A Long Weekend in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A Weekend in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In May of 2020 we took a much appreciated trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  All of our trips that had been planned for 2020 had been cancelled and we were looking forward to a getaway close to home, that we could drive to, and that would keep us distanced from others.  We also wanted to immerse ourselves in healing nature.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the perfect place to do so!

On our agenda was simply hiking and fishing.  It was our first getaway post-lockdown and we were trying to stay as safe as possible.  It was definitely a good choice.

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK FACTS

America’s most visited National Park

  • LOCATION:  Tennessee & North Carolina
  • CLOSEST MAJOR CITIES:  Gatlingburg, TN (entrance to the park) & Asheville, NC (60 miles away)
  • ANNUAL VISITORS:  13,000,000 (!) 2022
  • #1 most visited US National Park
  • BECAME A NATIONAL PARK:  1926
  • MOST POPULAR THING TO DO:  Ascend Clingman’s Dome

When we visited  

May 2020.  The weather was just starting to get humid and warm, although hiking in the woods helped it feel a bit cooler.

Where we stayed

An amazing Airbnb cabin high up in the hills.  This cabin was incredible!  It held 10 people, which was plenty of space for our family of 5.  At this time I was focusing my search on a place with good cleaning protocols (this was during the pandemic).  Since this place fit the bill, we just dealt with the extra space – which was wonderful!  Everyone had their own bedroom and bathroom, and we had a fabulous kitchen where we cooked and prepped all our meals.

About Our Hikes

We hiked two trails, Rainbow Falls and Metcalf Bottoms Trail/Little Brier Gap Trail to Walker Sisters Home. 

Our first hike was Metcalf Bottoms Trail, which then connected to Walkers Sisters Homes via the Little Brier Gap Trail.  The trails were relatively easy with minimal elevation.  Some parts were on wide graveled paths and others on more narrow paths in the woods with a lot of roots on the trail and foliage tumbling out from above.  We first came across the old schoolhouse at the end of the Metcalf Bottoms Trail.  From here, we continued on the Little Brier Gap Trail which was beautiful.  Crossing many little streams and log bridges, we finally made our way to the Walkers Sisters Home.  There we checked out the buildings and rested on a log to have a snack.   

The next day we hiked the Rainbow Falls Trail.  I’m not going to sugarcoat it, this hike was tough!  It was a 6 mile trail at nearly 3 miles out and 3 miles back.  The hard part was that the 3 miles out was completely uphill!  In total, we climbed 4,185 feet for a total elevation gain of 1,535 to get to the waterfall.  We stopped off whenever one of us needed a quick rest and we saw others doing the same.  We did see very young children and some elderly folks so it’s definitely doable for most ages and abilities, especially if you start early enough to give yourself ample time.   Just be aware of the elevation gain as it is tough. 

As soon as we reached the top to see the waterfall, the clouds parted and a torrential downpour ensued!  We heard thunder in the distance so we, along with everyone else at the top, scurried down quickly.  The trip back down went much faster than up, of course, as being poured on helped us move quickly!  All of the rocks and roots sure do get slippery, though, and at one point I slipped and fell but got right back up!

The weather in late May was nice, especially due to the shade in the woods.  It was getting humid, however, and the temps were rising daily so for our comfort level it is as close to summer in the Smokies as we are comfortable with.

Our Favorite Parts of the Park

There is no entrance fee to enter this park!  As the country’s most visited National Park, this is especially welcomed.  The variety of ecosystems at Great Smoky Mountains National Park is quite incredible.  On our hike to Rainbow Falls, we saw rugged boulders and the rushing Pigeon River.  The air was cool and refreshing as we were in shaded forest.  As we ascended, we noticed how the surroundings grew more arid.  Finally, as we approached the top, the air was wet with constant mist from the waterfalls which led to a tropical feel.  On our hike on the Little Brier Gap trail, we crossed neat log bridges over small streams.

The Wildlife

While we were on one of the wooded trails my son saw a very large snake that thankfully slithered into the hillside before I caught up!  On the gravel Metcalf Bottoms Trail, we saw a turtle just chilling in the middle of the path. 

We saw a black bear as we were driving back to our cabin one day.  He was searching for provisions in the trash cans.  On our way to the trailhead of Rainbow Falls on another day, we had to walk on the road for a short distance as the closer trailhead was full.  As we did so, we noticed that the cars in the road had stopped.  Someone rolled their window down and told us there was a black bear across the street!  The Smokies are known for their abundance of black bears.

Overall Thoughts

We see why Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country’s most visited National Park.  The Smoky Mountains themselves are beautiful.  We witnessed sunrise in the mountains shrouded in misty clouds which then burned off by mid-day.  The flora is varied and the fauna is prevalent.  We found the Pigeon River to be impressive and refreshing and reminded us of one we would see out west.  There were ample pull-outs for stopping along the river or at popular vistas and overlooks.  Overall we loved this park and can’t wait to return.

Dietary Notes

As always, everyone’s needs are different.  At press time my husband is grain-free and two of our kids are allergic to nuts and eggs.  Although we seem to encompass a large amount of dietary restrictions, we can only offer advice as to what pertains to our own family, as that is where our expertise lies!

What we brought:  All the food and drinks we would need for three days, including pre-prepped meals and a crock pot!

Due to the pandemic, we opted to avoid any unnecessary intereactions and thus brought along all of our food.  We had snacks that would work as trail food as well as food for all meals.  One day, I had pork carnitas in the crock pot simmering while we hiked our tough hike.  It was great to come home to a prepped dinner!  The kitchen definitely made this feasible.  We were also in a cabin high up in the hills, so we were not exactly close to any stores.  It took some prep beforehand but made our time there seamless in terms of meals.

For more on traveling with dietary restrictions, be sure to check out our guide:  On the Go with Allergies.

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