If you are visiting Gatlinburg, TN then hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains is a must! This national park is chock full of wonderful trails to hike. What I especially love about hiking in the Smoky Mountains is the wide variety of trails available. There is truly a trail perfect for everyone!
On a recent weekend trip to Gatlinburg and the Great Smokies, we hiked three different trails. All of them were lovely, but each one was very different. In fact, we ran the gambit from the easiest trail to hike in the Smoky Mountains to one of the more challenging trails in the park. Plus one in-between for good measure.
In the interest of sharing three of the BEST hikes in the Smoky Mountains National Park, here they are in order from easy to difficult …
Cataract Falls – an EASY trail for any hiker
As soon as you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the first place you should visit is the Sugarlands Visitor Center. With knowledgeable employees and a nice little gift shop, it’s a great way to get your bearings. Plus there are plentiful, CLEAN restrooms!
For the non-hikers in your party, a short .4 mile trip to Cataract Falls is the perfect way to enjoy the smokies without a lot of commitment or effort. The trail starts out paved between the restrooms and the visitors center, so strollers and wheelchairs could even enjoy this part of the hike. You’ll then follow the sign a short distance to the waterfall.
The falls are beautiful and give you a good taste of what the Smoky Mountains are all about. This trail is fun for small kids as there is an end goal, and it’s such a quick stroll. It’s also ideal if you are really short on time but want to still enjoy the park.
Trail rating: super easy
Related Post: The first part of the trailhead to Cataract Falls is paved and reminds me a lot of our local rails to trails. Find one in YOUR area with the tips in this post: Rails to Trails
Fighting Creek Self-Guided Nature Trail
Also starting off from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Fighting Creek Self-Guided Nature Trail is a fun and fairly easy 1.4-mile loop. If your party can handle a few hills and narrower paths, it’s a nice addition to the Cataract Falls Trail. Combine them and you’ve got about a 2 mile total hike.
There are several fun parts to this trail that make it unique for kids as well as adults. As you walk along the trail, you’ll discover signs sharing different types of trees. It’s very interesting and fun to learn a little bit about what you see in the park.
About halfway through the hike, you’ll stumble across the John Ownby Cabin. Although it was built in 1860, it is in excellent condition and gives you a good feel for what living in the mountains might have been like many years ago. Also, although we didn’t see any, we did hear that this trail is one where black bears like to hang out.
We crossed several bridges and creeks, and for being so close to the visitors center and the main road, the trail felt quite isolated. I think the Fighting Creek Self-Guided Nature trail is perfect for someone new to hiking, or at least someone a little less experienced. As it’s not too long, it’s also a nice trail for when you only have a few hours to spare – it doesn’t take long to get to it, there is ample parking at the visitors center and it’s just challenging enough to feel like you’ve actually gone on a hike!
Trail rating: easy to moderate
Related Post: Not visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in the near future? Then how about a trip to a nearby state park? Visit Your State Parks
Challenge yourself with a hike to Rainbow Falls
The final trail for our weekend in Gatlinburg was the hike to Rainbow Falls. We actually didn’t start the day planning to hike this trail and after a long winter of being indoors found it a bit more challenging than we expected, but it was well worth the trip and as the hard work is the first part of the hike, we felt terrific by the time we finished!
Rainbow Falls is about 2.7 miles from the trailhead (just a few stops past the visitor center), and it is ALL uphill. The elevation rises by over 1500 feet! Be sure to bring water, and prepare yourself for frequent stops to catch your breath. The trail is well-marked and fairly wide in most spots. There are stairs here and there, but mostly just trail – and there are lots of rocks and branches, so you really do have to watch your feet. In fact, I’d be sure you have a sturdy pair of hiking shoes for this hike. My personal favorites are from Columbia – I don’t think you can go wrong with ANY of their outdoor gear.
The falls are absolutely beautiful and if you hit them at the right time of the day, you can capture some gorgeous rainbows. Once we reached the top, we spent about half an hour climbing on the rocks and just enjoying the scenery.
Luckily, the descent is all downhill, so aside from the branches and rocks on the trail it’s quite easy. It probably took us half the time to get down than it did to get to the top.
If you are really up for a challenge, you can continue another few miles to Mount LeConte – one of the tallest mountains in the Smoky Mountains. We weren’t quite up to that this afternoon – maybe next time!
Trail rating: moderate to difficult
Have you spent any time hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains? If so, what were your favorite trails? We had such a wonderful weekend, that I’m already trying to figure out another weekend getaway so we can hike some more!
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