the campground. Children were frolicking along the river banks in rubber tubes. On the river there were crawfishes. My boys scooped them up into a cup with squeals of delight and then released them back into the water. The park is also the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States. We spotted a small school of fish under the river bridge within the campground. Due to to lack of standing water, mosquitoes do not pose a nuisance in the Smokies.
There are no motels or rental cabins located within the park. Le Conte Lodge, located on top of Mount Le Conte, is the only accessible by a 5 miles minimum hike one way within the park. There are plentiful of lodgings in the surrounding communities. The small town of Gatlinburg sits right at the foothills of the park. It streets are narrow and runs up and down on an incline. There is the usual McDonald’s & Pizza Hunt for quick bits along with Duane Reade’s drug store. We had a pleasant stay at a mid range hotel called River Terrace with basic amenities.
For more town activity, take a 20 minute drive out to the next town. Pigeon Forge is a small equivalent scale of Irlo Bronson Drive in Kissimmee Orlando, Florida. It is sprawled with mini Amusement Parks as well as the large theme park, Dollywood vacation, owned by entertainer Dolly Parton. One of highlights of Pigeon Forge are the numerous race tracks. At Woody Track there are 3 different go cart race tracks accommodating ages 4 to adulthood and a mini golf range. My 5 year old son played in the toddler tracks. The kids there didn’t get too far along the tracks since most were still too young to understand gas, peddle, and turn your wheels. But they sure looked cute in their miniature race cars. My 9 year old son got to scoot his way along the mid range race tracks. Lastly, there is the big 2 story high roller coaster like tracks where kids could safely sit next to their driving parents in the double seated race cars. As I stood on the miniature golf range looking over my boys’ shoulders, I could see the endless mist of the Smokies in the backdrop.