Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the things we love most about the United States is the preservation of natural spaces. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. In addition to stunning natural landscapes the parks tell the history of the United States from its origin as Cherokee land to the logging industry that sprang up in the mountain shadows.
You could easily spend a week hiking and exploring just the park. The Littles are a little obsessed with the National Park Jr. Ranger program. We try to center our visits around the Jr. Ranger activities to keep the kids interested.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Oconaluftee Visitors Center sits at the east end of the park near Cherokee, North Carolina.
We stopped here to chat with a ranger about available hikes, stamp our passport books and purchase the Jr. Ranger packet ($2) at the bookstore.
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is also home to the Mountain Farm Museum. This outdoor museum was the perfect field trip for our current Playful Pioneers curriculum.
The buildings were moved from locations throughout the park to this location to demonstrate what a typical Appellation Pioneer Mountain Farm would have looked like. Each building has informative sign postings.
You can ask the ranger for a scavenger hunt of the farm if you think that will help keep your kids engaged. You can also use that scavenger hunt in place of a ranger program to earn your badge.
We stopped at the pull off near Newfound Gap. This is the lowest pass in the Great Smoky Mountains and offers some of the most stunning views. There is a hike that begins here but we were pressing North so just stopped to enjoy the view.
Sugarlands Visitors Center
Don’t miss a stop into the Sugarlands Visitors Center to stamp your National Park passport book. There is also a 20-minute orientation video that is worth watching for a park overview. The extensive museum of plants and animals rivals some small natural history museums we’ve visited.
The rangers at the Great Smoky Mountains were so lovely with the littles. The littles chose to complete the scavenger hunt here since ranger programs in the park don’t begin until June.
The littles worked hard to find all the required plants and animals in the museum. Along the way they learned about poison ivy, nocturnal animals in the park and even which flower looks like little pairs of pants hanging on a drying line.
Cataract Falls Hiking Trail
The Cataract Falls hiking trail was a perfect warm-up hike for the park. The hike departs from the Sugarlands Visitors Center. The hike is less than a mile roundtrip and ends at a beautiful 25-foot waterfall.
The boys brought their Jr. Ranger booklets along with them. They had to look for specific plant and animal life on the trail.
Parts of the trail were a bit muddy from all the recent rain. You would be well advised to wear your hiking boots, even on this easy trail. Jeff wasn’t so lucky when he was carrying the Middle Little across a fallen branch over a pond. He stepped into the pond by mistake and sloshed his way the rest of the hike.
We made it to the waterfall.
We also found all the leaves we were looking for and many of the critters.
Instead of walking back on the muddy trail, we opted to cross the road and follow a paved path back, past the Park Headquarters, to the visitors center. Not as scenic, but better for our tennis shoes.
Deep Creek Waterfall Hike
The boys were really looking forward to seeing some waterfalls so after consultation with the Ranger we settled on the Deep Creek Waterfall Hike. This loop hike takes you past three great waterfalls. It is relatively easy, so our Big Little was able to manage on his own. We carried the other two in carriers.
The first waterfall on the hike is Tom Branch Falls, an easy 1/4 mile from the parking area. The path is nice and wide. You will even find benches next to the water.
The waterfall was so pretty, how it falls into the creek. It was warm enough that it was hard to stay out of the water!
The next stop is Indian Creek Falls. You take a slight detour off your trail to head uphill and then downhill to be at the base of the falls. This is very near the put-in point for any tubing.
We backtracked a bit to pick up the Deep Creek Trail again as it hits the horse trail and heads uphill.
In this section of the trail we were able to observe all sorts of creepy-crawlies, which delighted the littles. We checked them out and then returned them to safety off the trail.
There are also a few bridges to cross, which is always the Little’s favorite thing to do.
The trail culminates in the Juney Whank falls. It’s a quick downhill walk from there to the parking lot. We couldn’t get enough of just sitting on the bench, built into the bridge with Juney Whank falls running beneath us.
Look at my happy crew. haha. We really did enjoy our hike though.
Jr. Ranger Badge
We couldn’t leave the park without completing the Jr. Ranger program. The Ranger thoroughly checked the boys’ packets before giving them the oath.
With badges on our vests we bid farewell to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.