Southeast Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains Chimney Tops Trail

Gatlinburg is just next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The next day, guess where we went?

Yep. You just can’t pass up a national park, of course, and this one is even free (I know, I know, our taxes pay plenty toward it. Still, national parks, like libraries, are one federal expenditure I can’t get too upset over).

We drove a little ways into the park, but it wasn’t long before we’d hit our destination: a trail. Chimney Tops Trail, to be exact.

Great Smoky Mountains Chimney Tops Trail

Okay, okay, yes, the girls (and my husband) are off already. But let’s get a little background first. After our somewhat-recent, although extremely memorable trek at Lake Jenny on a prior trip, I had made a request: no more strenuous trails. I’d discovered on that 10+mile hike that I enjoy nature, but I seem to enjoy it in theory much more than in practice. I just was not up for another “adventure” of that scale.

Great Smoky Mountains Chimney Tops Trail

Okay, that is not too encouraging. But my husband had said that this trail was “only” 3.8 miles roundtrip, even though it was “very steep.” A handout he gave me informed me that “to reach the summit, hikers have to climb more than 960 feet over the course of the last mile!” Yes, that exclamation point was there. Trust me, I did not add it.

Great Smoky Mountains Chimney Tops Trail

So I hiked. There were exposed tree roots all over the place. The kids thought it was great. And I, the grown-up version of the kid who hated gym, just kept walking. I mean, come on. This was walking, after all. This wasn’t making free throws or climbing a rope. All I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other …


Maybe twice, I came across a sign. Neat to see that we weren’t too far from the Appalachian Trail.

Great Smoky Mountains Chimney Tops Trail

To be sure, there were awesome views along the way.

But this printout must have been written by a would-be comedian: “Now the fun begins — that is, if you enjoy hiking up steep terrain.” “The ascent is definitely not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights.” “Many injuries have occurred in this area, so take proper precautions.”

A few observations — as always in a national park, I’m amazed at the things people are doing and not getting hurt. Leaning out over precipices, swaying over ledges with no restraints. In “real life,” there are caution notices and fences up everywhere to protect us from ourselves. But at the Grand Canyon or on the mountaintop, you’re on your own, apparently. Be as stupid as you want to be. And somehow, I’ve never seen anyone get seriously hurt.

Another impressive thing was the number of small kids I saw on the trail. Tikes maybe 4 or 5 hiking up and down the trail. Not in strollers, not slurping down the ubiquitous bottle of juice. I didn’t hear any of them crying, whining, or having a fit of any kind. All I can assume is that the children of physically-fit nature types are a superior breed. It was refreshing to see.

Great Smoky Mountains Chimney Tops Trail

Not so refreshing was emerging from half a bazillion steps up to see this final push to the pinnacle.

Did I want to try to tackle that?

“Mom!”  yelled one of the kids. “Why did you wear a SKIRT to climb a MOUNTAIN?”

“It’s not a SKIRT!” I yelled, as I clawed my way up the rock. “It’s CULLOTTES!”

Okay, so apparently “cullottes” are a throwback to the ’80s. Suffice it to say I made it up about half the rock before deciding that it was good enough. Besides, coming down was even worse. And I really focused on looking only at my footholds, and not the wide open valleys a bit farther down and out …

Great Smoky Mountains Chimney Tops Trail

And then I did the whole trail again, but this time going down. You’d think that would be easier, and you’d be right. Except, it’s not really that easy trying to go steeply downhill at a slow pace. By the time I finished the whole thing, about two hours after I’d started, my thighs were feeling pretty jello-y.

I gratefully got into the van.

My husband still wanted to do one more “really short” trail, known as Grotto Falls.

This one wasn’t as bad, thankfully, but it was another 3 mile roundtrip.

As I hiked there, again lagging far behind all other family members, multiple folks making their way back assured me, “It is SO worth it!”

Great Smoky Mountains Grotto Falls

When I finally arrived, here’s what I saw: a “meh” waterfall, and about a million people. Somehow, after hiking this far, I hadn’t expected to run into a crowd comparable to the one waiting to ride Space Mountain.

Be that as it may, I took my turn dodging the masses as I traversed wet stones all the way back to the obligatory view from behind the falls, and then out again.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That was it. I’d visited when I was a child, maybe two or three years old. I thought I’d remembered from that visit going to an outdoor pageant featuring Indians. I mentioned this to my husband, who said, “I don’t think so. You didn’t actually go here.” Hmm.

Have you ever visited Great Smoky Mountains? Gone to an indian show there in the ’60s? Hiked Chimney Tops Trail, or to Grotto Falls, or heaven forbid, the Appalachian Trail? Do share in the comments …

6 thoughts on “Southeast Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  1. Your vacations sound more like extreme sport workouts! I despise climbing steep hills! I did well to make it up and back down in the Hoosier National Forest on Old Baldie, years ago, with sixth graders. Were it not for a couple kids giving me their hands I’d probably still be there.
    Years ago we went to Unto These Hills, the play about the Cherokee Indians infamous Trail of Tears. The backdrop was the Great Smokey Mountains. Too bad YOU didn’t go. Your dad would never have put us through the type obstacle courses you endure.

  2. You’re braver than I am! I’m glad that at least your children and husband enjoy this kind of thing.

  3. Lol Susan–you sound a lot like me. For years I did tons of this type of stuff with my husband. Many times the only thing that kept me going was the thought that if I could ever catch up to him, I was going to kill him! In later years I told him he had kids to hike with while I would enjoy a good book, and precious silence, in the van. I still go on the short hikes, but no more challenging ones. And oh, yeah…when the people coming back say to keep going because it’s “worth it”…never believe that!

  4. Gorgeous photo of the exposed tree roots. I’ve been to the Smokey Mountains but not hiking.Great post.

  5. You were and are one BRAVE soul! My idea of seeing Smokey Mountain National Park is slowly driving through it on a very neat road, while stopping once in awhile to snap a picture of a bear. Like you, I despised gym for the most part (except I did like to climb the rope because few of my fellow classmates were able to make it all the way up to the top of the gym. Remember that I am part American Indian and I loved walking the barn beams as a child on an IN farm.) Your pictures are stunning, so thanks for doing the trip for us! I am enjoying reading about your climbing and hiking from the comfort of my own home here around midnight. BRAVO! Oh, by the way, I think that lynn had the best idea about staying in the van and reading a good book. 🙂

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