A Family Affair: Vacationing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
|The best way to experience the park is to camp within its borders. (iStockphoto)|
The only lodging facility within the national park, LeConte Lodge (open March through November) is almost an attraction in itself. That’s because the lodge is accessible only by hiking to it, not by vehicle. It is located at the summit of Mount LeConte (6,593 feet) and consists of a gathering of rustic cabins with no electricity or running water, but ample 60-mile views on a clear day.
Several of the hiking trails that veer off Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail provide access to LeConte Lodge. These include the Bull Head Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, and Trillium Gap Trail. The shortest route to the summit is the Alum Cave Bluffs Trail, accessible from Newfound Gap Road, but this is also the route with the most elevation gain in the shortest distance. The Boulevard Trail, which comes in off the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap, is generally regarded as the easiest trek to the lodge, if the longest, at eight miles.
The lodge is a great option if you have older kids (though not a good idea if you’ve got anyone in your party you’ll have to carry!)—but if you’d like to stay here, plan well in advance. It often books up a year ahead of time, especially for weekends and fall-foliage season.
There are ten front-country campgrounds within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are no utility hookups at any of the park campgrounds, though dump stations are available. You can make reservations for sites at Elkmont, Smokemont, Cosby, and Cades Cove campgrounds online at www.recreation.gov. Other campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis only.
For more adventurous families, the park has 84 backcountry campsites and 16 backcountry shelters. Overnight hikers in the Smokies must use backcountry campsites or shelters. All backcountry camping requires a free permit, available at visitor centers and campground offices, and some backcountry sites require reservations (call 865-436-1231 to reserve).
Lodging Outside the Park
Lodging options outside park boundaries abound. Gatlinburg alone has 12,000 rooms available. Top picks for families on the Tennessee side of the Smokies include Gatlinburg’s Fairfield Inn and Suites, which features a beautiful pool with a waterslide as well as an indoor pool and Jacuzzi, and Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort and Spa, which is convenient to both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and features a water park for the kids and a spa and fitness center for mom and dad. On the North Carolina side of the Smokies, the town of Cherokee offers the quickest access to the park. Your best bet for well-appointed, family-friendly lodging here is Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, which has an indoor pool and five on-site restaurants.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication