Raise your hand if you’ve bailed on your hiking plans due to weather.
I have. A lot. I used to feel ashamed of admitting to this–like it made me less of a hiker or camper, if I only wanted to do it when the weather was nice. After Billy and I spent a cold, rainy week tent camping in Maine, we came home early from a camping trip the next time we were in Shenandoah, because we just couldn’t take another trip with all of our gear cold and damp. Mental health, physical health, and once you have kids, their needs, all factor in, and at the end of the day, you don’t have to justify your decision to bail to anyone.
On our trip last month to the Great Smoky Mountains, Jordi and I wanted to get in as much hiking as possible. Our first day there we did Clingman’s Dome, but between drama trying to get our Junior Ranger packets, and the task of herding five kids through a crowded national park, we ended up not having time to do a second trail that day. She had Alum Cave and Chimney Tops on her list of trails to check out, and since the trailheads are not even a mile apart, we figured we’d do one–or maybe even both–the next day.
Unfortunately, by the time we got to the Chimney Tops trailhead the next morning, it was raining so hard we could barely see each other through the windows of our respective cars. We sat in the parking lot grappling with our desire to get out and do the trail anyway–hoping the rain would ease up one we got out there–and the understanding that it was irresponsible for us to take such small kids out in that kind of weather. Chimney Tops is rated as moderate, but involves a steep elevation gain at the end, with rocks along the entire path: two conditions made dangerous with heavy rain. We decided we just couldn’t do it. Both of us disappointed that we only managed one trail on our trip to the Smokies, we said our goodbyes, and left the parking lot with the intention of going our separate ways.
Half a mile down the mountain, the rain stopped.
The day before we had seen signs referencing a “Quiet Walkway,” so with the rain gone, we quickly looked it up and decided we would give it a shot. It wasn’t a technical trail, it didn’t have the panoramic views of Chimney Tops or the wonder of the “cave” on the Alum Cave Trail, and looked to be a short hike, but it would give the kids a chance to burn off some energy before the three hour car ride each of us had ahead of us.
It turned out to be the best decision we could have made.
The Quiet Walkway is just that–it’s a wide, flat trail through the forest, down to a creek filled with salamanders and the smoothest rocks I’ve ever seen. The kids had a blast running down the trail and squishing their toes in the mud from the morning rain, and we probably spent an hour letting them splash in the creek before hunger-fueled meltdowns led us back to our cars.
It was perfect. I see people asking a lot about kid-friendly trails in the Smokies, and now that we’ve found this, I don’t know why it isn’t recommended. Because it’s too easy, maybe? But if you have toddlers, you need easy. It’s short enough for the most inexperienced walker to manage, and the creek at the end allows for enough playtime to keep the kids from getting bored. And, as the trail is only a few miles from Gatlinburg, it’s quick to access if you are staying in town instead of at a campsite.
This was the perfect end to our trip, and a much-needed reminder to Jordi and I that it’s okay to change plans and to bail out when weather gets in your way. If we’d dug in our heels and faced Chimney Tops, we would have had cranky, soaked children, undoubtedly would have turned around before completing the trail, and never would have discovered the Quiet Walkway. Instead, we had the soothing sound of rushing water, sunshine on our skin, and five children, happy in the muddy and exhausted way that brings us back to the trail again and again.