With better than 800 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone, the Great Smokies have hiking adventures for every taste and skill level: from short, easy strolls on paved paths to multi-night backcountry treks through Southern Appalachian wilderness. If you’re visiting the Smokies with children, you’re in luck: There are many trails well-suited to the smaller crowd. On-foot adventures large and small are some of the very best ways to introduce new generations to the magic of these highlands, and needless to say the waterfalls, wildflowers, giant trees, and mountain vistas of the Great Smokies—not to mention a luckily glimpsed black bear or indigo bunting—are a great substitute for “screentime.”
Here are five of the best Great Smokies trails to hike with kids:
Nothing like topping out on the high point of the Great Smoky Mountains crest! Kids’ll love the long views available (in clear conditions, anyhow) from the crown of the range on 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, plus the sense of satisfaction that comes from summiting the third-highest peak in the eastern U.S.
It’s only a half-mile walk to the observation tower surmounting Clingmans Dome and a paved one at that, but the grade’s moderate so you and the gang will feel you’ve earned the panorama. Even when Clingmans Dome is socked in by cloud, the mountaintop mood is pretty darn cool.
Just under a mile, this easy self-guided interpretive loop is a great place for a family mosey amid a grand example of the Great Smokies’ sylvan splendor. Reached via the Chimney Tops Picnic Area along Newfound Gap Road, the Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail shows off some magnificent old-growth Southern Appalachian cove forest, including big tulip-trees, yellow birches, basswoods, eastern hemlocks, and more. In spring, this is one of the standout wildflower walks in the park, too, with eye-popping blooms of spring beauty, fringed phacelia, trillium, rue anemone, and others.
A brochure available at the trailhead serves as a guide to the natural highlights you’ll be wandering through—great for reading together out loud along the way!
This easy, 3.6-mile route along the Bradley Fork and Chasteen Creek trails takes you to one of the many gorgeous whitewater spectacles the Great Smoky Mountains are known for: the pitched rapids of Chasteen Creek Cascades. The entire hike, though, is lovely, with streamside serenity the name of the game pretty much throughout.
Besides the impressive destination of the cascades, the Chasteen Creek Trail—reached via the Bradley Fork Trail from the Smokemont Campground near the Oconaluftee entrance to the national park—is worth considering for one of its easily accessible backcountry campsites: No. 50, the Lower Chasteen Campsite. Just a bit more than a mile in from the trailhead, this site provides a great way to enjoy an easy family backpacking overnighter that doesn’t require a long, tough hike to pull off and keeps you within easy reach of civilization.
The Laurel Falls Trail is among the most popular in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and for good reason: The namesake attraction, 80-foot-tall Laurel Falls, is a fabulous natural wonder. It’s also a good choice for pint-sized hikers: fully paved the whole way (this is actually the longest of the completely paved trails in the park), only 2.6 miles round-trip, but providing a bit of a healthy workout to complete.
Encouraging kids to tackle any trail is all the easier when there’s a big payoff at the turnaround point, and the walkway right in between the upper and lower sections of Laurel Falls definitely fits the bill.
Like the Cove Hardwoods path, the Fighting Creek Nature Trail is an easy, all-ages interpretive route that combines a bit of learning with its scenery. Armed with the brochure trail guide, you’ll not only learn about the handsome woods here—which include an especially eye-catching old sycamore beside Fighting Creek—but also the human history of the area, which encompasses the bygone settlement of the Forks of the River community.
Challenge the kids to spot signs of onetime human habitation, such as overgrown stone walls. You don’t have to search for the historical highlight of the Fighting Creek Nature Trail: the John Ownby Cabin, built circa 1860, the interior of which is open to the public and sure to fascinate young and old alike.