We know that you do, too. While it’s important to challenge ourselves on moderately strenuous trails, sometimes all we want to do is stroll along on an easy hike.
James Richardson is here to share his favorite Smoky Mountain trails that are easy to moderately-easy. Be sure to put these 9 easy trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on your hiking list.
Short or long. Hard or easy. Up or down. Those are the choices of hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Hiking is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the Smokies and there are many points of interest at the end of those hikes. Waterfalls. Overlooks. Old homesteads.
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In addition there are hikes that lead nowhere. They are just hikes for hiking sake. Then there are the quiet walkways.
Some of my favorite easy Smoky Mountain hikes lead to waterfalls and old home places. Because I am not as intrepid as I use to be, I stick to easy and moderate hikes, leaving the strenuous Smoky Mountain trails to the younger guys and gals.
Laurel Falls trail: a Smoky Mountain waterfall hike
Laurel Falls trail is a moderate Smoky Mountain hike that is easily accessible. It’s the longest of four paved trails in the national park. This waterfall trail is about 1.3 miles one way and is uphill most of the way. But relax, it is all downhill on the return trip.
Allow two hours for the hike. Don’t forget to spend time at the falls to enjoy the scenery. This is a fairly popular trail, so there will usually be plenty of company along the way.
The waterfall is about 80 feet in height and divided into an upper and lower section separated by a walkway across the falls. Parking for the Laurel Falls trailhead is along the Little River Road about 3.5 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Sugarlands is one of four visitor centers in the national park. The others are at Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Clingman’s Dome.
Cataract Falls hike: easy hike in the Smokies
All visitor centers provide information on the trails and the weather. From the Sugarlands Visitor Center, Cataract Falls is an easy flat one mile hike. It is more of a stroll than a hike. This one is wheelchair accessible. The water flow is not as dramatic as at Laurel Falls, but it is a waterfall.
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The right gear makes hiking a lot more fun. Check out our day hiking essentials for what to wear (and bring) on the trail.
Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls: two of the best
Two of my favorite places to visit in the Smokies are Cades Cove and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Roaring Fork is a 5.5 mile one way narrow road that winds along the mountain stream of the same name.
There are many pull offs along the route which makes it easy for passing cars to negotiate the narrow road. A couple of those pull offs contain the trailheads to two waterfall hikes.
Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls are both rated as moderate. Rainbow is 5.4 miles round trip and Grotto is a shorter three miles.
At 80 feet, Rainbow Falls is the highest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies. The trail to Rainbow Falls continues to the top of Mount LeConte, which is the third highest peak in the Smokies. But it’s another 4.2 miles and I always opt not to take it.
Grotto Falls is accessible from the Trillium Gap Trail. I like to hike this trail in the spring when many of the park’s wildflowers are blooming.
Many varieties of trilliums, violets, and one of my favorite wildflowers, Dutchmen’s Breeches, appear along the trail. A distinction of Grotto Falls is that hikers can actually go behind the 25 foot waterfall.
Abrams Falls: a popular Cades Cove hiking trail
Cades Cove is another Smoky Mountain Adventure that’s easy to do. It has the largest variety of historic buildings in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 11-mile scenic drive through the Cades Cove loop usually takes two to four hours depending on the traffic.
It is a single-lane road, so expect to stop frequently to see wildlife, or for other visitors who think they see wildlife. The loop is an enjoyable drive with many pull offs.
The trailhead to Abrams Falls is located at the extreme western end of the Cades Cove loop. Because Abram Falls trail is one of the most popular Smoky Mountain waterfall hikes, it can become crowded. My best tip: hike the trail early in the day.
Abram Falls trail is considered to be moderate at 5.2 miles round trip. The waterfall is only 20 feet in height but it has a large volume. The hike generally follows Abrams Creek and is a hangout for otter, which hikers may or may not see due to the thick hemlock and rhododendron forest along the creek.
Clingmans Dome hike: a steep, paved trail to the top of the Smokies
Clingmans Dome at 6643 feet is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail to the observation tower atop Clingmans Dome is a steep, 1.2 mile round trip walk on a paved trail.
The view from the top of Clingmans Dome is amazing but only accessible during good weather. Highway 441, which provides access to Clingmans Dome, travels across the Smokies between Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina. It’s closed a lot during the winter due to snow and ice.
Mingus Mill and Mingus Creek Trail: history and a view
On the North Carolina side of the park a walk to Mingus Mill is an easy alternative to some of the longer, more difficult Smoky Mountain hikes. It’s a short distance from the parking area to the water-operated grist mill, which is located just north of Cherokee, North Carolina.
Mingus Mill, one of two historic grist mills in the park, is still at its original location on the banks of Mingus Creek. Built in 1886, the mill served the community for over 40 years, becoming idle in the 1930s.
Beyond the mill, the Mingus Creek Trail is more difficult, but the 5.8-mile-round-trip hike is still considered moderate. The object of the journey is to reach Deeplow Gap, where fair views of the mountains await.
The first mile or so, Mingus Creek Trail follows an old road bed. The entire length of the trail is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which stretches about 1,150 miles, from Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies to Jockey’s Ridge on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. That one is definitely a trail for hardy hikers, which doesn’t include me.
Little River Trail: an easy Smoky Mountains trail
Back on the Tennessee side of the Smokies, a hike along the Little River Trail begins in Elkmont. From the Sugarlands Visitor Center drive five miles west along Little River Road to reach the turnoff for the Elkmont Campground. The trailhead is another two miles.
The Little River Trail follows a gravel railroad bed paralleling the river for the first part of this easy hike. The railroad bed was formerly used for logging in the Elkmont area. You’ll see several remnants of that industry along the trail.
Metcalf Bottoms Trail: a Great Smoky Mountain hike with a good story
The Metcalf Bottoms picnic area is about 9.5 miles west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center a little farther along the Little River Road. The 0.6 mile Metcalf Bottoms Trail begins across the bridge from the picnic area.
Metcalf Bottoms Trail leads to the Little Greenbrier School, which was part of that community in the 1800 and 1900’s. The log building served the community for at least 50 years as a school and a church.
About a mile farther, take the Little Brier Gap Trail to the Walker Sisters homeplace that their father John built in the 1870s. John Walker also helped build the Little Greenbrier School around 1882.
The story of the Walker Sisters is a good one. Read more about it here.
There are many more trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, some longer and more strenuous and some shorter and easier. These listed are some of my favorite easy hikes in the Smoky Mountains. Over the years of visiting the Smokies, I always try to hike at least one or two each time I’m in the park.