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Get your outdoor kicks -- and Laser Tag, too -- in the Land of the Blue Mist.
By Paul Batsel
Smokin' Good Fun
Copyright Great Smoky Mountains
"There's nothing to do at night!" your little ones may whine just hours into a national park vacation. Not to worry. At Great Smoky Mountains, you can have the great outdoors and nightlife, too.
This 520,000-acre park along the Tennessee and North Carolina border is thankfully close to seven booming Appalachian Mountain towns. After a day in the woods, you're within minutes of playing laser tag, listening to Dolly Parton, or eating barbecue at night.
The Great Smokies' proximity to civilization is, in part, why 9 million people come each year, making it the most visited national park. That, of course, has its downside: crowds. But even in the heat of the mid-summer crush, rest assured. Your kids will be whining for the right stuff -- coming back again next year.
Get Your Bearings
Copyright Great Smoky
Mountains National Park
This is a big park with lots to do -- almost too much. Your budding Darwins can explore the 4,000 species of plants, 130 trees, 65 mammals, 230 birds, and 30 varieties of salamanders. Or, they can travel by foot, bike, or horse on some 900 miles of trails.
Lots of scenic drives make it easy to see nature without getting out of the car. And there's even room for a history lesson; the park has done an excellent job preserving homesteads of the early pioneers who settled here.
Blast from the Past
OK, first the history stuff. While the kids are fresh, they'll appreciate the amazing number of old buildings maintained by the park. Spring through October, costumed guides demonstrate how mountain settlers lived. Here are some highlights:
Cades Cove. Let yourselves be transported back to 1819, when pioneers first arrived in this Appalachian valley. Drive the 11-mile loop and watch for historic buildings, wildlife -- and other cars. This is the park's most popular attraction, so beware of bumper-to-bumper traffic in summer.
Within Cades Cove, you'll see Cable Mill, one of the largest group of restored structures on the Tennessee side of the park. There's also Elijah Oliver Place (the Cove's claim to fame), a pristine log structure with a stream flowing through it (for food refrigeration, not aesthetics).
And don't miss the Davis House, a remarkable log building made with chestnut wood; this is a rare find considering a chestnut blight nearly depleted the forests in the 1930s and '40s.
Cataloochee Valley. Located on the North Carolina side of the Park, this area was the largest and most prosperous pioneer settlement. Surrounded by 6,000-foot mountains, it's also the most beautiful, with extraordinary views of surrounding mountains -- and a good place to go fishing.
From the Backseat
Bull Great, copyright Smoky
Mountains National Park
If your kids prefer seeing the Great Smokies from the air-conditioned comfort of the "way back," you're in luck. This park has been designed for scenic driving. Gas is not sold in the park, however, so fill up beforehand. Here are the best routes:
Newfound Gap Road. If you only have one day here, this road is a must. The park's most scenic drive stretches over the Smokies' crest, connecting Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC. From the Newfound Gap Parking Area, look up; you'll get some of the best high-mountain vistas in the park. Further ahead take Clingmans Dome Road along the ridge. From the parking area, hike the half-mile trail to the observation tower -- the highest point in the national park -- for a 360-degree view of the Smokies' famous peaks.
Balsam Mountain Road. This winding, 9-mile route extends from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Park's Balsam Mountain Campground. During spring and summer, you'll see fields of wildflowers in bloom. Feeling adventurous? Venture beyond the campground to Round Bottom Road, a 14-mile, unpaved 4WD road that descends the mountain to the river valley below, joining Big Cove Road on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Don't attempt this unless you have a high-clearance vehicle.
Step by Step
Chances are, your clan is not headed here to hike the famous (and strenuous) Appalachian Trail, 68 miles of which follow the entire length of the park. But the odds are good you'll set foot on part of it at some point during your stay. Among the most popular family hikes:
Abrams Falls Trail. This is the perfect family hike -- easy and wide, plenty of scenery and a surprise at the end. The 5-mile round-trip path climbs two ridges and follows a creek to Abrams Falls. The 20-foot cascade drops into a huge swimming hole that's perfect for cooling off after a sweaty trek. Bound to get raves from the kids!
Laurel Falls. Another natural pool is accessible along this more moderate, four-mile round-trip hike. For the first 1.3 miles, this path is wide and paved. You can either stop and splash in the waters below 75-foot Laurel Falls, or go on to the crest of Cove Mountain. The trail is no longer paved beyond the falls, and becomes quite rocky. But if your little mountain goats are up for a scramble, they'll get to climb an old-fashioned fire tower at the summit.
Approximately 550 miles of the park's hiking trails are open to horses. During the warm seasons, guided day and overnight tours leave from five main horse camps: Anthony Creek, Big Creek, Cataloochee, Roundbottom, and Towstring. Most camps only allow one rider per horse. Take the younger children on fun hayrides at Cades Cove.
Type of trip: Scenic drive, outdoor sports, historic sights
Best ages: 5 and up
Ideal trip length: 2-3 days
Distance: Knoxville (42 miles), Atlanta (197 miles), Charlotte (213 miles)
Best time to go: Spring through fall. During the winter, many visitor facilities and roads are closed.
Weather (Gatlinburg, TN): 88/55 degrees summer, 73/33 fall, 51/28 winter, 79/42 spring. Be prepared for changes in weather by dressing in layers and carrying rain gear. Rain falls frequently throughout the year, but March and July are usually the wettest months.
Lodging(Gatlinburg, TN): For suggestions visit the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce Web site
Gatlinburg Department of Tourism
234 Airport Rd.
The Inside Scoop
Favorite local spots:
Alamo Steakhouse & Saloon
705 East Pkwy, Gatlinburg, TN
This is the place for a delicious oak-fired black Angus steak.
Glades Homemade Candies
601 Glades Rd. Ste. 9
Reward well-behaved children with sweet candies and chocolates galore!
Best souvenir: A stuffed black bear, available at most Visitor's Centers. The Smokies are known for its black bear population, which makes this cute and cuddly animal the perfect memento for your vacation here.
Memorial in May Pow-Wow
Highlights: Arts & crafts, Pow-Wow dance competition at the Cherokee Ceremonial Grounds
4th of July Midnight Parade
Note: Attention early birds! The nation's "first" Independence Day Parade, with its goofy floats, outrageous balloons and bands, starts promptly at 12:01 a.m.!
"Fantasy of Lights" Christmas Parade Gatlinburg, TN
Festival of Christmas Past GSMNP
Gateways to Fun
When the sun goes down, take off the hiking boots and head for Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, or Cherokee, the most popular towns outside the park. You'll find great places to eat, amusement parks, entertainment, shopping, and more.
Pigeon Forge, TN. Dollywood, the theme park created by Dolly Parton, features big name country music acts (if you're lucky, you may catch Dolly herself), as well as rides, a steam-powered train ride, and crafts. Pigeon Forge is also a mecca for shopaholics, with 29 name-brand stores at the Tanger Outlets.
Cherokee, NC. The Cherokees inhabited this area long before European explorers arrived. In fact, they named the Smokies "The Land of the Blue Mist." Explore the reservation (the only one in the mid-Atlantic), the Oconaluftee Indian Village and the Museum of the Cherokee. Kids will love panning for rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and gold like prospectors of yore at the Smoky Mountain Gold & Ruby Mine.
Gatlinburg, TN. Don't miss Smoky Mountain Fun, a multi-complex family entertainment center where you'll find some great attractions. Venturer Motion Ride, for one, is the area's only motion simulator, where the movie screen actually moves in tandem with your seat! There are four thrilling movies to choose from, including Astro Canyon Coaster, Smash Factory, and Glacier Run. The Camp Thunder indoor family fun center features an indoor go-cart race track and the Smoky Mountains miniature golf course with 18 trails, waterfalls, wildlife, and nature sounds. At Fort Fun, you can play laser tag, watch special effects at the 3-D movie theater, and ride the newest electric bumper cars! Or, recap the area's rich history as you tee off on two fantastic courses at Old Gatlinburg Golf & Games.