Parent’s Trip Out: Traveling with Young Kids
July 31, 2018 | Permalink
When you have two young kids, you have to muster a lot of courage to pack them up in a car and head outdoors. Not only do you need courage; you need a lot of snacks and a diverse playlist of sing-a-long songs! You can only sing ‘The Wheels on the Bus” so many times…
As a lover of the outdoors, I feel it’s important to expose my kids to new adventures early and often in life. As a member of the state parks team, I think it’s important to experience our destinations through the eyes of a visitor with children and then provide some travel tips for planning a fun and rewarding visit.
Earlier this summer, my wife and I packed up our two children in Nashville and hit the road for Upper East Tennessee. Taking the suggestions from another blog on this website, we decided to beat the heat and head for the mountains. (Upper East TN is also a great spot for leaf-viewing in the fall, which is right around the corner!)
Our goal was simple: make it to Johnson City. It’s important to set realistic goals when you have kids, and success was in no way guaranteed. There’s a lot that can go wrong between Nashville and the Tri-Cities. We were one upset stomach or one forgotten baby doll away from a blown trip. After six hours and about as many stops, we made it! Those stops represent the first of our tips for parents travelling with kids:
Whether it’s swinging into a restaurant for a bite to eat, stopping at a gas station to nurse the baby, or pulling into a park to let the toddler run around for a minute, it’s important to plan stops to help the kids cope with the long haul. There are several state parks right along I-40 that make great places to stretch your legs.
We chose to stop at Seven Islands State Birding Park on the East side of Knoxville. It felt like a good halfway point for us and is located right off the interstate. We stopped at the Strawberry Plains exit for some drive-thru food and had a little picnic at the park. As the name suggests, there were tons of birds and beautiful flowers, barns, and scenery to take in. My toddler would have preferred a park with a playground, but both kids enjoyed smelling the flowers and taking a break from the car ride.
Another good option with on-site food and a wide range of activities is Cumberland Mountain State Park. It’s located in Crossville between Cookeville and Knoxville. It too is close to the interstate and provides a scenic and active environment for kids to stretch their legs.
Word of warning: don’t forget to stop on the way back from the trip! It’s easy to get into the mode of returning home to your own bed and assuming that the children will sleep the whole way back. Don’t believe the lies! For the love of all things good please do not forget to schedule stops on the return visit. You will regret it if you don’t. Great options on the return visit from Tri Cities to Nashville include Panther Creek State Park in Morristown and Edgar Evins State Park. Both are about an hour from the beginning and end of the drive respectively.
Give Yourself Margin
It’s tempting to try and climb every mountain, cross every stream and mark off every adventure on your trip. There are lots of reasons for feeling this way. Maybe it was a long drive and you want to make the most of it. Maybe you want your kids to have diverse life experiences and you only have a few vacation days. Maybe you just want your kids to sing praises to their children of the fantastic journeys they took in their youth. Whatever your motivation, you can rest assured that a good way to spoil your plans is to overstuff your activity list.
Your kids will need some margin in their schedule for naps and rest. YOU will need some margin for naps and rest. What will start in your mind’s eye as a magical epic will end up looking more like the trip where dad lost his cool and mom yelled at us for being ungrateful. We’ve all been on those trips and they’re not fun. Don’t be those parents. Give yourself the margin and freedom to do less, and do it well.
One way to give yourself some margin is to let someone else run the activity. Tennessee State Parks offers a wide variety of activities throughout the week. Many of the activities are offered at little to no cost and are geared toward those young adventurers. If you’re planning a trip, make sure to look at the event calendars for the park(s) you’re visiting to see if there’s something going on that your kids would enjoy.
Choose Your Lodging
We spent a lot of time trying to determine the best sleeping arrangements. Roan Mountain has campgrounds and beautiful cabins. Warriors’ Path and David Crockett Birthplace also have campgrounds, and the local community has a wide variety of rental properties and hotels.
Where you stay really depends on who you’re with. Sure, it’s great and wonderful to teach your kids the art and love of tent camping. Every kid should know how to start a fire and scavenge for food in the event the world succumbs to some apocalyptic catastrophe. However, these may not be the skills your two-year-old needs to learn on THIS trip.
While tent-camping is great, we know it’s not for every person or every season of life. You might find with young kids that a hotel, state park cabin, inn room, or even a vacation rental better suits you. The important thing is that you take a moment to carefully consider this element when heading outside.
Explore Your Options
It’s important that the park you select meets your needs. We found Warriors’ Path State Park to be an ideal basecamp for traveling with small kids. It has great cell coverage, a variety of activities (including a MASSIVE playground), and is within close proximity to pizza and convenience stores.
At the same time, our friends with slightly older kids found the campground at Roan Mountain State Park to be ideal for their family. It has some of the best scenery in the state and cell-service is scarce enough that older kids are forced to put down their devices and live a little.
It's important to understand your needs and look for parks meeting them. If you’re traveling with young kids it might make more sense to stay somewhere closer to town with a variety of activities. The beauty of a place like the Tri-Cities is that you’re close to a lot of parks. Stay at one of them and then visit the others for the day.
Many state parks are clustered in a way that you can stay at one and drive around to the others. Since there’s no entrance fee it’s really easy to jump from one park to another. This is actually a great way to plan a visit to a historic park or one that doesn’t have places to stay overnight. Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton is a great place to learn about the Revolutionary War and the settlement of Tennessee. Rocky Fork is one of our newest parks and doesn’t have overnight camping yet. Both parks are less than 40 minutes from Johnson City.
Prepare and Adapt
So, there we were, standing near the top of Jane’s Bald near Carver’s Gap on the Appalachian Trail. We had decided to visit Roan Mountain State Park on the middle day of a three-day, two-night trip. There was some low cloud cover, but the views were astonishing and lived up to every photo we had seen. Both kids were strapped on to our backs. We alternated who carried them as you can see in the photos above and below. What a beautiful family. Looks like everyone’s having a great time. Dad is killing this vacation thing.
Except…ohhp…yep, that’s rain. Okay that’s more rain. Okay now it’s really coming down. The conversation I had with my wife at the car when we started the hike is now reverberating in my ears:
“Man,” I thought to myself, “with these kids on our backs we don’t really have a way to carry a backpack of supplies.”
“Babe”, I asked as I leaned around the back of the vehicle, “We’re probably good without rain jackets, right? We won’t be out that long.”
“Whatever you think,” she replies.
Oh, foolish man…
If you’ve never trail-run downhill in 65-degree rain with an infant screaming at you on your back, then you’re really missing out. It’s a memory that will last a lifetime! After a lot of screaming and more than a few stares, we made it back to the car. We dried the girls off with towels, we fed them some snacks and we went back and took a long nap. We played at the awesome Warriors’ Path playground that night and our oldest daughter still talks admiringly about the time she climbed a mountain.
Did our trip go as planned? No. Did I break some hiking 101 rules? Definitely. I should have found a way to carry the gear we needed to stay dry. I was fortunate that it wasn’t any colder and that no one got sick. We were caught unprepared and we had to adapt.
I am convinced that this is the story of traveling with young kids. Kids are unpredictable. The environment is unpredictable. All you can do is plan to adjust your plans. It is this unpredictability that makes the adventures so fun. It’s not something that should scare you away from travel. It’s something to embrace and enjoy.
(Top: Playground at Warriors' Path; Bottom: Pool at Warriors' Path)
Planning Your Trip
Looking for ways to start your own adventure? Here are a few travel itineraries we pulled together. They’re not necessarily geared toward families with kids. They’re meant to spark your imagination and take some of the mystery out of your trip planning:
Need additional help? You can always message us on Facebook! Our social media team loves to help people build trips.