We’re only 3-4 hours from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, depending on which part we’re trying to get to, so I feel like it really ought to be our National Park….yet this was only the second time we managed to make it there as a family. The first time was only a year ago, and you can read about that trip here, here, and here. We actually have another short Smoky Mountains trip–our first to the North Carolina side–planned for next month, so we’re making some progress at claiming the park for our family.
When Dave’s sister Amy and her boys planned their visit, we considered just hanging around Atlanta as we’ve done in the past. But we knew it would be SO HOT here that a trip to the mountains sounded like a great escape plan. Sadly, it was also SO HOT in the mountains. But we still had fun. (You can read about the campground we stayed at, Imagination Mountain in Cosby, TN, here).
The Great Smoky Mountains NP is surrounded by little towns full of touristy places that want to take your money. We gave our money to some of them, and I’ll talk about those things in the next post. For today, I’m focusing on the time we spent actually inside the park.
Cosby: The Cosby area of the park, about 20 miles east of Gatlinburg, is one of the least visited, which was a definite bonus since we were there in July and crowds were hard to avoid most places we went. It’s also very close to Imagination Mountain, the campground we stayed at, and not a whole lot else is, so spending a morning checking it out was an obvious choice.
There’s a picnic area in this part of the park and a campground that almost never fills (we can report that it wasn’t crowded at all when we saw it and that it looked lovely. But, alas, no hookups). There are also a few different trails that start here, including our choice, the Sutton Ridge Overlook trail.
This was supposed to be a moderate 1.3 mile each way trail, leading to a great mountain view….i.e. perfect for a group of kids. The only problems were that it was so hot and humid that two and a half miles felt a lot longer and that the trail that my sources (i.e. the NPS website) said started from the picnic area….didn’t. We looked and looked and looked for it with no luck, before finally asking a ranger for help. It turns out you have to walk uphill from the parking area and past the campground to get to the trailhead. By the time you do that and then the walk back to your car after, you’re probably looking at more of a 3 or 3.25 mile hike instead of the 2.6 you were expecting.
But the hike itself was lovely and really a great one for the kids. Abe walked probably three quarters of it all on his own, despite the heat. We’ll make a hiker out of that boy yet!
I read recently, on some blog or other, a description of a typical east coast hike as being one where you hike through trees, uphill, for a really long time until finally there’s a clearing and you briefly get a great view. I guess since the vast majority of my hiking has been on the east coast, I didn’t realize this was an east coast thing and not just a hiking thing. But, yeah–that’s what this hike is like. As you might expect for a trail that promises to take you to an overlook, the hike in is pretty much all uphill, though nothing super steep. You do get a couple of stream crossings on narrow log bridges to keep things interesting, though.
And then you get to a point where you can either keep going and hook up with the Appalachian Trail or take a short, steep spur up to the overlook before turning around. We went with that option and were rewarded with our view:
Hikers admiring the view:
If you’re looking for a less intense hike, there’s a short nature walk at Cosby, too. I believe it’s a one mile loop, and you can get a booklet for $1 (if I remember right; honor system drop box) that tells about what you’re seeing along the way. And there are a number of other, longer and/or more strenuous hikes, too, if that’s what you need.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: this is a 5 1/2 mile long one way road that loops through hills, along streams, and past historic buildings in the park just outside of Gatlinburg. Our plan here was to get an early start and make the very popular hike to Grotto Falls, where, we’ve heard, the trail passes behind the waterfall. But getting an early start proved impossible that morning and, thus, so did parking near the trailhead. I believe we got there around 10:30 in the morning, and it was insanely crowded. We had to settle for admiring the views from the car and stopping for awhile to play in a stream and check out some old cabins:
Funny thing about these cabins: we stopped in the same spot last year (and I took pretty much this exact same photo) and were warned by some other visitors that there was a rattlesnake under that cabin in the foreground. Dave and the older kids went in for a closer look, and it turned out to be some sort of harmless non-rattling snake instead. When we were there this time, Abe started to take off in the direction of that same cabin when someone yelled for him to stop and told me that there was a snake under there. Snakes really like that cabin.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center is also in the Gatlinburg area. There’s a nice gift shop and museum there, and some trails behind it, but we just stopped in briefly on this trip. We made one of our many attempts at a decent photo of all the cousins. Too bad Louis was standing directly in front of Benjamin in this one:
Clingmans Dome: Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet, is the highest point in the park, and the third highest peak east of the Mississippi. It’s accessed via a seven mile road off of Newfound Gap Road, which means you’re in for a fair amount of slow mountain driving to get there no matter where you’re staying. But we heroically did manage to get a pretty early start on this day (I think we got there around 9:30), and it was a good thing: there’s a very big parking lot at Clingmans Dome, and it had plenty of space when we got there, but was completely full by the time we left.
There’s a small store and information center here as well as pit toilets (which are incredibly stinky, so avoid using them if you can). Here’s your view from the parking area:
Here’s what it looks like when you take a picture of six boys by the parking area:
The information center and lots of giant rocks are right by the parking lot:
To get to the observation tower, you have to walk up a paved but very steep half mile trail. The good news is that it’s never going to be hot at that elevation, no matter what the temperature is down below. This was another 90 degree day, but up here I don’t think it was more than 70. Still, the kids needed to rest on some of the many benches along the path:
But we all persevered, and at last the observation tower came into view:
Notice all those dead trees? They’re fraser firs and there’s some kind of terrible thing killing them all. There are signs that tell you all about it there. They have something they can spray to help the poor trees, but they can only get the equipment along the main roads, so these trees all the way up here are out of luck:
I thought the visibility was not great on the day we were here until I saw some other people’s photos from Clingmans Dome and realized we probably got lucky. Sadly, I think the visibility is rarely awesome these days, thanks to air pollution.
Next up: one more post about our time in Tennessee, before I get back to recapping the summer trip. I need to pick up the pace so last summer doesn’t run into next summer :).