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Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I am always looking for an opportunity to explore new places and spend time camping in the mountains. So it is no surprise that when planning a visit to my brother and his family in Atlanta, Georgia, I could not help but tie in a camping trip. Especially when I realized that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is between a three and four hour drive from my brother’s home (depending on which entrance we started at). Fortunately, my brother is used to my adventures and had to work on the weekdays. So a plan was set; we would visit my brother for a few days, then camp from Monday through Thursday, and return to my brother’s family Thursday night to spend a few more days.

On the Road

On Monday, after enjoying three days with my brother and his family, we took off for our camping trip. We had planned to enter the park through one of the north entrances. Before entering the park, we got to experience the Foothills Parkway, which was a nice introduction to all of the vibrant green we would soon experience. We chose the entrance closest to Wear Valley, a tiny town just outside the park. Almost immediately upon entering the park, we encountered a lovely little river that meandered beside the road. While the mountains that surrounded us did not appear as large as what we are used to in the southwest and west, they were numerous and covered in trees. Before long we encountered our campground at Elkmont; good timing, considering we had about an hour or so before the sun set, allowing us to set up our tent while we still had some day light. The Elkmont campground offers a number of campsites in a variety of “loops”, some of which are right on the river. Our site was maybe 100 feet from the river, and the kids got their suits on immediately and went to explore, while my husband and I got our tent set up. Once the work was done, I went to join the kids in checking out the river. The river water was clear and cool, just the right temperature to be considered refreshing. And there was nothing like the sound of the river, which we could enjoy from our campsite.

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My husband cooked us an easy meal of black burritos while I set up the tent with our bedding. The weather had been hot, but once the sun set it cooled down to where it was not so miserable. We enjoyed a campfire and got the dinner dishes cleaned up. We wanted to get an early start the next day and headed to bed. We knew there would be a lot to explore!

Wonderful Water Adventures

In the morning, my husband and I were up early and we got out the maps. He was eager to check out the park’s many water sources, which I was on board with. For my part, I was interested in doing some hiking around the park. We had no set plan and just got in the car with our map, determined to check out (and perhaps get in) some waterfalls. This turned out to be easy; as we headed west on Little River Road, we encountered The Sinks, as well as Meigs Falls. We found parking easily not far from Meigs Falls and were ready to explore. We all got our bathing suits on and after an encounter with a bug that looked like a giant dragonfly, we climbed down into the river and walked through the river to the waterfall. There is nothing like being right next to a waterfall! My husband and I, as well as my daughter, stood together in the falls, enjoying the water cascading upon us. Amazing.

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I could have stayed at that waterfall all day. I had found a nice rock to sit on where I got enough spray to stay cool. But there was much we still wanted to explore. We worked our way back to the car, where we grabbed a quick snack and headed to The Sinks. Before we made it there, we could not resist stopping at a spot along the river that had some rapids and a large area for swimming. The water felt perfect! We took turns sitting on the rapids and letting ourselves float along with the current. My son spotted a snake and was captivated by its occasional appearances from behind a rock. Eventually we realized we were really hungry and had a quick lunch. Then it was on to The Sinks!

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It is hard to describe The Sinks, though my map claims that the waterfall is “short in stature but its volume includes the entire flow of the Little River”.  The Sinks, it turned out, offered something for everyone. We were able to wade in and have plenty of depth and space in which to swim. There were also small fish swimming around and my son had a blast with a few other kids following the fish and viewing bugs. Of course there were the falls themselves, which seemed a bit scary to me. My husband was all over them though, climbing up and around them. I checked out some of the rapids myself and the water was so strong it was hard to make my way among the rocks. But it felt great! Perhaps the greatest part of the area was the cliffs you could jump from into a large deep pool of water. After observing others do this, my husband had to try. As did my nine year old daughter! She inspired me, and I gave it a try. It was awesome, but once was enough. After a good two hours of exploring the area and jumping and swimming, we were beat. We headed back to our campsite for some relaxation time.

It was looking like rain and I was tired but I could not resist a quick hike around the campground to explore the area. I came across and walked along the nature trail, as well as found trailheads for several other trails. Fortunately I made it back to our campsite in time for a quick dip in the river and my husband made dinner before the rain began. And it came hard! Luckily we have a great tent and after getting everything in the car and quickly finishing our meal, we climbed into our tent earlier than usual. Tired from a busy day, it did not take long for us to drift to sleep. I was amazed by all we had done in one day.

A Challenging Hike to a Beautiful Place

The next day we awoke early and set out for a hike to Rainbow Falls. The hike was around 5.5 miles round trip and a bit of a stretch for my daughter; who is not an enthusiastic hiker. Fortunately, we had all day. The hike started out by following a creek. The weather was very humid and before long we were sweating. I yearned to jump into that creek! My daughter was rather unpleasant for about the first mile, though her behavior improved significantly with the promise of ice cream. The hike was challenging, as most of it was very steep. I love to hike and I admit, even I was wondering when we would get there. After about an hour and a half, we encountered a small waterfall, and were told we were about a quarter of a mile from Rainbow Falls. We got our water shoes on and played around in the small waterfall, where my kids discovered salamanders swimming around the pools of water.

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We embarked on the last quarter mile up to Rainbow Falls and it was worth the effort. What a beautiful sight! Rainbow Falls has several “levels” and we climbed up to experience the cascading water. The water was colder than what we had experience the day prior, but the view was awesome.

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All four of us enjoyed playing in the pools below the waterfall and my husband and I enjoyed the cold spray from the falls. After an hour or so, we were ready to venture back down the trail. We took it slowly and made another stop not far from our car; I could not resist jumping into the creek and putting my head under the spray of the rapids.

After enjoying some snacks we went to obtain the promised ice cream, and returned to our campsite. I enjoyed yet another swim in the river and some time reading on my favorite rock. It was another amazing day. After dinner, my kids played games with some new friends that they had made, and my husband and I relaxed by the fire. We all slept incredibly well that night, our last night of camping. We planned to pack up early and check out another waterfall on our way out of the park.

One More Adventure Before Returning to the City

We managed to get up early and get packed up relatively quickly (for us). We were on the road by 9:00 and drove the short distance to the trailhead for Laurel Falls. According to the map, this would be an easy trail of about a mile out and a mile back. A good thing, as my daughter was not pleased to hike again. We managed to cajole her up the trail, which was not as steep as what we experienced the day prior. Before long we were viewing the falls and then feeling the spray upon us. I could not help but sit in some of the areas where water was streaming down quickly. It felt like I was in a cold water spa.

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We made our way down the trail and back to our car. This was the last part of our adventure and it was back to the city. Our camping trip had been wonderful and our experiences amazing. I walked down the trail with a silly grin on my face, feeling satisfied. And I managed to snap a picture of some of the mountains that make up the park. It is no surprise that I am already contemplating when we can return.

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  • Updated March 1, 2017
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Ilyssa
 

Ilyssa is a mother of four who is employed full-time as a grant writer and who enjoys writing freelance articles in her spare time. Ilyssa has a great love of adventure and the outdoors, which she hopes she is passing along to her children. Last summer Ilyssa and her family took a five week road trip, camping and exploring most of the western United States. The trip inspired Ilyssa to work towards achieving flexible employment and/or financial freedom, so that she and her family may continue to travel and explore all nature has to offer, and not just for a few weeks out of the year.