Summer Family Hikes

Summer Family Hikes

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Are you a windshield tourist?

That’s what they call the many visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park who simply traverse the park’s famous 30-plus mile Newfound Gap Road through the park and don’t get out of the car much, if at all.

That’s a real shame, given there is so much to do here — more than 800 miles of hiking trails (including the chance to walk a bit on the famous 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail) horseback riding, fantastic fishing and the chance to see historic settlers’ cabins, schoolhouses, churches, grist mills and more.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer, as I’ve been working on my latest Kid’s Guide — to the nation’s most visited national park. Yes, that’s Great Smoky Mountains with more than 9 million visitors — almost three times the number Yellowstone gets!

And let’s not forget that as the National Park Service gets ready to celebrate its centennial next year. To commemorate the milestone, this school year, the Every Kid in a Park program will give every fourth-grader and family free access to national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and more.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few that doesn’t charge admission. It’s also got lots of territory to explore — more than half a million acres divided almost evenly between North Carolina and Tennessee that’s especially beautiful during fall foliage season.

That’s all the more reason to linger. Perhaps your kids aren’t in school yet, or you are a home-schooler. Maybe you’ve got a fall break? Fall foliage is spectacular in the Smokies and you’ll find plenty to do outside the park, as well as in neighboring Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, whether you want to gather the family for a weekend at a big mountain cabin, shop for local crafts and meet the artisans — woodcarvers and quilters, metal workers and weavers — eat traditional Southern cooking or visit Dollywood, where a new resort has just opened and Dolly Parton has made the focus as much on the heritage and culture of the Smokies as on theme park attractions. Starting Sept. 22 and lasting until Nov.1, there’s a National Southern Gospel and Harvest Celebration at Dollywood with special concerts.

Fall tram ride in Gatlinburg, Tenn

Fall tram ride in Gatlinburg, Tenn

Has camping been on your to-do list? Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 10 campgrounds. If tent camping doesn’t appeal, Rent an RV or camper and experience a different kind of camping adventure kids love. “Family Fun in the Smokies” by Katy Koontz and published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association is a great resource to help you plan.

Have your kids ever seen a salamander up close? Great Smoky Mountains National Park is called ‘the Salamander Capital of the World “because there are at least 30 species here, more than anywhere else.

When was the last time you braked for an elk? They were nearly killed off here by over hunting and loss of their habitat, but they began to be reintroduced in 2001 and now the elk herd is over 125. During the fall breeding season (known as “rut”) male elk make their unique bugling calls to challenge other bulls and attract cows. You can hear the calls from a mile away

A great way to explore this park and others with the kids is for them to become Junior Rangers. (Online, they can become WebRangers where they can share pictures and stories, play activities and more.) Pick up the official Junior Ranger booklet ($2.50) at any park visitor center. (There are different booklets and activities for different age groups. For example, the five and six year olds are encouraged to ask rangers questions like “What happens if I feed the animals I see in the park?” (They’ll starve in the winter!)

Eleven and 12 year olds, meanwhile, are encouraged to be good stewards of the park — picking up a bag of litter, for example. Adults certainly will learn a lot too!

In the park, there’s also the opportunity for Citizen Science projects at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont within the national park where families can join in. Check out the #SmokiesCOOL music video series made by kids visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park telling the stories of the Smokies set to popular tunes. Visit or search social media using #SmokiesCOOL

Just be careful if you see a bear! (There are 1,500 in the park.) Their behavior can be unpredictable. Always remember that bears in the park are wild, not like in a zoo. Don’t approach them. In fact, park officials say you should stay at least 150 feet from wildlife and under no circumstances should you feed them.

How about a hike to a waterfall? Seeing a roaring waterfall is a high point of visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park and they are always kid pleasers. There are nearly 20 to choose from here. The hike to Laurel Falls is one that is categorized as easy. (The trailhead is 3.8 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center toward Cades Cove on Little River Road.) The waterfall is 80 feet high, but this trail is level.

Remind the kids not to climb the rocks near the waterfalls. They are very slippery, even if you are wearing great hiking boots. No one should try to climb to the top of the waterfalls or swim in the pools at the bottom. That’s how people get hurt, the national park rangers say.

On any hike, everyone should stay together and keep to the established trails. You should also have high-energy snacks, water bottles (it’s not safe to drink from streams here), a small first-aid kit, rain gear, extra layers and extra socks (in case your feet get wet. Magnifying glasses help keep kids engaged on the trail as do binoculars to see the wildlife and birds.

Ready to play “I Spy” on the trail?