I wanted to start this with rumination on the word “easy.”
Easy is a dangerous, flighty, inexact word. What’s easy for you might be quite difficult for your neighbor.
But I couldn’t get the words to come together the way I wanted them to, so I abandoned that tact.
Then, from somewhere in the recesses of my brain a tiny quote from “The Hobbit” sprang to mind, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Or maybe the one about stepping one foot on the road and being whisked away to adventure.
But I couldn’t make that work.
Hiking – a nobler concept than walking, I suppose – in the woods can be many things to many people.
There are times I’ve been alone in the deep woods and been 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.
Other times, in the woods, it’s a boyish Tom Sawyer spirit of adventure, as if I’ve journeyed back in time to a point in history where the simple act of walking into the woods could lead to an entirely different life.
Like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia and finding myself among the creatures of the fairy tales I learned long ago at my Nanny’s knee. As if I’d stepped into a world of sprites and goblins and fairies and magic forests.
Still other times in the woods, times where I misjudged a trail or my own ability to navigate it, I wanted nothing more than to be lifted back to the relative peace and safety of my car.
A few years ago, my uncle was hiking in the mountains of Kentucky when he misjudged a trail. It was far more strenuous than he expected.
He gave himself a heart attack. Luckily it wasn’t terribly remote and park rangers were able to get to him and help him walk out. He was flown to a hospital and eventually made a full recovery.
So that entire preamble is to say while these trails are rated easy, they should be easy for most able-bodied people in relatively good shape.
But walking in the woods in higher elevations can come with challenges for the inexperienced.
An accurate self-evaluation of what you are capable of doing should come with these recommendations.
Without further ado, here are some of the best easy hikes to take in the Smokies.
6. The Gatlinburg Trail
The Gatlinburg Trail is one of two walking paths in the park that allow 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 round trip and offers beautiful views of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. 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.
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 Place, 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, which was built in 1882 and served as 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 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, died two years later, 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 the previous two.
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 especially safe to swim near waterfalls and you’ll also get a good chafing hiking bike in wet clothes.
The hike itself is about 2.6 miles to the falls and is listed as moderate in difficulty. The trail is roughly paved with some short steep spots and steep drop offs.
Bikes and pets are prohibited and children should be closely supervised. Strollers and wheelchairs are not suitable for the path, which is often frequented by 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
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 considered moderate in difficulty due to rocky paths and slick spots near the grotto.
Sturdy hiking shoes are strongly recommended. Flip flops or sandals are, generally speaking, bad ideas for hiking but are particularly ill-advised on this trail.
What are your favorite easy trails in the Smokies? Let us know in the commments.