A Family Affair: Vacationing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Family-friendly hiking in the Smokies
By Deborah R. Huso
  |  Gorp.com
Dawn breaks over Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Steel cables guide hikers through some tricky sections of the park. (iStockphoto)

Clingmans Dome
Distance: 1 mile round-trip
Duration: 30 to 45 minutes
Elevation gain: 330 feet
Effort: Moderate
Trailhead: At the Clingmans Dome parking area located seven miles off Newfound Gap Road, via a spur road just east of Newfound Gap. The spur road is closed December 1 through March 31 each year.

Clingmans Dome is probably the most popular short hike along Newfound Gap Road. Clingmans is not only the highest peak in the park but also the highest mountain in Tennessee at 6,642 feet. A short but steep half-mile paved trail will take you from the Clingmans parking area to an observation tower at the summit. Even though the trail to the summit is paved and wide, it's still strenuous because of the extreme elevation gain in a short amount of space.

As you hike, notice the surrounding landscape of thick undergrowth and stunted and windswept trees. If you're visiting Clingmans Dome in summer, you may be surprised at the richness of life on the summit. Wildflowers by the thousands line the path, and, in late summer, you can pick sweet wild raspberries along the trail.

The observation tower at the summit rises 45 feet above the surrounding landscape, allowing you to go above the tree line for 360-degree views on a clear day. While it's possible to experience incredible long-distance views from Clingmans Dome, don't be surprised if you're fogged in. Because of its high elevation (and air pollution), the mountaintop is often blanketed in haze and you may only be able to see a few feet in front of you.

Alum Cave Bluffs Trail
Distance: 10 miles round-trip
Duration: 7 to 8 hours
Elevation gain: 2,560 feet
Effort: Strenuous
Trailhead: Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead parking area on Newfound Gap Road 8.6 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center

The Alum Cave Bluffs Trail is one of the most popular in the park, and there’s good reason for this. The five-mile hike to the summit of Mount LeConte, the park’s highest peak at 6,593 feet, offers an ever-changing landscape of mountain streams, unusual rock formations, and long-distance views. If you plan to hike this trail, come early, as the two parking areas fill up quickly. This is a great hike for older children, but it’s strenuous and not well suited to kids who are small or not physically fit.

The first mile-and-a-half of the trail offers lovely views of small cascades tumbling over rocks. At about 1.5 miles, you’ll come to a feature known as Arch Rock, which is a narrow tunnel formed by centuries of freeze-and-thaw conditions on this mountainside.

After another half-mile of climbing, you’ll reach an area known as Inspiration Point, which affords views of steep, jagged, and boxy slopes often streaked with fog. The halfway point of this trail is at Alum Cave Bluffs. These arching rock formations create a rain shelter in which precipitation never reaches the dry and dusty soil beneath them. So even though the Smokies are one of the wettest places on the East Coast (Mount LeConte receives more than 80 inches of rain a year), Alum Cave Bluffs is one of the driest.

Most hikers turn around at Alum Cave Bluffs, but if you have the time and energy, keep going. Your journey will be rewarded. The trek becomes more consistently steep and challenging as you proceed past Alum Cave along narrow rock ledges, often using the assistance of steel cables to pull your way along. Once you reach the summit of LeConte, if the weather is clear, you can easily see 60 miles.

Make a reservation for an overnight stay at LeConte Lodge, the park’s hike-in lodging facility. The best place for watching sunsets is Cliff Top, which is accessible via a spur trail from the lodge, and if you’re here for sunrise, hang out at Myrtle Point. Return via the same trail.

Grotto Falls
Distance: 3 miles round-trip
Duration: 2 hour
Elevation gain: 500 feet
Effort: Moderate
Trailhead: Grotto Falls parking area on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

From the parking area, the Grotto Falls trail climbs relatively gently for about 500 feet through a deeply shaded forest of virgin hemlock. Conifer needles cushion the wide path as it winds through the increasing diversity of maples, ghostly beeches, and silver bells.

At a mile-and-a-half, 25-foot-high Grotto Falls is a treat for kids of all ages. Walk right under the falls and mute the world as you stand behind the water’s deafening cascade. You won’t get too wet—nothing more than a mist will settle over your clothes and hair.

Laurel Falls
Distance: 2.6 miles round-trip
Duration: 1.5 hours
Elevation gain: 400 feet
Effort: Moderate
Trailhead: The parking area is 3.9 miles west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Little River Road.

Laurel Falls is the most popular waterfall hike in the park, both because it is relatively short and easy—which most of the park’s waterfall hikes are not—and because the trail is paved and can accommodate strollers. The trail affords some lovely views into the Little River Valley, and at 1.3 miles, you’ll reach the falls, which drop about 75 feet and form a lovely wide cascade. You return via the same route.


Published: 16 Mar 2012 | Last Updated: 24 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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