After our excursion to Cook’s Mountain a few weeks ago, we were ready to spend some time in the actual mountains. Luckily, we already had a long weekend planned in the Smokies.
It was a pretty big adventure since we’d never even taken our camper on the interstate yet, let alone into the mountains. We had been pretty nervous about towing up (and down) Saluda Mountain and Green River Gorge, but the ‘ole family truckster did amazing. In fact, we were really surprised at just how well the 4runner pulled in the mountains.
It took us about six hours to get to Gatlinburg from Lexington, S.C., including bathroom breaks, baby feeding breaks, and a lunch stop. We’d been warned to avoid the Foothills Parkway on our way into Gatlinburg, so we stayed on 321 through Cosby and didn’t encounter any treacherous roads.
We stayed at Greenbrier Campground about five miles east of Gatlinburg, and right across from the Greenbrier entrance to Smoky Mountains National Park. Our site was in the newly developed section of the campground. The site itself was amazing. It backed right up to the Little Pigeon River and was perfectly level. The sites were fairly close to the road, but we didn’t have any issues with road noise. The older part of the grounds was being renovated and featured a nice, modern bathhouse and a well maintained playground.
Our only complaint was the lack of the advertised amenities in the new section. We were excited there would be a playground right across our site to entertain our toddler, but when we arrived we discovered an empty field where the online map had shown the playground. The bath house in the new section also was still under construction. When we mentioned our disappointment about the playground to the front office, they brushed it off and said a lot of people had been disappointed. If that was the case, then it seems like they would put a disclaimer on their website about construction being behind. Thankfully, the beauty of site itself made up for the elusive playground.
We spent our first evening relaxing at the campground. Steven found a nice grocery store about 3 miles from the campground and grabbed some items to make a great dinner. He did mention prices did seem to include a bit of a tourist tax, so keep that in mind when planning.
Day 2: Great Smoky Mountain National Park (Greenbrier and Roaring Forks)
The next day we set out to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Well, at least some of it, since it covers 522,419 acres or 816.28 square miles. We drove the trials through the Greenbrier section of the park first. And holy butterflies! As we drove 1,000s of brightly colored butterflies fluttered over and around the truck. After following the river deep into the park and enjoying the pristine scenery, we made our way back toward the entrance. We decided to pull off at a parking area right before the entrance to do some exploration on foot. The boys (and mom) quickly stripped off our shoes to dip our toes in the cool water, which was particularly nice since the mercury was starting to rise.
Next, after a lunch break, we drove through downtown Gatlinburg to enter the park further west and do the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail, a one-way, 6-mile, scenic loop. Roaring Forks was a fun drive filled with lots of twists and turns. There were several trailheads tucked into the trail, some roaring (thus the name of the area) rapids, small waterfalls, and a couple of scenic overlooks. The end of the trail put us back out on the eastern side of Gatlinburg near our camp, so we went back to the campground to enjoy dinner and a campfire.
Day 3: Sky Bridge and Clingman’s Dome
In the weeks leading up to our trip we’d seen several stories about the new Gatlinburg SkyBridge. The attraction, which just officially opened on May 17th, is the longest suspension bridge in North America at 680 ft. across. Excited by the opportunity to be among the first to cross the bridge, we decided to give it a try on Sunday.
After finding a parking spot ($10), we stood in line for the chair lift up to the bridge. Tickets for the experience are $19.95 for adults (12-64) with discounts for kids age 4-11 and seniors 65+. Children 3 and under are free. The line moved quickly and we were soon being shepherded onto the SkyLife (aka chair lift). The view from the SkyLift was beautiful, but there are no seatbelts, so be prepared to hold on tight to any small children.
Just before we boarded the SkyLift we heard an announcement that they were going to pause ticket sales because of high winds on the SkyDeck. We didn’t give much thought to the announcement other than to be thankful we got our tickets when we did. However, once we got to the top, we realized the high winds meant the SkyBridge also was temporarily, but indefinitely closed. Employees suggested we get back in line to head back down the mountain because there was a chance the SkyLift could also be closed. We decided to take a closer look at the SkyBridge and SkyDeck while the line died down. What a view!
After milling around for a few more minutes, we accepted defeat, and made our way back to the SkyLift. But wait! Seconds before climbing onto the lift, I turned around and saw people pouring onto the SkyBridge. It was open! We made a beeline back to the entrance of the bridge, not wanting to miss our opportunity to cross before more wind rolled in. We stepped out onto the wooden planks and slowly began to cross. The bridge had a bit of the bounce and sway you’d expect from a suspension bridge, but overall felt very sturdy. The middle of the bridge features three glass panels that allow you to look down on the 100 feet tall trees below: a truly special experience!
After conquering the bridge (with two kids in tow), we made our way back down to street level. We ate an early lunch and did some window shopping at that Nantahala Outdoor Center. Then we headed to Clingman’s Dome. The highest point in Tennessee at 6,600+ feet. From Gatlinburg it’s a 20-mile drive to the top of the mountain, but it takes about 45 minutes to drive, luckily it’s a beautiful drive. Once you reach the end of the road, there’s a trail that takes you the last half mile to the highest elevation.
We were exploring with my Dad and his girlfriend, who were in town from Indiana for the week, and they assured us it wasn’t a bad climb; however, we were still nervous about hiking with a toddler and infant. So, when both kids fell asleep on the ride up the mountain, we decided to take turns trekking up to the observation deck. I headed up first. Everyone who had told me it was an easy climb, clearly didn’t take my life at sea level or lack of regular cardio into consideration. After more than a couple stops at benches the park had thankfully provided, I made it to the top.
When I was able to breathe again, we started back down the trail. I told my Dad I was glad we decided not to try bringing the kids up, since we’d surely have ended up having to carry the toddler. At about that time, I saw a crazy man trudging up the mountain with a baby strapped to his chest and a toddler riding on his shoulders. Then I realized that crazy man was my husband and those were my kids! Apparently, the kids had woken up and wanted Mommy, so he loaded them up and started up the trail. The toddler made it through the parking lot to the trailhead before he said his feet hurt and requested to be carried. I offered to lighten Steven’s load and took the baby back down the mountain, while he and Everett went up to the observation deck.
Finally, everyone (except the baby) having summited Clingman’s Dome, we loaded up to head back to camp. We had another relaxing (other than the occasional tired toddler meltdown) evening listening to the rapids and enjoying the campfire.
Day 4: Santa Claus-et and Home
Since checkout was at 11 a.m., most of day four was packing up camp and getting ready to head home. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our quick trip to Santa Claus-et since it was our son’s favorite activity of the weekend!
We had planned to visit the Christmas-themed store on our way back to camp after Clingman’s Dome, but, unfortunately, it was already closed for the day and wouldn’t reopen until 9:30 a.m. So, after breakfast we made a quick stop. I’m a sucker for a year-round Christmas store because they just make you immediately feel the cheer of the holidays. I also like them because we collect Christmas ornaments on our travels. Our toddler also LOVES Christmas. He also LOVED that Santa Claus-et had a toy room. When I picked him up from daycare on Tuesday and asked him if he told his friends about our trip, he said “yes, I told them I went to the Ho Ho store.” So, it clearly left an impression.
Even if you don’t have kids or a particular affinity for Christmas décor, Santa Claus-et also had their own line of butters and jams, a whole wall of camper flags, and a lot of other fun items.
We left Santa Claus-et with our pockets a little lighter and went back to the campground to finish packing up. It sure was tough to hook-up the camper and say goodbye to Gatlinburg. There was so much more to do! We can’t wait to go back. In fact, I have a feeling this trip was just the beginning of an annual trip to the Great Smoky Mountains!