Frugal family time at the national park
Me 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.
We 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.
We 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
We 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.
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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.