Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Tips to Taking a Smoky Mountains Family Vacation

Last week I began a two-week series of taking family vacation to the mountains.  I shared about the Rocky Mountains and our visit to the Colorado Springs areas.  This week we will travel to the other side of the US to some mountains the appear to be smoking! 

After reading an article in a travel magazine, the Smoky Mountains were added to my bucket list.  So while our kiddos were at camp and Peanut was at Camp Spoiler (aka grandparents’) my husband and I took the opportunity to make it happen.  Boy did we see some amazing things!   Sites that we definitely want to visit with the kids.  If you are headed to Tennessee and North Carolina, here are our tips.

Place to Stay

We chose Gatlinburg, Tennessee as our hub.  It is on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and very close to the North Carolina border.  We rented a very reasonably priced home on the mountain.  It had a beautiful view and gave us the privacy we desired.  From what we learned, many of the homes on that side of the mountain are rentals.  Although we didn’t use it, the home rental also allowed access to a fitness/pool center.  Pigeon Forge (to the North) would have been another option but that town seemed more geared toward tourist and less for those wanting to enjoy the beauty.  Just my observation. 

If you do rent a home, I encourage you to arrive during the day as it could be difficult to find your place when it’s dark because the streets are so crazy-curvy going up and around the mountain.

One of the perks of having a house is the full kitchen.  With a little planning you can cut cost drastically by eating in!  (See how we planned for a beach trip and trips to the Rockies.)

Things to Do

Ober Gatlinburg
On our first evening we rode the Ariel Tramway 2.1 miles up the mountain.  At the top there is an amusement park and ski area with an ice skating rink and some food and souvenir shops.  While it was super cool to ride in the cable car over the tree tops, this is an activity I would skip.  You are crammed into a tram and unless you time it correctly, you could easily be smashed in the middle and see very little.

Biltmore Mansion
The second day we drove across the border into Asheville, North Carolina to the largest privately owned home in the United States.  To say the least, I loved, {LOVED} our day at Biltmore.  So much so that this has been placed back on my bucket list with the addition of visiting for a span of few days.  Yes, I loved it that much.  The house.  The gardens and pond.  The stories about those who lived there.  The scenery.  Everything I found fascinating.

Yes, this is an indoor swimming pool!
With that said, it is very expensive to visit.  The tickets for the house were $60 a piece with the addition of $11 for the handheld audio guides.  Of course the guides are option but the information that they provide are key to experiencing the house to the fullest.  Other tours are available for an added price but we didn’t take the time to do them.  Next time...

During our visit, kids could tour for free but I saw very few young families touring the house.  Honestly, the thought of wrangling a toddler through the house makes me nervous.  I wouldn’t be able to enjoy anything if worried about a child touching gold sprinkled wallpaper (no joke!).  Audio guides are also available for children and the tour is presented through the viewpoint of the house dog.  The excerpt that I heard would be great for late elementary-aged children and older.  If we were to return with our kiddos, prior to the visit I would want to do a study of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with an emphasis on class and how households were run.  I think this would help the children understand what they were seeing and hearing.

Wear good walking shoes as the house and gardens are spread out.  After walking a long way we realized that we could have driven to the gardens instead of walking.  Oh well…more calories burned, right?  Prior to visiting I read that cameras weren’t allowed but once in the house discovered that I could have used one without a flash.  Sadly, I had to settle for my phone camera so please excuse the poor quality of the above images.

Overall, I highly suggest visiting Biltmore but I would hold off if your children are really young.

Clingman's Dome
The next day took us to the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  It is a seven mile drive to the end of Clingman's Dome Road and then once there parking is very limited so plan to walk a ways before even beginning the ½ mile steep hike to the summit.  They suggest strollers not be used but as long as you hold tightly you will be fine.  Key:  Don’t let go!  The observation tower on the summit of Clingmans Dome offers a 360 view of the Smokies.  Unfortunately it was so fogging that we couldn’t see much in front of us.  It is a little cooler at the top so you may desire a jacket depending on the weather.  FYI:  Only valet toilet restrooms are available.

At the bottom of the summit are a few trail options.  We took the one to the Appalachian Trail and then veered back to Clingman's Dome.  Cool just to say that we touched the Appalachian Trail.  Wish we would have had more time to do the hikes as the scenery was beautiful. 

The seven-mile Clingman's Dome Road contains several pull-off places to enjoy the view.  While I didn’t see any picnic tables, these would be fun places to take a picnic lunch.

One more thing…while there we saw that a park ranger had gathered children for an information time. She shared about Clingman's Dome and answered questions.  Be sure to check times for ranger-led programs.  Many National Parks have Junior Ranger programs as well.  The NPS.gov website has information as well as suggested children’s books to teach your children about the Smoky Mountains.

Rock Streams
My absolute favorite scenery of our trip was the amazing rock streams that traveled down the mountain.  It is a must-stop to walk along the rocks.  Even as adults, we loved our hour spent in the stream.  Water shoes would have made it even more fun!  Definitely set aside time to enjoy God’s creation.

There are many trail in the National Park.  We chose the Grotto Falls hike which displays a 25’ waterfall that you can walk behind.  There are several smaller falls that you can walk along and water shoes would have been super fun to have.  This hike is a 3 miles round trip moderate hike.  Since we hike a lot, our children would have had no trouble on this hike.  Once again parking was very limited and don’t forget to take water with you!

God has surrounded us with His glorious creation.  Smoky Mountains is just one more place to experience it.

Also read:  
Hotel Rooms, Vacation, and Kids:  16 Tips to Success
Tips to Taking a Family Beach Vacation
Tips to Taking a Rocky Mountains Family Vacation

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