The last full day of our trip was was Ari’s 14th birthday. And mostly what 14 year olds want to do for their birthdays is hike to waterfalls. So that’s what we did to start the day.
I’d read that the Laurel Falls trail was a good one for kids; it’s pretty short, at around 2 1/2 miles round trip (although it’s all uphill for the first half), and there’s a big fun payoff at the end, in the form of a pretty waterfall. It was also just a bit past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, so very easy to get to for us.
The downsides are the terrifying possibility of bears (no, really; there was a bear attack on this trail a few years ago (a minor one….for the human; the bear was euthanized, because that’s what happens to bears who aren’t scared of humans anymore, sadly)), the possibility of your child plummeting off the side of the mountain if you’re not careful:
…and the fact that’s a very popular trail and gets quite crowded. We got there probably around 9:30 (this was early June on a weekday), and there was still plenty of parking, but by the time we got back people were making up dangerous looking spaces all along the road. The trail was…populated, but not unpleasantly crowded during our hike. But I wouldn’t have wanted to start any later, and I imagine on a busy weekend or later in the summer, you’d need an even earlier start to beat the crowds.
We made it up to the top, with our usual method of switching madly between Abe walking while we coaxed him along and various configurations of carrying him. There were lots of things to stop and look at on the way, both for Junior Ranger purposes and just for fun. The film from the day before had told us that there are lots of salamanders in the park. We saw some. We saw another snake, too….another not-a-rattlesnake. But no bears.
In addition to salamanders, the park has crap like this on just about every big rock you see:
WTH? Who does this?! Well, the Evans family for one, apparently. Congratulations, Evans: you’ve been immortalized forever; now you’ll be remembered for all time as a big jerk who ruins things for everyone.
The signs don’t lie; the last few minutes of the trail has very steep drop offs the whole way. But no one fell, and I didn’t even feel particularly panicky (trees again. If I can’t see the bottom, I think no one can fall, apparently).
And then we got to the waterfall! There’s this part of it above you and then it keeps going down on the other side. You can keep hiking farther and get to some old growth forest that I hear is really nice, but we just hung out at the waterfall for a few (increasingly crowded) minutes then headed back down.
Next up we headed back to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to eat some lunch and walk one of the trails the kids needed to do to finish their Junior Ranger books. We looked around for a good place for a picnic, but there were no tables (there’s a big open grassy space, but no one else was eating there, and I wasn’t sure if it was frowned on or not), so we ended up just eating in the car.
Fascinating (to me) aside about the GSM National Park: no recycling bins anywhere, as far as we could tell. We bought drinks from the vending machines for this lunch (birthday lunch!) and then looked all over for recycling, but found nothing. Weird. Especially given the big bank of solar panels they have right behind the visitor center. Maybe we just missed the recycling bins somehow. Anyway.
In retrospect, another hike so soon after the Laurel Falls Trail might have been pushing it.
It wasn’t a particularly long walk (a little over a mile round trip), but it was hillier than I expected, and, of course, the kids were already tired from earlier. So it wasn’t a disaster, but there was some grumpiness in places. You can buy that brochure for 50 cents or a dollar at the trailhead, and then there are descriptions in there that correspond marked places along the trail.
Look! There’s another cabin! That was what we needed to find for the Junior Ranger books; they had to answer a specific question about something at the cabin.
So now that everyone had had more than enough hiking for the day, we headed back to the house for a break and to hang out with the dogs for awhile.
Then we headed out to Gatlinburg for Ari’s birthday dinner….at a brewery, of course!
Ari didn’t have any beer, but he did get a free slice of pie since it was his birthday. And a steak. That was all he really wanted. And Dave and I had beer samplers and brought home a growler. Which is all we really wanted.
We decided on dessert at the Ben and Jerry’s back down the parkway, and we further decided to walk there. MORE walking. It was half a mile each way, and we passed about 12 other ice cream places on the way. Also a lot of fudge shops. And some taffy:
And this ski lift, that I remember my Dad used to make me actually RIDE back when we came to Gatlinburg when I was a kid. Scary!
Finally! Birthday ice cream!
The next day was our checking out and driving home day, and our plan was to get as early a start as possible and see Cades Cove before heading home.
Cades Cove is another driving tour in the national park, and it’s the one everyone says you absolutely must do. And pretty much every recent review on Tripadvisor talks about bear sightings. We knew that it was another location that gets really crowded, so we were pretty proud of ourselves for making it there by, if I remember right, a little after 9 (it’s about 45 minutes away from our rental house).
Like with Roaring Fork, this is a one way road that you drive in a loop on, with lots of places to stop and look at things or take hikes or whatever. It’s in a valley instead of on a mountainside, though, so it’s a different experience with different scenery.
There were a lot of people there when we were there, but we didn’t experience the delays and traffic jams that I had read a lot about, and there was always room to park when we wanted to pull over; I think getting there early is definitely key.
Our problem was the dogs. A note about taking dogs to the Smokies: it’s not really the best destination with dogs because there are almost no trails there that allow dogs (something about your dog being eaten by a bear, I think). It was cool enough that morning that the dogs would have been totally fine for a few minutes in the car, but I always worry about overzealous people calling 911 on me, especially since Fergus tends to bark a lot and let everyone know he’s there. So we couldn’t really do any hiking or even short walks from the car all together. Which made our experience kind of….limited. But still very pretty.
The kids and I did take a short walk (1/4 mile, I think) to see one last cabin:
Abe was getting tired of posing in front of cabin doors for me.
And….did we see any bears? Well. We saw one…..its butt, specifically. Walking away from us, into the woods. And Gus missed it, so he was pretty bummed. Aside from that, this was about the extent of our wildlife spotting:
Halfway around the loop, there’s a visitor center, and we stopped here so the kids could turn in their books and get their Junior Ranger badges. There’s a small collection of historic buildings here, and it nearly killed me not to look at them, but….dogs. We could have taken turns heading over there while someone waited for the dogs, but the dogs were being kind of a pain by then, and we were feeling ready to head home.
And then we drove home! It was a great little trip, despite the rocky and tick filled beginning.