Great Smoky Mountains National Park was on my list of to-visit places for a while now. I spotted it on the map for the first time during the spring-summer of 2010, when we were thinking of our last vacation before our kids started arriving — Alena was well along into her pregnancy. At the time we decided that it was too late to try anything as ambitious as 1,400 mile trip at the minimum.
Later that year we went to Shenandoah for a week’s stay with my parents and our brand new family member. From that moment on I kept mentioning Great Smoky Mountains from time to time and we kept deciding that it was too early to do something like that. This spring I brought it up again and somewhat to my surprise Alena agreed.
Not only would this be by far the biggest drive for Arosha in his life — although he has shown himself a great traveler during our Washington State trip. And not only it would be the first trip with Arosha without my parents, no. We also had a tiny new unit who wouldn’t even be 7 month old by the time our trip would start.
Keeping all the above in mind we planned the trip in such a way that we would make several stops on our way to Tennessee and back to give our kids some breaks from long drive days. Our original plan had a single stop in Shenandoah for three nights and two full days of relaxation at the park before driving another 400 miles all the way to Gatlinburg.
But since we decided to leave Shenandoah a day earlier (more on that in Shenandoah post) we figured we’ll just split our drive into two 200 mile sections instead of a full 400 mile jump. But to our surprise our kids were so good that we ended up making it all the way to the end in one day, thus adding another great day to our best part of this vacation — our stay in Great Smoky Mountains.
On our way we had two breaks — one was a detour to see natural bridge instead of which we ended up visiting a zoo. Kids had a lot of fun there. Arosha fed goats, llamas, giraffes and camels among the things that I remember. Llamas were making all kinds of sounds while gobbling up the treats and both of our kids found them to be by far the most amusing bunch. As a result llamas got most of our treats.
Our second stop was for a lunch at some local BBQ place where I got 1/4 (or was it 1/2) of a rack of ribs which were double the size of the normal rack that I’m used to seeing. Good thing I wasn’t greedy and didn’t order the whole thing. It was interesting, but it took much more fighting than ribs usually take. Not fun. We were tired after.
So we kept driving and driving and our kids kept being totally content, taking naps and at some point we figured that it no longer really makes any sense to spend a night elsewhere but our final destination. Only when we got off the main interstate and started driving via a local road with traffic lights Anюta started to get annoyed and started crying. Luckily it was only for the last 5 miles of our drive.
On our way to Gatlinburg we were greeted by a neighboring town of Pigeon Forge. We always imagined that Gatlinburg would feel a lot like Bar Harbor near Acadia National Park or like Port Angeles by Olympic National Park or even like Ashford near Mount Rainier. Pigeon Forge though was nothing like. The best analogy that I can think of is the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, but bigger — everything is covered in flashing neon signs, mini-golf courses, houses of scary mirrors, Guinness record halls and so on and on and on for miles.
To our relief Gatlinburg was a lot more toned down, yet still not a serene and cozy town we expected it to be. We were glad to find out that our hotel is located on the edge of the town and on a top of a decently sized hill. The location was so great that it was only a third of a mile away from one of the entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The hotel itself, as I wrote earlier, was not what you would expect to find near a national park. This one was a fifteen plus story building bustling with activity. We were lucky enough that they had a room available for our first unplanned night — we did check via their website before driving all the way there. But reasonably enough they had no upgrade for us on such a short notice.
The room was on the first floor. When they asked us whether we preferred to just stay in one place or we would like to get our upgrade for the rest of the nights we inquired what kind of upgrade it would be. — We would put you on the 15th floor. — How many are there? — Fifteen. — We’ll move!
Thus our Tennessee stay has begun. Hotel and our room were great. Breakfasts were included. Lunch and dinner menus were reasonably priced. Pools were fun. And Great Smoky Mountains National Park was right beside us for us to explore.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Now after my not-so-short introduction on to the park itself. In the park we visited four major scenic places or destinations, two visitor centers and did a number of smaller hikes in the forest by just pulling off the road and taking quite trails.
Our very first stop was by a standard national park entrance sign. We saw some people taking their pictures by the sigh and I kindly offered to take a picture of all of them. The nice people offered to take our picture as well and I confessed that it was my plan all along.
After that we stopped by Sugarlands Visitors Center to put together a plan of actions for the next five days. We also got our passports stamped. Arosha now has his own passport with a pretty nice collection of stamps already. Too bad we didn’t buy it for him back during our Northwestern trip.
My conversation with a ranger about places to see and hikes to take was interrupted by loud howling cry. Arosha was all in tears and at first we got very scared that he hurt himself somehow — he really only cries that loudly when it really hurts. Luckily it was not that — turns out he was playing under the stand (desk) with his pasport while I was talking and somehow managed to drop it into that stand.
A bunch of rangers gathered around, but only to find out that stand is solidly built and attached to the floor and there was no way to get inside of it. Arosha was terribly upset and couldn’t stop crying. Several rangers tried to calm him and tell him that they will save his passport. They ended up taking their stand apart and extracting the passport. From that moment on Arosha was much more careful with his collection of stamps.
We put off the destinations that we discussed with the rangers to other days because there was one place that I’ve read about before coming to the park that I really wanted to visit — Clingmans Dome. Clingmans Dome is the highest mountain in the Smokies and it has a 45 feet observation tower build on top of it offering unobstructed view in all directions.
This is the destination that we ended up visiting tree times, but did the hike to the top only twice. So on our first day our first trip up there was on a relatively clear day. But from the top there was still significant haze. However the views were magnificent.
The hike itself is only half a mile long, but it is very steep. Alena had to carry Anna in her arms as she didn’t want to sit inside her ergo (which was the case for pretty much all our hikes), but Arosha had no issues doing the hike on his own.
Several days later we came here again. The day was very foggy and we were hoping to get above the clouds. It was not meant to be. Clouds were too high and when we started our hike we ran into a couple coming back down. We asked them if the visibility was any better at the top and they said it wasn’t at all, so we just turned back.
And several days later we got up here again on a cloudy day. Even though we did get above the clouds the cloud cover underneath wasn’t as thick as I was hoping it would be. We made the hike to the top again and did take a bunch of nice photographs. So overall I have to say if you’re going to see only one place in Great Smoky Mountains this is the destination to go to.
One our second day we went on a hike to see Laurel Falls. The trail was three mile round trip with a pretty modest altitude change — non stop climb up to the falls and descent on the way back. The trail was paved, but there were several signs warning of danger as there were fatal accidents on this trail before. The path was laid right along a steep cliff and children had to be protected and supervised at all times. So while we were hiking up I was firmly holding Arosha by his hand.
We passed by several small streams on our way up and Arosha loved them. As did Anyuta. Arosha found some branch with a bunch of leaves on the end and started dunking it into the water and then “washing” everything around him. He kept pretending that he had this awesome broom and kept talking and talking about it. At one point the end with the leaves just fell off. That fazed him for all of 2 seconds when he declared: “I just pressed a special button and my broom turned into a vacuum cleaner. It works even better now.”
The waterfall itself wasn’t big or anything, but since waterfalls seem to be our favorite destination in any park — we liked it. The trail led us to the bottom of it and it was falling on the huge boulders right in front of us. Arosha started fishing with his “vacuum cleaner” and when Alena let Anna touch the water she turned into a little speedy propeller with her arms flying in circles.
Eventually Arosha managed to slip and fall in with one of his shoes into the water. However that wasn’t enough. Soon enough he ended up knee deep in the water with both of his feet. And we had no spare pants, socks or sneakers. I fished him out quickly enough, but his feet were all soaked. We had to go all the way back like that and we had to listen to Arosha’s whining about how it was horrible and not fun at all.
When he would switch to crying we would try to cheer him up by saying that all people only saw the waterfall, but he actually was inside of it and that it was quite funny. He kept disagreeing and protesting claiming that there was absolutely nothing funny about his tragic situation. Later on when he was all dried off in a new set of clothing he did admin that maybe it was a little bit funny after all.
So after our mandatory stop back at the hotel (to get dry clothing) we got back into the car and drove to Cades Cove. Cades Cove is a place with a bunch of old houses and farms and things like that, but the main attraction for us was the fact that apparently that was the best place to spot wild life. And that indeed ended up being true. We did see a total of 8 bears, a whole bunch of deer, wild turkeys and a really good looking woodpecker on that day.
Our first spotting of a bear was actually not far from the entrance to the park itself. We saw a whole bunch of cars stopped on the side of the road going in the opposite direction. I did an SUV maneuver through the median, put on my big lens and got out of the car. I couldn’t spot the bear myself, but soon enough some kind folks did point it out to me. It was far away enough that I felt it was safe to get Arosha out of the car and show him the bear. He did see him too.
In Cades Cove we just kept driving very slowly and looking around. Alena spotted a woodpecker on the tree, but by the time I had my camera in hand he already jumped off. I did get several nice shots of him still.
Our kids fell asleep on the way there and got some rest on the road. Then we stopped at some gift shop where we discovered yet another stamp (we got one at Clingmans Dome too) and an old watermill.
Arosha played with the water throwing all kinds of stuff into an old aqueduct, pretending to be cooking some soup which had about 50 different ingredients. We saw some wild turkeys, but one guy scared them all off before we had a chance to take a picture — we did find some more on our way back that did pose for us.
The best way to spot a bear is to see for a bunch of stopped cars and a bunch of observers with cameras. Thus we spotted a mama bear with two cubs, but they were quite far away. I could see the black dots through the camera, but not much more. They were sitting in the open field when suddenly a deer ran out of the woods and stopped. After realizing that it probably is not the best idea to be handing out around the bears the said deer disappeared in the woods even more hastily than it appeared.
And several miles later we saw a whole bunch of cars again. I got out of the car and went about 50 meters into the woods. And there I saw several photographers taking pictures of a mama bear and her three cubs not far away. That’s where I got my best pictures of the cubs climbing the trees. Needless to say that was pretty exciting.
On the next day we went onto another trail. This one was located on a scenic road that started right around the back of our hotel. The trail was to Grotto Falls. This one was also about three miles both ways which Arosha also hiked without any problems. However this time we were much more careful around the waterfall itself in order not to have to do the hike back in a half wet condition again.
The trail was also very scenic as any other trail. But the waterfall itself stands out because you could hike under and behind it. I actually carried Arosha under it because it was a sure way for him to get a shower otherwise.
We also spent half a day in Pigeon Forge and went to a weird place called Wonderworks. They had an upside-down building and all kinds of weird things inside, but overall it ended up being pretty boring. Arosha tried climbing a special mountains, but he didn’t seem to like that at all, and couldn’t really grasp the concept of having a safety on him and why he needed that at all.
On our way back we stopped for a lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Cuban restaurant. And we saw a beaver on the side of the road. At first time we went by him too quickly so we made a U-turn and came back and he was still sitting on the side of the road. But as soon as I touched my camera he split with the speed of light — so no picture.
And on our last full day we again went to Clingmans Dome, which I wrote about above and after that went on a trail through the woods the start of which was literally one third of a mile away from our hotel. Just a nice quite trail that runs along a mountain river and no people around.
On our way our way out of Tenseness we crossed the whole park and came out on the other side in North Carolina. We stopped at another visitor center on that end, bought some wildflower honey for ourselves and our parents and walked around the old farm that used to be located near it.
And that’s pretty much it. We picked a very good time to visit the park as everything was in full spring bloom. Everything about this stay was great. The only regret is that parents weren’t with us. They surely would’ve liked it a lot as well.
P.S. All pictures are posted in chronological order.