25 Best Family Hikes: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By Joshua Davis •  Updated: 11/15/22 •  24 min read

For some of the best family hikes, Smoky Mountains National Park is hard to beat! Hike to waterfalls, through old-growth forests, or up mountain peaks through fields of wildflowers for stunning views.

Covering over 522,000 acres (816 square miles) between North Carolina and Tennessee and providing more than 800 miles of hiking trails, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best places to hike with your family.

But when you have young kids, finding the right hike can be a bit of a challenge. You want one that will be both enjoyable for everyone and not too challenging.

Well, we’ve got good news for you: in this post we’ve shared some of the best family-friendly hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains from our own experience hiking with kids.

So gear up the family and let’s hit the trails!

Best Time to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Typically, for families, the “best time” to visit any national park refers to an idyllic balance between fair weather and as few crowds as possible.

Months with the Lowest Crowds and Best Weather

We recommend that families visit Great Smoky Mountains National park during the following months to avoid heavy crowds and extreme weather:

September: By this time, the summer heat has finally begun to wane with temperature highs topping out in the 70s and 80s (depending on elevation). The summer crowds are gone bringing a much-welcomed quiet to the more-popular sights.

March, April, and May: The frigid winter temperatures give way to highs in the 60s and 70s with lows in the 40s (although March can sometimes be a bit chillier).

While the weather can be a bit unpredictable with sudden rain showers and/or occasional snow flurries, the temperature is perfect for hiking!

Plan your trip from mid-April to May to experience an explosion of spring blossoms in the trees and meadows!

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Months to Avoid Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains N.P. is the most-visited national park in the country and most of these visitors descend on the park in June, July, and October (the most crowded months).

If you want to avoid crowds, avoid planning your visit during these 3 months.

August is the Great Smoky’s hottest month with temps in the 80s and ’90s and can still be a crowded time.

Also, unless you have cold-weather gear suitable for highs between 30°-50°F (depending on elevation) and lows at or below freezing, mid-November through February may not be advisable either, especially with very young children.

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Easy Family Hikes

Sometimes, when little peeps with little legs are along for the adventure, you need a break from giving piggyback rides over the longer, more difficult trails. Fortunately, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has plenty of shorter, easier trails to explore!

The Sugarlands area just south of Gatlinburg, TN is packed with kid-friendly hikes that can be easily arranged into a one-to-multiple-day itenarary.

Pro-Tip: If you want a suggested itinerary for hitting these trails in the best order for a day trip, take a look at this map (click the caption for a larger view and listed directions).

It includes directions to 10 of the best suggested trailheads except for four: Cosby Nature Trail, Look Rock Tower Trail, Deep Creek Loop Trail, and Oconaluftee River Trail.

… and it may need to be split up into 2 days.

1. Gatlinburg Trail, Sugarlands

Helpful Tip: The estimated time noted at the beginning of each trail description will vary depending on fitness level, experience, and the age of your kids. Always take these factors into consideration when planning to hike with children.

In a park where dogs and bicycles are not allowed on any trails except two, the Gatlinburg Trail may be a good choice if you brought the family bikes (or dogs).

Great Smoky Mountain Trail near Gatlinburg, TN

The trail is a 1.9-mile one-way route from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Gatlinburg, TN. The path is level and runs next to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River through the forest.

The trail provides stunning views of the river, at one point crossing it with a pedestrian bridge.

You can see the remnants of foundations and chimneys of several old homes along the trail.

The Gatlinburg Trail is popular among joggers, walkers, and bicyclists.

2. Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail, Sugarlands

The purpose of this shorter, wheelchair-accessible trail is to give nature lovers a place to take in the beauty and peace of the Smokies without having to commit to one of the park’s longer, more difficult hikes.

Make your way from the parking area to the banks of a flowing stream, a paved trail lined by leafy deciduous forests and green moss.

This is a great spot to sit and take a lunch break in the middle of the day.

Detailed exhibits along the trail show the land’s past use as farmland and its current status as an actively reclaimed forest. It’s an excellent opportunity to learn some of the park’s history as a family.

3. Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Newfound Gap

If you have an hour or two to spare, we highly recommend checking out this self-guided nature trail. You’ll see wildflower gardens and old-growth trees—two natural features the Great Smoky Mountains are especially famous for.

Old Growth Forrest in Great Smoky Mountains

Plus, they’re some of the easiest places to reach in the national park!

Although short, the Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail is a wonderful self-guided interpretive footpath that will give you a taste of North America’s richest ecosystem: the Southern Appalachian cove hardwood forest.

Visit during the Spring to treat your family to a truly spectacular wildflower display!

4. Elkmont Nature Trail, Sugarlands

For a needed break along an easy and short hiking trail near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, try this 0.8-mile loop trail! On average, it only takes 19 minutes to finish the entire route.

If you’re looking for peace and quiet, this is the trail for you. Although it’s popular for camping, hiking, and running, you can still find a moment to yourself during less busy times of day.

As it’s open year-round, you’ll find the trail beautiful and great for littler kids no matter when you visit.

Unfortunately, Fido will have to stay home – dogs aren’t allowed on this particular path.

5. Cove Mountain Trail to Cataract Falls, Sugarlands

Cataract Falls is one of the best-kept secrets among the Smoky Mountain trails.

Perfect for families with young children, this 3/4-mile (roundtrip) trail is a quick ten minutes from downtown Gatlinburg.

If you start from the left of the visitor center and walk towards the parking lot, the trailhead will be visible. Intially, the trail is paved and relatively flat, but quickly changes to gravel.

You and your family are in for a treat with the tranquil flow of Fighting Creek, verdant vegetation, and stunning overhead tree canopy.

Although the trail is a short walk from downtown Gatlinburg, you’ll feel like you’re miles away from the hustle and bustle!

6. Fighting Creek Nature Trail, Sugarlands

The Fighting Creek Nature Trail is a short and easy loop that is great for all ages. It takes you into the depths of a beautiful Smoky Mountain forest, which is very close to downtown Gatlinburg.

The beautiful trees, flowing streams, and the possibility of seeing a waterfall make this the perfect short hike for parents with young children or anyone tight on time.

Flowing Creek in the Sugarlands Area Near Gatlinburg, TN

Stop by the trailhead to pick up a brochure before starting your journey. This self-guided tour provides visitors with valuable information regarding Smoky Mountain’s history and ecology.

After crossing the Ash Hopper Branch and Fighting Creek, you’ll come to a fork in the trail.

Either fork works for this loop; either direction will bring you back to your starting point.

7. Little River Trail, Elkmont

Little River Trail was an old logging road utilized by the Little River Lumber Company in the early 1900s. Currently, visitors of the trail can see remnants from past logging operations, such as railroad rails and steel cables.

Unfortunately, although the forest has recovered since then, logging removed most of the old-growth trees.

Elkmont Campground’s Little River Trail is a wonderful place to take a leisurely stroll and admire the forest floor covered in delicate wildflowers. Come October, the foliage will be a stunning sight.

Autumn Brings a Firework Show of Color to the Great Smokies.

The first 0.3 miles take you by old rental cabins, after which the trail leads alongside the Little River. You’ll come across the 20-foot Huskey Branch Falls after hiking around 2.2 miles.

The Cucumber Gap Trail junction will be on your right just before you reach the 2.5-mile point.

You can turn around here or extend your hike by continuing on the Little River Trail if you stay straight at this turn-around spot.

8. Metcalf Bottoms Trail, Elkmont

After hiking Little Brier Gap, you can also hike south along the Metcalf Bottoms Trail.

The tall trees and lush foliage provide a natural canopy above the trail, while the Little Greenbrier River flows just beside the path.

Many of the old-growth trees along the trail have gigantic roots that go across the path, so it might be tough to push strollers along. We recommend leaving them in the car; you’ll probably spend more time wrestling the stroller over obstacles than actually pushing it through smooth terrain.

9. Little Brier Gap, Sugarlands

The Southern Appalachians and Great Smoky Mountains have fascinating heritage and history. The trails around Little Briar Gap are a great experience for those wanting to travel back in time and explore an area used by early settlers.

Late 1800’s Homestead in the Great Smoky Mountains

The Little Brier Gap trail is a 2.9 miles out-and-back and is considered easy to moderate with some elevation gain. The trailhead begins on Little River Road southwest of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

This hike takes you past some of the most impressive historical structures from the late 1800s in the national park — definitely worth a visit!

10. Schoolhouse Gap Trail, White Oak Sink

This family-friendly trail is two miles long with an easy 500 ft. elevation gain. It’s wide and mostly clear of rocks and roots, plus it follows a small creek for part of the journey.

Just before the gap, on the right side of the trail, there is a marshy area ideal for birding or wildflower viewing. If you pass the gap, you’ll see a narrow trail that leads to Whiteoak Sink.

The caves of Whiteoak Sink play host to a number of bat populations; however, the threat of White Nose Syndrome has rendered them closed to humans.

Helpful Tip: The following 4 easy family hiking trails are far removed from each other and will require a separate drive to get to. But, it’s a pretty drive!

11. Cosby Nature Trail, Sugarlands

Of all the places in the Smokies, Cosby is one of the lesser-known gems, beloved by those who frequently visit or live nearby.

The campground is hardly ever full, and the picnic area is always spacious and uncrowded; but, the primary reason people visit the Cosby area is for hiking.

The Cosby Nature Trail is a lovely hike that can take you to the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail, or be enjoyed as its own separate trail.

The hike begins and remains leisurely throughout; however, be cautious of a few stream crossings and one particularly slippery spot if the rocks are wet. Also, near the end of the hike, you will need to cross the river on some rocks in order to continue.

This is a great trail to visit if you’re wanting to escape the crowds and need a hike suitable for children 5 years and younger.

Look out for areas along the river bank to stop and enjoy a snack or lunch.

12. Look Rock Tower Trail, Happy Valley

The Look Rock Tower Trail is a short, easy walk that offers some of the best views in the Great Smoky Mountains region. The trail is accessible for people of all ages and is open for most of the year.

With hardly any other visitors, this is a cannot-miss stop where you can get out and see the Great Smokies as well as an expansive view of the Tennessee Valley.

From the observation platform, visitors can see stunning vistas. The view is phenomenal, to say the least: from high up in the Great Smokies all the way out across Tennessee and into the uplands of Kentucky.

On a clear day, you can see for more than 50 miles!

13. Indian Creek and Tom Branch Falls (via Deep Creek Loop Trail)

Here’s one for you waterfall hunters.

In only 1.6 miles, you can see two gorgeous waterfalls by taking a roundtrip hike in Deep Creek. The amount of time it takes you depends on how often you stop and enjoy the sights.

Hike the Deep Creek Trail for 0.7 miles to reach the junction with Indian Creek Trail.

As you travel, be sure to view the beautiful Tom Branch Falls, which is 60 feet tall and located on the far side of Deep Creek.

At the junction with Indian Creek Trail, turn right and continue until you see Indian Creek Falls after approximately 200 feet.

About face, and head back to the trailhead.

If you’re in the mood for another waterfall (and don’t mind adding another 1.5 hours to your hike), turn right about 0.1 miles from the trailhead onto the Juney Whank Falls Trail. In about 0.4 mile, you will be treated to a view of 90-foot Juney Whank Falls from a footbridge.

14. Oconaluftee River Trail and Mountain Farm Museum, Oconaluftee Visitor Center

The Oconaluftee River Trail is a perfect trail for those who want an easy family stroll near Cherokee.

If you’re looking for a pet-friendly hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this is one of the only two options.

The spectacular views of the river and woods make the riverwalk worth taking, but the Museum of Mountain Farm and accompanying Cherokee signs are an added bonus!

In your spare time, be sure to check out the Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee trailhead.

The Park Service has relocated and assembled a variety of structures from the Smokies at this site, including an applehouse, a blacksmith shop, and the John E. Davis House. The house is made from chestnut wood gathered locally.

This is the perfect place to learn about local history with its museum exhibits and living-history demonstrations.

Moderate Family Hikes

If your little ones have grown up a bit and worked some independence into their trail legs, then these are the hikes for you!

All of these treks can be completed in half a day and none are longer than 5.5 miles. They all offer great views, interesting features, or both.

Helpful Tip: The following trails are fairly far-removed from each other over a wide central expanse of the national park. However, if you want to hit as many of them as possible in a day, the map below provides the most direct route to each.

Click the caption for more detailed directions.

15. Laurel Falls Hike, Sugarlands

Laurel Falls is an 80-foot tall waterfall reached by following the namesake Laurel Falls trail, abundant with mountain laurel shrubs. The longest of four paved trails in the national park, this particular one extends for 2.6 miles with an elevation gain of 314 feet – manageable for most people.

Use caution when hiking Laurel Falls Trail with kids- keep them from venturing off the beaten path. There are some slippery surfaces (even on the paved trail) and treacherous drop-offs along the journey, especially near the waterfall.

The spectacular waterfall is considered the most visited location in the park. Arrive early in the morning to avoid crowds and parking challenges if visiting during the peak season.

16. Grotto Falls Trail via Trillium Gap Trail, Sugarlands

What’s better than seeing a waterfall from the front? Walking behind one!

The hike to the 25-foot waterfall is a moderate incline, totaling 585 feet in elevation gain.

Although the trail is not particularly difficult, you’ll need comfortable shoes to walk along the unpaved, uneven path. It can be a little tough at times; but, it’s definitely worth it because of the stunning waterfall at the end!

Come to this natural oasis to relax and rejuvenate. You’ll love the calming sound of flowing water, and you might even see a salamander or two! For many visitors, the most memorable part of their trip is walking behind the deafening power of the waterfall.

A visit here is an opportunity to hear the fall’s power and see water cascading into a pool in front of you. Walking behind a large waterfall is an experience like none other!

17. Porters Creek Trail to Fern Branch Falls, Greenbrier

Located on Porters Creek Trail, Fern Branch Falls is a 50-foot tall waterfall that can be reached via this 4-mile round-trip trek.

If you want a tranquil hike through nature, this trail is ideal since it sees less foot traffic and has stunning surroundings.

As you journey deeper into the forest, you will eventually come to a log bridge that crosses over toward the waterfall. You will pass by a cemetery and some of the remaining remnants from the Greenbrier Cove community along the way.

In addition to the mysterious aura, these relics contribute to the hike, these old buildings are also abundant in the area and provide visitors with an idea of what this place was like before it became a national park.

After a fun-filled hike, you’ll come across Fern Branch Falls, which stands 50 feet tall. This is the perfect spot to sit down for lunch, relax, and take some incredible photos that will help you remember this trip forever!

18. Abram Falls Trail, Cades Cove

While only a 20-foot plunge, Abrams Falls is considered the largest in the Smokies in terms of the enormous volume of water that falls from it’s edge to the pool below.

Abrams Falls trail is a moderate difficulty, which makes it popular amongst hikers during peak season. The fact that it’s not too long is an added bonus!

Early Settler’s Cabin in Cade’s Cove

Hikers enjoy that Abrams Creek runs parallel to the trail for most of the hike, providing a calming presence. The trail begins at a large wooden bridge crossing over the creek.

There are areas with ridges that will need to be maneuvered during the first half of the trail, as well as a few chances to rock-hop over creeks.

Hikers will ascend to the waterfall via a trail that winds through a pine-oak forest atop the ridges. You can also see Hemlock and Rhododendron thickets close to the edge of the creek.

Hikers will find themselves at the 2.5-mile marker, and upon crossing Wilson Creek, they’ll experience the 20-foot drop of Abrams Falls.

19. Rainbow Falls Trail, Sugarlands

While not for younger or inexperienced children, kids 8 years old and up with significant hiking experience can enjoy what many consider the most scenic hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Head to the Rainbow Falls waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a hiking adventure you won’t soon forget.

The 80-foot waterfall is not only the tallest single-drop waterfall in the national park, but it also cascades dramatically over a jutting cliff face before rushing down to lower rock formations.

The falls’ mist creates a beautiful rainbow on sunny days, adding a mystical atmosphere to its surroundings.

This 5.4-mile trail, which is moderate to difficult, has a rapid elevation gain of 1,500 feet and therefore isn’t recommended for young children.

If you see a “shortcut” along the trail, beware that it may be more difficult than it looks — stay on the trail to avoid any potential dangers!

The Rainbow Falls trail is one of the oldest in the park and very popular among hikers. The terrain often has rocks or uneven ground, so be mindful as you walk. If you want to avoid strain on your joints, be sure to wear hiking boots that support your ankles.

20. Clingman’s Dome, Newfound Gap

With a total elevation of 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the highest in the state of Tennessee, and the third-highest east of the Mississippi.

Ramp and Viewing Platform on Clingman’s Dome

The half-mile walk to the observation tower at the top of Clingmans Dome is well worth it for visitors, as they are rewarded with spectacular 360° views of not only the Smokies but also the surrounding area.

On days when the air is clearer, views have been known to expand over 100 miles. However, more often than not, air pollution lays a haze over everything and limits how far one can see to under 20 miles.

The road to the tower is only open during specific seasons (closed from December through late March), and it may close suddenly due to hazardous weather conditions.

21. Andrews Bald via Forney Ridge Trail, Newfound Gap

This sought-after trail provides awesome views of the Great Smoky Mountains and other nearby peaks, making it an ideal hike for active families who can commit around three hours.

To reach Andrews Bald, start at Forney Ridge Trail; this is located at the Clingmans Dome parking lot’s farthest point. Make sure to take the Forney Ridge Trail (it’s the one on the left of Clingmans Dome paved path) if you want to get where you’re going!

After hiking through dense forests gaining about 900 feet, you’ll come out on top of the Great Smokies highest bald with fantastic panoramic vistas.

If you can brave the peak months of June and July, you’ll be treated to an explosion of blooms from the azaleas and rhododendron that cover the area.

22. Kephart Prong Trail, Newfound Gap

A great trail for history buffs. Although there are no waterfalls or mountain views, the Kephart Prong Trail is worth exploring.

This spot in the national park is perfect for a quick getaway from the city. The CCC camp and other historical relics offer a glimpse into the past of the national park.

Although the Kephart Prong Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains may not be donned with the most jaw-dropping natural wonders, it more than makes up for it with its backwoods scenery and rich history.

Strenuous Family Hikes

If you’re a fit family with ample hiking experience and an itch for a challenging day-hiking adventure, any of the following trails would be great for you.

The following suggestions are for families with older children who are in excellent physical condition, possess the appropriate gear for a strenuous day hike, and are capable of pushing through extremely challenging terrain to experience what few national park visitors do.

Know your limits!

23. Alum Cave to Mount LeConte Trail

If you only have one day and can only hike one trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, make it this one!

The Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte is easily the most demanding but gratifying hike in the National Park. What you will see and experience along this route may very well spoil you for the rest of your time in the Smokies!

Alum Cave Trail is the perfect destination for nature-lovers and thrillseekers alike. The picturesque scenery of America’s Smoky Mountains provides hikers with an opportunity to explore and spend quality time with loved ones in a serene setting.

Many argue that it is the best trail in the Smoky Mountains. It isn’t only because the path is one of the longest or most difficult to hike; it is unmatched in its combination of natural geological features, gorgeous views, and utter beauty.

24. Chimney Tops Trail, Newfound Gap

Although it may not seem like much, the out-and-back distance for Chimney Tops is actually quite strenuous.

This is not a beginner-level hike! You will gain elevation quickly, without any switchbacks to break up the incline. And, once you reach the top, you will need to perform a hard scramble over some rocks.

If you make it to the summit, you will be rewarded with one of the most stunning views of the Great Smoky Mountains.

If you chose to hike this trail with young children, pay extra attention to them while on this hike. A single misstep could cause anyone to fall during the rock scramble or summit.

25. Ramsey Cascades Trail

The Ramsey Cascades Trail is an escape to a world where pristine nature still exists. This picturesque roundtrip journey is definitely worth it and features lovely forests with lush foliage, babbling streams, and rivers.

Though it is a difficult hike, the 90-foot waterfall at the end makes it all worth it!

Use extreme caution when hiking the Ramsey Cascades Trail near the waterfall, and don’t attempt to climb on the rocks. Too many hikers have died or been hurt in the past while attempting this.

Keep an eye out for hornets’ nests during the summer. They are large and gray, hanging from trees at about eye level.

Time to Hit the Trail!

If you’re looking for a great outdoor adventure, the Smoky Mountains have plenty of trails to offer for families with children of all ages.

Whether you want an easy walk through nature, a strenuous hike to see some spectacular views, or a liesurely stroll to chill at the foot of a cascading waterfall, these six trails will get your heart racing.

So lace up your boots and get ready to explore everything the Smokies have to offer!

Joshua Davis

Being outdoors is freedom! Being outdoors with my wife and two boys is LIVING! Whether in my backyard or getting lost in a National Park, there’s nothing I’d rather do than explore, discover, and experience the paradise that surrounds us. Give me my family, a backpack, and a trail and my life is full!