Frugal family time at the national park

By glblguy

bridgeMe with my kids in Cataloochee Valley

Last Sunday afternoon, my wife and I decided we needed some quality family time together. We wanted to so something inexpensive with the kids. I pulled up Google and within a few minutes found a place in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park called Cataloochee. Turns out it’s only about 20 minutes from our house so we decided to give it a try.

cataloochee-entranceWe ate a quick lunch, packed up some bottled waters, grabbed our jackets and cameras and headed out. The ride to Cataloochee was, shall we say “interesting”. As we began to climb the mountain road up towards the park, the road became more and more narrow, finally turning into what I would consider a single lane dirt road.  The road had a rock wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Unfortunately we met a few cars heading the opposite direction which made things a little stressful, but we made it up with no problems.   As we topped the hill, we were greeted with a sign welcoming us to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The road in the park was even worse. While I didn’t need to use the 4 wheel drive on my Expedition, I would be really hesitant to bring anything in on that road that didn’t have it. The road was rough and pretty muddy.

palmer_chapelWe eventually made it to a nice two lane and paved road that took us straight into the Cataloochee valley. Let me tell you, it was worth the drive. Cataloochee Valley contains what is left of an early 1800’s settlement. There is an old church, school house and old farm homes you can walk through. The valley is surrounded by mountains and full of beautiful crystal clear creeks. Additionally, the area contains wild Elk which roam the area freely and are incredible to watch.

We spent the entire afternoon there, and while initially our kids didn’t want to go, we had to literally drag them home. They loved the area and had a blast playing on the rocks and wading in the creeks. Definitely a place we’ll visit again.

The cost? $1 and gas. Being a national park, the admission is free. The $1 was for booklet that contained a self guided tour of the Cataloochee valley along with some really great historical information about the buildings, the land, and the poeple that lived there.

Tips for saving money on family outings

  1. Pick a low cost or free activities. National parks and local parks make for great family trips as well as local museums and historical locations.
  2. Eat before you go or pack your food. We chose to eat before we left, but one young couple that was there brought a picnic lunch and ate in the upper floor of one of the old barns. It looked pretty romantic actually.
  3. Bring snacks and drinks. In Cataloochee, there weren’t any vending machines, but in there have been in other places we went. I’d recommend bringing your own snacks and drinks. Those vending machine prices are outrageous!
  4. Avoid the gift shop – Don’t visit the gift shop and don’t even mention it to your kids. We let or kids bring home some beautiful rocks they found in the creek bed. Those were good enough souvenirs for them.

While our kids had fun touring the old buildings and running in the fields, the most fun was spent in a rather large creek off the beaten path. We took a side road that ventured deeper into the park and came across a truss bridge with a beautiful creek running below it. We pulled over and let the kids play on the rocks and banks for at least an hour. I taught my younger one’s how to skip stones and we had a contest to see who could skip their stones all the way across the creek the most times. My older boys jumped from one rock to the other trying to avoid falling into the water. My daughter found a sandy area on the shore, sat down and had a blast.

Money Saving MondayWe had a great day and one that I am sure we will all remember for a very long time…and all for just $1. You can view some pictures that my wife and I took over on my flickr site and my wife’s flickr site.

Are you on flickr? Would love to have you as a contact, so please add me!

This article is part of an ongoing series called Money Saving Monday. Each Monday, I share tips and techniques you can use to start saving money.

17 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Frugal family time at the national park”

  1. DDFD at Says:

    Sounds like a great outing. We love the parks near us.

    A big saver is packing your own food as you mentioned. We bought the kids (four of them) fanny packs with two bottles attached– water in one, juice in the other. Sandwiches and snacks in the pack. The carry their own meals and supplies themselves . . .

    As for the gift shop– I avoid it too.

    Nice post!

  2. Adam Says:

    Sounds like it turned out to be a great trip. Personally, I love going to state parks. They are so beautiful (most of them) and there are always plenty of things to do. We have one back home in PA that has waterfalls, swimming, boating, hiking, etc. It is a whole day event and you can even get some exercise.

  3. Studenomics Says:

    It’s only 20 minutes away? That’s amazing and I bet you guys will be going there often. How warm was it? Everybody looks to be dressed very light.

  4. Ron@TheWisdomJournal Says:

    Cool! I learned to ski at Cataloochee.

  5. frugalCPA Says:

    We’re all about free outings, especially when they involve nature, hiking, biking, or anything of the sort.

    It looks like you need a car as big as the Expedition with all those kids, but that makes the “$1 and gas” not seem quite so inexpensive. :)

  6. Connie Says:

    Did you know you aren’t supposed to pick the flowers, take the rocks, etc.? I found out the hard way, just ask a park ranger! I know it seems a few souvenir rocks wouldn’t matter, but imagine if everyone who visited took just one rock…
    It is a beautiful area and I’m glad you all got to enjoy it.

  7. Melanie Says:

    Thanx for sharing your day out!
    Your tips are great – People don’t take advantage of public parks – They are a great way to spend time with family and not spend too much money. I agree on the picnic – they are fun too and can be done quite inexpensively!

    You don’t have to spend a lot to have the greatest time with your family that is for sure – some of our favorite times are walking our dog in the back woods in the winter and playing in the snow with her!

  8. Jason from MoneyTheory Says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this post! National and State parks make for great family outings, and don’t cost much at all. In our increasingly technological world, we can’t forget about nature! It is absolutely amazing, beautiful, and is what sustains us all. The U.S. has an extraordinary National Park System that was set aside for all to enjoy. Thanks for bringing that into the light.

  9. Matt Says:

    I’m looking forward to getting more advice on Monday’s. Not only is it an inexpensive way to spend time with your family, but you actually get to enjoy each others company. Truly QUALITY time. Given the option of a theme park or a natural park, I’d choose nature 10 times out of 10 (not to mention save a few hundred dollars in the process).

    Out of Debt Christian

  10. [email protected] Says:

    @ Connie- I was going to mention that about taking the rocks. Most people who don’t visit National Parks very often probably don’t realize that they aren’t supposed to take anything. I actually do go to the giftshops, but I only buy a postcard. Usually they are less than 50 cents, and are easy to keep since they are small.

  11. Connie Says:

    Hey – hope I didn’t sound mean about taking the rocks, etc. I just know I was looking around once in the Smokies and started to take “just one” for a souvenir. Wrong! The nice ranger pointed out to me that if everybody took “just one” there wouldn’t be any for everyone to emjoy, given the volume of people who go through, especially in Cades Cove area. I just thought everyone should be aware. That is a purely amazing area. I agree about the post card being a cheap souvenir, taking your own pictures is even better. We have pix of gorgeous sunrises/sunsets, mountains in the “smoke”, waterfalls and a bunch of grist mills. Nothing can beat that for memories. Also bear, deer, wild turkeys, hawks and I’m waiting on the wolves and elk!!! When our kids were little, they would rather spend time getting dirty than going to any amusement park! Those are the memories that stay with kids – spending time together. Way to go!!!!

  12. Georgia Says:

    Another great tip along these lines – if you have a disability you can gain access to all federal parks for free for a life time. You contact them and they send you a pass. I’m pretty sure your whole party is free each time. Some of those parks are kind of expensive.

  13. fathersez Says:

    You are setting a great example.

    This is exactly what we are planning to do this year. Go for short inexpensive trips to the nature parks nearby. Those of us with large families ( we have 5 kids) have to enjoy the local treasures (which others from overseas pay good money to come and see).

    Your trip probably turned out to be a little history lesson for the kids too.


  14. mike Says:

    Great article and idea. My family has used the Entertainment Book, our AAA discount, and coupons from the newspaper entertainment section to also reduce the cost of going out. Your right about national parks….what a great deal!