On our first day at the Great Smoky Mountains, I picked up some Junior Ranger activity booklets for J and Little E from the Sugarlands Visitor Centre for US$2.50 apiece. These booklets are part of the Junior Ranger program conducted at the National Parks, and encourages kids to learn more about the park that they are visiting.
After the visit to Cades Cove the previous day and attending the Ranger-led trail walk the day before that, J and Little E were able to answer the questions laid out in the booklets on their own steam. In fact, they completed the booklets a lot faster than I anticipated, as we’d had to spend an hour or so at the tyre shop getting a flat tyre changed, so both kids spent that time happily colouring and putting the finishing touches on their work.
Once our car was patched up and ready to go, the Junior Ranger booklets were also completed and ready to go, so we headed over to the Sugarlands Visitors Centre to talk to a Park Ranger.
The Park Ranger took his job very seriously! He carefully marked each of their booklets, asking them questions about the things that they had done and seen in the national park. Afterwards, he gave J and Little E a certificate, and had them participate in a swearing-in session where they pledged to “Explore, Learn and Protect” – to continue to explore the parks, learn more about them and protect the parkland. Finally, they were each given a little Junior Ranger badge, which they proudly wore on their tee-shirts for the rest of the day.
The two newly recruited Junior Park Rangers then decided that they would lead us on the Cataract Falls Nature Walk through the forest behind the Sugarlands Visitors Centre.
This is a very easy walk, with the most of it on a wide, sealed path that would be suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs. This part of the walk took us through the forest, with tall trees that had plenty of hollows in them for the Junior Rangers to play hide-and-seek. The different species of tree were also labelled with little signs so that we could learn to identify the different plants from their shape and bark patterns (very few of them had leaves, this being wintertime, after all).
The air was crisp and cold in my lungs as I followed behind my intrepid mini-explorers who stopped occasionally to gather up a twig or leaf and cast it in the running water.
The path took us to some steps by the side of a small stream and this led to a broad dirt track underneath a car-crossing. We followed the track upstream to a merry little waterfall that trickled musically down the rocks to a little shady pool. There were lots of boulders and benches (made from fallen logs) to rest upon. Which is what we did, whilst J and Little E gathered up more leaves and twigs to float down the stream.
All in all, the walk only took us about an hour both ways, as we were walking at the pace of a three year old (or the steady shuffle of a pregnant lady in the second trimester), so I think for more experienced walkers or families with older children, this little trail is good for warming up at the start of the week.
After completing the Cataract Falls Nature Walk, we were quite warmed up and wanted to try a more challenging trail, so we attempted the Laurel Falls Nature Walk. This walk took us up a winding path by the mountainside, with glorious vistas across the Great Smoky Mountains.
Unfortunately, we did not get more than a third of the way to Laurel Falls before we realised that we would not be able to complete the full trail before the evening and we had Plans in the evening.
What plans? Well, the Aged Ps had booked up some shenanigans for the family to enjoy.
Shenanigans? Yes. Specifically, the Dixie Stampede.
Attending the Dixie Stampede is kind of a little tradition in our family. The first time I watched the Dixie Stampede was when I was eleven years old and visiting Orlando, Florida with my family and friends. The second time I watched the Dixie Stampede was after the Barn Owl and I had been married for a year, and we were visiting Orlando with the Aged Ps. This time, during our trip to Orlando, we found out that the Dixie Stampede had closed its doors just a month after we saw it last…but that it was still showing over at it’s long-standing location in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (which is where we were staying during this trip to the Smokies)!
Of course, I jumped at the chance to share this dinner show with my kids! This is a super fun dinner show where you sit in a large arena, enjoying a four course southern dinner whilst watching magnificent horse-riding stunts as well as ridiculous shenanigans like hog-racing.
Pro Tip: Pick up every single tourist magazine and brochure you can find as many of them will contain coupons for various family friendly tourist attractions and restaurants in the region – and not all the coupons will offer the same discount, so be sure to check through them all for the best deal!
We got there early so after chatting with the southern belles outside and admiring the horses, we headed into the Dixie Bell Saloon for some bluegrass country music by Mountain Rukus (featuring Gary ‘Biscuit’ Champ who was Dolly Parton’s band leader) before the start of the dinner. The kids took a little nap with their heads on the saloon tables, and then we were whisked to our seats in the Dixie Stampede Arena.
It was worth it to see J and Little E’s faces light up when the horses entered the arena! How they clapped and cheered!
So much fun and an exciting end to the day.