Family Road Trip : Mammoth Cave National Park and Smokey Mountain National Park

In honor of our beautiful and amazing country’s independence day celebration, I thought I would share a family goal of Tom and mine.

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THE IDEA

A few years back, I saw Alisa and Bill (I use their first names like we are friends, lol!) l on NBC Chicago explaining their journey to see all 58 (now (59) national parks before their boys turn 18. I could not tell Tom or our friend’s Kevin and Marisa fast enough. We all love hiking, exploring, camping, and this glorious country of ours. The task of seeing all the national parks before our kids turn 18 seems huge, but after some research and having jobs that make travel easy for us, we decided to start giving it a try.

My dad took me backpacking to Wyoming at a young age and I fell in love with the mountains and the humbling trip of carrying all that I need, no electricity, purifying my water, and listening to only the nature around me. Tom, Kevin, and Marisa have all also taken similar trips to the Boundary Waters and out West as well. We all know that we want our kids to have the same experiences, and explore America. Nothing is more gratifying then seeing your kids hiking, exploring tree trunks, playing in dirt, asking questions, fishing, learning about our county’s history, and being exhausted without ever touching an electronic.

Finally we started planning in 2015. We wanted to start with the easiest to get to and hike spots until the kids are a little older to handle longer and more intense hikes. We chose Mammoth Cave National Park and Smokey Mountain National Park. We went in October and did pull the kids out of school. Our goal from here on out is to work around school vacations since Ava is starting 3rd grade and Owen is going full day Kinder this year.

THE TRIP

This trip started as a camping trip, then kicked up a notch to cabins at Jellystones. Then Marisa and I were left to our own demise and A LOOOOOT of wine while the boys were on shift one night, and found this gem. A hot tub on the porch overlooking the mountains on the quaint and quiet side of the Smokey’s?! SOLD! We loved loved loved staying in Bryson City North Carolina. View from our balcony:

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We still saw the entire park, but avoided the hustle, bustle, crowds, and commercialism of the Tennessee side. Not that there is anything wrong with that, we all personally prefer quieter towns and discovering small businesses. We highly recommend this log cabin, the owners were simply amazing, and the location was perfect.

Our plan was to drive to Mammoth Cave, do the Mammoth Passage Tour and check into a local hotel. For the cave tours, pack a sweater. It is cold down there. Also the tour is long. Make sure you go to the bathroom before. Also, little kids may wig out due to the dark and crammed passages. Parker who was 2 at the time got antsy. My kids thought it was cool at first, but after a while I think it all looked the same to them. For adults the wonder of how there are all these beautiful caves underneath us is mind blowing. If you are claustrophobic you might want to choose a shorter tour.

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The next morning continue the drive to Bryson City.  At every park the kids do the Junior Ranger program and get their national park passports stamped. They absolutely love doing it, and we love the history and education they get on each trip. Our trip was a week total. Kids stamping their passports and becoming Smokey Mountain Jr. Rangers:

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We researched and asked questions to find the easiest trails for the kids ages. We felt all the ones we did were perfect and gave us a very good feel for the entire park. I really loved seeing all the old cabins, farms, and churches. I have a thing for a good old house tour 😉 Showing the kids how the generations before us lived is really something special. we saw a ton of wildlife, but our favorite was going down to the Oconaluftee visitor station at sunset to watch the Elk.

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Hard to see but this is a mom and bear cubs right off the road. “Bear jams” are when black bear are close to the road and traffic backs up to see them. These can last forever. Such beautiful animals to watch but the danger is real. It is so important to remain respectful and quiet. Smokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0063P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0064P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0065P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0066P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0067P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0068P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0069P I N this to pinterest

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Our cabin and trusty Honda Pilots! Snow White and Gunmetal Smokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0072P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0073P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0074P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0075P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0076P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0077P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0078P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0079P I N this to pinterestSmokey Mountain National Park Family Road Trip_0080P I N this to pinterest

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THINGS I LEARNED FOR THE NEXT TRIP

1. Taking photos. It is really hard to carry my big camera and all the lenses while also making sure your kid doesn’t fall off a cliff. We took a lot with the GOPro and cell phones out of ease. I did love that, but for print purposes, I hope to try to grab more on our next trip.

2. I made a travel bag of all kinds of activity books, car games, ect for the kids and did not let them at it until we got into the car. I then re packed it so they forgot about it. This was so nice, and the kids are excited to see everything again. I also have exploration backpacks made for them with flashlights, binoculars, journals, cameras (throw away for Owen, Polaroid for Ava), and magnifying glasses. The magnifying glasses will no longer be joining us since Tom and Kevin set a leaf on fire within seconds with them. In front of the kids who then wanted to try for themselves.

3. If you think you have enough snacks packed for a hike, pack ten times more.

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4. Journal more. I forgot so much, including conversations with locals. Literally this old man came out of the woods and talked to me and the kids while the boys were fly fishing. I barely remember the conversation, but it was beautiful. He loved the land and spent his days just walking through.

5. These memories and experiences are priceless.

6. Tom and I are really lucky that we both have a love for the outdoors and exploration, that our kids are learning to love it as well, and we have such amazing friends that also feel the same.

7. It is about the journey.

8. It matters where you are but it matters more who you are with.

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THE NEXT TRIP

We leave this week for Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, The Badlands, and Wind Cave in a rented RV! Follow along on my personal IG @Gina_Sandrzyk for probably tons of posts and @Gina_Cristine for the more pretty curated images from my pro camera. We also use #59before18 #59before18trailbox.

WAIT, WHAT’S THE TRAIL BOX?

The September before this trip we camped in Sleeping Bear Dunes. While on a hike, the very observant Kevin saw a box. In this box was a journal. You were to write a little something about yourself, the date, and re seal it up and hide it back on the trail. We then got the same idea, but to add a hashtag so we can see all the cool people that find it! So there is one in the Smokey’s and we plan on hiding another on the next trip. We hope you find it, take a selfie with it, and hashtag #59before18trailbox!

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MORE ADVENTURE TO COME

Just this week Tom was doing his usual Craigslist search and found an Airstream locally for sale. Long story short within 24 hours Tom and Kevin were brining her home. We are the proud owners of a 1971 Airstream Land Yacht Trade Wind. We named her Ruby Jane, and she needs a face lift on the inside for sure, but nothing too bad. Mainly cosmetic. So, if you are into that sort of thing you may want to follow our hashtag #RubyJaneTheAirstream as we fix her up and get her ready for the road!

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OUR PASSPORT STATUS 3/59

Haleakala Nation Park cancelled: 7/31/14

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (not counting towards the National Parks) cancelled: 9/10/15

Mammoth Cave National Park cancelled: 10/12/15

Smokey Mountain National Park cancelled: 10/15/15

We all encourage you to get out there, explore your backyard. Our country has so much to offer from National Lake shores, to National monuments, and so so much. Get out there and #FindYourPark

Here are some cell phone and go pro pics in case you want to see more, lol! Thanks to those who made it all the way to the bottom of this one…it is LOOOOONG!

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