The Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina are a premier family destination in United States. While there’s plenty to do in Pigeon Forge & Gatlinburg attraction-wise, unplugging and unwinding together as a family can be done here, too! Studies show that kids (and adults, too!) spending time in nature can be helpful in managing moods and healthy behaviors.
So, why not take the time to get out into the big “backyard” of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and take a walk with your family together? With so many hiking trails, it’s not hard to find the perfect kid-friendly hike in the Smoky Mountains! We have some great tips to help you enjoy the trip together. After getting tips to enjoy your walk together, see some of our recommendations for best hikes for kids in the Smokies!
Before Your Hike:
Do Your Research – Knowing your trail is a must! In the age of information when every trail is only a few clicks away on a smartphone, it’s easy to forget that we often don’t have cell service on trail! Having a paper map and a trail description with mile markers will be a lifesaver when the question “are we there yet?!” pops up a few times on your walk.
Get a First Aid Kit Together – While hiking can be a fun activity, sometimes accidents happen. Trips or slips can lead to scrapes and bruises and you’ll want to be prepared. Purchase a small ready-made first aid kit with bandages, mini ointments for cuts or stings, and doses of an antihistamine for allergic reactions.
Does someone in your family get sunburned easily? A travel-sized sunscreen and lip balm containing SPF are easy additions to smaller kits. Make sure all adults in the party know where to find the first aid kit during your hike.
Check the Weather – Changes in the weather can come on quick in the Great Smoky Mountains. By checking the weather and knowing what your elevation will be, you can be prepared. Visitors are often stunned when the temperature at the Sugarlands or Oconoluftee Visitor Centers can be 10-12 degrees warmer than temperatures at the top of Clingman’s Dome. Don’t be surprised!
Check the weather and know to pack an extra warm layer if needed. A cheap rain poncho from a discount store is also a great idea for your walk. You never know when a late afternoon rain storm will pop up.
Give Kids A Task – Everyone loves to feel important, and kids are no different. Give each member of your hiking party a task and have them stick to it! One person can be in charge of the map, while another is in charge of the first aid kit. By making each member of the group important for one reason or another, everyone will be more engaged. Tasks don’t have to be just carrying an item. Make one child in charge of being the song writer. Have them sing you an original tune every so often.
Rewarding Way Points – If your trail has mileage markers or way points, have a reward item ready. Maybe your first way point will be a snack break with a special treat. Maybe another way point can be where you’ll play a fun game together as a family.
Play a Game – We personally love Wildlife Bingo as a fun way to keep kids engaged during trips to and from the trail head. Games don’t have to involve bringing any extra items either. Have a guessing contest to see how many steps it will take to get to the curve in the trail ahead.
Play “I Spy” while walking along, or see who can spot the most birds or insects. Teach the importance of Leave No Trace and have kids collect microtrash and have a special prize for the child who picks up the most litter.
“Find a Tree” is a fun game to play on your hike with kids. This game helps children find and identify a tree based on senses other than sight. Bring a bandanna as a blind fold. Blindfold a child and spin them around a few times slowly. Then, slowly guide a child to a tree. Encourage them to feel the bark, smell the tree, and feel the ground around the tree. After the child has decided they’ve done enough to remember the tree, spin them around gently a few more times and walk them back to where you started. Blindfold removed, have the child try and find their tree.
Always remember – Don’t include picking flowers, plants, or trying to touch wildlife during your games. Remember that building rock cairns in a stream or building dams can damage the environment where water-dwelling creatures live! Check out this video on one of our more rare salamanders – the Hellbender!
Special Treat – Have a favorite dessert spot in town? Take the whole family there after your hike – you earned it!
Highs and Lows – After a hike, check in with the family. What was the hardest thing you did today? Talk about it together. After talking about the hardest thing, get excited about nature again by talking about your favorite moments of your hike with kids in the Smoky Mountains.
Best Trails for Hiking with Kids in the Smokies:
Gatlinburg Trail – The Gatlinburg Trail connects downtown Gatlinburg to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. This wide graveled path is one of two dog friendly trails in the Smokies. Folks with young kids will enjoy the good footing and the fact that this trail is relatively stroller friendly on either end. Best of all, you’re right next to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Hot or tired kids (and adults too!) will love taking a splash in the stream before you’re finished.
Sugarlands Nature Trail – The Sugarlands Nature Trail is just up the road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the left hand side if you’re headed up to Newfound Gap. This paved nature trail is less than 1 mile round trip and extremely stroller and little kid friendly. Walk the loop trail and see remnants of chimneys and times gone by. Toward the back of the circle pay attention to the pavement – a bear walked through here when the concrete was setting and left his mark.
Little River Trail – Located in the historic Elkmont section of the Smokies, Little River Trail is another wide and well-graded old road bed that makes for easy walking. While the trail is 6 miles in total length, don’t let this scare you off. You can walk out as far or stay as close to the car as you want. This trail gets its name from the Little River running next to the trail as you walk along, making another great place to splash around on a warm day.
Cosby Nature Trail – Staying on the Cosby side of the park? Check out the Cosby Nature Trail. This gentle 1 mile loop is on more unlevel ground and is a lot more of a wooded path than the others listed above. However, it’s a great place to get kids back into nature. This loop trail follows small streams, crosses log bridges, and walks through former farm sites.
Walker Sisters (Little Brier Gap Trail) – Parking at the Little Greenbrier School, follow the Little Brier Gap Trail for 1.5 miles back to the Walker Sister’s homesite. This well-traveled trail is a former road bed used for over 100 years. The Walker Sisters were among only a few people who actually lived in the National Park after it was created in 1934. The five sisters made and sold crafts to tourists who would visit them up until the 1950s. After they passed away, the National Park Service kept their home, springhouse, and corn crib in their original locations for hikers to enjoy today. See how these remarkable women lived a primitive lifestyle while the world around them modernized.
Grotto Falls (Trillium Gap Trail) – Driving the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Grotto Falls is a 3-mile round trip hike to one of the most unique and popular waterfalls in the Smokies. Follow the route the llamas take up Mt. LeConte every week and, when you reach the falls, make sure to follow the trail back behind the waterfall for some fun photos. Cool off in the waterfall pool before descending back down to your car.
Spruce Flats Falls – While not on any official trail map, Spruce Flats Falls is definitely worth a visit. This “secret waterfall” walk can be found at the Tremont Institute, and the hike begins in the parking area. The steep hill on the way to the waterfall might seem tough, but at the top of the hill you’ll be rewarded with views of Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain – two famous landmarks along the Appalachian Trail. Then, you’ll get a nice break and a downhill walk to the multi-tiered waterfall.
Laurel Falls Trail – Easily the most popular trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Laurel Falls is a must-do hike when you have kids! While the trail is paved to prevent erosion, make no mistake in that this trail is not recommended as a stroller friendly walk. Keep kids close by, as there can be some steep drop offs and black bears are often sighted in the area. When you reach the double-tiered waterfall, cross the foot bridge right through the middle and enjoy a picnic lunch together before heading back to your car.
Now that you’ve had a fun time out on the trail, head back to your cabin! Be sure to book a cabin with swimming pool access to reward those tired bodies with some time to splash about and unwind. Many of our cabins offer plenty of in-house entertainment in the form of fun game rooms or even theater rooms to make your transition from nature to civilization even more fun. Check out all of our incredible Gatlinburg cabins over on our website. Or, feel free to give our friendly reservationists a call at 800-204-5169 for help finding the perfect vacation home on your next Smokies vacation.