Explore the area with your kids, and I’m not talking about a ride on Cades Cove Loop for the umpteenth time. Discard the mundane! Eliminate the ordinary! Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee National Forrest are in Blount County’s backyard and are easily accessed in less than an hour. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Fall Creek Falls State Park, and Frozen Head State Park can be reached in about 90 minutes. We’ll highlight a few key points from each area as we continue with the One Tank Trip series.
Since it’s so familiar and accessible from Blount County, we’ll start with family-friendly activities in GSMNP. A comprehensive list of activities in the park would go on for days, so we’ll present this in two parts. Part one will include activities for all ages and skill sets. If you prefer activities that are moderate to strenuous, stay tuned because part two will be just for you!
Look Rock Tower on the Foothills Parkway The Foothills Parkway is not as crowded as some other roads within the park system. The parkway is 18 miles long and scenic pull-offs dot the roadway. Look Rock is at the highest point, near the half-way mark, and makes a great place for a picnic. Go on a weekday and you might have the tower to yourself. The hike to Look Rock Tower is an easy ½ mile each way. The trail is paved and easy to navigate. On your way to the tower, you’ll pass an air quality monitoring station that is managed by TVA in cooperation with the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Tennessee. The station is equipped with state-of-the-art technology designed to take round the clock measurements of pollutants. The station can monitor pollutants blowing in from as far as Atlanta, as well as local air from the Tennessee Valley. The tower provides a spectacular 360-degree view of the mountains and valley. On a clear day, you can easily spot Clingmans Dome, Gregory Bald, Mt. LeConte and Thunderhead. Caution: The ramp and tower walls are concrete, but only about waist high so watch your kids! To get there: Take Highway 321 towards Townsend. Foothills Parkway will be well-marked on your right. You’ll see signs for Look Rock and a parking area at 11 miles.
Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont “Connecting people and nature.” With a focus on sense of place, diversity, and stewardship, GSMIT is an amazing place to start if you are interested in learning more about the ecological and cultural diversity of our area. It’s also a good choice if you are hoping to get out of the house and do something out of the ordinary. The campus is a beautiful place for a leisurely stroll. If you want to do more than meander the campus, consider an easy hike to Lynn Camp Prong Cascade. This hike is as easy as any you’ll find in the park, but never as crowded as more popular trails like Laurel Falls. The upper cascade is 35 feet long, the middle cascade is 85 feet long, and the lower cascade is 55 feet long. Total drop from the upper cascade to the plunge pool is 65 feet. The trail is an old logging bed, so it’s wide and well-maintained. Keep in mind that the only facilities are housed in the GSMIT buildings you passed on your way in. To get there: From the Wye in Townsend, go right towards Cades Cove. The road to GSMIT is immediately on your left. The road is paved for the first mile, then gravel for 2 or 3 miles and leads to the parking area. Cross the metal bridge and follow the sign for Middle Prong Trail (a popular horse trail, so watch your step). There is no sign to identify the cascade, but it’s impossible to miss.
Elkmont Historic District At first glance, Elkmont seems only like a sweet little campground nestled in the Smoky Mountains with synchronous fireflies that dazzle us with their light show every June. If you only know Elkmont for camping and lightning bugs, then you are missing out! Elkmont is relatively flat (for a mountainous region) and situated at the junction of Little River and Jakes Creek. If you don’t mind to get your feet wet, walking the banks of the water always makes for a fun afternoon. Search the internet for Elkmont’s history. Print it and bring it on your journey… you’ll thank me later. This area has been home to pioneers, a logging company and an elite resort community. The cottages, pioneer homes, and the Wonderland Hotel are pieces of history (from different eras) frozen for us to see. The leases for the cottages were discontinued in 1992, and in 1994 they were protected on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, the National Park Service developed a plan to restore the cottages. The Little River Trail passes many of the cottages and then meanders creekside. Because this area is so densely packed with culture and nature, you can spend all day exploring and never get far from the parking area. Most of the trails that originate out of the Elkmont area are mostly old railroad and logging beds, so they are well-maintained. To get there: From the Wye in Townsend, turn left towards Gatlinburg. Elkmont will be about 12.5 miles on your right and well-marked.
By Rebecca Tatum, Web Editor