The Kelley family above the Nantahala River in Bryson City, North Carolina.
There we were, two adults both fairly inexperienced with camping, blithely shuttling down I-40 more worried about our playlist than cataloging the necessities for living in the great outdoors for three days.
Our Coleman cooler sat empty in the attic. We left our tent there, too. Yet we crossed the threshold of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park confident this would be the finest camping experience of our lives.
That’s because we weren’t really going camping. We were going “glamping.”
Glamping for Families
A Walk in the Woods is a full-service tour guide company operating in the Smokies since 1998. Its founders, Vesna and Erik Plakanis, are our close friends. So when Vesna asked us to test a new camping service — we jumped at the chance.
The new service is called “glamping,” as in “glamorous camping.” Google it and you’ll find images of inflatable couches, chandeliers over picnic tables, and gossamer cloth floating in the doorway of a yurt.
That’s not Walk in the Woods style, thankfully. This is glamping for families, which roughly translates to experienced guides taking the helm while you kick back and enjoy the great outdoors.
History, hiking and hummus
We started our adventure at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, just a few miles north of Cherokee, North Carolina, where we met our guides, Sam Suttles and Jaimie Matzko. They walked us through the center’s interactive museum that documents the life of both the Cherokee and early European settlers in the Smoky Mountains. Then we headed outdoors to tour a collection of nineteenth century structures found on a working farm. We observed how families stored food in sheds and learned how to read tree rings.
Then we moved our bags into their shuttle, waved good-bye to our car, and set off for a short drive along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. Sam and Jamie kept the kids interested with trivia and snacks, while my husband and I snapped pictures.
This next part is what I call “The Best.” It was our arrival to a campsite already set up with tents, blow-up mattresses, and lanterns. A campfire awaited, stacked with wood and ringed with chairs. Hammocks strung across trees and a long picnic table beckons with fresh fruit, assorted cheeses, drinks, chips and hummus. We dug in while Vesna, our camp host, prepared dinner in the propane-powered kitchen.
The kids played games with the guides, while my husband and I claimed hammocks. When summoned to dinner, we dined on East Tennessee pulled pork sandwiches (not Central BBQ, but then, what is?) roasted corn, beans and s’mores by the campfire.
After dark, our guides took us on a night hike to listen for Barred owls. Tired yet excited about what lies ahead, we crawled into our tents, a rippling creek our “sound machine.”
An Outdoor Education
The best part about the next two days was how much we learned. Walk in the Woods guides are above all, teachers and storytellers. On hikes, our kids picked birch branches and brushed their teeth with a soft inner core that tastes of wintergreen. We played hide and seek in the woods to see how animals use camouflage. We learned “orienteering” – using a compass to orient a map.
Throughout the trip, we were reminded about the importance of coexisting with nature – about not picking and trampling wildflowers, and how even leaving behind orange peels can make bears and other animals dependent on humans.
Ending on a challenging note
On the final day, our guide drove us to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Set along the roaring Nantahala River, the center has everything you’d want for adventure: Rafting, biking, a zipline, and ropes course. It was also the first time we had mobile phone coverage (another plus on this trip – everyone had to unplug).
Our 5-year old was too small for the zipline or ropes course, so she stayed behind with a guide. Halfway through, I wished I had too. The ropes course was challenging, but we all finished proudly and no one died. My 9-year-old became so confident he ran through it a second time.
The zipline was not only exhilarating; it was freeing and oddly relaxing. The guides at the center were patient and professional and the equipment new and safe – reassuring news when suspended several stories above the ground.
Here’s the part that anyone who has ever camped will appreciate – our fun in the woods ended with the guides bringing us back to our car where we loaded up and headed west. The packing of the tents, the loading of the coolers — all had been taken care of by Walk in the Woods while we were zipping across the treetops.
Now, that’s what I call glamorous.
Planning a Trip?
Walk in the Woods glamping trips range from $800 for a family of four for a one night/2 day trip, to $900 a person (with discounts for children) for a full, four-day trip.