Beginner’s Guide To Family Friendly Hiking in the Smoky Mountains

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So you want to try to hike a little on your next visit to the Smoky Mountains. But you have no idea what, when, where, or how long! Lucky for you, I have been figuring out the answers to all of those Ws for a few years now. I so very much wish that we had started this when I was MUCH younger. So, if you are reading this, JUST DO IT! It will be worth the effort, TRUST ME!

Hiking with my family is a new found passion of mine and I think about it A LOT. So, if I don’t answer your questions in this blog, please ask me! I love to talk about our experiences and I have many more than what I have posted here.  But, here is what I would tell you if you asked me to help you get started:

What you need to know– The Smoky Mountains cover HUNDREDS of miles of trails with destinations that range from historical relics, to waterfalls to stunning views. The level of difficulty also ranges from a 15 minute walk pushing a stroller or wheelchair, to miles of treacherous terrain and climbing with gear required. So, the first thing you need to determine is what you want to see, where you want to see it, and how far you are willing to go to see it.

As a very basic gauge, I can tell you that we only get to do this about a week out of the year. We are topping out at about 7 miles per day and we can hike about 2 miles per hour if it isn’t super steep. I say very basic because if it’s a trail we like, we stop more to explore and get photos, etc. But we had a purpose and a deadline recently, and we made it up to Grotto Falls, which is 1.3 miles and a pretty good hill in under 45 minutes.

Hiking is a great way to get your kids off the screens. There is no signal in the vast majority of the park, so no wifi, no texting, no calls….phones = cameras and that is about it. BUT, if they want their own YouTube channel, use hiking as an idea for their videos! Get them excited about it!

Copperhead (venomous) on Porter’s Creek Trail 2018

THERE ARE BEARS! THERE ARE SNAKES! You are literally in the real life wilderness…not a fabricated Disney-like, perfectly themed world. There are real bears and they will show up when you least expect it. There are snakes…they will be there whether you see them or not! We have seen zero bears and 2 snakes in all our miles. But just be aware that this is a real thing and use common sense. **Important note. There are only TWO venomous snakes in the Smokies. The copperhead, pictured above, and a Timber Rattlesnake. You should be able to identify that one! Leave them alone, and they should return the favor! If it is any other snake, they are harmless (in theory, I may hurt myself getting away), but still let them go about their business. You are in their home.

You should also have some knowledge of the geography and terrain you are headed into. Some trails are very steep, some are flat. Some are rocky, some have bridges or boulder fields. Some trails have steep drop-offs. Do a little research and be prepared for your journey.

Hiking is also a fabulous way to exercise without being bored! It is not easy, but it can be very enjoyable and you will feel it tomorrow!  Just know your physical limitations…ask your doctor if you think you may have issues. Take your time and enjoy the beauty of the trail.  In hiking, it is BOTH the journey and the destination! Enjoy them equally!

What you need to read – I started out by googling and stumbled upon what I refer to as my hiking bible. Hiking the Smokys blog. I read this blog all the time. What I love about it is that you can sort the trails by alphabetical order, by location of the trail, by difficulty or by what you want to see at your destination. READ THE ARTICLES. They are very specific and offer points of interest and mileage along the way.

After our first year of really putting in some miles over Mardi Gras, I found the Hike the Smokies FB group. What a wealth of knowledge as well as amazing pictures for inspiration on your next adventure.  It can be expensive, though. ;) Because if someone posts a picture of something I haven’t seen yet, I suddenly HAVE to get back up there!  But, without this page, we wouldn’t know about the Troll Bridge, the Fairy House or the Llamas! (More about those later)

What you need to bring – DO NOT just jump out of the car and head up a trail. You certainly need to prepare for anything more than a half mile or so. At the very least you need to bring some water.

Here is what we have in our backpacks: We use THIS BAG (see photo) and each have one of our own now. Snacks, First Aid, WATER, printed directions (no cell signal), camera, hat, glasses, layers (it can drop 20 degrees in upper elevations), sunscreen, bug spray, plastic bags for trash – both ours and others.  Yes, we pick up other people’s trash on the trails. Once you have hiked a few miles, you will understand. Also, it is important to bring a good attitude! This is not easy, but it is so very worth it!

What NOT to do – Many people may not know that dogs are not allowed on the trails in the National Park. There are two exceptions: 1. Oconaluftee River Trail at the Visitor Center in Cherokee and 2. Gatlinburg Trail near the Sugarlands visitor center. These two also allow bicycles, but they are the only two that do.  So, do not bring your dogs on the trails, for their own safety. There are bears on the trails and your dog could become prey in front of your eyes.

Oconaluftee River Trail. Dog and bike friendly!

Also, while people seem to think that it is fun or cute, stacking rocks and hiding painted rocks are not allowed in the park and are greatly frowned upon by the purists who frequent them. You see, everyone wants to go see the beauty of the mountains and streams and all that they offer. If you alter anything, even a little bit, you are changing nature’s course. If you move a rock to stack it, you are altering the environment, and maybe disturbing a nest or home of  the fish, amphibians and other wildlife that live there. We are guests in their home. And if each of the millions of yearly visitors signed a tree with a sharpie, well… understand.

I saw a post last year where someone jumped out of their car in Cades Cove and decorated a tree for Christmas. While they probably thought it was cute and maybe even festive, that is not what this place is for. So, do not plan to alter anything in any way. You could be fined heavily if you do (not to mention publicly shamed on social media when someone sees it and posts to the FB groups). The same goes for carving your name in a tree….or writing on the wall of a historic cabin with a sharpie. (Please for the love of all that is holy, DO NOT SIGN YOUR NAME IN A SHARPIE ON THE WALLS OF THESE CENTURY OLD CABINS. JUST STOP IT.)

So, there is a principle of LEAVE NO TRACE. It applies, as I said, to hiding painted rocks and stacking river rocks and… applies to your trash. You should carry out all of your trash, even apple cores and orange peels, etc. If bears get used to eating people food, they are more likely to approach people who have it and end up being killed to save the people. So, we always keep grocery bags in our backpack for all of our trash…every single morsel of it…and any trash we come across.

What you need to buy – This is a frugal blog, as always. So, I do not suggest that you invest a fortune in hiking gear until you have a few miles under your belt and know that you love it and will do it again. Even then, buy it a little at a time as you progress in this new sport. That being said, there are some basic essentials.

Boots: The entire family needs good, ankle supporting, water proof hiking boots. I got lucky and caught my hiking boots on Zulily two Christmases ago and had enough credit that they were free! They are about $130 boots, but sometimes you can catch them closer to $70ish. I have worn them for 2 Mardi Gras trips, a Thanksgiving getaway and a Memorial Day weekend and have had no problems. I did get a blister on my last trip, but it was because I did not have proper socks! So, I added hiking socks to my collection at the Day Hiker on the way out of town.

My kids need new ones about every year or so and I have found that Academy has the best deal. Theirs are about $30, waterproof and last well enough to re-sell when they are outgrown.

I shop at The Day Hiker, a small hiking shop in The Village in downtown Gatlinburg.

I. Love. This. Store!! They have all the gear you need at AMAZING prices! We originally bought trekking poles for our kids at the local WalMart, but the Day Hiker had better poles, in pairs for better prices!

At that point, poles were a novelty to the kids, but we soon learned just how much they help you in steep terrain, or when rock hopping. They truly make a huge difference if you have knee issues or just, like me, tend to be a bit klutzy!

The store employees are great and are willing to give you advice on products as well as trails and things to see! You can see (above right)how they taught my kids to properly lengthen and hold the poles so that they serve their purpose correctly. Elbow at 90 degrees, arm through the strap!

Finally, you need a log book! Why?? Because you can log your miles and earn pins! Log books are $1 and can be purchased at the Visitor’s Centers. This is a GREAT and very frugal way to get the kids interested! You might even add your own incentives! (Read here to see what we enjoy as a treat after a big hike! It’s a tradition now and one that we all look forward to!)

As a family, we have broken the 50 mile marker now, and we each have our 25 mile and 50 mile pins! That is as far as you can go in the family book, but it’s a GREAT start to get everyone interested! So, now we will branch out into individual books and hike our way to the 100 mile pin over the next few years!

WHERE DO YOU START? Here are some of my favorite trails for order of easiest to, well…less easy. We have not done any super hard ones yet!

Cataract Falls 2016

Cataract Falls – this is a 15 minute walk behind Sugarlands Visitor Center. The road is wide and flat and I think it is super stroller and wheelchair friendly. You walk along the river and then through the woods a little. But, it’s seriously like 15 minutes. The falls are not huge, but they are great for a first outing, or for someone who wants to hike, but is unsure of their stamina. It is a great first hike for toddlers and does not pose any crazy fall threats. Some water crossings and bridges make it a beautiful, but short walk through the woods!

Noah Ogle Cabin and Nature Trail – The Cabin is not quite the destination here, as it is as the front and you head out back to the nature trail. This is another one that is rather short, but certainly not stroller/wheelchair friendly. It is more through the woods and you will climb/step over some downed trees and rocks.

You arrive at a river with an old grist mill and some simple things to explore. But this should be after you have explored the Ogle homestead. This is also a good one for the littles, you just want to help them with the obstacles and hang on to them by the river. You know – common sense and good parenting.

Walker Sisters’ Cabin 2018

Walker Sisters Cabin and Greenbrier School – This hike is easy in terms of terrain, but it is no Cataract Falls! Especially if you hike it in the winter season when some of the roads are closed. The parking lot is at the old school. The Cabin is a fairly easy one mile walk up a road…not a trail..not a mountain. There is one little stream that crosses the road, and you are walking up a slight incline. But it is not mountain climbing.

The Walker Sisters were born and raised in this cabin. They were the last residents of the land now known at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The 5 sisters inherited the land from their parents and they never left, nor married. They fought to keep their home when the Park was being founded. They ultimately sold out with a number that would make you a bit queezy, and were given the right to stay on their homestead until the 5 were all gone. Three buildings of their place were preserved and are on the Historic Registry. So, this hike is much more about history than it is about waterfalls or views.

Greebrier School and Cemetery

Once you come back to the parking lot, you can tour the old schoolhouse. There is also a cemetery in the front and the tombstones are quite fascinating. Just passed the schoolhouse on the other side (opposite the parking lot) is a quick trail along a stream and through the woods to Metcalf Bottoms picnic area. It is about .6 miles.

Now, I mentioned the season being an issue with the ease of the hike. When we went in February, the road TO the school and therefore, the parking lot, was closed for the winter. You can park at the gate and walk, but that adds about .75 miles of nice road, but it is fairly steep. We walked up that road, to the cabin, back to the school, down to Metcalf Bottoms, which put us out about half a mile from our car. So, we ended up at close to 4 miles on this hike. If you can park at the school, you can do about half of that.


Laurel Falls 2016

Laurel Falls – This one is super popular and therefore is usually crowded. It is paved, but when we went, there were some trees down so strollers or wheelchairs would have trouble. The trees are usually moved quickly, but if the weather or wind was bad recently, you might encounter this. It is just over a mile and has a few steep places with some major drop-offs. There are tons of kids on the trail, so again, just watch them and hold on to those who like to run!

Grotto Falls 2016

Grotto Falls – This one is about the same level of difficulty and distance as Laurel, and almost as popular. However, it is NOT paved, and there are some major patches of roots. It is more like hiking than the other three I have mentioned because you are climbing a mountain, over the rivers and through the woods, not on a paved trail or behind another attraction. It is also the ONLY waterfall in the GSMNP that you can walk behind! Because of its popularity, it is VERY difficult to get a good picture without people in it.

****This trail continues on to the top of Mt. Leconte where a very popular lodge is located. The only way to the top is by a handful of lengthy and moderate to difficult trails. Guess how they get supplies up there?

You can catch the Leconte Llamas coming or going down this very trail several days a week! We had been stalking them via the FB Hiking pages and got to Grotto Falls in time to catch them coming back through! Such a cool experience!! And we would have never known about them had I not followed that FB group!


Abrams Falls 2017

Abrams Falls – This one is located in the back of Cade’s Cove, just before you reach the rest area. It was not rated super hard, but I found it a little more difficult than I expected. It was supposed to be 5 miles round trip, but my FitBit and hubby’s app both showed closer to 6. It is a fun and beautiful hike, BUT – it is UP HILL BOTH WAYS! Not kidding.

See, you start out climbing, then you get to this pile of rocks that you have to climb over once you get to the top. Then, you start to descend back down to the falls. So, guess what that means….when you head out, you do the same thing in reverse. Uphill both ways! Also, it has some really steep drop-offs. YOU KNOW YOUR KIDS! If they can listen and be cautious, great….if they are daredevils or like to rebel against Mommy…maybe wait on this one!

However, it is totally worth the effort and it was our longest hike to date at the time we did it.  There is a long bank of large rocks where you can sit and picnic, catch your breath and get ready to head back out. Once you feel you are ready to start hikes that are not “easy”, this is a great one to start with!

The fam at Alum Cave – Nov 2017

Alum Cave – We took on Alum Cave in November 2017. It was a trial run, if you will, because it is also one of several trails to get to Mt. Leconte, which is the quintessential hiker’s goal. Leconte is 5.5 miles via Alum and gets you to the tallest mountain from base to top in the Smokies. There is a lodge up there and they sell t-shirts with the year you conquered Leconte. It is our goal and we intend to do it soon.

ANYWHO….we decided to test the trail by going to the Alum Cave Bluffs, which is almost halfway at 2.2 miles. This became my favorite trail to date! The first half or more is a peaceful walk through the woods alongside streams and rivers.  With the sunlight peeking through the trees, it is just a gorgeous walk. (See right)

Then, at just over a mile in, you come to Arch Rock(below). This is a huge rock that hollowed out over the many years of freezing and thawing. There is a staircase built right through the rock and it is a classic landmark of the Alum Cave Trail. Once you pass the rock, you start to climb a bit more. This was our first trail that has cables built on the side of the rock to hold on as you continue. There are some super steep drops and you must be extra cautious with the littles.

Just as you are about to get tired, you reach this “bald” called Inspiration Point. Think if a corner of bare rock where you can see for miles with NOTHING obstructing your view!  Also, it was at this point that we could see our destination!  Just about 2 tenths of a mile more, most of which is on man-made wooden stairs, we arrived at Alum Cave. It’s not really a cave as much as a bluff that was once used to mine Epsom Salts.

We always pack a lunch and have a break at our destination. Well, let me tell you, there was no break because the area known as Alum Cave is a super steep angle and you never relax. There were very few places to sit and far more people there this day before Thanksgiving.

So, we scarfed down our lunch while holding myself up with one leg stretched, took some awesome pics, then headed back down. We took lots more time to stop along the way down and it was still a quick trip. There was just something to see constantly and it made for a very fun and interesting hike. My favorite to date!!

Deep Creek Loop – We did Deep Creek Loop the day after Abrams Falls! Two back-to-back days of 6+ miles, with some steep climbs, and I literally could not turn over in bed that night. Deep Creek caught my eye because it was in our distance range with THREE waterfalls along the way. You can see all three in a much easier fashion than hiking the loop. The loop takes you over a very steep, very high ridge. But since 2 of the falls are within .25 miles of the parking lot, and the 3rd is an easy hike in, you could see all three and not want to cut your legs off like I did.

So, if you want to see all three of these, you would take one of these first, then come back to the parking lot, and head the other way:

Head toward the loop and at just .2 miles, you come to Toms Branch Falls (left) which is simply GORGEOUS! There are little benches where you can just sit and watch it as long as you like. Once you decide to move on, you continue on an old road, so it is nice and wide and flat, with just a slight incline. At about .8 miles, you will come to Indian Creek Falls (see family photo above). This is more like a water slide due to the rise and run of the falls.

Once you are done there, head back to the parking lot. From the parking lot, you will see a much steeper trail leading up the hill behind you. Just about a quarter of a mile up that trail, you will see Juney Whank Falls (above right).

So, You can see all three of these falls in just about a 2.5 mostly easy hike. Otherwise, the loop runs you closer to 5-6 miles and going up and over a mountain. It can be done, and we are not in the best of shape. But, you can get the highlights in the much easier format just as well.

I could literally go on for hours….or pages… so again I say: If you have any questions, I would LOVE to try to help!

Get your family and TAKE A HIKE!!

Be sure to also read 10 Free Things to Do in the Smokies!




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2 Responses to Beginner’s Guide To Family Friendly Hiking in the Smoky Mountains

  1. melinda K Ilar says:

    Thank you for sharing information — we are going this year – and this blog post was most helpful

  2. scottnsue3 says:

    What a fun family hobby! I loved reading your post and I am sure will refer back to it often. Thanks for sharing all the neat tips. Most kids would complain about being made to walk. Your kids must really be troopers!!!

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