Laurel Falls (2.6 miles,
320' elevation change)
Because everyone had to squeeze their hiking into the two-hour window of good weather available that day, the trail was particularly crowded, which meant so was the area around the waterfall. A million families were attempting to take the perfect picture for their holiday cards and the place was packed with crying kids and testy adults. And selfie sticks. Oh my lord, y'all, the selfie sticks. It was ridiculous. But normally if you wait a few minutes the crowd clears and you can enjoy the spot in relative peace.
The trail continues another 2.7 miles to the summit of Cove Mountain after Laurel Falls. We didn't go any further than the falls this time because the weather was getting bad, but I highly recommend making a day of it and hiking the longer route if you get the chance - you'll walk through some of the most beautiful forests in GSMNP.
silers bald (10.6 miles,
2300' elevation change)
The hike to Silers Bald is 10.6 miles roundtrip when leaving from the Clingman's Dome parking lot (Forney Ridge trailhead). The initial ascent takes you through a fir forest (which smelled like Christmas trees, much to our delight) and then offers glimpses of mountain views on both sides of the trail as you reach the ridgeline, which forms a partial border between Tennessee and North Carolina. While there are places where it opens up, for the most part this route takes you through wooded, forested areas (like most Smoky Mountain trails) with an elevation change of around 2300'. Ellison and I didn't find this to be too challenging until the last mile or so back to Clingman's Dome. It's all uphill and we were tired from hours of walking and had to stop a few times to catch our breath. (Actually I was the only one stopping - Ellison wasn't tired at all. Youth. And her dad wasn't either. Ego.)
A good portion of this hike is along the Appalachian Trail and about the halfway point you'll come across a shelter for AT thru-hikers. It offers a place to rest, either for a few minutes or overnight, and access to fresh water. From there the trail continues for another few miles until you reach an area known as "the Narrows", where the trail becomes no more than a few feet wide for the rest of the trip to Silers Bald. Apparently Silers Bald used to be an actual bald, but is now overgrown and is simply a small clearing with a large rock painted with white arrows marking the direction of the Appalachian Trail.
After hiking for about 2.5 hours, Ellison was super excited to make it to the bald, but then quickly realized she had to hike the same route back to the trailhead. While she has hiked 5-6 miles many times before, it's never been much more than that. But, Ellison is amazing and was completely undaunted by another 2.5-3 hours of walking, much of which was uphill. She loved it and was in a great mood the entire time! We were really proud of her and, more importantly, she was really proud of herself. I think this hike served as the turning point for her willingness to take on longer routes and longer camping trips, which are both things we have really been wanting to do as a family.