Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Many of you have written and asked our experts how and where to introduce your families to our national parks. This month, we're answering the call. In a new series, GORP tackles our nation's most popular parks and serves up the best picks for active families.
Hiking is one of the best ways to get away from the crowds that throng to this parkmore than nine million each yearand with 850 miles of trails, it shouldn't be hard to lose the madding crowd.
Grotto Falls: A 2.4-mile round-trip hike through a hemlock forest to waterfalls that you can walk behind. Reach the trailhead from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Ramsay Cascades: To the park's highest falls and back is an eight-mile hike from the Greenbriar area.
Henwallow Falls: This 4.4-mile round-trip from near the Cosby Campground may be less crowded than other falls.
Alum Cave Trail: A wonderfully scenic five-mile climb to the backcountry LeConte Lodge, with cabins and rooms, not accessible by car.
Be sure to check out the balds of the southern mountainsopen areas on some summits with splendid views. For easy access, head for the Appalachian Trail via Newfound Gap Road, where you can easily hike along the ridges. Hikers with energy and experience can try the steep trail to Andrews Bald, 1.8 miles from Clingmans Dome Road.
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Popular swimming areas are at the Big Creek and Abrams Creek campgrounds. Keep in mind that no areas in the park have lifeguards, and that the water can be cold. Taking a cool dip is a favorite way to escape the summer heat. However, Great Smoky NP's waters are dangerous and caution is a must. Park personnel warn visitors to swim at their own risk, and to watch children carefully. The park does not recommend any specific swimming area for this reason. Since the water rarely rises above 65 degrees F, hypothermia is a year-round risk.
In Bryson City, check out the acclaimed Nantahala Outdoor Center (800-232-7238) for rafting and float trips at all levels, canoeing and kayaking lessons, as well as mountain bike rentals and tours. Day care is available for younger children.
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Discover what it was like to live in the mountains 100 or more years ago by exploring the park's ruins and open-air museums:
Cades Cove: A historic pioneer community complete with churches, log cabins, and a blacksmith shop. An 11-mile road surrounds the area, which is at the west end of Laurel Creek Road, in the western portion of the park. Grab the $1 auto tour booklet so you'll know what you're seeing. Avoid traffic by biking on Wednesday or Saturday before 10 a.m., when the area is closed to motorized vehicles. Rentals are available at the campground.
Cataloochee Ghost Village: Cove Creek Road (off Highway 276) is a quiet alternative to Cades Cove, complete with cabins and plenty of trails and a campground.
Mountain Farm Museum: Newfound Gap Rd., behind the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where genuine farms have been moved to give visitors a glimpse of the old days of mountain life.
For another natural look at local history, hike the Albright Grove Loop, 15.4 miles east of Gatlinburg on Highway 321 to Laurel Springs Road. Hike past a cabin and abandoned fields to a primeval forest of hardwoods.
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Ride a horse or relax during a hay or buggy ride. Several stables operate within the park:
Cades Cove Riding Stables (423-448-6286): The nearby terrain is flat, great for beginners.
Deep Creek Stables (828-497-8504): In the southern North Carolina section, not far from Bryson City.
McCarter Stables (423-436-5354): Near Suglarlands Visitor Center. This area has the steepest hills.
Smokemount Riding Stables (828-497-5634): North Carolina, near Smokemount Campground.
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The park has specific sites set aside for picnicking. Some, including Chimneys, Deep Creek, Cades Cove, and Cosby, remain open year-round. Other sites include: Greenbrier, Big Creek, and Collins Creek. Some park picnic areas may be closed for renovations.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication