The Best in the Smokies

With more than 800 miles worth of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and even more in the surrounding national forests, finding the right trail can sometimes be a challenge for families. Fortunately, our family, now with teens, has hiked just about all of the trails a traveler with a family might consider. Going from simple to more complex let’s start with the most popular trails in the Smokies. For additional info, directions and more hikes, check out the Play Out>Hikes subcategory in SmokiesTravelHub.

Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls is the obvious choice for the No. 1 family friendly waterfall in the mountains. It offers an absolutely beautiful set of falls, is convenient to Gatlinburg, paved and it’s a relatively short walk. At 2.4 miles round trip the paved trail is walkable with small children who like to walk or even need a stroller (not recommended so just keep a good grip on it). This trail is also probably the easiest multigenerational trail for healthy seniors along with the next pick.

Clingman Dome

Clingman’s Dome is a tie for the No 1 spot for similar reasons. Arguably offering the best view in the Smokies while also being paved, it really depends what your family is in the mood for, or equally importantly, how the weather is looking. While 1.2 miles round trip is short, most people underestimate the gentle uphill climb. It’s pretty easy to get a little winded at this elevation (an 18% decrease in O2 from sea level). Note: Clingman’s Dome Road is closed through the winter.

Grotto Falls

Grotto Falls is an equally short (2.6 miles round trip) and satisfying waterfall with no more incline so it resides at my No. 2 spot, increasing only slightly in its physical requirements. Not paved, it has some rocks and roots to cross; kids can navigate the trail pretty well. The 2nd generation forest with its gentle giants offers a really peaceful escape from urban life and the walk behind waterfall is the final reward that kids and adults both enjoy.

Porters Creek Trail

Porters Creek Trail is a hike of a different kind. Less trafficked and following an old road bed along a healthy mountain stream, the incline is light and it offers some beautiful woodland and history. Once populated by many families all that remains in most of Porters Flat, like the rest of Greenbrier, are dilapidated stone walls, cemeteries and a historic homestead at the top of the trail. It is approximately 3 miles round trip and at the top of the trail you’ll find a cantilevered barn, spring house and a cabin, built by the Hiker’s Club in the ‘30s. Note: David Barber (photo with great grandson) helped build the cabin in 1939.

Spruce Flats Falls

Spruce Flats Falls is another easy jaunt along a stream to a double waterfall requiring 1.8 miles round trip walking. Not as large as the others, it and the whitewater along the way are similarly satisfying. It’s also convenient for day trippers or those headed for Cades Cove. The trail goes beyond this set of falls, following the stream for at least 3 more miles, passing other falls.

Look Rock Tower

Look Rock Tower is convenient for day trippers looking for a short walk with a great overlook of the western end of the GSMNP and Chilhowee Lake. Located near Maryville, the trail is paved and short with some incline and the whole family is sure to enjoy it. From the tower, one can see many of the high ridges including Mt LeConte, Clingmans Dome and the Cades Cove bowl. Lastly, it’s a great vantage point for both sunrises and sunsets.

Abrams Falls

Abram Falls is a gorgeous gushing waterfall but it requires a little more ability to reach this destination. The trail is 4.9 miles and the terrain requires a little more ability; children ages 10-12 and above should be fine. It’s usually the parents who drag behind☺. The trail follows Abrams Creek which is the stream from Cades Cove watershed. The extra benefit of this hike is that it starts at the end of Cades Cove. BTW, watch for wildlife along the way, especially bears and otters.

Andrews Bald

Andrews Bald is another more advanced hike and is great for families with older kids, namely teens in fair hiking condition. At 3.5 miles round trip the view is excellent and the bald is a great example of a high elevation southern Appalachian bald with a great view, covered in thick grasses and shrubs. It starts at Clingman’s Dome parking lot which means the hike is a decline to the bald. Perfect in June when the azaleas are in bloom or in late August or early September when the blueberries and blackberries are ripe. This hike is great nearly all year long. Note: Access by Clingmans Dome Rd is closed in winter.

The Chimney Tops

The Chimney Tops should be on nearly every list of planned hikes. Offering a very different kind of hike, decent shoes are recommended for ascending this ridge with a view. It’s an increase in complexity due to its very steep incline (now with stairs) but is still ideal for families with confident hikers. The summit remains closed due to erosion but remains worth the effort. Note: the photo included is pre-closure.

If even these aren’t quite easy or short enough, check out Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail not far from the visitor’s center. Paved, flat and a half mile in total length, it might be just what you need for a stroll through the forest and a seat by a nice stream.

Oh boy, this list could continue for days! Regardless of the choice you make you’ll likely not be disappointed. Getting outside, burning off some energy and brightening the soul offers us something that can’t be replaced by other activities. Go get ‘em folks!