Smoky Mountain Hiking: Six Family-Friendly Trails
Hosting over 11 million tourists each year, Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the United States—and Smoky Mountain hiking is the area’s most popular outdoor activity. The park is completely threaded with hiking trails, boasting more than 150 paths spanning a total of 850 miles, including 70 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.
With so many trails to choose from, it can be a bit intimidating to figure out where to walk—doubly so if you’re taking the whole family for a hike, or even if you’re just a party of mixed-experience trekkers. But not to worry—given the perfect location of our cabins in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the whole park is virtually in our backyard. Below, we’ve highlighted six of our favorite Smoky Mountain hikes for families, from scenic strolls to exciting lookouts—all with an eye towards shorter and simpler routes so everyone can relax and have a great time.
As we transition from winter into spring, lots of changes take place in Smoky Mountain National Park, and roads and trails that often close for the winter tend to open up just after February. Occasionally, weather may cause disruptions to carefully laid plans and paths—so make sure to check in with the National Park Service’s website for the Great Smoky Mountains (https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm) for the most up-to-date information on the park’s status.
Grotto Falls Trail: 2.6 miles, Easy
Just a short drive from the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the north side of Smoky Mountain National Park, Grotto Falls is one of the least challenging and more well traveled waterfall hikes in the area. Aim to start your trip during off-peak hours (early morning and late afternoon) to avoid the crowds and the tight parking—if you’re setting out during midday, take advantage of the extra parking spaces further along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail from the main lot.
Sharing most of its short 2.6-mile length with the Trillium Gap Trail, the trail to Grotto Falls winds through old-growth hemlock forest, and is speckled with beautiful wildflowers during the spring months. The wide and well traveled path is a cinch for kids and the gentle slope—rising only 500 feet overall—is one of the more easy-going gradations for Smoky Mountain hiking.
Grotto Falls itself is quite the visceral treat—a 25-foot waterfall that you can walk behind and underneath, offering an up-close encounter with the plummeting water’s thunder and spray. Watch your footing on the slippery rocks, and keep an eye out for the colorful locals: shy salamanders slinking along slick stones.
Little River Trail: 5 miles, Moderate
Located near Elkmont Campgrounds, the 5-mile out-and-back Little River Trail is one of the more multifaceted offerings of the Smoky Mountain hiking trails. The gentle hike is pleasant for all ages, and features only a modest change in elevation as it follows its namesake stream down from its source at Clingmans Dome.
A dash of history sets the scene in just the first half mile of the hike, as the trail takes you by a scattering of long-abandoned vacation cabins from the 1920s. Certainly intriguing and arguably spooky, these former resort homes are undergoing restoration and will eventually be reopened to the public. Further along the way, spy rusting rail tracks and remnant cables running alongside the riverbanks—evidence of the Little River’s former role as a logging float. If you run into a local hiker, ask them where to find the somewhat-secret “troll bridge” just off the main route.
Walk through wildflowers in the springtime—rhododendrons and trillium are among the many blooms decorating the forest here. Down by the water, look out for Huskey Branch Falls around the two-mile mark (among numerous other smaller cascades), and keep your eyes peeled for squirmy swimmers: the stream is host to playful otters and enormous, two-foot-long hellbender salamanders.
Andrews Bald: 3.5 miles, Moderate
Long known as one of the more difficult paths to traverse in the park, improvements to the Forney Ridge Trail have turned this once-arduous route into a family-friendly hike for all ages—and it leads to one of the best picnicking spots in all of Smoky Mountain hiking. Leaving the Clingmans Dome parking lot on foot, you’ll hike down, up, and down again to descend a total of about 500 feet over 3.5 miles to arrive at the grassy clearing of Andrews Bald.
Balds are curious and uncommon features—meadows of uncertain origin spreading out over high-elevation peaks. At an elevation of almost 6,000 feet, Andrews Bald is the highest in the Smoky Mountains, and the panoramic views of the southern Smokies from here are simply stunning. Late spring hikers have an especially picturesque picnic spot, as the many azaleas and rhododendron bushes that frame the meadow erupt in brilliant blooms. If you’re an experienced forager, take note of the raspberry and blackberry shrubs that grow along the way.
Laurel Falls: 2.3 miles, Easy
The location of the most iconic waterfall in the Smoky Mountains, Laurel Falls Trail is easily one of the most popular routes for Smoky Mountain hiking trips—take care to time your visit to off-peak hours and days if you want to avoid the crowds. This 2.3-mile trail goes up only a few hundred feet along its length, and the path is paved with concrete, making it an especially attractive option for novice hikers and families with children.
Nonetheless, it’s important to remember basic hiking safety—drops are present at times near the trail, and black bears have been spotted short distances from the path. Safe practices, like minding your footing, mean that these elements remain positively wondrous instead of worrisome.
Most groups will reach the picture-perfect falls in under an hour’s time. Split into upper and lower sections and spanned by a wooden bridge in the middle, Laurel Falls cascades down a total of 80 feet before continuing through the park as the Laurel Branch stream. Catch the falls in early-morning or late-afternoon sunlight after a rainy period, and you’ll witness the stunning scene at its most photogenic—a clear example of why Laurel Falls is touted as one of the best hikes in Smoky Mountain National Park.
The Oconaluftee River Trail: 3 miles, Easy
Certainly more a leisurely walk in the woods than a rugged trail for Smoky Mountain hiking, the Oconaluftee River Trail is nevertheless a delightful stroll offering families a compact treasure trove of outdoorsy opportunities. Located just outside of Cherokee, NC, the three-mile loop is almost totally flat, and is one of only two trails in the entire park to allow dogs—so you can bring even your four-legged family members along for this one.
The Oconaluftee River Trail follows the river of the same name from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to the Mountain Farm Museum, where a handful of 19th-century log buildings remain standing—preserved memories of a typical farmstead of that time. The farm, long since retired, is outlived by its livestock—elk and wild turkeys roam free throughout the area.
Along the river, enjoy watching fly fishers angle for stealthy scaled swimmers. If the trees are in full foliage, take a break under a basswood or picnic in the shade of a sycamore. Springtime along the Oconaluftee means a flourishing of wildflowers, from common violets and phlox to stylish jack-in-the-pulpits and dainty squirrel corns.
Rainbow Falls: 5.4 miles, Moderate
If you and your crew feel up to a more mature hike with a beautiful payoff, it’s time to take the trip over to Rainbow Falls. Once suffering from various elements of disrepair, the trail has recently received much renovation attention, acquiring more than 300 constructed steps in steep areas and gaining elevated walkways over some sections of particularly difficult terrain. The improvements are a great help, but the hike remains a solid challenge—most of the trail to the falls is a steady incline through boulder-bearing hillsides.
Push through that 1,500-foot climb, though, and you’re rewarded with a gorgeous sight: Rainbow Falls. At 80 feet high, the falls are the tallest single-drop waterfall in Smoky Mountain National Park. If you’re lucky enough to catch the sun shining through the prodigious mist produced by the cascade, you’ll see how the falls earned its name.
Feeling especially full of verve after your ascent? The trail for Rainbow Falls proper ends here, but the path you’ve taken continues another four miles to the very top of Mount LeConte, giving you the option to turn this three-to-five-hour hike into an endurance-testing, full-day affair.