Gatlinburg Tennessee is a popular destination for both outdoorsmen and families. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the small town is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail passes through the park, often thought to be a destination for hardcore hikers, backpackers, and those who enjoy bushcraft.
Many families visit Gatlinburg for the multitude of family activities and the scenic views of the mountains. While Hiking the mountains may not seem like something a family could do, there are plenty of shorter trails that only take a few hours. Taking a short hike is a great way to experience the mountains without having to worry about getting lost deep in the woods. There are plenty of scenic overlooks and waterfalls to experience.
Clingmans Dome Lookout
When I visit Gatlinburg, this one is always on top of the list to visit with the kids. The 1-hour drive to the overlook is scenic and you also pass by the Newfoundland Gap overlook. Newfoundland gap is a popular place to stop and take a great family photo. Continuing to Clingman’s dome, you come to a parking area that can be quite crowded in the summer and fall. Be prepared to wait for a parking space during the afternoon especially.
The trail from the parking area is paved and only ½ mile to the observation tower. The trail is fairly steep and there are multiple areas to stop and rest if you need to. The area around the observation tower is often obscured by clouds. It is best to visit on a clear day or before noon during the summer.
Keep in mind that the temperature at the overlook can be 10-20 degrees cooler than the temperature in Gatlinburg. Take a jacket with you even if it is warm when you leave. The road to the highest point in the park is closed in the winter months, so be sure to check before you leave town.
Related Read: Thing to Do in Gatlinburg in Winter
Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail
This paved ½ mile trail is just past the Sugarlands visitor center at the entrance of the park and a quick 15 minute drive from Gatlinburg. This trail is flat and handicapped accessible and great for small children and strollers.
The trail makes a loop from the parking area along the Sugar Branch creek where you can stop and fly fish for trout. Along the trail you can find the ruins of several cabins and homesteads, however stone fireplaces and some stone fences are all that remain. In the summer the trees provide plenty of shade, so this makes it a great place to take a quick easy hike with children or anyone that can’t do a strenuous uphill hike.
Fighting Creek Nature Trail
This 1.1 mile trail begins just behind the Sugarlands visitor center. You can park in the visitor center parking lot and hike this trail after checking out the visitor center. This trail is dirt and not as easy as our first two trails, but it is still an easy hike. The trail makes a loop through the forest and is a nice leisurely hike without any hills.
The highlight of this trail is the John Ownby Cabin on the backside of the trail loop. This cabin was built in 1860 and was home to the Ownby family when the National Park was created. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained by the Park service. The cabin is in surprisingly good condition, and you can easily imagine a family living in it years ago.
Related Read: Tourist Attractions in Tennessee You Need to Visit
Cataract Falls Trail
This trail also starts behind the Sugarlands visitor center. It is only 3⁄4 of a mile round trip and leads to the 25-foot waterfall. This trail starts just off the Fighting Creek Nature trail, so if you hiked the previous trail, you could easily take this one too. The walk is great for children and the path is mostly gravel. The shaded trail includes a few bridges across the creek which makes it interesting, especially for kids. The bridges are well maintained with sturdy railing and cables, so you don’t have to worry about small children falling.
Just before the waterfall the trail goes under a bridge and then you go up a small set of stairs. This makes it not a good trail to take strollers on, but the stairs are not very difficult for smaller children. This trail is a great way to make it feel like you are deep in the mountains, with the convenience of the restrooms at the visitor center nearby.
Laurel Falls Trail
This trail is 4 miles past the Sugarlands visitor center, so it is an easy 15-20 minute drive from Gatlinburg. The paved trail is 1.3 miles to the falls, so 2.6 miles round trip. Even though it is paved, it is not friendly for strollers. The park service has posted warnings at the trailhead that strollers are not recommended. The trail is easy to moderate and there are some steep hills. This makes it not as easy as the other trails on our list. Bridges cross over two creeks on the way to the falls, with smaller waterfalls near one of them.
This is possibly one of the most popular trails in the park, and the parking at the trailhead is limited. The best time to come is early in the day, before everyone else has finished their pancakes. While not the best for smaller children, there is a reason this trial is popular.
What to Bring
Even though most of these trails are easy, in the summer months the lower elevations can still be hot and humid. Be sure to bring plenty of water with you. Since you could be deep inside the park, some areas do not have cellular service. In case of a medical emergency, always keep a small first aid kit that includes a tourniquet. The Survival rule of 3 tells us that we could only have minutes if we suffer a severe injury, and help could take some time to get to you even in an emergency.
Enjoy your Hike!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is more than just the Appalachian trail (one of the best hiking trails in the united states) or hiking to the Lodge on Mt. Leconte. Even if you are visiting Gatlinburg with small children or someone that can’t walk rough terrain, you can still enjoy being out in nature and some of the great trails the park has to offer. Many are easily accessible and can be done in a few hours. Take an afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of town and make your vacation an experience.