For the first time in quite a few years, I ventured out with my immediate family – parents, two of my three brothers, and my sister – on a summer vacation. Leaving my husband at home, we drove the 8+ hours to Maggie Valley, North Carolina, me squeezed between my brothers in the second row of my family’s SUV and my sister sharing the already-cramped third row with our paraphernalia. As with any family vacation, the possibility of stress and tension was high, but I’m delighted to report, none grew out of the ordinary. Of course, there’s the expected drama over where to eat, which way to go, how fast to drive, etc… And we had some added drama when the three adults and the three children became separated without cell phones. But overall, a pleasant time was had by all.
We spent just under a week amidst the valleys and the mountains. Our cabin was situated in the small town of Maggie Valley – a valley, true to its name, with mountain peaks surrounding you on all sides. Most of our excursions took place within about an hour’s drive of the valley, excepting a day trip to Pigeon Forge. Now, I’ll go ahead and put out there that my family’s eating habits are far from adventurous, so there will unfortunately be no advice on what to eat where. But we did explore some fun, family friendly parts of North Carolina, both on and off the beaten track, that are worth mentioning.
Admittedly, we didn’t intend to end up here. Searching for the illusive Soco Falls, we missed a turn and popped “waterfalls” into Google Maps to find Mingo, situated on the Cherokee Indian Reservation just outside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. At 120 feet, it’s one of the tallest in this part of the Appalachians. A set of wooden steps followed by short, not too steep dirt path leads to an observation bridge directly in front of the falls. Below the bridge (on the side of the parking lot) the cool water runs over rocks that you can wade into (less than knee deep) if you’re careful. Also of note, the more adventurous in our party (i.e., my teenage brothers) found a steep side trail that took them to the very top of the falls. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it may be worth knowing it’s there before you let anyone slip out of sight.
Oconaluftee Island Park
About 15 minutes from Mingo Falls, back in Cherokee proper, you’ll find the Oconaluftee Island Park. Perched alongside the Oconaluftee River, the park offers ample space for picnicing, relaxing, swimming, and tubing. It also has a tranquil bamboo forest you can explore and, on the day we were there, was offering a free demonstration of 18th century Cherokee lifestyle by local residents. Mostly shallow water that’s not too fast-running makes this a great place for tubing in clear view of anyone supervising (which is important, I promise).
I feel like we didn’t get to fully experience Deep Creek. We made our first trip on the second day of our vacation, later in the afternoon, so that we could tube. A copious number of tube rentals line the street into the area, loaning closed-bottomed tubes for anywhere from $4 – $6. A rather long hike up the side of the creek leads you to the top of the tubing area, of which you can choose from two put-in areas – one with more whitewater and a small fall and one for more relaxing floating. We were advised that local rain had made the entirety of the creek more whitewater and to use caution on the upper put-in (the brothers, of course, jumped right in). A trail winds alongside the creek, though not always in sight of it, which led to our primary problem: losing the kids.
The creek bed itself is full of rocks, big and small, and several low, overhanging trees that provide ample opportunity for getting stuck and separated. It also has a waterfall (Tom Branch Falls) that flows into the creek as you float by. In the inevitable separation, the kids and adults had quite an adventure of finding each other sans mobile devices, cutting our tubing short. Two days later, we ventured back and got in a little more tubing before a thunderstorm ran us off. With all the excitement, we never got to hike to any of the other two falls (Indian Creek or Juneywhank) and I never took any photos of the creek or falls.
We took a break from outdoor adventures on one of the days to drive to Pigeon Forge to visit Wonderworks. It was my first trip here (the kids second) and my feelings were mixed. Wonderworks is loud, flashing, and overwhelming. There are so many different entertainment options of such variety, each with their own sound, screen, and lighting that it can get a bit overstimulating. However, many of the exhibits are fun, for kids and grown-ups. My siblings loved the rock wall and the ropes course, as well as some of the arcade games. I ventured onto the ropes course as well and found it both thrilling and terrifying. We got a huge kick out of the bubbles area (everyone loves bubbles, amiright, fellow SLPs?). One nice thing about Wonderworks is that they allow you to come and go, offering a break from the stimulation as needed.
One thing that all six of us commented on upon driving over the mountain from Maggie Valley into Pigeon Forge was the immensely noticeable increase in traffic upon entering the Tennessee side of the Appalachians. Scenic overlooks and trailhead pull-offs almost immediately increased from just a handful of cars to roads lined with tourists. We were all eager to cross back over to North Carolina by the time we were finished at Wonderworks.
On our last night, we finally made it to Soco Falls. Conveniently located on the ride between our house and just about everywhere else, we successfully missed it on several occasions. It was well worth the search, though, as we all found it to be the most impressive of the falls we saw during the week.
A short, somewhat steep dirt path leads to an observation deck overlooking the falls. You can also take a steep descent, holding on to ropes lashed between trees, to the bottom of the falls.
If you want to find it, you’ll need to be on HWY 19 between Cherokee and Maggie Valley. Approximately three, small signs will announce your arrival – one about 1/2 mile from the fall itself and one at the falls. A black chain link fence and a small pull-off are all you will notice alongside the sign and the path itself is somewhat obscurely located at one end of the fence.
My dad’s favorite and mom’s least favorite part of the trip was our drive into Catalooche Valley. A very winding, partially dirt gravel road takes you up into the mountains and then into the Great Smoky National Park, then down again into the valley. Once in the valley, nature abounded with elk, butterflies, and creeks (and the possibility of bears, though we didn’t see any here). You’re also able to visit multiple small cemeteries from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Bryson City + The Road to Nowhere
Bryson City is the small town that led us to our Deep Creek adventures. With a cute, Hallmarkesque downtown consisting of shops that are just touristy enough without being overtly corny, we found Bryson City a relaxing place to stroll for a few minutes and even stop for sweets. The Chocolate Shoppe in Bryson City became one of only two local eateries that we visited – and we did so twice. Many local restaurants looked promising, though we never partook. There is also a small museum on the upper level of the visitor’s center that is well worth a stroll.
Just outside of downtown, you’ll be led up a winding road that leads nowhere. It is appropriately called the Road to Nowhere. Began as a promise to connect inhabitants to their home, then abandoned, the Road takes you along some beautifully scenic views of the mountains and ends with the final point on the road before work ceased – a long tunnel that now functions as a footpath to various trailheads. My siblings described coming out the other side of the tunnel as feeling like they’d entered into another dimension and it was a truly eery experience.
As far as places to stay go, Maggie Valley is not a bad one, particularly if you’re disenchanted by some of the more touristy areas, such as Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, or Asheville. It’s relatively convenient in location – an hour or so from Pigeon Forge and Asheville, as well as many other areas of the GSMNP and a variety of outdoor activities. The town itself is quiet, with just enough local establishments to get you through the evenings. A couple local putt-putt places provide entertainment, as well as a surprising number of local restaurants (Italian seems to be a particular favorite). A few small strips of shops provide opportunities to shop for both local, artisan products and cheap souvenirs. A 15 minute drive into Waynesville will take you to grocers and fast food, but a dollar store and convenience store grocer will keep you stocked with the basics. Several churches are around for those so inclined and, during the winter, it even boasts a ski area.
I hope our week-long stay in Maggie Valley, NC inspires you to venture off the beaten path a bit, eschewing the tourist traps of Chattanooga, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg for a bit to explore some of the less seen marvels of North Carolina.