After a beautiful morning in downtown Asheville, we began the quick hour and forty-minute drive over to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, our home for the next 3 nights as we explored the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive through North Carolina and Tennessee was beautiful. Thankfully I was ahead of Todd on this drive because I was able to warn him that the camper would not be able to make it on some of the curvy roads. He had to stay on larger highways and take the longer way to Gatlinburg. We all eventually arrived at our campground – Twin Creek RV Resort in Gatlinburg. We really enjoyed this campground. Everyone we encountered was so friendly. The kids loved the swimming pool!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
After getting all settled, we drove over to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to get ourselves oriented with the park and decide what to see first! We decided to tackle the 2.4-mile round-trip Laurel Falls hike. The hike is entirely paved and not difficult. Although the trail information stated it was stroller-friendly, we did not bring the stroller. The hike is uphill most of the way to the falls and the paved path is rough in some areas. We were grateful to just have the hiking backpack for Philip. Emelia hiked the whole way to the falls! As we got closer to the falls, several people reported seeing a bear on the trail. One group even told us that we should absolutely not continue on. We were a bit startled, but remembered we had our bear spray! Or, so we thought. It was in the car. Great. Well, we waited for a short time at one overlook and several other groups passed us in both directions and all seemed fine. So, we decided to continue on but just did some singing along the trail with Emelia.
There were no bear sightings for us, and there were quite a few people at the falls when we arrived. The falls are small, cascading falls and many people were in the falls and climbing up the side. The rocks were very slippery and we saw several people fall, plus we did not come dressed to swim, so we just let the kids throw rocks and sticks in the water from the side. Because it was a summer afternoon, the crowd was large at the falls, so we did not stay too long.
The hike down was enjoyable and there are some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains during a few short breaks in the trees. After making it back down, we went back to the campground and enjoyed some pool time and dinner.
On our second day in Gatlinburg, we started the drive up to the highest mountain in the Smokies, Clingmans Dome. It took us about 50 minutes to get to the Forney Ridge Parking Area from our campground via Newfound Gap Road and then Clingmans Dome Road. Once we parked, we started the half-mile paved trail past the small Clingmans Dome Visitor Center to the concrete observation tower at the summit of the mountain. We decided to push the stroller up the steep paved trail and it was a struggle! We knew the kids would get tired since the trail is quite steep, but pushing the stroller proved to be more work than it was probably worth!
The hiking backpack would’ve been a better option even though the trail is paved. After several breathers, we made it to the base of the 45-foot concrete observation tower that was built in 1959. Just before you reach the base of the tower, the Appalachian Trail crosses the Clingmans Dome trail. We sent the kids down the AT a few step so they could say they hiked part of the trail in two states on our trip (we hiked part of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia).
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
After another short rest, we started the last 375 feet up the ramp to the platform at the top of the observation tower. The 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains give you a true appreciation for the name of the park. The low clouds were hanging out in the valleys in between the mountain peaks and the views were incredible.
The platform also gave us a glimpse of the great claim to fame of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – it’s the most visited National Park. The platform was packed with people and our stroller made it hard to navigate the crowds all trying to catch a glimpse of the view and snap a selfie. We took a quick picture and then began the much easier trek down the trail to the visitor’s center. Even the views from the parking area are incredible, and much less crowded. So, after the kids did some rock climbing on the boulders near the base of the trail, we enjoyed a picnic lunch with the fantastic views.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
In the afternoon, after we made it down from Clingmans Dome, we decided to explore the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This is an area of lower elevation that was once home to an Appalachian community. Today the narrow, one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail weaves through the remains of the buildings occupied by the early settlers. The road follows the Roaring Fork stream past overlooks and trailheads. We had originally planned to hike Rainbow Falls, a popular trail that begins just before the entrance to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Once we got closer to the trail, we realized the kids didn’t have it in them to complete the 5.6-mile trail.
Hiking along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Instead of Rainbow Falls, we hiked the Trillium Gap Trailhead to Grotto Falls and stopped at several historic buildings in the area. The parking area for the Trillium Gap Trailhead is approximately 1.6 miles down the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The parking spaces are very limited. We had a very difficult time backing ourselves into a tiny makeshift spot, especially since the road is one-way and very curvy in this area. Once we finally made ourselves a parking spot, we loaded Philip in the hiking backpack and began the 2.6-mile round-trip hike.
The trail through the wooded area was beautiful and the hills were only rolling. Emelia made the hike with only a small amount of singing and rock collecting to encourage her along. The crowds were minimal on this trail and when we first arrived, we even had the falls to ourselves.
Hike to Grotto Falls
Grotto Falls is the only waterfall that you can walk behind in the park. There is a small pathway behind the 25-foot falls that leads to the other side. Be prepared to get a little wet as you duck behind the rushing water. On the other side, we did some rock scrambling and got a few soaked feet, but the kids really enjoyed throwing rocks while we enjoyed view of the falls from the edge of the pool. A few more hikers joined us at the falls. After another trip behind the falls back to the other side, we began the hike back toward the car. Philip took a snooze in the hiking backpack on the way down, and continued in the car. We loaded everyone back into the car and continued our one-way drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. While Philip took a short nap in the car, I got out with Emelia to explore the Alfred Reagan home and mill.
There are several historic building and homes that you can explore that represent the early settlers in this area. The Alfred Reagan home and mill were built in the late 1800s – early 1900s. All of the homes and land give a good example of how these settlers lived and worked. Emelia enjoyed seeing the house and then playing by the water near the mill.
After our drive through the Roaring Fork Motor Trail ended, we drove to downtown Gatlinburg to explore the shops and do some people watching. Gatlinburg, known as the gateway to the smokies, is such an interesting town. Some people say it’s a hokey tourist trap while others view it as a perfect family destination. There are lots of fun things to explore including an aquarium and a space needle.
We enjoyed walking around and ended up at Ole Smoky Distillery where we did some whiskey tasting. Whiskey and moonshine have become synonymous with this area, so we figured we better see what all the fuss was about! The people at Ole Smoky Distillery have this down to an art. We lined up at the counter, with the stroller next to us, and our server lined up 10 little shot glasses for each person. She explained each flavor with humor thrown in there and we made our way down the line. I only made it through 4 tastes before deciding someone needed to be responsible for the children, but Todd enjoyed all the flavors. Blackberry, cinnamon, apple pie, and caramel were just a few of the flavors. The servers make the tasting into an experience and we enjoyed ourselves. After our tasting, food was in order! We enjoyed a local pizza place for dinner and then made our way back to the campground for the evening.
Cades Cove Loop
On our third day in Gatlinburg, we woke up early and drove about an hour to the other side of the Smoky Mountain National Park – Cades Cove Loop. Cades Cove is a large, grassy valley surrounded by the mountains. The 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the valley and passes many historic buildings, trail heads, and gorgeous views. A pamphlet is available for a small fee at the entrance. It includes a map of the area and information on the cove. Many settlers called Cades Cove home during the 1800s, so the area has the most historic buildings for viewing and exploring of any area in the National Park. Cades Cove is also the best area for wildlife viewing. There are vast fields where herds like to feed in the morning and evening.
As we made our way around the loop, we stopped to visit Primitive Baptist Church and cemetery. The building is impressive and the graves show the history of the area. We recognized many of the names from other structures we visited. We also stopped at a pull-out along the way with a large field. The field was gorgeous with the mountains in the background. The kids enjoyed walking through the tall grass and picking a few flowers. It was a perfect stop for some pictures.
The next stop we planned to make was the trail to Abrams Falls. Unfortunately, the trail was closed and the parking was completely blocked off. There was a fire in the area. So, we continued on the loop and stopped at the Visitor’s Center near the back of the loop. Along with the Visitor’s Center, we also explored the Cable Mill historic area. Home to the only working gristmill in the Smoky Mountains, the area also includes a historic barn, blacksmith shop, smokehouse, and homes. We also walked along the water for a short hike.
Junior Ranger Animal Olympics
As we were preparing to leave, a ranger stopped us and invited us to attend the Junior Ranger program she was about to lead. Our kids are a little young for the Junior Ranger program, but they had a blast competing in Junior Ranger Olympics in the field by the gristmill! They hopped like frogs, slithered like snakes, and learned all kind of interesting information about the animals in the area. It was a great activity, and we’re happy we stumbled across it.
After a picnic lunch, we continued around the loop to the restrooms and campground at the exit. We stopped to get some ice cream before making our way back to our campground. The kids were thrilled to enjoy an evening of swimming at the Twin Creek RV Resort! We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We didn’t see everything we wanted to, but I like to leave a place like this! Now we have more to look forward to for our next visit! The next morning we began our drive to Nashville!