What To Do with Kids in the Smoky Mountains

When we found out we would be in Tennessee for a family conference, we were excited to experience the Nashville area with both kids – but we also took advantage of the location and spent three days in the Smoky Mountains first!

Ever since getting a taste of Yellowstone four years ago, I’ve been slightly obsessive about experiencing the wondrous beauty of our country’s national parks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was so pretty, easy to get to, accessible and affordable – perfect for a family trip!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of all of the country’s national parks – and it was highly populated during our summer trip! That’s not surprising, though – it’s easily drivable for much of the eastern, southern and midwestern U.S. And there are no entrance fees to get into the park itself.

The Smokies are also extremely kid-friendly and motor-friendly, which is a huge selling point for families, especially those with mobility issues or other special considerations. We knew if it was too hot for our daughter Brenna (since she is unable to sweat and has trouble with extreme temperatures), we could still enjoy much of the beautiful scenery from our air-conditioned van!

We packed in as much as we could during our three days and really lucked out with the weather – it rained some but wasn’t overly hot, despite being late June.

So, what to do with your family in the Smoky Mountains? Here are the highlights of our trip and what I have been recommending to other families…

Visit Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a really neat 11-mile, one-way loop through the west side of the park. Driving it took about 2 hours, though, because it was bumper-to-bumper traffic for most of the way – plus we took our time and stopped several times. We got out and ran around, we explored the historic homes, and we climbed up in a 150-year-old barn. We even got to see a black bear munching on blackberries!

In the early 1900s, there were about 125 families living in Cades Cove, so today, you can get a feel for how this time period by touring their homes and churches. The Cable Mill area is really neat, with a blacksmith shop, barn, smokehouse, mill and dam, and more. Unfortunately it was pouring when we drove through; otherwise we definitely would have stopped here! 

Go to Clingman’s Dome

I really wanted to see a sunset from a peak in the park, so we headed to the highest point in the Smokies one evening: 6,643 feet of elevation at Clingman’s Dome. We totally didn’t plan for the big temperature change (rookie mistake), and between the temp drop and the wind, it was SO cold when we got to the top!

But despite the chill, it was so worth it. Being at Clingman’s Dome seriously felt like standing at the top of the world. Connor said it is his favorite part of our Smokies trip.

Once you drive up, there is a parking lot, which is as high as the kids and I made it. But there is a 360-degree observation tower you can walk up to that Evan trekked without us. It is really steep to walk the half-mile up and down, but on a clear day, you can reportedly see for 100 miles!


Drive Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Right past Gatlinburg at the edge of the park, there is a 5.5-mile, one-way nature trail you can drive through (yay for more drivable park scenery!) Some of this area was destroyed in the park fires several years ago, but new growth is already noticeable. It’s a really quiet and peaceful drive. Probably the most popular attraction is a hiking trail off the road, Trillium Gap Trail, that leads to Grotto Falls – a waterfall you can walk behind.  There are also  streams, log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings, which provide really pretty places to stop and enjoy the woods!

Hike

The Smokies offer more than 800 miles of hiking on 150 trails! There are short trails and more intensive, longer trails, and even little paths along the river – so you don’t have to be a dedicated hiker to enjoy the scenery. Be sure to stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in TN or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in NC for a trail map. We loved spending some time along the trails in the shade of the trees.

Visit Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg is the nearest town to the park and is a hot spot for tourists. We spent a rainy afternoon here at the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which a really neat attraction and the kids loved it. We really wanted to ride the tram at Ober Gatlinburg too, but it wasn’t open because of the rain!

Picnic

We seriously didn’t eat out one time while staying in the Smokies (besides a takeout pizza!) When we arrived, we went to the grocery store and stocked up on picnic-friendly foods. Each day, we packed up sandwiches, etc. so that we could enjoy our meals outside. The picnic area at the Sugarlands Visitor Center is really nice, or you can just find a cozy spot along a creek (be sure to pick up all trash and be aware of your surroundings – there are bears!)

Play at the creeks

There are beautiful streams and creeks all over the park! It was really easy to find an area to pull off the road, so we could get out and get closer to the water. With little agenda besides enjoying the nature, it was enjoyable to stop and play in and near the waters and rocks. With the cool rocks and cool breeze coming off the water, it was a wonderful opportunity for Brenna to get to experience the raw of nature that sometimes she can’t due to heat.

(Warning, though: the water was quite chilly in June!)

Drive Newfound Gap Trail

Another drive I highly recommend is the Newfound Gap Trail, which starts from either Cherokee, North Carolina or Gatlinburg, Tennessee. During the drive, you ascend 3,000 feet and get to see such an array of forest. At an elevation of 5,046 feet, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Even the kids were impressed as we stopped to enjoy several lookouts – including this one where it rained the entire way until we came around a bend to see the sun breaking through…stunning!

Where to stay?  There are RV parks, hotels in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Townsend and other surrounding towns, and cabins to rent. We opted to stay in Townsend, which bills itself as the “peaceful side of the Smoky Mountains” – which was certainly true! We booked a cabin for our whole stay through Smoky Cabins, and it was wonderful.

I think Brenna’s favorite part of the trip was simply spending time out on the porch swing at our cabin (it was the first place she headed in the morning!)… enjoying the outdoors with a view of the mountains was just the ideal way to soak up the peaceful beauty of our family’s time in the Smoky Mountains!


Tuned In Together: Why Our Foundation’s Family Conference Is So Important to Us

June ended in a big way for our family – attending our third national family conference hosted by the Foundation for Ichthyosis and Related Skin Types in Nashville!

We were thrilled to reconnect with other families around the world affected by this rare genetic skin condition whom we’ve gotten to know both online and in person over the last six years. There is nothing like being able to hug someone who has walked with you during some of most critical points of your child’s life.

What I expected out of the conference this year was much more about community and much less about education – mostly because we have an incredible medical team and, by this point, feel like we have a decent grasp on caring for Brenna’s skin.

But I was definitely wrong. There is always something to be learned, and it’s really a gift that so many people affected by ichthyosis can come together to share – from adults to new babies – because we never stop learning from each other!

Attending FIRST’s national family conference is always high on our agenda (we even flew to San Diego to attend half the conference in 2016, just so we wouldn’t miss it completely!) Here are the highlights of this year’s conference and why we love it so much…

The Community

Ichthyosis is rare, and Harlequin type is exceedingly rare – and that can feel isolating at times. Being with our HI community in person is beyond uplifting. These are some of the few people in the world who truly understand how we are feeling, what our worries are, what we are experiencing on a daily basis.

Coming together – to wrap each other in hugs, to learn and to share – is empowering for our kids and hope-filling for us as parents. At the conference, we reconnected with Hunter, who just graduated college (!!) and will be attending seminary in the fall, and with Lauren, who just graduated 8th grade and is heading off to high school. These two are some of the oldest in the world with Harlequin ichthyosis, and being with them is like looking into the future for me… a future that is so bright and filled with immense possibility!

We had SEVEN individuals affected by HI together this year – a tie for the all-time record, but the most we’ve ever gotten in a photo together!! There were two new sweet baby girls (6 and 9 months old!) who I was so excited to meet…how precious are they?

The Connections

It’s incredible how, over the course of just three days, you can connect with people on such a deep level that you feel like they’re family.

We met the Sterns in 2016 while doing a trolley ride in San Diego and have become so close since then! Our kids even sent each other jokes on video for a while 🙂

And watching Brenna and Lauren (age 14) together was one of the biggest joys of our whole weekend. They were inseparable! The only way we were able to get Brenna up in the morning was to tell her she’d get to see Lauren again! They sat on a trolley ride together, ran around the hotel together and ate nearly every meal together.

I think these two shared about a hundred goodbyes and hugs before we finally left…and I can’t wait to see them together again. Rare disease brought them together, and a shared love will keep that bond strong. (In fact, there have been several FaceTime episodes already…)

We also got to catch up with Daniel’s family! If you’ve been reading for a while, you may recall this beautiful boy’s story. While in the NICU four years ago, Daniel had contracted an infection and the physicians were planning to keep him comfortable until he passed. It was believed that death from his disorder was inevitable. BUT. God is bigger!

An amazing nurse began researching HI and found stories like Brenna’s, stories of hope. She showed Daniel’s medical team and pushed for treatment of his infection. One month later, this family became his forever family. And today, he is four and doing so well! He and Brenna spent a good hour one night chasing each other around with blow horns and playing Hide and Seek…

The Confidence

A major highlight of this year’s family conference was getting to hear Bailey Pretak as our keynote speaker. Bailey was born with a different type of ichthyosis than Brenna – hers is called lamellar ichthyosis. Bailey and her mom have paved the way for our community in so many ways and continue to offer unending support and encouragement to younger families.

Bailey is an amazingly talented singer, dancer and performer, and she has successfully competed in pageants and models. At the conference, she served as the very first keynote speaker ever who has ichthyosis herself!

Today, Bailey is a motivational speaker sharing about the beauty in difference and how to live a life of impact. (I highly encourage schools to reach out and invite her to share her powerful message! Connect with her here.)

It was heart-filling not only to hear Bailey’s testimony but to see the teen and pre-teen girls sitting on the edge of their seats, enamored and nodding along. What a wonderful role model our community has!

There is no doubt in my mind that witnessing others in our rare community who are doing amazing things has a life-altering impact on the younger children. It empowers them to try new things and to be more comfortable with who they are. The confidence of all the children during the conference was simply soaring.

Proof enough of that is the Talent Show! During each conference, a talent show is hosted and any child can participate. Brenna was quick to sign up this year to sing, and she knew her song choice immediately: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Obviously. What else would you sing in June??

Brenna kicked off the whole show and totally rocked it! We were insanely proud to see her confidence erupting from that microphone.

Now that we’ve returned and gotten back into the swing of things at home, I find myself missing the conference more than ever before…not only the incredible people, but the environment too. I didn’t quite realize how “on guard” I am, protective instincts flaring up constantly, until I wasn’t on guard. At the conference, there was an entire hotel filled with people who look like Brenna or who love people who look like Brenna. There are no stares, no double takes, no pointing or loud exclamations about my daughter’s appearance. Such a safe and welcoming environment is so rare, and I am yearning for it once again.

Yet, I am so grateful that this journey isn’t being done alone…and the memories of this year’s FIRST Family Conference will just have to last until 2020 now!