Easy hikes in the Smoky Mountains: The 8 best hikes for beginners
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Easy is a flighty, inexact word. What’s easy for you might be quite difficult for your neighbor.
Hiking in the woods can be many things to many people.
There are times I’ve been alone in the deep woods and been struck by a zen-like peace as if there was a purifying spirit in the woods, giving me the salvation I needed before returning to the land of asphalt and obligations.
There have also been times in the woods when I misjudged a hiking trail or my own ability to navigate it, and I wanted nothing more than to be lifted back to the relative peace and safety of my car.
A few years ago, my uncle was hiking in the mountains of Kentucky when he misjudged a trail. It was far more strenuous than he expected.
He gave himself a heart attack. Luckily, it wasn’t terribly remote. He was flown to a hospital and eventually made a full recovery.
I say all that to say this: While these trails are rated to be relatively easy, they should be easy for most able-bodied people in relatively good shape.
Remember, walking in the woods in higher elevations can come with challenges for the inexperienced. Be honest with yourself before you get too far into the woods.
Without further ado, here are some of the best easy hikes to take in the Smoky Mountains.
8. Elkmont Nature Trail
The Elkmont Nature Trail does not take long to hike and is possibly one of the easiest trails on the list, coming in at only 0.8 miles.
It’s a great area to explore because it’s also nearby old homesteads and the popular Elkmont campground.
If you travel along the nearby Little River Trail (4 miles) and the Jakes Creek Trail (2.7 miles), you’ll find a series of foundations, stone chimneys and stone walls. These are the remains of the once-thriving vacation resort of Elkmont.
The Little River Trail trail is a good option for all ages with little hiking experience.
If you venture on Little River Trail, walk up to where the trail crosses Cumberland Gap Trail and turn back. This path is about five miles round-trip and has a very gradual elevation gain.
Novice hikers love this one for its wildflowers, bridges and streams.
7. Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail
While the trail to visit the observation tower is short, this hike is considered to be more on the moderate side due to its steepness and elevation gain.
If you can handle the incline, the 1.2-mile out-and-back trail is one of the most well-known in the region.
Clingmans Dome, which may very well soon be known as Kuwahi, is the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest in North Carolina. It straddles the state line, and the observation tower offers some of the best views in the Smokies.
6. The Gatlinburg Trail
The Gatlinburg Trail is one of two walking paths in the park that allows dogs and bikes.
It’s relatively flat and runs through the forest from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to the outskirts of Gatlinburg.
The trail is 3.8 miles roundtrip and offers beautiful views of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
Also, the foundation and chimneys of several old home sites can be seen along the trail which is popular with joggers and bicyclists.
5. The Oconaluftee River Trail
North Carolina’s answer to the Gatlinburg Trail, the Oconaluftee Trail runs from the visitor center to the outskirts of Cherokee, North Carolina.
It’s mostly flat with a few small hills, running beside the river. The water was up the last time I walked it and I made sure to keep a close eye on the kids, but it is dog and bicycle friendly.
The trail is 1.5 miles, one-way.
Also, you may see some elk as they frequently visit the area.
4. Fighting Creek Nature Trail to Cataract Falls
Located just 10 minutes from downtown Gatlinburg, the trek to Cataract Falls and back is only three-quarters of a mile, making it ideal for families or those not up to hiking long distances.
There is a small set of stairs to negotiate. The trail begins as paved but quickly turns to gravel. The path is well maintained with sturdy bridges over Fighting Creek.
In the rainy seasons, the falls can be pretty impressive, but in drier times can slow to not much more than a trickle.
The trail is located at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
3. The Little Brier Gap Trail
This 2.6-mile hike only gains about 285 feet of elevation as it runs between the trailhead.
On Wear Cove Gap Road, in Wears Valley not far from Metcalf Bottoms, to the old Walker Sisters Cabin, the Little Brier Gap Trail runs through the history of a tiny mountain community that predates the park.
At the trailhead, you’ll see Little Greenbrier School. The school was built in 1882 and served as schoolhouse and church for the community and hosted its last class in 1935. Today, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The trail leads to the old Walker sisters’ home. The Walkers were the five spinster daughters of John and Margaret Walker.
They lived in the family cabin all their lives and gained national fame after the creation of the National Park as they clung to their old mountain ways.
Allowed to stay on the family land, they were featured in national magazine stories and quickly became tourist attractions, selling their various arts, crafts and poems to any interested party who made their way to Greenbrier.
Margaret, the oldest of the sisters, lived from 1870-1962. Louisa, born in 1882, was the last of the five sisters.
Today, much of their old cabin – originally built in 1853 – and outbuildings remain on the property.
2. Laurel Falls Trail
This is a significant uptick from some of the previous listings.
This is a hike, not a walk but I do like a hike with a midpoint at a waterfall.
First of all, waterfalls are cool. Secondly, you know you’ve got a place to cool off but not swim. It’s not safe to swim near waterfalls and you’ll also get chafing in wet clothes.
The hike itself is about 2.6 miles to the falls and is listed as moderate in difficulty. The trail is paved at the trailhead, but the pavement is rough and uneven. It does not extend the full length of the trail.
Bikes and pets are prohibited. Also, children should be closely supervised. Lastly, strollers and wheelchairs are not suitable for the path, which is often frequented by wildlife like bears.
Be sure to read up on the National Parks Services recommendations for what to do when you meet a bear before hiking to Laurel Falls.
1. Trillium Gap Trail
Finally, located on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the Trillium Gap Trail is the thing fantasy stories are made of.
It leads through an old-growth hemlock forest and runs behind a 25-foot waterfall at Grotto Falls.
The three-mile round trip hike is moderate in difficulty due to rocky paths and slick spots near the grotto.
Sturdy hiking shoes are strongly recommended. For example, do not wear flip-flops or sandals. They are bad ideas for hiking and are particularly ill-advised on this trail.
What are your favorite easy trails in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments.
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Lake proponents argued that turning Cades Cove into a body of water would promote tourism (photo by Patrick Jennings/stock.adobe.com)
4 Secret Hiking Trails in the Smoky Mountains You’ll Want to Explore
With over 850 miles of hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains, you’ll find a ton of places to explore, and these are just the trails on the official park map! Of course, there are some unofficial trails that aren’t documented on the park map, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hike them! Check out these 4 secret hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains you’ll want to explore:
1. Whiteoak Sink
Whiteoak Sink is a pretty unique area in the Smokies with several interesting spots along this undiscovered trail. Hikers will start out on Schoolhouse Gap Trail, and about 1 mile into the trail, you’ll see a split in the trail with Turkeypen Ridge Trail. Right behind the signs at this junction, there is an unmarked trail on the left that will take you to the Whiteoak Sinks area. After another mile or so, there’s another fork in the trail. If you go right at this fork, you will find Rainbow Cave Falls, a 40-foot-tall waterfall that runs over rocks and into a cave! If you go left at the fork, you will come up on Blowhole Cave. Although you can’t enter the cave, seeing the exterior is pretty cool. It’s also home to an endangered bat species known as Indian bats.
2. Spruce Flats Falls
A secret hiking trail in the Smoky Mountains that’s frequented fairly often and is easy to follow is the trail leading to Spruce Flats Falls. This trail is also not on the official Great Smoky Mountains National Park map, but enough people travel it that the path is well worn. Arguably, Spruce Flats Falls is one of the most picturesque waterfalls in the entire park. You’ll start out on Lumber Ridge Trailhead, and about 20 yards into the trail, there is a junction, and you should take a right. At the next fork in the trail, take a left, and the trail will start to descend. Then Spruce Flats Falls will come into view!
3. Courthouse Rock Trail
Courthouse Rock Trail is a hidden trail that isn’t on the official map, and it is recommended for experienced hikers. To get to the trailhead, you should use exact GPS coordinates because they will take you where you need to go. The trailhead is right across the road from the small parking area these coordinates take you to. There are several cairns, or stacked rocks, that mark the correct path to take along the hike. Along the trail, you’ll see old remains of homesteads and a man made cave used as a refrigeration system. If you break off the main path, you’ll find Road Turn Branch Falls, a small waterfall. As you keep hiking, you can reach Courthouse Rock and Quilliams Cave and Falls.
4. Gregory Cave
We bet you didn’t know there is a cave hidden along a hiking trail in Cades Cove! This secret trail is pretty simple to find. You’ll make your way along the Cades Cove Loop until you pass the entrance to Sparks Lane near John Oliver Cabin. After you park, you’ll walk along the road until you see a gated dirt road on the right. You’ll hike up this road until you pass two picnic tables on the right. Then you will spot the cave! The entrance is blocked off with metal bars, but you can see some of the cave, including pick marks on the walls, which are most likely from miners in the early 1800s.
Now you know about some of the secret hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains! You also won’t want to miss out on the hidden gems along these trails too. While we know you love secret spots, have you visited the most popular places in the park? Learn more about the most popular places in the Smoky Mountains!
Hiking in the Smoky Mountains
One of the best ways to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by going for a hike! Hiking is a popular activity in the Smoky Mountains because of the abundance of trails and variety of gorgeous sights. From historic structures to waterfalls, you can see it all up close when you go for a hike in the Smokies! There are over about 850 miles of hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains, ranging from easy hikes for the whole family to more challenging trails.
When deciding where you want to hike in the Smoky Mountains, think about what you want to see. There are trails with waterfalls, gorgeous mountain views, historic structures, old-growth forests and more. All of the hikes have something to offer during each season: wildflowers in the spring and summer, fall foliage and icicles and snow-covered mountains in the winter. We’ve created a guide to some of the most popular hikes in Smoky Mountains below:
Best Kid-Friendly Hiking Trails
Looking for a hike that the whole family can do? You’re in luck! The Smoky Mountains are home to plenty of fun hikes that everyone from the kids to the grandparents will enjoy. Here are the best kid-friendly hiking trails:
- Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail
- Gatlinburg Trail
- Elkmont Nature Trail
- Cataract Falls
Best Hiking Trails with Views
If a mountain view is what you’re looking for on your hike, there are some trails you don’t want to miss. Here are the best Smoky Mountain hiking trails with views:
- Andrews Bald
- Gregory Bald
- Chimney Tops
- Alum Cave
Best Hiking Trails with Waterfalls
One of the best sights to see on a hike is a gorgeous waterfall! If you’re hoping to see this feature on your hike, check out the best hiking trails with waterfalls:
- Laurel Falls
- Grotto Falls
- Rainbow Falls
- Ramsey Cascades
Most Popular Hiking Trails
There are definitely some can’t-miss hikes in the Smoky Mountains. From waterfalls to panoramic mountain views, these trails offer it all. Here are the most popular hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains you have to try:
- Grotto Falls
- Laurel Falls
- Chimney Tops
- Alum Cave
We’ve named some of the best trails for hiking in the Smoky Mountains, but you can’t go wrong anywhere you choose to hike when you visit!
Hiking Safety Tips
When you go hiking in the Smoky Mountains, there are a few safety tips you need to keep in mind. Here are a few basic hiking safety tips:
- Don’t hike alone
- Carry drinking water with you
- Bring a small first aid kit
- Check the weather before starting your hike
- Wear shoes/boots with good ankle support
- Don’t cross rain-swollen streams
- Don’t hike at night
- Carry a flashlight
If you happen to encounter a black bear along your hike, keep these black bear safety tips in mind:
- Stay at least 50 yards away
- Don’t run from the bear
- Remain watchful
- Slowly increase the distance between you and the bear while keeping your eyes on the bear at all times
If the bear continues to follow you or approach you, do the following: