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Family Fun and Learning in the Smoky Mountains

All the parks have ranger programs for children and adults, and some will even take the kids off your hands for an hour or 2; but for an in-depth learning vacation, consider joining a field institute or camp such as these in and around the Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Great Smoky Mountains

May 2004 -- All the parks have ranger programs for children and adults, and some will even take the kids off your hands for an hour or 2; but for an in-depth learning vacation, consider joining a field institute or camp. Park educational institutes offer outdoor seminars and multiday programs for adults or families on subjects such as art, science, and outdoor skills. For any of these opportunities, you must plan well ahead.

Places for Learning

Cades Cove, west end of Laurel Creek Rd. Visitor center ( Spring-fall daily 9am-6pm; winter daily 9am-4:30pm. No phone.

Settlers began clearing trees and building farms in this lovely mountain valley in 1819, when the state of Tennessee got the land from the Cherokee in a treaty. As many as 700 people lived here, and some of their churches and hand-hewn log houses have been saved in an open-air museum, arranged around the edge of the fields in the center of the cove. Walking through these buildings and cemeteries is fascinating and ghostly. You can almost hear the ordinary people who lived here. The National Park Service is restoring the natural grasses in the cove. The open vistas and grass make this among the park's best places to see wildlife. Animals are most often seen at morning and dusk.

An 11-mile scenic loop road circles the cove, passing by buildings and trailheads on the way. A 31-page booklet, Cades Cove Tour, available for $1 at visitor centers, explains the sites by number; you need it to understand the tour. At the back of the loop, the Cades Cove Visitor Center is a place to ask questions about the cove's history and buy a book. The nearby Cable Mill, a gristmill, operates spring through fall. If you have a general question, however, don't make the slow trek to this visitor center; instead, ask at the ranger station at the Cades Cove Campground.

The problem with Cades Cove is crowding. The road is one lane, and people tend to stop traffic while they watch deer or look at a cabin. At peak times the loop can take more than 3 hours, without stops -- an unbearably slow pace. The Park Service is studying the problem; for now, the solution is to go early or late in the day, and if the pace is just too slow, take one of the shortcut roads across the pastures. Or rent a bike at the Cades Cove campground. On Saturday and Wednesday before 10am, only bikes are allowed in Cades Cove. Even at other times, you can have more fun and move faster by biking around the cars. Buggy rides or hayrides go through the cove every day, some with rangers along to give commentary. The other alternative, and my preference, is to skip Cades Cove entirely and spend the time instead at Cataloochee, which I cover next.

Cataloochee, Cove Creek Rd., off U.S. 276 (tel. 800-365-2267;

Up in the mountains at the end of a rough, twisting gravel road, this ghost village is like a version of Cades Cove without crowds. There are pastures, which are great for wildlife viewing, and spooky old buildings you can walk through, including cabins, farmhouses, a barn, a church, and a school. One house holds an interesting little museum. Even better, several hiking trails lead into dark hardwood forest past more buildings, including the extraordinary church at Little Cataloochee, several miles beyond where car-bound tourists can see. The narrow, unpaved roads limit driving, but they look to be good mountain-biking routes, especially the road from Big Cataloochee to the Little Cataloochee trailhead, which continues north to Big Creek, on the northeast corner of the park; on maps, it is marked as "Old NC 284."

Mingus Mill, Newfound Gap Rd., across from Oconaluftee Visitor Center (click here). Daily 9am-5pm. Closed Thanksgiving to mid-Mar.

This working mill grinds corn under a stone powered by creek water passing through a cast-iron turbine propeller that dates to 1886. When I visited, a couple of old guys in overalls were running the machinery and passing the time, much as workers might have 100 years ago. It was an interesting and authentic country experience.

Mountain Farm Museum, Newfound Gap Rd., behind the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, at the park's south entrance.

Buildings saved from around the Smokies have been set up in a pasture to show what a pioneer farm might have looked like. When the government bought the land for the park, there were about 1,200 mountain farms in the Smokies. Each was mostly self-sufficient, with family members working together to raise and store grains, vegetables, fruit, and meat. Today, when we rely so much on others to survive, it's interesting to see how you might be able to do it alone. Get the inexpensive guide booklet at the visitor center before starting.

Cherokee Sites

The Cherokee have created an oasis of meaning in the midst of the exploitative roadside tourist businesses outside the park. These three sites are on the reservation just outside the south park entrance.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian, 589 Tsali Blvd. (Hwy. 441 and Drama Rd.), Cherokee (tel. 828/497-3481). June-Aug Mon-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 9am-5pm; Sept-May daily 9am-5pm. $8 adults, $5 children 6-12, free for children under 6.

The museum uses technology and artifacts to effectively put you in a place and time, following the Cherokee story from the deep past and through the Trail of Tears. I'd be surprised if the experience of the exhibit doesn't inspire tears in many visitors. It starts with a 5-minute film on the creation myth in a mock campfire circle, so you may have to wait a few minutes.

Oconaluftee Indian Village, off U.S. 441 N., Cherokee (tel. 828/497-2315 or 828/497-2111 off season; $13 adults, $6 children 6-13. Daily 9am-5:30pm. Closed late Oct to late May.

Cherokee guides lead visitors on a 1-hour tour through a shady re-creation of a 1750s village, stopping to look in the buildings and see demonstrations of traditional crafts and life ways; the kids on our tour were fascinated by the blowgun. It's nicely done and well worth the hour, although the expense of admission may exclude those without a particular interest in the Cherokee.

Unto These Hills, off U.S. 441 N., Cherokee (tel. 866/554-4557 or 828/497-2111; $18 reserved seating, all ages; $16 adults, $6 ages 6-13 general admission. Performances mid-June to late Aug Mon-Sat 8:30pm.

Programs for Kids and Adults

The park has a Junior Ranger program for kids ages 5 to 12 based on a booklet of activities sold by the Great Smoky Mountains Association for $3. Buy it at a visitor center. After completing the activities in the booklet, participants earn a Junior Ranger badge from the Park Service. The award-winning booklet is well beyond the blah materials some other parks produce: Printed in full color, it comes with a magnifying glass and trading cards. There are 11 activities to do in the booklet.

During the summer and fall, rangers lead an extensive program of hikes; talks on flowers, forests, birding, and other natural-history topics; history walks and talks; films; and so on. Children can go along, if you think they'll be interested in the topic. Many programs start from the Sugarlands Visitor Center; something's always about to start during the visitor season. Others start at trailheads or other areas around the park. The schedule appears in the Smokies Guide park newspaper, available at the visitor centers, and online (, click "In Depth," then "Ranger-led Programs"). The programs are free, and there's no need to sign up in advance. Rangers also offer evening campfire programs at most of the larger campgrounds. Check the park newspaper for times.

Smoky Mountain Field School, The University of Tennessee Professional and Personal Development, 1534 White Ave., Knoxville (tel. 865/974-0150;

The University of Tennessee and the National Park Service offer a large catalog of 1-day classes and multiple-day outdoor learning expeditions March through October. Most are open only to adults, but on many summer weekends, there are programs especially for families. Sessions might cover subjects like mountain life and song or reptiles and amphibians. They cost around $25 for adults, $15 for children 6 to 12. Check the catalog online to find out what's on when you'll be visiting and sign up-all programs are limited, and they do fill. Registration is available online, by phone, by fax, or in person.

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, 9275 Tremont Rd., Townsend (tel. 865/448-6709;

The institute, with dormitories and classrooms in a mountain valley in the northwest part of the park, offers intensive sessions for adults all year, and residential summer camps for ages 9 to 17 during the summer. Campers backpack in the park, do fun activities, study science, and become naturalists. The tuitions are a bargain: 5-day camps, for ages 9 to 12 or 13 to 17, are less than $400. Reserve well ahead.