Great Smoky Mountains Superintendent Cassius Cash has a great idea for celebrating the National Park Service’s 100th birthday this year – he’s going to hike 100 miles in the park in 2016! He’s calling it the Smokies Centennial Challenge – Hike 100, and he’s inviting all of us to join him! Any trail in the park counts: front country, back country, trails you hike alone, or with a guide. You can even hike the same trail a dozen times to get there. But with over 1000 miles of hiking trails, including a stretch of the famous Appalachian Trail, you have no shortage of options here!
This refuge in the southern Appalachians is America’s most visited national park. It’s within a day’s drive of much of the eastern seaboard, including huge cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington DC. Rainfall combined with elevation that ranges from 800 to 6600 feet provides a wildly diverse ecosystem that houses over 17,000 different species of plants and animals, with tens of thousands more waiting to be documented. Biodiversity is the gift of this park, but it’s not shy on beauty and solitude either. Waterfalls, wildflowers, mountain peaks, historic sites, and stunning fall color in October…all can be found here, too.
With so many options, where to begin? Great Smoky Mountains straddles two states and each side has its own distinct character. The most popular side of the park is in Tennessee, entered through the famous, or infamous depending on how you look at it, Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg is a town of lights, glitz, and happenings. Think Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Dollywood, nightly music shows, outlet malls, and restaurants galore. But nature can still be found for those willing to wander away from road, so here a few suggestions to get you started with the kids in Tennessee:
-Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail – This .5 mile paved trail through the forest near Gatlinburg is both wheelchair and stroller accessible.
-Grotto Falls – If you’re looking for a waterfall hike, then check out this moderate 2.6 mile roundtrip hike off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
-Cades Cove – This beautiful valley with historic farm houses, gristmills, and churches is one of the park’s most visited spots. Most people drive the 11 mile loop road, but on Wednesdays and Saturday mornings from May through September the road is closed, and opened only to bicycles! Bring or rent bikes and avoid the crowds.
-Clingman’s Dome Trail – You don’t want to miss the 3rd highest peak east of the Mississippi, or the spectacular views that await you from the top on clear day. A short but steep ½ mile paved trail (accessible for strollers) leads you to an observation tower on the top. You can also take a short stroll on the Appalachian Trail while you’re here as it crosses the Clingman’s Dome Trail.
-Adam’s Bald – If you’re looking for a bit longer hike, consider Adam’s Bald. Balds – peaks that are completely treeless – provide panoramic vistas not enjoyed on forested peaks. This 3.5 mile roundtrip trail begins at the Clingman’s Dome parking lot.
The North Carolina side of the park, with gateway towns of Cherokee and Bryson City, is smaller, quieter, and way more laid back. Some great spots to check out:
-Mountain Farm Museum – The museum is a collection of historic farm buildings gathered from park land and assembled in one place, right next to the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center. Walk through the old buildings. Check out the gardens and the old barn. And keep an eye out for living history demonstrations – always a hit with the little ones.
-Ocanaluftee River Trail – This trail is both pet friendly and stroller accessible. It’s mostly level, begins at the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center, and follows the river for 1.5 miles to the town of Cherokee.
-Deep Creek Trail – The Deep Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains has its own access point right outside the quaint town of Bryson City. It’s best known for tubing on Deep Creek in the summer, and while fun, it is a little bit wild. So if you’re looking for a more traditional park experience, hit this area sometime other than midsummer, or go early in the day. The Deep Creek Trail is wide, mostly flat, stroller friendly, and takes you first to beautiful Tom Branch Falls in .5 mile. If you want to go a bit further, you can get to Indian Creek Falls and back in under 2 miles. There are great spots for wading or playing in the creek on the trail or in the picnic area, so this is a place to easily spend an entire day.
-Peter’s Pancakes in Cherokee – Okay, not a trail, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share! Hope for a riverside table where the kids can watch for ducks and enjoy the best pancakes on either side of the Smokies!
One more really cool thing…keep an eye out for Quiet Walkways as you drive around the park. Your only clue will be a small roadside sign, with a couple of parking spaces. These short, easy walks were created to provide a quiet woodland experience. There are no trail guides, so bring the little ones and your sense of adventure. You never know what you might discover!
I love Hike It Baby 30 Challenges, and maybe that’s why the superintendent’s Hike 100 Challenge sounds so exciting! There is no better way to experience a national park than on its trails. So maybe you won’t be one of the 9 million people that will make it to Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year…but what national park lies in your backyard? I’ve got one in mine, and I’m thinking a 100 mile summer might just be the perfect way to celebrate!
Alana Dimmick is the branch lead for Hike It Baby Eatonville. She is wife to a park ranger, and full time mom to Eli (6), Riley (4), and Isaac (3 months). Alana currently lives in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.