Great Smoky Mountains

When my mother-in-law suggested a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains for our bi-annual BIG FAMILY VACATION, I have to admit that I met the idea with only luke-warm enthusiasm. Not because I have an aversion to the mountains, but because I’m one of those people who’s not a big fan of the summer heat unless I’m in or near the water. A trip to the steamy, tropical-like forests of Tennessee—with no ocean in sight—wasn’t exactly top on my list. To my delight, however, I was never so happy that I stepped outside my comfort zone.

As we entered the foothills of The Smokies, excitement began to mount. Text messages were flying back-and-forth from car to car (there were four in our caravan!). “How much longer? What are we going to do first? What will the cabin look like?…”

All of us were to share one cabin the entire week. You could say it was like the The Great Outdoors meets National Lampoon’s Vacation (mind you I was very young when these movies were released, but they provide a great visual for those who have seen these 80’s classics). Our cabin boomed with the sounds of young children running, playing, and bickering, along with the adults letting loose a little or scurrying about the cabin in preparation for the day’s adventures. All-in-all, the mountains proved to be a great place to vacation with extended family, because by the end of Day 2 some may need a little more than just their own room or corner of the house to retreat to when someone or something starts grinding on their nerves. I mean, colossal log cabins with private resort-like swimming pools are great, but what’s greater is having a vast mountain range to fulfill your need for space.

I had just two stipulations for our trip to Pigeon Forge: 1) we must go white water rafting, which had always been on my bucket list, and 2) to actually step foot into the mountains, preferably hiking a trail. I’m happy to report that we checked both off of the list, along with many other firsts.

On the docket for Day 3 was white water rafting. We were all a little nervous, but equally excited. Crazy Carl was our guide, and with his cascading brown beard, he embodied a young and free-spirited mountain man. It just made the outing that much more authentic in our touristy opinion.

After a very quick crash course in synchronized paddling, we set off—navigating rapids ranging from Level 1-3. Just baby rapids, really, but we were so proud of our young girls for being brave and meeting every rapid with a smile and let’s-do-it-again attitude. It was thrilling for the adults, so I can only imagine what the experience was like for an eight- and five-year-old. As we approached the bank at the end of our float, I just knew this would be one of my favorite family memories of all time, and I highly recommend this to all families. This segment of our vacation even ended up being the subject of my daughter’s third grade journal.

When the day finally came for our little family (just myself, husband and two girls) to venture into the mountains for our much-anticipated hike, it was hot. And it was humid. But it was also an excursion that we’ll never forget.

We began our journey by hopping on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail from Gatlinburg. The mountains were heavenly. From afar, it was a mystical scene the way the moisture wafted from the treetops, seriously looking like continuous puffs of smoke (imagine that). And inside the forest was just as breathtaking—but almost eerie. The moisture from the trees created a fog-like screen all around us. We were literally in the clouds.

Our target was Grotto Falls, the pinnacle of the family-friendly 2.5 mile hike on the Trillium Gap Trail. And it delivered. The hike was challenging at times but manageable, and the trail was alive with salamanders, frogs, squirrels, and other wildlife. We even encountered a black bear (at which point we circled back to another trail head)! When we finally reached the waterfall, it was so beautiful and refreshing; my iPhone pictures just don’t do it justice.

One of the other jewels we stumbled upon as we slowly made our way out of the mountains in our car was a small general store fashioned from an old water mill. Inside was a treasure trove. Here we purchased our authentic souvenirs, which were nothing you could find in the shops that dotted tourist alley. The cozy shop was stocked with hand-crafted, artisan pieces: wood carvings, paintings, jewelry, soaps, jams, spices, and more. Just my kind of shop, because when I’m on vacation, I always make a point to purchase a one-of-a-kind keepsake made by a local artist. We even took home a colorful children’s book The Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball, which was written and illustrated by native Lisa Horstman.

The remainder of the trip was chalked full of tourist attractions, some worth the money but most of them not. We took a few spins on an alpine coaster, oooh’d and ahhh’d our way through Ripley’s Aquarium (totally worth it), shopped and played at The Island, and shut down Dollywood. Still, our favorite experience was the one nature provided for free.

If you aspire to venture off the well-worn tourist path and appreciate the beauty nature provides, be sure to plan a hike during your trip to The Smokies. There’s just no substitute for immersing yourself into the wilderness and awakening your senses with the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest. A trip to the mountains without an authentic mountain experience would be one to regret.

All-in-all, not quite a Griswold family vacation, but it had its moments. Certainly one to put in the photo books.

:: Crystal ::

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