Recently I was asked on social media for some recommendations for hikes in the Smokies with children - on trails that weren't terribly busy. This is a really great question and, as a National Parks Ambassador, it's something I've learned a little bit about. If you live near, or are planning a visit to, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park soon, here are a few recommendations for some shorter hikes that the kids can really enjoy!
If you've got littles who aren't quite up to walking trails on their own yet and you will need a stroller, we have a few options for you here in the park.
-The nature trail behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center. This 0.7 mile round trip hike on a groomed gravel path will have a few bumps and tree roots, but won't be too difficult to tackle with a substantial stroller. The path will take you out to Cataract Falls and you can follow it back to the visitor center.
-The Gatlinburg Trail. Another well-groomed gravel path, you will follow a stream with plenty of opportunity to jump in and cool off on a hot day. While the advertised mileage of this trail is 2 miles, making for 4 miles out and back, you can take your time and walk slowly from the parking area (located at River Road in Gatlinburg at the last stoplight in town) up to an old homesite just past the bridge over the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. This makes a great turn around spot for families. This is also one of only two trails in the park where you can take a dog with you as well.
-The Oconoluftee River Trail. This accessible trail is located on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, at the visitor center near Cherokee. This 3-mile round trip trail walks along the Oconoluftee River through some area that used to be an old farmstead and offers a few opportunities to hop into the river to cool off on a hot day. This trail is also dog-friendly.
-Laurel Falls Trail (to the waterfall). About 2.5 miles round trip, this paved trail is wildly popular among tourists. On weekends, arrive early to ensure a parking spot! The trail gently goes uphill to the waterfall and offers wildflowers in the late spring and summer.
-Quiet Walkways. We have a number of paved and unpaved quiet walkways in the Smokies that are relatively short. These self-guided nature trails often have interpretive signs, old homesites, flowers, and big trees. The quiet walkways are often less than 1 mile round trip.
Hiking with toddlers/Young Children
If you've got kids that can walk on their own without needing much assistance (other than maybe the occasional candy bribe to get them back to the car) I have a few other suggestions for trails, especially if you've got a little one who has energy to burn off! While any of the above trails would also be great options if you're testing the waters, here are a few other longer walks that might be more challenging.
- Porter's Creek Trail to the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Cabin. This 2-mile round trip hike takes place on an old roadbed, so the walking is mostly level, albeit uphill for the first mile. You'll pass by a giant rock shortly on your left hand side that I've had kids tell me looks like a big shark tooth. About half a mile in, it will be evident you are on an old farmstead site - rock walls and building foundations can be seen on the hillside. About 0.75 miles in you'll get to cross a stream on a footbridge before coming upon a set of stairs leading up to the Owenby Cemetery. Finally, about 1.1 miles in you will follow the signs over to an old cantilever barn known as the John Messer Barn. You can walk around in the livestock pens and underneath the barn to play before heading back to the old springhouse and Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Cabin. You will return to your car the way you came up the trail. This trail is especially popular in the springtime for wildflower sightings!
-Spruce Flats Falls (Tremont). This 2-mile round trip hike might be a little more challenging for kids, but can definitely be fun! You'll follow the signs for the Lumber Ridge Trail leaving out of the parking lot for the Tremont Institute. Shortly thereafter, follow the signs for the falls trail. You'll climb a steep hill and get pretty views of Thunderhead Mountain on the Appalachian Trail before coming to a unique set of foot log stairs. You'll head downhill on a steep trail that can be rocky and root-filled before coming up to the falls. This is also a great place to cool off in the summertime. Return back to your car the way you came.
-The Walker Sister Homesite. A 3 mile hike starting at the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse in Metcalf Bottoms, follow the Little Brier Gap Trail approximately 1.4 miles from the gated access road. You'll follow the gentle old road bed to the site of the Walker Sister home. These five women lived here in the park until 1964, when the final sister passed away. The five women lived here when the park service established the park in the 1930s, but at the time the women, all without husbands, were allowed to stay on their land as part of a lifetime lease. They lived a simple and primitive life in the cabin as it stands today. The only buildings left as part of the farm are the cabin, springhouse, and corn crib, but it will serve as a neat teaching opportunity to show kids how people lived in these mountains in the early 20th century.
Kids from around 8 years to young teens
Lots of waterfalls will be listed in this section! Kids love waterfalls (and hey, adults do too!)
-Grotto Falls (Trillium Gap Trail). From the Roaring Creek Motor Nature Trail (which has plenty to see and several opportunities to stop and explore restored homesteads!), you'll find the Grotto Falls Parking area. From the parking area to the falls and back is approximately 2.25 miles, but this trail is a little more difficult than others I've listed previously. This waterfall is really neat for photos because you can walk back behind the falls on the trail! Also, this is the trail the llama train takes up to Mt. LeConte with the clean laundry and food supplies, so you might have a chance to see llamas!
-Abrams Falls. Approximately 5 miles round trip, this is arguably the most popular family day hike in the park. Like Laurel Falls, this parking lot fills to the brim on weekends, so make sure you arrive early (On Saturday mornings, the road doesn't open until 10 a.m. as to allow runners, walkers, and cyclists the chance to enjoy the road without fears of being run over!). This all-day hike follows the wide and challenging Abrams Falls Trail over several small hills before coming up to a sandstone ridge line. Follow the trail downhill to the falls and take warning - there are signs telling you how dangerous it is to swim near the falls!
-Rainbow Falls. This nearly 6-mile round trip hike is the most difficult of this list and climbs nearly 1500 feet over the course of 3 miles. Popular nearly every day of the week in summer time, this challenging day hike follows LeConte Creek up the mountain, switching back through rhododendron thickets and climbing uphill the entire way to the waterfall. When you get to the falls at mile 2.7, be prepared for crowds. On the positive side, it's downhill all the way back to the car!
These are my trail recommendations for families visiting the Smokies. I didn't include teenagers on this list as I find many teenagers vary in interests and physical fitness levels. If you're looking to hike with a teen, you may find some of the hikes listed for older children helpful, especially if you're not used to doing much hiking. Do you hike with children? Did I miss any of your favorite family hikes? Leave me a comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!