Last week I moved to Georgia, and lucky for me, my wonderful parents came down and helped me get situated. Naturally, the day after moving, we all thought it was a great idea to pack up and head to the closest national park. It was myself, my Dad, my Mom, and my Harper (5 year old niece). This was my Mom and Harper’s first national park experience!!! I was very excited for both of them! Harper loves the mountains and she loves caves, so with that in mind, we decided to attack all the lookouts, as well as, Alum Cave Trail.
After eating some eggs and bacon, we hit the road. It’s about a 3 hour drive from my place, but it’s a gorgeous drive, with lots of cute little shops and restaurants along 441, and slowly but surely, the closer we got, the bigger the mountains got. Harper woke up at 5 am with us, and was so excited she stayed awake the entire drive!
We arrived at Oconaluftee Visitor Center, to confirm our plans. This park did not have any entrance fees, but they do have donation boxes! The ranger told us that some storms were expected in the afternoon, so we had to keep that in mind, but lucky for us, no rain! Harper found a ranger vest and hat at the shop, and she def looked the part! This visitor center also had a historical exhibit with farmhouses, smokehouses and more. My dad and mom really enjoyed checking it out and telling me how all of it worked. The restrooms here were nice, and we saw some turkeys!
Our first stop was Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest mountain in the park! And the highest point in Tennessee. And the highest point along the Appalachian Trail. The trail is about 0.55 miles to the top of the observation tower. When we arrived, it was cloudy, chilly and heavily trafficked! Allegedly, it’s a 331 elevation gain, but in about a half a mile, it felt like more lol. Harper likes to hike, but she isn’t crazy about the uphill stuff. Somehow, my 50+ year old father managed to carry her on his shoulders up this steep pavement. People were applauding him, and saying “world’s greatest dad.” Meanwhile, My Mom and I took plenty of breaks lol. We were slower than my Dad with a 50 pound pound child on his back haha.
On the way up, we saw an abundance of bees in all the beautiful flowers. It was lovely. When we finally made it to the top, the clouds started to clear. The pictures we got from this point, could never do it justice. We all used cell phones for our pictures, but in real life, you just have to see it. It’s a 360 view of the smoky mountains and it is a must do.
After catching our breath, we headed back down, which was much easier than going up. Harper managed the way down on her own, conveniently lol. After coming down, Harper had to go to the bathroom. So, we opened the door and she came into the bathroom after me, and almostly instantly covered her mouth and nose and said “ewwww.” She experienced her first “hole in the ground” toilet, but would not use it lol. She was spitting and gagging after going in there; mom and I were laughing so hard.
From there we headed to another lookout — Newfound Gap! This was a really beautiful view of the mountains, as well. There were more flowers, and the restrooms here were “flushable” toilets, so Harper liked that lol. We snapped some pictures, while my dad facetimed half of his family and then headed on to the next stop, Alum Cave Trail.
Alum Cave Trail is located in Tennessee, while the lookout points we visited were in North Carolina. This trail is a few miles down the road from Newfound Gap and marked clearly with a sign and parking. It’s a down and out type trail, so you can choose what you want to see/how far you want to go. The trail follows the Alum Cave Creek, which was beautiful and Harper ended up getting in twice! (more to that story, shortly.. lol). There was so much green surrounding us! On the way up to the Arch Rock, the incline was not terrible, definitely doable for the average out-of-shape person (myself lol).
On our way there, we ran into a few hikers, not numerous, and two groups of them had seen a bear! I have never seen a bear in the wild, and was hoping we could see one from a safe distance – of course! Halfway in we smelt a very musky scent, and we all thought maybe it was a bear, since we knew one was nearby! We also saw trees that were marked by bears!
About a mile and half in, Harper had to pee. Of course, there wasn’t a toilet in sight. So, I got nominated to teach the 5 year old girl how to pee in the wild… I chose to do so by demonstrating, while my mother stood watch. The code words for someone coming was, “Mace, I sure would love some Salsa.” And of course, we had to use the code words twice lol. Anyways, I drop my drawers, and squat and try to get Harper to do the same. Her stance wasn’t the greatest, but I figured it would work. Mid-stream, she decides to stand up. Needless to say, her shorts were saturated in her urine lol. After she used her shirt to wipe (I didn’t teach her this, she was just too quick for me to stop her lol) I helped her pull up her wet shorts. She was not happy. She kept pulling down her pants while hiking, so we had to give her bath in the stream and “wash” her clothes. It was honestly so funny. Hopefully, her next time peeing in the wild, will be a much “drier” experience.
We got our pictures of the natural arch and let Harper explore the area in her freshly “washed” clothes, and shortly thereafter we turned around to head back.
On our way back, Harper and I looked for fungi, and we found them, and a slug! This hike is so beautiful, I definitely want to go back and do more of it! We started to smell that musky scent again, and before I knew it my mother’s hand was in my face and her finger over her mouth singling us to be quiet. What lies beyond the corner? Not one bear, but FOUR BEARS!!! It was a momma with 3 cubs. One cub was stuck high in a tree, crying, while the momma bear circled the tree. She got out of our sight, and humans started to accumulate in our area, as we waited. Harper was so excited. There were two humans headed toward us from the parking area, and we were all yelling “bear!”, but they didn’t hear us. Thankfully, they didn’t see the bear and the bear didn’t come out!
After time had passed, and the momma bear was out of sight for a while, we all decided to pass as a large group, while making noise. Harper stood in the middle of us as we walked and clapped. It was exhilarating. Anyways, we were all fine and it was a super cool experience. I hope the baby bear and its family are okay!
After hopping in the car, we decided to head to Gatlinburg, with no expectation or preparation. This town reminded me of a heavier trafficked Branson, MO. Lots of cool shops and restaurants, and even gondolas and trains! Be ready for lots of traffic! We ended up heading back and not stopping, because my parents had a long 13 hour drive home! On our way back through the park, we saw so many elk! We even got to see the leader “bellow?” at the others and tell them where to go. It was super cool. We got a pic by the National Park sign, saw some more turkeys, and headed home.
Overall, the Smoky Mountains were absolutely stunning. You are literally in the clouds, and it looks like smoke sitting on the mountains. This was such a wonderful experience, and I am sooo grateful that I got to share it with my family. It was very challenging to get great pics of this park, but at the end of the day, we are there for the experience, not the pictures. With that being said, it’s a must for you to go out and explore this place for yourself! Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more GA area adventures — Tallulah Falls and Black Rock Mountain State Park!