Easy is a flighty, inexact word. What’s easy for you might be quite difficult for your neighbor. There are times I’ve been alone in the deep woods and struck by a zen-like peace as if there was a purifying spirit in the woods, giving me the salvation I needed before returning to the land of asphalt and obligations. There have also been times in the woods when I misjudged a hiking trail or my ability to navigate it, and I wanted nothing more than to be lifted back to the relative peace and safety of my car.
So while these trails are rated to be relatively easy, they should be easy for most able-bodied people in relatively good shape. Remember, walking in the woods at higher elevations can come with challenges for the inexperienced. Be honest with yourself before you get too far into the woods. Without further ado, here are some of the best easy hikes to take in the Smoky Mountains.
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8. Elkmont Nature Trail
The Elkmont Nature Trail does not take long to hike and is possibly one of the easiest trails on the list, coming in at only 0.8 miles. It’s a great area to explore because it’s also near old homesteads and the popular Elkmont campground.
If you travel along the nearby Little River Trail (4 miles) and the Jakes Creek Trail (2.7 miles), you’ll find a series of foundations, stone chimneys and stone walls. These are the remains of the once-thriving vacation resort of Elkmont. The Little River Trail trail is a good option for all ages with little hiking experience. If you venture on Little River Trail, walk up to where the trail crosses Cumberland Gap Trail and turn back. This path is about five miles round-trip and has a very gradual elevation gain. Novice hikers love this one for its wildflowers, bridges and streams.
7. Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail
While the trail to visit the observation tower is short, this hike is considered to be more on the moderate side due to its steepness and elevation gain. If you can handle the incline, the 1.2-mile out-and-back trail is one of the most well-known in the region. Clingmans Dome, which may very well soon be known as Kuwahi, is the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest in North Carolina. It straddles the state line, and the observation tower offers some of the best views in the Smokies.
6. The Gatlinburg Trail
The Gatlinburg Trail is one of two walking paths in the park that allows dogs and bikes. It’s relatively flat and runs through the forest from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to the outskirts of Gatlinburg. The trail is 3.8 miles roundtrip and offers beautiful views of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Also, the foundation and chimneys of several old home sites can be seen along the trail which is popular with joggers and bicyclists.
5. The Oconaluftee River Trail
North Carolina’s answer to the Gatlinburg Trail, the Oconaluftee Trail runs from the visitor center to the outskirts of Cherokee, North Carolina. It’s mostly flat with a few small hills, running beside the river. The water was up the last time I walked it and I made sure to keep a close eye on the kids, but it is dog and bicycle-friendly. The trail is 1.5 miles, one-way. Also, you may see some elk as they frequently visit the area.
4. Fighting Creek Nature Trail to Cataract Falls
Located just 10 minutes from downtown Gatlinburg, the trek to Cataract Falls and back is only three-quarters of a mile, making it ideal for families or those not up to hiking long distances. There is a small set of stairs to negotiate. The trail begins as paved but quickly turns to gravel. The path is well maintained with sturdy bridges over Fighting Creek. In the rainy seasons, the falls can be pretty impressive, but in drier times can slow to not much more than a trickle. The trail is located at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
3. The Little Brier Gap Trail
This 2.6-mile hike only gains about 285 feet of elevation as it runs between the trailhead. On Wear Cove Gap Road, in Wears Valley not far from Metcalf Bottoms, to the old Walker Sisters Cabin, the Little Brier Gap Trail runs through the history of a tiny mountain community that predates the park. At the trailhead, you’ll see Little Greenbrier School. The school was built in 1882 and served as a schoolhouse and church for the community and hosted its last class in 1935. Today, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The trail also leads to the old Walker sisters’ home. The Walkers were the five spinster daughters of John and Margaret Walker. They lived in the family cabin all their lives and gained national fame after the creation of the National Park as they clung to their old mountain ways. Allowed to stay on the family land, they were featured in national magazine stories and quickly became tourist attractions, selling their various arts, crafts and poems to any interested party who made their way to Greenbrier. Margaret, the oldest of the sisters, lived from 1870-1962. Louisa, born in 1882, was the last of the five sisters. Today, much of their old cabin – originally built in 1853 – and outbuildings remain on the property.
2. Laurel Falls Trail
This is a significant uptick from some of the previous listings. This is a hike, not a walk but I do like a hike with a midpoint at a waterfall. First of all, waterfalls are cool. Secondly, you know you’ve got a place to cool off but not swim. It’s not safe to swim near waterfalls and you’ll also get chafing in wet clothes. The hike itself is about 2.6 miles to the falls and is listed as moderate in difficulty. The trail is paved at the trailhead, but the pavement is rough and uneven. It does not extend the full length of the trail.
Bikes and pets are prohibited. Also, children should be closely supervised. Lastly, strollers and wheelchairs are not suitable for the path, which is often frequented by wildlife like bears. Be sure to read up on the National Parks Services recommendations for what to do when you meet a bear before hiking to Laurel Falls.
1. Trillium Gap Trail
Finally, located on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the Trillium Gap Trail is the thing fantasy stories are made of. It leads through an old-growth hemlock forest and runs behind a 25-foot waterfall at Grotto Falls. The three-mile round-trip hike is moderate in difficulty due to rocky paths and slick spots near the grotto. Sturdy hiking shoes are strongly recommended. For example, do not wear flip-flops or sandals. They are bad ideas for hiking and are particularly ill-advised on this trail.
What are your favorite easy trails in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments.