Tiny Treks: Once Upon a Time

A family of explorers ventured into the woods...

Kids love surprises and feeling brave. Nothing combines the two quite like being an explorer in a new world.

So my family hit the jackpot this spring as we learn new paths, parks, and even new flowers that emerge in our new Knoxville yard. A native of the North Carolina foothills, I moved here with my family last fall after a decade of exile in the Deep South. It's like coming home and discovering something new all at once.

We are looking for some of great spots to share spring with our kids, ages 3 and 7, in the nearby foothills and mountains. Most hiking guidebooks and web sites focus on popular trails in the national park that are too long or rugged for our kids.

A newly-published book is helping us find more options. The Afternoon Hiker: A Guide to Casual Hikes in the Great Smokey Mountains by J.L. and Lin Stepp, includes more than 50 trails that are no longer than 8 miles altogether. Many are much shorter. The pictures are rather poor and the perspective limited because each write-up is generally based on a single trip down the trail. What the book does provide is directions from Knoxville to clearly-defined starting and stopping points, and the features in between that will keep a hike manageable and interesting.

I've found that while grownup hikers are most motivated by panoramas, kids are most motivated by water. If you can promise them they get to cross a creek, preferably with a chance to hurl in either rocks or themselves, they will keep going. This guidebook offers plenty of water options to choose from. The Twin Creeks Trail, an easy 5-mile trip which includes creek time and a visit to the Noah "Bud" Ogle cabin, is a good example of how the Stepps (unintentionally) structure walks so kids get a payoff for continuing to the end. Probably more people are familiar with visiting the Ogle cabin at the beginning, but kids are less likely to want to start by walking away from what they might consider the highlight of the visit. (And although I feel like I've seen a million cabins, my kids haven't.)

We've been doing our own exploring on the fringe of the park. The less-packed Foothills Parkway has been an accessible, fun choice.

I took my 3-year-old son to Look Rock on the parkway in early March. The trail, mostly paved, wound uphill for about half a mile before reaching "the lookout," as my son called it. The woods seemed unusually quiet on a chilly weekday. We had the place to ourselves, except for a few squirrels rustling in the leaves. We pretended that we were bears sneaking up on the squirrels, which gained me some nice long moments of silent listening from the toddler (interspersed with occasional roars).

The switchbacking concrete ramp to the overlook is topped with a tower (closed to the public) reminiscent of a spaceship. The structure had a funky Communist-Era feel. But the 360-degree view was a real reward. My son enjoyed watching eagles riding thermals and was excited to discover that if you stand at the top of the ramp and shout down it, there's an echo.

Then we took time to crawl around among the rocks beneath the overlook, playing a little Goldilocks and the Three Bears. There are fissures between the rocks that grow into full passageways. A portion of the boulder field seems shorter from above, but when you step down among the rocks, they turn out to be quite tall, with little pockets of open space in between—perfect for a picnic or some hide-and-seek.

When I hike with my kids, I try to leave enough time to play along the way. If we had focused only on the overlook, we would have missed the rocks beyond...which the overlook is no doubt named after.

I had to carry my son only briefly on the way back, which is one of my key measures of success. We are looking forward to staging more fairy tales soon.