It was time to pull up stakes and get back on the road to our next stop, Gatlinburg, TN. It was going to be a long day driving so the kids ran around to get the “crazies” out before we settled-in for the drive. Luckily, Tennessee is a beautiful state and there was a lot of scenery to enjoy.
Suddenly, the traffic on the highway just stopped. After a few minutes, we realized that we were not going anywhere for a while so we shut off the engine and rolled down the windows. Seemed like a good time for a snack so I got food from the trailer. A truck driver behind us confirmed there was an accident ahead. About 20 minutes later, we were on our way again. By the time we passed the accident site, there were only a police car, and a tow truck left behind. We hoped everyone involved was OK.
Finally, we arrived at Adventure Bound Camping Resort, our home for the next five days. This campground won us over not only for the close proximity to Gatlinburg and the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but also the onsite water slide and pool. We were directed to site 175, located on the perimeter of the park. This great site was nestled among trees and most importantly, backed up to Webbs Creek! Not only could we hear the babbling of this creek indoors (my favorite thing) but it would provide endless hours of delight for Drake and Mia!
We had heard that it was the last weekend before school started in Tennessee, so we gathered there would be larger crowds at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Being Saturday, we were reluctant to spend the day in the park fighting crowds, but we did want to at least visit the Sugarlands Visitor Center to grab park maps, pick-up Junior Ranger booklets and watch the park film if there was one available.
Note: Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the largest and most visited of all the National Parks in the country. There is NO admission fee to enter this park! Be prepared to pay for anything more than the basic park map and park newspaper. Hiking maps, trail maps, and Junior Ranger booklets all must be purchased.
Even knowing what to expect we were wowed by the incredible crowd that greeted us. The ample-sized parking lot was packed full. Newcomers were forced to idle in the rows to wait for people to pull out. Luckily, Troy let us out at the entrance so we could go in and start exploring. There is an extensive museum that helped us in identifying the great number of trees, flowers, animals and birds that make the Smoky Mountains home.
Once Troy joined us, we went to see the 20-minute film that gave the history of this amazing National Park. We learned that the park was created in 1934 when only 20% of the old growth forest remained after logging decimated the other 80% of the forest. Even though it was a great thing for the park to be created, it also displaced the 1,200 landowners that called this rugged place home. These folks had to pack up and leave behind their farms, mills, schools and churches. Today, 70 of these historic structures remain for visitors to explore and imagine what life was like here for these brave souls.
As we were about to leave, we saw a sign for the Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail out the back of the Visitor Center. Since we were already secured a parking spot, we decided to check it out. What a great trail for families. It’s short (only.5 miles round-trip), paved (great for strollers and new walkers), and beautiful. It gave us our first immersion into the old growth forest. My favorite part was the dappled light that shined its golden brilliance through the trees.
We were pleasantly surprised that The Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail connects to the Laurel Falls trail, one of the most visited waterfall in the park. Soon, we approached the 80-foot high waterfall. Being later in the season, the waterfall’s flow was low and not that impressive. That didn’t stop the throngs of people crowded around the pool or trying to climb the adjacent rocks. It was difficult to get a photo without someone in it as you can see. Even though Laurel Falls wasn’t all that we thought it would be, we were happy to get out and experience a bit of the Smoky Mountains.
Tip: Best time to see Laurel Falls is early morning or late afternoon. Bears are more likely to be out at that time, so keep on the look out. Keep small children close as there are some steep drop-off’s as you approach the falls area.
We had enough of the crowds but not the park so I talked Troy into taking us on the Roaring Fork Auto Tour Trail. It sounded intriguing and seemed like a good way to ditch the crowds and still explore the park. This is a 5.5 mile-long, one-way loop road that travels along the Roaring Fork stream (hence its name). Soon, we found ourselves blissfully enveloped by the forest, creating a mood of isolation and serenity.
For $1, we purchased the guide to the auto trail. It invites the driver to “stop often, get out, and smell the the woods…” and we intended to do just that. Our first stop was to soak in the Smoky Mountains themselves. As we stood in stillness (as much as you can with seven-year-olds) we were delighted to hear the sound of birds calling and the humming of insects. The perfect chance to take a deep breath and enjoy being alive.
We passed the very crowded Grotto Falls trailhead vowing to hike the 1.3 mile trail to the falls on our next visit (our flip-flops were not the best footwear for hiking) and continued on to the homestead of Ephraim Bales (circa 1930). Ephraim, his wife, Minerva and their 9 children called this place home. We explored their well-preserved log cabin, corn crib, barn, and hog pen. One could almost imagine the harsh existence of the families who called this beautiful place home. Too soon our auto tour was over and we headed back to our campground. Kids were ready to get into the pool!
Note: The trailhead to Rainbow Falls is also located along the Auto Tour route. This trail is considered moderate and is approximately 5.6 mile round-trip to one of the most popular waterfalls in the park.
More to come on our time at Great Smoky Mountain National Park!