We recently took a family road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. My parents were looking to escape and heat and the Red Tide in Florida, while my daughter, my husband and I wanted to relax and recharge. Our family found a nice balance of healthy things to do, opportunities to unplug from technology and quality time with each other. We stayed in a beautiful cabin in the mountains called the Morning View of Lake Fontana, managed by Great Smoky Mountain Cabin Rentals, and followed this itinerary which has something for everyone:
After being in the car for about ten hours, we wanted to get out and see the scenery. We took an easy hike called the Three Waterfalls Loop, which is 2.4 miles, and a more challenging one, Juney Whank Falls, which is half a mile but at a steep incline. The views of the waterfalls as well as the national park are amazing! Pick up a free Smokies Guide at the Ranger Station. It’s the official newspaper of the Smoky Mountains National Park and contains seasonal tips, Ranger Programs and maps.
Those interested in getting wet and seeing the woods from the water can rent tubes at any of the outdoor centers leading up to the park for about six dollars. Tubing at Deep Creek is best for older teens and adults who can and want to swim. There are some deep spots and some light white water rapids. The water was high due to rain when we visited, and the falls were a little more rapid than we thought.
We packed a lunch and ate in the picnic area. Be sure and bring beach towels for tubing and to put over the tables for picnicking! There are also changing areas and restrooms. For those who can not hike or tube, bring a folding chair and sit on the bank of the river. The birding and nature scenery are fantastic.
Pack a picnic lunch and drive to Cherokee and see the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Admission is $20 for adults and well worth the price. Tours are lead by members of the Cherokee Nation and are very interactive, including stops to view crafts being made and time for questions and answers. The last tour is at 4pm so plan accordingly!
Visit the Oconaluftee Visitor Center for maps, restrooms and gift shop. As you drive further up the road, you can stop at the Mingus Mill, a working flour mill. We bought a bag of grits ground there and had them for breakfast the next morning!
On the way out of Cherokee we stopped at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The museum has many artifacts and interactive exhibits, and also includes storytelling. The gift shop is three rooms and truly amazing.
We rented a pontoon boat at the Almond Boat and RV Park and did a morning cruise from 9 am to 1 pm. The cruise challenging as Lake Fontana was high due to rains and has many twists and turns. Using the GPS on our phones as well as the provided map, we were able to navigate to the Fontana Dam. It was a beautiful trip and very peaceful. The morning mist was just lifting off the water, and there was practically no boat traffic. My daughter and I had fun tubing. The lake is 550 feet deep at its lowest point so be sure to wear life vests.
In the afternoon we went trout fishing at Tumbling Waters Trout Pond, which is also located in Almond. The owner is very helpful and provides free bait, pole, and fish prep. We caught about 8 pounds of trout and paid five dollars per pound. We took the fish home and made them for dinner!
Pack a lunch and snacks and drive to Clingmans Dome, also known as the “Top of Old Smoky.” The dome reaches 6,643 feet above sea level and is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The hike to the observation tower is only half a mile but extremely steep. Be sure and dress for the weather as rain and cold temperatures are not unusual even the summer. Even in August we needed jackets. On a clear day, the view is incredible and spans five states. Our view was misty and foggy but we still enjoyed it.
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
For a real treat, ride first class in the MacNeill car of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. The four hour round trip includes a three-course lunch and coffee or soft drinks. We boarded the train in Bryson City and rode to Nantahala. It is a scenic ride with entertainment along the way, such as a banjo player and a story teller from the Southern Highlands of Western North Carolina. Halfway through the trip we stopped at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a hub for kayaking, ziplining and white-water rafting. The Appalachian Trail winds through here and you can take photos right next to the trail. There are also two restaurants at the Center, Big Wesser and River’s Edge. The Railroad is the only activity that I would recommend making a reservation for in advance as it does fill up.
Horseback riding and shopping in Bryson City
My husband and my daughter took a two hour horseback riding tour with Nantahala Village Riding Stables and loved it. They were in a small group with only three other people and enjoyed the peaceful view of the landscape and mountains.
Meanwhile, my parents and I went into Bryson City for coffee and browsed some of the shops in town. I especially liked the T-shirts at Loose Moose and the Simply Southern collection at Pursenality. We also enjoyed the Mountain Perks coffee shop, which had a wide selection of smoothies and specialty drinks, as well as fresh pastries.
It was a trip to remember and offered activities for everyone in our group. I recommend this area for the natural surroundings and limited cell service.