Hello readers!! Life has really kicked into high gear in our house. Between in-person school for Eli (which he rocked at!), me deciding to take up a new hobby (crochet coasters anyone??), a couple family vacays, and soccer season for not one but two kids, my writing has taken a bit of a back seat. But school’s out, soccer is finished, and summer is here, so my goal is to start writing again. Now the question is, where to begin?!?!? I guess I’ll back track and give a little overview of the vacations we’ve taken just incase anyone else with kids wants to visit these places and could use some tips. Here we go!
I’ve never been to the Smoky Mountains, so we decided to take a little 5 day trip to Gatlinburg following Easter. I came across a great deal to stay at the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort – villas with full kitchens, washer/dryer, separate bedroom and living area, plus the resort had an indoor waterpark and was close to hiking trails. The only catch ~ to get the great price on a villa, we had to sit through a 90 minute timeshare presentation. 90 minutes. 1.5 hours. We could handle this to stay 5 days for $394 instead of $600+. I booked our trip, told our best friends of the plan and they booked a villa also, and away we went to Gatlinburg!
After an easy 6.5 hour drive, we arrived to a resort literally tucked way up on the mountain! The villa was beautiful and much to our surprise, both outdoor pools were open, despite this being the first part of April! Kids were SUPER excited about that, while I was mentally berating myself for not packing extra swimsuits and sunscreen. Oh well, we would make do! The resort had a small miniature golf course at the very top of the mountain, so we decided to check that out while waiting for our friends to arrive. All was going well until Eli declared it was WAAAAAY too hot at 70 degrees to be playing golf. Oh my little cold-blooded Ohio child!
Our overall plan for each day was to hike in the morning and swim in the afternoon, since the pools were open and that’s the only thing the kids wanted to do. In anticipation of hiking multiple hikes a day prior to seeing the pools open, Sam went to REI before vacay and said “Outfit me!” so, he was totally prepared with a great hiking backpack, 2 pairs of shoes, bear spray (that was my one request), a hatchet (what?!?!), whistle, flashlight, and rain cover for the backpack. He also got his Amateur Radio license and carried a radio with super long antenna just in case we needed to radio for help on a mountain without cell phone service. Let me tell you, this guy was prepared!! **Spoiler alert, we didn’t see any bears, didn’t need to use the hatchet, whistle, or flashlight, didn’t need to call for help on the radio, and it didn’t rain. BUT he wore both pairs of shoes and carried all our snacks in the backpack! Win!**
The one thing I didn’t anticipate was the crowds. Holy moly, I’ve never seen so many people in one place! We attempted to shop in Gatlinburg but left after 20 minutes. The sidewalks were packed and we couldn’t even get near a store. Plus, not many people were wearing masks despite still being in pandemic times. I had carefully researched the best hiking trails for kids and planned which ones to do, but after seeing the amount of people who would likely be hiking the same well-known paths, I scratched my previously researched hikes and opted for the lesser known ones. The first time we drove to a trailhead and passed miles of cars pulled off to the side of the road and people hiking 2-3 miles just to BEGIN the actual hike, I knew we made a smart move.
The first hike I recommend is Cataract Falls behind the Sugarland Visitor Center. It’s an easy and beautiful hike, plus there is a waterfall at the end 🙂 For 4 kids who grumbled about hiking instead of swimming, they quickly changed their attitudes when they saw all the fallen trees and rocks to climb on! I couldn’t stop marveling at the rushing creek along the hiking path and the overall beauty of the mountains. After the short Cataract Falls hike, we were all energized and decided to continue on with Fighting Creek Nature Trail. It connects into the Cataract Falls trail, so instead of turning to go back to the Sugarland Visitors Center, we went the opposite way on this little trail. We only saw 1 other family the whole time! It was a 1.7 mile loop, which isn’t long in itself, but combined with the half mile Cataract Falls hike, the kids were grumbling partway through. This nature trail was a lot more hilly and strenuous than Cataract Falls. If you’re carrying a little one in a backpack or have kids under 5, I would recommend just sticking with Cataract Falls.
Our second day of hiking took us to an even more remote hiking trail where we saw no one! It was called Elkmont Nature Trail and it was stunning! My favorite of all the places we hiked and saw in the Smokies. It was so different from the previous days hikes because there were no pine trees and typical forest trees. This was a rhododendron jungle and I must have said it a dozen times that it reminded me of the jungle around the monastery in Guatemala. We took creeking shoes for the kids and made a long morning of hiking and playing in the freezing mountain water! Eli was excited to find a “sandy beach”…..or as much of a sandy beach as possible in the mountains! There were people camping near the nature trail, but once we entered the trailhead, we were the only ones the entire hike. Cool little bridges to cross, lots of places to play in the water, some elevation change throughout the hike, and an overall jungle feel. Can’t recommend this little known trail enough!
Aside from hiking, our favorite activity was the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster in Pigeon Forge! There are lots of coasters to choose from in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, but this one was the longest ride and there was a Groupon for it 🙂 Plus, we could ride tandem with the kids. For someone who HATES rollercoasters, I was a bit nervous to do this, but the selling point was that we could control our own brake on our own car, so I didn’t have to go fast. Ava and I teamed up in the “slow car” while Sam and Eli declared their car to be the “fastest fun car.” Round trip it was about 7-8 minutes and the slow ride to the top of the mountain was just as cool as the one coming down. Highly recommend this, even if you don’t like rollercoasters or are afraid of heights.
Overall, it was a lot of fun exploring a new place and seeing the Smoky Mountains. Would I go back to the mountains? Absolutely! Would I go back to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge? Never! I despise crowded places and traffic and that was all that Gatlinburg offered. There was one day that we wanted to grab some fast food for lunch after being exhausted from hiking. The closest Wendy’s was 2.3 miles from the resort but when we looked at the GPS, our estimated time to go 2.3 miles was almost 40 minutes!!! That’s how bad traffic was!
Oh, and remember that 90 minute timeshare presentation I mentioned??? Well…..it turned out to be 3 hours and the presenter got mad at us for asking intelligent questions that he didn’t have intelligent answers for. At the end of 3 hours, we were shown the door ~ the back door stairwell that led to the dumpster area outside. Guess I won’t be booking us a timeshare presentation again anytime soon! Ha!
Stay tuned for my post about our weekend in Indianapolis!