Sunday, June 28, 2020

Great Smoky Mountain National Park: Hikes and Activities for Kids

Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee is known for its majestic mountains, which are often shrouded in a misty cloud cover that gives the peaks a "smoking" appearance, like the mountains are on fire. It's extremely cool to witness in person, and this experience alone makes it worth it to make the trip to this national park. But there are also dozens of hikes and other beautiful sights. Here are some that we did during our two-day visit.

What to Do

The first hike we did was Laurel Falls Trail, a 2.3-mile out-and-back that's mostly paved but sometimes uneven, leading to a beautiful, multi-tiered waterfall. It's not difficult for children to do, with the length of the hike being the hardest part. I'd say the biggest problem with this trail is that it's too popular, and the trail is rather narrow, so it can get crowded. Go early if you want to hike at a leisurely pace.

The next sight we visited was Cades Cove Loop, which is more of a scenic drive than a hike. The 11-mile, one-way trail winds around wildflower meadows, with the smoky mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. There's supposed to be abundant wildlife in the meadows, but it was raining during our visit, so we didn't see much besides a couple of deer. There are also several historical stops that you can make to visit log cabins, barns, churches, and even a mill that were all built in the early 1800s.

I'd originally wanted for us to bike Cades Cove Loop. This used to be an option on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when the trail would shut down to motor vehicles for a few hours on the morning of those days. You can rent bikes near the visitor center. However, the park is testing a new schedule this year, where the trail is shut down all day on Wednesdays, but not at all on Saturdays. Since we were visiting on a Saturday, this didn't work out for us  and it was raining, anyway. If you are able to time the visit with a Wednesday, though, the biking appears to be a fun option. If you don't want to ride the entire 11-mile loop, you can take shortcuts that cut across the meadow at 4 miles and 8 miles.

The last hike we did in the Smokies turned out to be a completely grueling, yet totally rewarding one: Chimney Top Trail. A few people had recommended this trail to us, but I was hesitant to attempt it because it's a 1.75-mile uphill hike to the summit (then another 1.75 miles back). You start off with some easy and picturesque river crossings.

After that, you literally climb steps or walk up paths the entire way up, which can be both physically and mentally challenging!

When you reach the platform at the top and witness the view, though, it feels totally worth it. We stopped to have a snack here, and found ourselves surrounded by very cute but very aggressive squirrels that are obviously very used to seeing hikers, huffing and puffing, appear with their snacks at varying intervals.

Two hikes we didn't get a chance to do were Clingmans Dome and Roaring Motor Fork Loop. Clingmans Dome is the Smokies' claim to fame  a man-made observation tower that leads to the highest point in Tennessee. From the top, you're supposed to be able to see across seven states. Since it was rainy and cloudy during our visit to the park, we figured we wouldn't be able to see much from Clingmans Dome.

Roaring Motor Fork Loop is similar to Cades Cove  a driving tour that features a scenic roadway and historical buildings. There are supposed to be some pretty hikes along the way, including Rainbow Falls, Grotto Falls, and Place of a Thousand Drips. We ran out of time during our visit and didn't get a chance to experience this drive.

Where to Stay

We rented a home in Gatlinburg to serve as the home base of our visit. The home we found, dubbed the Royal Chalet, was absolutely perfect  tucked at the top of a winding mountain road, nestled in the trees, and just 10 minutes from the park. The panoramic windows were great for bear watching, although no bears actually came around during our stay. We did spot one digging through a neighbor's garbage cans, though.

What's Nearby

Right outside the entrance of the park is the town of Gatlinburg, which provides a completely different experience. Unabashedly touristy, it's a complete wonderland for kids. From mini-golf to mountain coasters, Gatlinburg features every kid-friendly amusement in existence. Here's my itinerary for that part of our trip.

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