Tips, Gear & Top Hiking Trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

NEW Parking Fee in the GSMNP
While still FREE to enter, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has now started the Park it Forward program that includes a minimal parking fee for guests. Its aim is to bring in more money for the park in order to preserve and protect the area for many generations to come!

The Great Smoky Mountains of Gatlinburg, Tennessee are scenic, serene, and exciting – brimming with opportunities for outdoor fun. Hiking is among those outdoor favorites, and with waterfalls, wildflowers, wildlife, and stunning mountain views, a hike in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an incredibly rewarding experience. 

But because of sometimes unpredictable weather, stirring wildlife, and the nuances of the landscape, it’s important that hikers of all skill levels be prepared. We have 8 simple DOs and DON’Ts to help make your hiking experience in the Smokies one to remember – in all the best ways. Then read on to find out the best places in Gatlinburg to grab hiking gear, what some of the best hikes in the Smoky Mountains are, and how to handle the hiking trails with kids

8 DOs and DON’Ts of Hiking in the Smoky Mountains

1. DO pay attention to the signage
First, park only in designated parking areas. You don’t want to come back from your beautiful hike to a ticket! Signs at trailheads will also remind you not to leave valuables in your car in the parking lot, including shopping bags full of your Smoky Mountain goodies! Trailhead signs will also offer helpful information about length and difficulty of trails, how to follow blazes, what you should or should not bring/do, and more. Take time to read before you start on your hike! Visitor Centers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park also offer insight into the history of the area, local wildlife, and more. 

2. DO check the weather ahead of time
The weather in the Smoky Mountains can change drastically – and quickly. Keep in mind that if you are taking a trail that changes in elevation, the temperature is going to change also, and sometimes by more than 10 degrees. The Smoky Mountains also get about 90 inches of rain each year, so a rain jacket and light layers are a great way to pack for a hike in the area. 

3. DON’T wear unsuitable shoes
Shoes are very important while hiking. Make sure your shoes have good support and are in good condition. Flip flops and shoes with no grip on the sole are not a good idea on nature trails. Alternatively, you don’t want to wear brand-new shoes you haven’t yet broken in – especially if you’re backpacking for a longer hike. You’ll end up with sore feet and blisters, which is the last thing you want at the end of the day. 

4. DO pick a trail suited to your abilities
Short roundtrip hikes, challenging climbs with large elevation gains up to spectacular views, 1-mile hikes on paved trails…there is a hike for everyone in the Great Smoky Mountains. The Smoky Mountains have a vast variety of trails that range from easy to quite strenuous. Most of the trails are very scenic with streams and waterfalls lurking around the corner. Don’t hike a trail that is too strenuous it will take away from the enjoyment and could prove dangerous.

5. DON’T hike alone 
The best option is to hike with at least 1 other person. There is safety in numbers! IF you do go on your own, be sure to tell someone what trail you are taking and about when you plan to return. In addition to your trail map, bring a compass or GPS, which most phones have. Don’t forget to learn how to use the compass or GPS before you start hiking or else these tools will be useless!

6. DO be bear aware
The Smoky Mountains are home to many black bears. While hiking, always be on the lookout for wild animals, especially black bears. The best safety tip for an encounter with a bear is to remain calm and to keep your distance. Don’t turn your back to the bear. If the bear starts to act aggressively, it is demanding more space. Slowly back away and create more space between you and the bear. NEVER try to feed, pet, or approach black bears. They are beautiful, but they are wild animals. Human interaction is dangerous for both bears and you.

7. DON’T disturb the natural surroundings
As the saying goes, “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footsteps.” If you are hiking within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, everything is protected – from the flowers to the rocks. Hiking off of marked nature trails, picking flowers, disrupting the wildlife, or trying to take home mementos can destroy the natural habitat for animals and plants – and ruin enjoyment for generations to come. Instead, bring a camera and take home your memories and photos! And never leave trash behind. Pack out anything you bring in to keep the area beautiful and avoid a hefty fine. 

8. DO make a checklist
Before packing up for your day on the hiking trails, make a checklist of everything you will need for your trip. Don’t forget things such as snacks, water, bug repellant, a first aid kit, and any medications you take regularly. If you’re heading out later in the day, bring a flashlight. 

Where to Get Hiking Gear in the Smokies
Did you know there are more than 800 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, spanning across Tennessee and North Carolina? From the Appalachian Trail, Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, and Newfound Gap to Rainbow Falls, Alum Cave Trail, Laurel Falls, and Andrews Bald, there is no shortage of places to enjoy fun hikes, awesome views, and a day in the great outdoors. With so many hiking trails to choose from, you’ll need just the right gear. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have you covered for your day hike! 

If you are an avid hiker but forgot your gear, you’ll find every little thing you need. On the other hand, if the beauty you are seeing as you walk around Gatlinburg, Tennessee is luring you to set out on your first hiking adventure, there’s something for you too! In Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, there are some great stores where you can find all the necessary hiking equipment – from shoes, poles, and backpacks to snacks, light layers, and navigational gear. Here are some local favorites for picking up hiking gear: 

Hike the Smokies – The staff here has everything you need to hike any trail on the 520,000 acres of nature here in the Great Smoky Mountains. The staff will help you choose the gear you need for your hike and ​​​​help you find a trail that is suitable to the skill level represented in your group. Hike the Smokies is located at Light #8 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

The Day HikerThis is a mom-and-pop shop designed to meet the needs of any hiker without depleting your budget. They offer packs, trail guides, special hiking apparel, defense you might need should you come into contact with a bear, water bottles, first aid supplies, and much much more! They also have a great deal for active-duty military, retired military and military dependents – 10% off your ENTIRE purchase! The Day Hiker can be found in The Village shops off of the Parkway in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

NOC GatlinburgThe Nantahala Outdoor Center in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg is a multi-story outdoor outfitter packed with all you could possibly need for outdoor adventures in the Smokies! Get snacks and water bottles for your big hike up Mount Leconte, pick up some new socks for a hike to Abrams Falls, or find an adventure camera for your day at Grotto Falls. Beyond hiking, find what you need for climbing, rafting, fishing, picnicking, and more! 

GSM OutfittersBackpacks, binoculars, first aid kits, hydration packs, flashlights, maps, sunscreen, trekking poles, whistles…the list goes on and on at GSM Outfitters! Find all the gear you’ll need for a day in the national park as you explore old-growth forest, reach an observation tower, head into the backcountry, have lunch at a picnic area, explore fields of wildflowers, and go backpacking to waterfalls. 

If you stroll along the Parkway in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, you’ll certainly come across more great hiking gear shops. You can also check out Hikey Mikey, Jonathan’s The Bear Necessities, or any of the visitor centers in the area. 

Smoky Mountains Hiking with the Kids 
Sometimes hiking with your children is easier said than done. Young ones often lack the drive and excitement, while the older children may be interested in other activities (go-karts, anyone?) To give you a hand, we have compiled a list of some of our favorite tips to making hiking with your kids fun for everyone!

Let Them Help You Prepare
Building excitement is one of the keys to making your hiking trip a great adventure. Allow the kids to help you pick the hiking trail – do they want to see a waterfall, a great mountain view or fields of wildflowers? Take them to the grocery store and let them pick out some snacks for the hike. Make some granola, and let them pick out some of their favorite goodies – candy bars, peanut butter sandwiches, and cheese cubes are all great for keeping energy high.

Dress Them Accordingly
Children may not often think about the proper dress for hiking, however, that is one of the most important things in keeping your children comfortable on the journey. Ensure their shoes properly fit and dress them in layers so they can remove clothes as the temperatures rise throughout the day. Don’t forget to pack some rain gear – ending up soaking wet can definitely put a damper on your hiking trip.

Keep It Interesting
Kids may think that hiking is, well…boring. Keep spirits and excitement high by bringing along a plant or bird identification guide and ask them to name some of the creatures you will see along your journey. Check off a bucket-list item like reaching the highest point you can, see how quickly you can hike a half-mile, or tick off more miles on your Appalachian Trail list! Don’t forget to take regular breaks and don’t get frustrated if your children tire halfway to your destination – keeping them happy and making the experience a good one is crucial to them wanting to join you next time.

Bring Your Camera
Photograph the kids on top of a fallen tree, next to a waterfall, or lying among the flowers. This is one of the best ways to capture the memories and keep your children excited about the trip. Print out and frame some of the shots when you return home. It will keep the memories fresh in their mind and get them excited about your next hiking adventure!

Favorite Hiking Trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

  • Abrams Falls
  • Alum Cave Trail 
  • ​Andrews Bald
  • Cades Cove Loop 
  • Charlies Bunion
  • Chimney Tops 
  • Forney Ridge Trail
  • Grotto Falls
  • Kephart Prong Trail 
  • Laurel Falls 
  • Mount Cammerer – via Low Gap Trail
  • Newfound Gap
  • Oconaluftee River Trail 
  • Rainbow Falls
  • Ramsey Cascades 
  • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (for those who want to drive instead of hike)
  • Trillium Gap 

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