I camped with my family at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a child, first in a tent, later in an RV. I can trace my love for the woods, nature, and camping back to those precious memories of time spent on the trail and around the campfire with my family in the Smoky Mountains. I had never taken my own family to GSMNP, because of the no dogs on the trails policy. There are plenty of fabulous places to go where dogs are allowed, so we hadn’t made it to the Smokys. Wiley and I wanted to take Ashe, 20, and Miles, 17, on a family vacation and last hoorah before they both head off to school. I decided on GSMNP and Dollywood, so we could knock out two non-dog friendly activities with one trip. Poor Nigel & Pippa, off to the kennel, they went.
We left for the Smoky Mountains on Thursday morning. It was a beautiful ride from Sapphire to Elkmont Campground in the park. Highway 441 from Cherokee, through the park, over the mountains to Elkmont Campground is a bucket list drive. Many of the most famous GSMNP attractions are right off 441. Warning: that easy access means lots and lots of people and full parking areas. We arrived in the afternoon at the wonderfully wooded and waterfull Elkmont Campground. We set up our “Happy Camper”, two tents, and two hammocks next to a small branch of the creek in site C12. There is not a lot of privacy between the sites, but they are large and completely shaded by the forest. If I return, I would want to be right on the gorgeous, clear, rushing Jake’s Creek. Site F8 would be the most private site on the whitewater creek and right at the trailheads.
As soon as we got set up, the kids were raring to go to Gatlinburg. Wiley and I grinned and beared it, leaving the sanctuary of the woods to join the masses in the cesspool, that is Gatlinburg…As we were eating dinner at No Way Jose’s Cantina, the skies opened up, pouring rain. Thankfully, it mostly cleared the sidewalks of people. We ran in the rain into the Mountain Mall, which provided cover to wait out the storm for a while. I remembered this classic Gatlinburg gem from childhood, just as tacky and touristy as ever. After the rain had lightened up some, we walked the strip and shopped a bit. Capping off the evening with Ben and Jerry’s. Upon returning to the campsite, Ashe was frustrated that her tent had some water in it. Both kids made comments about how good we had it in the van and how their stuff was all damp now. I had a little empathy, but not too much. I explained that up until two years ago, we tent camped. I was 45 years old before I got my Happy van. I have spent many a week at a time in the rain and woken to snow while tent camping. I really didn’t feel too sorry for them. Roughing it, builds character.
Friday, we woke early, ate breakfast, and headed to Dollywood. We saw two bear cubs cross Hwy 441 on our way through the park. Ashe was concerned as to what kind of mama allows her cubs to be running across a busy, busy highway. Good question. Got to Dollywood right as the gates opened and the rain started coming down…The good news was, there was hardly anyone there. We did not have to wait in line for any rides. Wiley and the children did several coasters with the added thrill bonus of being pelted by rain. It cleared up after a couple of hours and was perfect weather for enjoying the park. If you have not been to Dollywood, I do highly recommend it. It is more like a small Disney World than Six Flags or Carrowinds. It is clean, beautifully landscaped, has neat villages within it with craftsman, shops, and food, and a wonderful Eagle Sanctuary and Raptor Show. We enjoyed the show, just as much this visit, as our last. Miles begged me to ride the Firechaser Express roller coaster with him. I caved and suffered through for my baby boy. Major mom points, I hope. The children and Wiley rode all the coasters. I rode the one coaster, the water rides, and the Dollywood Express coal-fired steam engine, which takes you 5 miles through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Despite the rain, we had a great day!
Friday night, we returned to the campsite to lots of water and damp camping gear. More complaining from the kids…Wiley and I took a short hike on the Elkmont Nature Trail to decompress from Dollywood and forced family fun. Upon our return, Miles informed us that he and Ashe had talked and wanted to go home Saturday, instead of Sunday. His sister had obviously, delegated the duty. She said, two nights was sufficient and that we did not need to spend a third night. We understood and agreed to leave by 5pm Saturday to get home before dark, but still have time to enjoy the park for the day. We cooked burgers and corn over the fire. We had a good meal followed by s’mores. We sat around the fire and talked for hours. Miles and I were the last ones to turn in. No place I’d rather be than in the woods around a fire with the people I love. Perfect end to the day!
Saturday, we packed up then hiked on the Little River Trail, looking for the Elkmont “Ghost Town”. We saw the Spence Cabin and several chimney ruins on “Millionaire’s Row” along Jake’s Creek. There was no signage for the “Daisy Town” village on Little River Rd anywhere from the campground to Spence Cabin. We hiked for a while along the river and asked several other hikers if they knew where the village was and if this trail took you there. No one knew. With no cell service, we had no way of getting directions or info. I was very disappointed, because I really wanted to see it after reading so much about it and seeing lots of photos. After a while, we turned around. Back at the Spence Cabin parking lot, Wiley read a sign that had a map that happened to show the village on it. It was between us and the campground, just up the road and a hill from where we were standing. We walked back up the road and took a left up the hill where we came across the restored “Appalachian Club” and dilapidated “Daisy Town” cottages. It is really sad to see the abandoned mountain resort in such disrepair. It was saved by the National Register, but the cottages have yet to be restored. Many are falling in. I hope they restore it to it’s early 1900’s mountain retreat splendor. It reminded me of the High Hampton Inn near us in Cashiers. Here are directions: From the Sugarlands Visitors Ctr, drive 4.9 mi along Little River Rd to the turnoff for Elkmont Campground, which will be on your left. Drive 1.4mi to reach the campground entrance. Instead of proceeding into the campground, turn left and drive another 0.8mi to the parking area for the Jake’s Creek Trailhead at the end of the road. You will see the cottages ahead of you from the parking area. Enjoy!
After seeing the “Smoky Mountain Ghost Town”, we drove towards Clingmans Dome, the highest point in GSMNP and in TN. En route, we saw another baby bear running across the road, a lot of bad bear mamas in the Smokies. The drive to Clingmans was gorgeous. The parking lot was full, so we had to park way down the road. We hiked back up to the parking lot then to the dome. It was clear and beautiful from the parking area, but mostly covered with fast moving clouds at the top. The hike up is a steep 0.5mi paved climb. I took a couple of breaks, but it was not too bad. It was crowded and noisy. Nothing like Mt. Mitchell, a couple of weeks ago, when we were there on a Monday at 5:30pm. It was almost had it to ourselves. GSMNP is the most visited National Park in the US. It was definitely more crowded and peopley than we like. The park is full of breathtaking beauty, so I can see why it is so popular. We took a spur trail off the dome trail down to the Appalachian Trail. It was our second time on the AT in TN. The children were not up for a hike and were over the family vacay, so we hiked back to the van and headed home. So long GSMNP! Thanks for the new memories!