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My Gatlinburg / Great Smoky Mountain National Park Family Vacation

  Jacqueline-bodnar-smoky-mountains

It was around 9 years ago that I first wanted to get some of my family from Michigan to go in on a cabin with us in the Gatlinburg area. It's halfway for both of us, with each having a 9 hour drive to get there. It took years to get someone to do it, but one of my sisters and her family finally did. Last December, we reserved  cabin in the Smoky Mountains, and this week we finally had that vacation. And it was fabulous! I'm writing this post to share my experience, because I know many people from this area take vacations to the Gatlinburg / Pigeon Forge area. Some of the info may be helpful or give you some  ideas.

Whether you are a family that likes city activities, such as shopping and entertainment, or you are a family that likes nature, this area will meet both of those needs. Galinburg is located right at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, so you have plenty of access to nature activities, and then can hit the city for shopping, dining, and entertainment. Plus, Pigeon Forge is just minutes away and that city is also filled with restaurants, entertainment, and things to do. We spent most of our time outside of the cabin in the national park, and it was wonderful! However, we did spend some hours walking the downtown area of Gatlinburg to shop, dine, and stroll.

Here's my experience with a variety of things that readers may be interested in knowing:

Cabin. We rented our cabin through Cabins of the Smoky Mountains. They have lots of them and you are sure to find one that suits your needs. Their cabins come in all different sizes. My family and my sister's family shared a cabin, so we found one big enough for 10 people (it would sleep 12). We stayed in the Gatlinburg Falls Resort cabin called Glimpse of Heaven. It had three king-size bedrooms with an attached full bathroom, plus an upstairs loft that had bunk beds, a full bathroom, a pull out couch, a pool table, video games, and an air hockey table. It was perfect! It was actually the third pick, too. The first one we chose was pulled off the market and they moved us to another one that burned down in the fire there last December, so we got moved to this one.  All their cabins are in one big community that is two miles up a mountain. There are no yards, because you are two miles up a mountain, which it's pretty cool. The community also has a pool and hot tub (the cabin also has a hot tub and three large balconies). We did online check-in for the cabin, which was easy. My only complaint is that they don't offer recycling at the community (so we brought our recyclables home to be recycled).

Food. Being that we had a cabin with a full kitchen, we went shopping on the day we got there and bought some food. We had all breakfasts at the cabin, and we made most of our lunches to take on the road as well. Each day, we usually set out to do hiking in the mountains, so we packed a picnic lunch right from the cabin. The Food City grocery store was close by and was well stocked and had affordable prices. We had taken our cooler from home, as well as sandwich containers and our refillable Kleen Kanteen's. We took some cheap dollar-store ice cube trays so we could make ice every night (we left them in the cabin for the next people to use). We also made a dinner in the cabin, as they are stocked with basic cooking items and utensils. One night we brought pizza back to the cabin, one night we went out to a hibachi grill place (which was a horrible experience), one night we went to a nearby Italian restaurant called A Taste of Italy (which was very good), and twice we went out for dinner at No Way Jose's Cantina, which was good. My sister and I also went to Paula Deen's Family Kitchen in Pigeon Forge one day for lunch. The food was good, but the ordering system I don't care for (it's served family style, where you order 2 meats and 4 side dishes and it's $17 per person - you can eat all you want, but can't take leftovers home, so there's lots of waste). Because of the ordering system, I paid $25 for just me to have a plate of veggies and an iced tea. Ouch. 

Shopping. There are lots of little places to shop and many things to find! I loved the All Sauced Up store, which had loads of samples set out, which enticed me to buy peach butter. I absolutely loved The Day Hiker store. It's a store dedicated to day hiking (as opposed to backpacking), and we loved it and spent some money there. We also loved the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Gatlinburg, which is a store like REI (one of my favorite stores). I also shopped at Earthbound Trading Company, which I also like to go to in St. Augustine. We found many little shops as we walked the downtown area and probably spent more money than we should have, but we had a good time doing it!

Hiking. Anyone who follows VCM knows that we are avid hikers, so we were thrilled to get some hiking time in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. There are many hiking trails to explore and choose from. There is also an 11-mile drive that you can take if you prefer to see nature from the car. The drive is called Cade's Cove. We all found it to be a bit torturous to sit so long in the car driving through there. The 11 miles took two hours, which they say it takes 2-4 hours to get through. We did see a bear off in the distance, deer, and a barred owl. The views are pretty, but not more so than what you see in the rest of the park. If you have kids you may either like it so that they can nap through it, or you may not like it because they will be bored sitting so long. You are literally moving along so slowly through it that it's like being in a slow traffic jam. Having been through Cade's Cove once, I wouldn't go back again. I'd much prefer to give those couple of hours to being out on a trail hiking, rather than sitting in a car moving along slowly, and being at the mercy of those who stop on the road ahead of you (there is no way around them and they can sit there for 10-15 minutes looking at something while you wait). So while many love Cade's Cove, I'm not on that list. Give me the trails to hike, please! We did some hiking and it was great. While we are avid hikers, my sister's family is not, so we had to pick a few hikes that were easier going so they could handle them. The hikes we took were:

  • Clingman's Dome - Clingman's Dome is a challenge, because the incline is no joke, but it's well worth the half a mile challenging walk up to the dome. It's a paved walk, so you can even push a stroller, and there are benches along the way if you need to take breaks (and some in our party did). The dome is the highest point in the park and on the Appalachian Trail, offering you 360 degree views of the mountains. It's great and I highly recommend it! Take a jacket along on this one, because it's about 20 degrees cooler when you get to the top. 
  • Laurel Falls - The hike up to Lauren Falls is 2.6 miles round trip. Again, there is quite an incline going up, but it's a beautiful hike and the waterfall destination is gorgeous! My only complaint is that you are taking a hike with 100 non-friends. I'm a bit spoiled hiking trails where you only come across a handful of people. In this park, the more popular ones like Laurel Falls are flooded with people, so you are doing a hike on a trail where there are around 100 other people (I prefer the trail less populated). This hike is mostly shaded and when you get by the waterfall it creates an air conditioned feeling. I recommend this hike.
  • Lynn Camp Prong Cascades hike - This is a nice hike that is about 1.5 miles round trip. There is a slight incline, but it's easy terrain to navigate and the cascades are gorgeous! It's also all shaded. You could hike longer on this trail if you wanted, but you can also make it short with the destination being the cascades. I recommend this hike.
  • 6.5 miles on the Appalachian Trail through Newfound Gap. We really wanted to do a hike on the Appalachian Trail, so we headed out to do that one morning, while my sister's family took a much deserved day of rest at the cabin. We started out the Newfound Gap parking lot and hiked back to the Icewater Spring shelter and back. We stopped at the shelter for about 20 minutes for a break and to chat with a back country ranger (that was interesting!). We came across maybe a dozen people on this hike. This is a gorgeous hike! However, it is very challenging. I'd say it is the most challenging hike we've done. The first couple of miles of it there is a lot of rock scrambling. This is a hike for more for those who are experienced hikers. We had an elevation gain of 1,624 feet. So you are taking on that kind of incline, while traversing some boulders that are on the trail. It was a fantastic hike for us and if you are an experienced hiker I highly recommend it! 

If you pack your lunch to take out each day, you will find there are picnic areas throughout the park. Many people also just stop at a turnout viewing area to have lunch. They sit down on the sidewalk or off the sides of the road and put a blanket down. Either way works just fine. You have lunch with a view and won't feel rushed to leave the park to get food.

Running. My husband and I are runners and we get our runs in even while on vacation. I had tried to find a place to run and found that there is a .25 mile track at Mills Park in Gatlinburg. We went there the first day we ran. The track is nice and free, but it's boring to run on the track, so I set out to find something else for our next run there. I ended up finding the Gatlinburg Trail, which is inside the Great Smoky National Park, but it's right at the edge, so it's where Gatlinburg city area begins. There is a little parking area at the trail head. I love trail runs, so I was excited about this! It's a two mile trail that leads to the visitor center. My husband and nephew did a 4 mile run (2 miles and back), while I did a 3 mile run. It's a gorgeous trail! It's wide, easy to run on (I even saw someone pushing a stroller on it), and the views are great, and the trail is all shaded. It's also not crowded. There were a few people using it, but it wasn't busy. There is some incline, so you have a challenge in your run, but it's great. For just about the whole run you have the water flowing next to you, creating a loud waterfall sound. I don't run with music, as I like to listen to the nature, and it was great. I heard the water and birds the whole time. Fantastic run! We ended up running this trail on two days while we were there. If you want running trails in Gatlinburg, I highly recommend the Gatlinburg Trail, just inside the national park. I also saw quite a few runners just running down the main road, although that didn't appeal to me much. I'd rather do the trail run. Keep in mind that if you will be running in this area that the mountain air/higher altitude is going to slow you down some. You will feel like you are breathing/working harder, yet going slower. Just take it easy, expect a slower pace, and enjoy the views!

Other activities. One day, the dads took all the kids to go white water rafting with Smoky Mountain Outdoors. They had a wonderful time! My sister and I didn't want to do it, because they didn't want to do the easy leisure float. They all wanted something that was going to be more thrilling and challenging. We didn't want to keep them from that, so we sat that one out, while they went. The kids also wanted to go to a trampoline place together, so we went to Top Jump, which is in Pigeon Forge. The place looks great on the outside, but is very disappointing in the jump area. It is over priced and pales in comparison to the Sky Zone and Hangar 15 that we are used to here in the Daytona Beach area. While the kids were in Top Jump (their aunt and uncle watching them all), my husband and I went a few minutes down the road to check out the Alcatraz East Crime Museum. The museum is great! It's filled with historical information and artifacts, including everything from mob history to CSI techniques to police force requirements and tactics. We also stopped at Cooter's Place, because both dads were Duke's of Hazard fans. They even have the famous OJ Simpson white Bronco on display! It was an interesting place from a historical aspect. Every evening, we made our way back to the cabin where we would all sit around and talk, play card games, and just have a lot of laughs.

Our vacation to Gatlinburg area to explore the Great Smoky National Park was wonderful! It was great to spend quality time with my sister, brother-in-law, and four nephews. It was also great to explore the mountains. We even saw a bear cross the road in front of my sister's car (we were two cars behind her) on the city street. It's a gorgeous place and a great family vacation destination!

Jacqueline Bodnar

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