5 Easy Smoky Mountain Hikes near Gatlinburg
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses 522,427 acres between the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, making it one of the largest protected land areas east of the Rockies. With over 12 million visitors per year, the Smoky Mountains is America’s most visited national park. Tourists come from all over the world to enjoy hundreds of miles of hiking trails, wildlife watch, leaf peep in the fall, view beautiful waterfalls, and enjoy scenic drives.
The Smokies also happens to be one of the only free national parks, so you can explore the park’s diverse plant and animal life to your heart’s content without spending a dime. With over 800 miles of trails, there is an option for everyone. Keep in mind that the Smokies are home to the largest black bear population (the estimated population is 1500), so research bear safety tips should you happen to cross paths on one of your adventures.
Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge is a popular base for exploring the Smokies. There are a number of great hikes in the area, including numerous featuring fantastic waterfalls and mountain overlooks. Below are 5 easy/mod short hikes (less than 3 miles RT) to incorporate into your trip itinerary.
1. Laurel Falls
- Distance: 1.3 miles out-and-back (2.6 RT). Est time: 2 hours
- Highlights: Gorgeous waterfall, paved, frequent black bear sightings
- Location: Little River Road (3.5 miles from Sugarland’s Visitor Center).
Not surprisingly, Laurel Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the Smoky Mountains. This beautiful 80 foot waterfall is easily accessible via a moderate roundtrip hike of just 2.6 miles. As one of only 4 paved trails within the Smokies, this one is busy year-round. Parking is limited, so it’s best to plan a weekday hike, or visit during the off season. While the trail is just over a mile each way, it’s a pretty steep climb with a gradual elevation gain of ~300 ft. Take your time and frequent water breaks and you will be fine. While the scenery is nice, oftentimes the foot traffic is just too heavy, and thus, this takes away the nature component.
The waterfall is gorgeous, although it can be hard to capture a good picture on a busy day. Waterfall aside, the highlight of this trail is the frequent bear sightings. Black bears are very active in this area, and it is not uncommon to see one during your visit. Keep your distance, never feed a bear, and dispose of all food in bear safety garbage containers.
2. Riverview Quiet Walkway
- Distance: 0.9 mile loop. Est time: 30-40min
- Highlights: Quiet non-touristy vibe, great views of the river
- Location: US 441 (2 miles from the Sugarland’s Visitor Center)
There are a number of “quiet walkways” in the Smoky Mountains. These rustic off-the-beaten path nature trails are a great alternative for anyone wishing to avoid the heavy tourist crowds. These walks range from a quarter of a mile to 2 miles and are easy in nature, more of a nature walk vs. a tough hike. On these trails, you can take your time, enjoy nature, and soak in the natural beauty. It’s hard to appreciate nature fully on a super crowded tourist trail.
The Riverview Quiet Walkway is one of the best options, particularly for anyone who likes streams and creeks. Access is located off 441, just 2 miles from the Sugarland’s Visitor center. You will see several of these brown quiet walkway signs as you drive past the visitor’s center including one near the Laurel Falls trail. Stop at all of them if you have the time. Despite the easy accessibility, these quiet walkways remain enjoyably quiet. For anyone seeking a longer stroll, The Thunderhead Prong Walkway is the perfect option. This easy 1.4 mile out-and-back allows you to get up close with the natural flora and fauna of the park. Note: this trail is located about an hour from Gatlinburg in Townsend.
3. Cataract Falls
- Distance: 0.7 miles out-and-back (1.4 miles RT). Est time: 30min-1hour
- Highlights: Gorgeous waterfall, starts behind the visitor’s center, plenty of parking
- Location: Starts at the Sugarlands Visitor Center (1420 Fighting Creek Gap Rd, Gatlinburg, TN)
This easy waterfall hike begins at the Sugarland’s Visitor’s Center. There is plenty of parking, so this is a great option if you do not want to hassle with street parking. A beautiful forest walk leads you to a picturesque 40 foot waterfall known as Cataract Falls. While the waterfall is not as stunning, this hike is a bit easier than Laurel Falls. For anyone seeking an easy waterfall hike, Cataract requires the least effort. For first time visitors whom would like to get acquainted with the park ecosystem, Cataract is a perfect option as there are many interpretative signs along the way. Not the best hike if you are seeking peace and quiet, although it’s beautiful, conveniently located, and requires little effort or time commitment.
By connecting to a 1 mile loop trail which takes you to the historic John Ownby cabin, you can extend your hike another mile. Before/after your hike, be sure to stop by the visitor’s center. Here you can pick up a park newspaper, use the restroom, stamp your national park passport book, fill up a water bottle, shop for souvenirs, and watch a video about the park.
4. Clingman’s Dome
- Distance: 0.5 miles out-and-back (1 mile RT). Est time: 1 hour
- Highlight: Amazing 360 degree views of the mountains, access to the Appalachian trail
- Location: Clingman’s Dome Road (Turn off Newfound Gap & follow the 7 mile road)
A steep half mile walk along a paved trail leads you to the highest point in the Smokies. At 6643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is not only the highest point in the Smokies, but also the highest point in Tennessee. The observation tower provides a bird’s eye view of the Smokies region. Oftentimes, the cloudy weather limits the view a bit. Nevertheless, it’s definitely a bucket list contender for any nature and mountain lovers.
At this high of an elevation, temps can be 10-20 degrees cooler, so dress appropriately. Be aware that the road leading to the tower is closed during the winter months (December-March). Clingman is a 23 mile drive from Gatlinburg, although the beautiful scenery along the route definitely justifies the time commitment.
5. Baskin’s Creek Falls
- Distance: 1.1 miles out-and-back (to cemetery, 3 miles for waterfall). Est time: 1.5 hours
- Highlights: Underused, lovely forest views, nice fall color
- Location: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance)
Baskin’s Creek is a moderate hike located in the middle of a scenic loop drive known as the Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail. Tourists flock to this drive due to it’s immense beauty and easy accessibility to popular trails. Fortunately, most hikers choose to take the path to Grotto Falls, one of the park’s most dazzling waterfalls. As an alternative, the 1.1 mile trek along Baskin’s Creek (to the Baskins Creek cemetery) is so peaceful and quiet with lovely views of diverse trees. This is one trail where you may not see a single hiker during your time, leading to a true feeling of being alone in the wilderness.
One interesting sight you will come across is an old cemetery near the 1 mile mark. There is also a short side trail to a 40 foot waterfall around mile 1.3, which is considered quite difficult due to the rugged nature. Overall, the hike is more moderate in intensity due to the steep climb required on the return route. However, the first portion is an easy downhill stroll. Nevertheless, it’s beautiful, not crowded, and located along a gorgeous drive that is worthy of a visit in and of itself. Note that bear sightings are pretty common here, so be alert and keep bear safety tips in mind.