Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains

“I’m done walking,” Sam declared solemnly, and he stopped. After mountain hikes the two previous days, the prospect yet another overwhelmed him.

On Monday, Lisa and I, and seven of our ten children hiked to the summit of Clingman’s Dome. At 6643 feet, it is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. To be clear, we drove most of the way. 90 minutes after leaving Gatlinburg, we were standing at the beginning of the trail. To the observation tower is a walk of one half mile – and the path is paved – so how difficult could it be? Serious hikers with sturdy boots and walking sticks jockeyed for position with parents in running shoes pushing strollers and teenagers in flip flops.

I carried two-year-old Luke in a back pack; sixteen-year-old Ben carried three-year-old Daniel on his shoulders. Six-year-old Sam was the youngest one required to climb the mountain under his own power. Half way up, Sam looked at his feet, not as if they were part of his body, but perhaps as a pair of small puppies in his care. With a sad hound dog look, he announced to Lisa that his feet were tired. So, like a puppy on a string, Lisa led him the rest of the way. Taking two breaks, we made it to the top without further incident. True to their name, the mountains were partially shrouded in clouds, but in places you could see the beautiful views that bring millions of tourists here every year.

I was responsible for choosing Tuesday’s hike. Though less than three miles there and back again, the trail to Grotto Falls was a true test of the younger children’s mettle. The trail is not paved. It is full of large rocks and tree roots that resemble the bleached bones of some large prehistoric animal. Seeing our struggles, groups of descending hikers encouraged us, “You’re half way there.” The problem was that we had been hearing that for twenty minutes. It felt like we were walking up a down escalator. Luke began to get crabby. Katie and I sang Old McDonald Had a Farm to distract him. He returned the favor by singing Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer. Finally, we heard music of a different kind. It was soft at first, but grew louder, and then was unmistakable - the sound of a waterfall.

The “grotto” in Grotto Falls is not as large as the recessed cave behind the waterfall in Last of the Mohicans, but the kids did enjoy being behind the waterfall. Here, as everywhere, the little boys could not resist throwing rocks into the water. I do not know what primal urge this satisfies, but even Sam was refreshed on the way down, managing to scamper down the few small straight-aways with his older brothers.

Lisa chose Wednesday’s excursion. The Laurel Falls trail is about as long as the trail to Grotto Falls, but most of the trail is paved. Lisa and I thought this would be an easy day. But Sam did not know how “easy” this hike would be. So when we piled out of the car and started up the trail, Sam, hands at his side, made his declaration, “I’m done walking.” He was not loud. He was not crying – but he was not walking either. His brothers’ challenges to race did not move him. Threats did not work. Finally, the promise of Goldfish crackers and my firm grip on his hand got him started up the mountain.

We often exchanged encouraging looks or words with hikers going in the other direction. But about half way up we began to get warnings – rattlesnake on the trail. Five minutes later, we saw a knot of people stopped on the trail. Easing into the crowd, we saw the five-foot-long rattlesnake in the middle of the path. Rattle shaking; it slithered slowly across the trail, then down the slope. All of the kids were fascinated, watching from about twenty feet away. This diversion perked everyone up, and the rest of the ascent went well. The kids ate the Goldfish, threw rocks in the water, and trotted part of the way down – even Sam.


  1. Randy!

    Chris from the Sandcarvers here - thanks for requesting us on the Dublin Irish Fest site for next year - we really appreciate it!


  2. Wow. A dad of 10. And I thought 4 was pushing it! Thanks for YOUR comment on my blog. Are you in Columbus? I notice the Dublin Irish Fest note above.

    Columbus Parent Magazine