I normally wouldn’t log this trip as an expedition, but with a 19 month with us, it sure felt that way. My friend was getting married in Nasheville and he suggested that I head out a week early to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as the surrounding Gaitlinburg area before the wedding. Gaitlinburg is listed at 6 hours and 41 minutes from Richmond, and I have always been looking for an excuse to go to the smokies. We felt like the distance might have been quite a stretch for our 19 month old son, but he has always been quite a good lil traveler so we decided to brave the roads instead of the airplane. He had never travelled such a distance by car before and I had no idea how he would tolerate it. So we ended up allotting a 12 hour travel window for us with scheduled 2 hour breaks in between so he could run and stretch his legs.
Departure: 6:30am. The first leg of the trip went very well. We were able to get in 2.5 hours before our first stop in the town of Roanoake, Virginia. We stopped at Greenhill Park, and it was the absolute perfect pit stop. For a toddler, this park was like an oasis. It had it all, a playground, picnic tables, shaded areas, and even the roanoake river coursed through the park for fishing and cooling off. The bend of river that traveled through the park was very clear and shallow. It was perfect to wade and search for fish and crayfish. Our son loved this spot a little too much and as expected, it was a battle to get him back into the car…fortunately, the weather was merciful and by mid-day it was still surprisingly comfortable.
Soon enough we were on 81 south again, as the interstate rolled gently through the hills towards Tennessee. We covered a couple of hours before we stopped again in Bristol, VA/Tennesee for lunch. We finally finished the leg to our cabin at about 4:30pm (a total travel time of 10 hours) 2 hours ahead of schedule! We actually stayed just outside Gaitlinburg in a town called Sevierville, Tennessee (population 16,716). We were all excited to stretch our legs, jump on the bed a few times, and get outside and take in some of the beautiful views. It did not take us long to get settled into our new home for the next 5 days and 4 nights. Our son instantly fell in love with the place and of course the air hockey table. We all rested easily that night, in a cabin up in the clouds after a long day of travel – we were pretty worn out.
The next morning, we woke up early to head into the national park. The drive was a short and easy 20 minutes into the park. Out of all 60 national parks in the United States, the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited park with more than 11.6 million visitors in 2016. This is likely due to the fact that it is one of the few parks on the east coast and it is also free admission. I was surprised to see the level of commercialization of the surrounding area. The town of Gaitlinburg is essentially one big tourist trap, with everything from “Ripley’s Believe it or not” to go carting! I personally found this to be off-putting but many people seemed to love it. I guess I always imagined the national parks as one of the few special places on earth protected to bring us closer to the outdoors. They are meant to inspire future generations to learn about the environment and the importance of different ecosystems. Instead, in Gaitlinburg, there are endless shops and stores that sell meaningless t-shirts and merchandise… all of which will likely end up in a landfill within a couple of months. While, Gaitlinburg can be very entertaining for children, it feels out of place so close to a national park.
The park itself is very nice and actually very similar to Shenandoah National Park. We chose our hikes carefully…..something feasible with a 27lb 19 month old on your back. We arrived early in the park and were fortunate enough to get a parking spot at Laurel Falls. It was an easy one with only 314ft elevation gain over 2.4 miles. Our son particularly liked the Sugarlands visitor center where he finally got to meet a black bear (the goal of his trip). He even posed next to it for some pictures. He always seems to enjoy visitor centers at parks, whether they be state or national. They offer a quick run through of the key faun and flora in the park. We later head into Gaitlinburg to tour the town and find some dinner.
Now that we knew what we were up against, we wanted to rise early and get to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park and in Tennessee. It is located in the heart of the park at an altitude of 6643 ft. Fortunately with a child, the parking lot brings you within one mile of the observation deck, where you make a steep ascent to be amongst the clouds. The temperature at this altitude was 52 degrees farenheit, a stark contrast from the 82 degree weather back at our cabin! Visibility fluctuates rapidly at this altitude as well, and we hunkered down in our CRV until the sun started to show. Interestingly, at this altitude, there was an information cabin and gift shop. We bought a sweater and a stuffed bear and hung around the parking lot until the sun came out. We caught our break when we caught a glimpse of Fontana Lake on the North Carolina side over a mile away. The climb up is steep with numerous benches along the way for visitors to take breaks. The landscape is pretty amazing with the distinct douglas fir trees that painted the horizon. The clouds moved fluidly over the mountains and created an ocean of moving shadows over the mountain range.
We would spend the next few days at the cabin, relaxing and taking in the surrounding views and listening to the sounds of the mountain range. We did occasional trips back out to Sevierville for supplies and food, but the pickings were slim. Of course, a trip to Tennessee would be incomplete without a visit to a local distillery for some bourbon. We picked up a couple of bottles from the King’s Family distillery as gifts for friends and family back home. All in all, our lil toddler loved the trip. The Great Smokies itself is a beautiful park. Perhaps one day, we might return to take on the most popular and strenuous hikes like Mt Leconte or Andrews bald, but I seriously doubt that we would be back in this area with so many more National Parks left to visit. I was surprised at how well he did in the car, and this gives me hope for future trips.