As a young child, I spent more time in the mountains when away from home than perhaps any other place. As an adult, the mountains are our home away from home. The mountains have offered us ethereal beauty and educational opportunities that abound for our homeschooling efforts. Following are some of the activities and locations that our family has enjoyed in the Smoky Mountains and used in our homeschooling adventures.
Nature Viewing and Photo Tours
The Great Smoky Mountains is famous for its spectacular display of fall foliage, with its deep colors of yellow, orange, burnt brown, and crimson. Take in the view from October until mid November while enjoying outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing, rafting, horseback riding, or scenic car rides. Be on the lookout for trees such as birch, maple, cherry, hobblebush, beech, and lush evergreens. These are great places to allow the children to make tree rubbings and learn to differentiate bark types.
Photo tours are often an unexplored learning aspect of the Smoky Mountains. One of the most photographed areas is the Cataloochee Valley, where wildlife roams freely. This area is home to many historic buildings, including springhouses and German barns, making it an opportune photography location. Cades Cove is the most visited area of the park and is home to a variety of beautiful wildlife to view, identify, and photograph. Children should be informed beforehand of how to observe wildlife properly so as not to interfere with the animals’ natural habitat.
Monte LeConte is one of the highest peaks in the Eastern United States, offering panoramic views. The highest waterfall in the Smokies can be seen at Ramsey Cascades. Make children aware of slippery footing in these areas, and be sure that you know how to read trail markers. Hiking allows you to see nature firsthand, and many hiking sites can be found by following signs along the roadsides. All hikers should know the hike destination. Allow time for breaks and exploration along the way. Some hike sites have trail guide pamphlets available; these include a map of the area, and they also pinpoint sites for optimal viewing.
Most of the river rafting in the Smoky Mountains takes place on the Big Pigeon River. The lower section is mild and tame while the upper section is the place to find the whitewater rapids. Raft Outdoor Adventures and USA Raft are two commercial rafting companies. Rafting is easy to find as an activity in most any place throughout the Smokies. You can often save money by booking your rafting trip online. Fees are competitive, and some outposts offer packages that include activities such as horseback riding or zip lining. Rafting does have risks, and waivers may have to be signed.
Hayrides are typically thought of in connection with fall festivals, but in the Smoky Mountains hayrides are offered most of the year. These hayrides offer spectacular viewing of surrounding landscape and nature. Gatlinburg has hayrides that traverse through the downtown streets during the fall months. Cades Cove offers a hayride that travels the entire 11 miles around Cades Cove Loop Road. Occasionally businesses offer wagon or carriage rides.
The charm of Smoky Mountain towns is celebrated in their festivals as they share their culture through craft shows, quilting fairs, athletic contests, music, food, art and more. Not just a fall event, festivals can be found in the area from March through December. Some of the more celebrated festivals are the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair, the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival, the Pigeon Forge Harvest Festival, and Townsend’s Winter Heritage Festival. For a schedule of upcoming festivals and other events, go to this website: www.allsmokymountainvacations.com/gatlinburg–events.html.
Wildlife can be spotted in the natural surroundings of the Smokies. Bears, elk, deer, turkeys, and foxes are a few of the wildlife species taking up residence there. Rangers advise that when viewing wildlife from a vehicle, drivers need to pull over to the curbside to allow other vehicles to pass.
For a close-up visit with wildlife, there are many good choices in the region. The Smoky Mountain Deer Farm and Exotic Petting Zoo allow people to feed and pet animals. The Briarwood Ranch Safari Park, with hundreds of animals from six continents, offers a 4-mile safari by car, as well as wagon rides and a petting zoo. Parrot Mountain is host to the largest eco-tourist bird park in the southeast. Dinosaur Walk Museum exhibits realistic dinosaur replicas up close and personal. The Rainforest Adventures Discovery Zoo features more than six hundred live animals, many of which made their way to the Smokies from the rainforests of the world. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies hosts displays of more than ten thousand marine animals.
Gem mining is a Smoky Mountain tradition that children of all ages enjoy. The mountains of western North Carolina and Tennessee have a rich history of gold and gem mining. It is not a clean process, and most people get wet and a little dirty. Minimally, you will end up with dirt under your fingernails.
Mining takes place in salted dirt or natural dirt. Salted dirt is dirt that has been sprinkled with some gems and rocks by the mine owners so that customers, especially children, can experience a gem find from their dirt bag. Natural dirt is just that—dirt that is dug from local mines or elsewhere and that may or may not contain gems. There are numerous gem mines throughout the Smoky Mountain region. These gem mines provide buckets or sack cloths filled with dirt and show you how to screen the dirt for gems—at a price based on bucket or bag sizes and type of dirt. This gem mining process is re-created to reflect the activities associated with the gem mines of the area from the early to middle 1800s.
In addition to the Cataloochee Valley with its high mountain peaks, there are the Tuckaleechee Caverns, which are sometimes called the “greatest sight under the Smokies.” The Old Mill & General Store located in Pigeon Forge dates back to the early 1800s and is labeled one of the country’s national treasures. There’s a resident miller who still uses the old mill to grind corn meal today, and there are many other history-related attractions to explore as well. Many historic buildings exist in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including cabins, barns, and grist mills.
Museums abound in the Smoky Mountains. The Mountain Farm Museum is located on the banks of the Oconaluftee River. This outdoor, somewhat “living museum,” has gathered many historical buildings from the region to create the essence of a family farm. The best time to visit the farm museum is during the summer months when there are real livestock there. Volunteers tend the farm and wear period clothing, making the visit and learning experience more authentic.
The Wheels Through Time Museum contains a vintage collection of rare automobiles and motorcycles with unique memorabilia. The Fields of the Wood Bible Park provides a walk up the Ten Commandments Mountain and Prayer Mountain. Carbo’s Police Museum warehouses thousands of police items from around the globe. The Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center offers historical information about the Native Americans. The Elvis Museum, Guinness World Records Museum, and Floyd Garrett’s Muscle Car Museum are fun places to visit too. Each museum has its own charm and historical value.
The Cherokee Indians are a federally recognized tribe whose history and culture can be learned and observed throughout many parts of the reservation. The Oconaluftee Indian Village is operated by the Cherokee Historical Association and serves as a stepping-stone back to the 1750s. It is often referred to as a “living” museum because it hosts live reenactments, interactive demonstrations, and hands-on Cherokee arts and crafts classes.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian has many original artifacts that were made and used by the Cherokee Indians, including various forms of art, tools, and weapons. The Mountainside Theatre is home to the Unto these Hills outdoor drama—the second-largest outdoor drama in the U.S. The story portrays a Cherokee Indian who fights and sacrifices himself so that his people may remain in their home: the Smoky Mountains. Original Cherokee arts and crafts may also be viewed in many craft and gift shops found in the town of Cherokee and on the reservation.
Each of the places mentioned in this article has a website that will provide more interesting and essential information—just put your search engine to work!
In my opinion, the Great Smoky Mountains rise above the rest of the land to offer a piece of Heaven here on Earth. True to the name, the smoky fog that covers the Smoky Mountains conceals many of the fantastic learning adventures the mountains hold. The purpose we are called to as homeschoolers compels us to utilize what God has given us as our classroom. The Smoky Mountains await you and your family in your next homeschooling adventure.
Analisa homeschools her youngest child, who has special needs. Analisa speaks nationwide about learning issues and educating a child with special learning needs and serves colleges, professionals, and special interest groups as a consultant. Her spare time is spent with the Lord, family, and in the Carolina and Florida outdoors. More information may be found at her website: www.abledlearning.com.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps atwww.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices