Did you know that there are more than 4,000 miles of hiking trails in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains? This includes trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in Pisgah National Forest, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nantahala National Forests, Appalachian Trail, and other smaller parks and national forests?
We've compiled a list of favorite trails based on our own personal hiking experiences, feedback from other experienced hikers, and based on other families we know. Our criteria?
- The trail must have a reward or interesting destination - we're partial to waterfalls
- Not overly strenuous - in fact most of these hikes are very family friendly, even for younger children
- Does not require any special equipment, clothing, or shoes
- Can be done in less than a day, and most of them within a few hours
1 - Porter's Creek Trail
Location: Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Roundtrip Distance: 4 miles
Features: Waterfall, wildflowers, old growth forest, trail follows stream
Directions: At the intersection of Highway 441 and Highway 321 in Gatlinburg, turn eastbound onto 321. Drive six miles and then turn right into Greenbrier (look for The Great Smoky Mountain National Park entrance sign located on the right). This road turns into a gravel road after a short distance, so don't be surprised. Drive about three miles until you reach a fork in the road. Continue straight at this junction to reach the Porters Creek trailhead. The parking lot is another mile up the road.
Porters Creek Trail is a short, relaxing and scenic hike. The trail follows Porter Creek past the Messer Farm site, Owenby cemetery, the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club Cabin and then finally Fern Branch Falls. Fern Branch Falls is easy to miss, so watch for it.
If you enjoy wildflowers, the best time to hike this trail is during the spring where many different types of wildflowers blanket the forest floor. This trail is known for having one of the most beautiful displays of wildflowers in the national park.
The early portion of Porters Creek Trail follows an old gravel road through and into a dense old-growth forest. The trail itself follows Porter's Creek as it winds through the forest. Almost at the 1 mile mark, the trail will split. There are signs, but follow the trail to the left to the reach Fern Branch Falls.
From this point, Porters Creek Trail narrows, and becomes more trail like, with rocks and goes into heavier forest. The trail also steepens a bit at this point and moves away from the creek some.
At the 1.5 mile mark, you'll reach a rail bridge. Once crossed, begin looking left for the falls. The falls are not marked, and often hidden with brush. Fern Branch falls cascades about 50 feet and can be extra beautiful after a hard rain. The trail continues on for another 1.7 miles to back country campsite #31 if you want a longer hike.
Along the trail, you'll encounter an old farmstead, including old walls, a cemetery, cabin, and cantilevered barn built around 1875. We definitely recommend visiting these sites while you're there.
2 - Devil's Courthouse
Location: Milepost 422.4, Blue Ridge Parkway in NC
Roundtrip Distance: 1 miles
Difficulty: Moderate - Strenuous (but short)
Features: Incredible view, rare plants, easy access and close to other scenic locations
Directions: Directly off the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 422.4 in NC, between Asheville and Waynesville, NC. Just watch for the signs and large parking lot. The trail entrance itself is east of the parking lot up the parkway a little.
The Devil's Courthouse trail is located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, at milepost 422.4. The trail is short, but strenuous as the trail climbs steeply about a half a mile to the peak of Devil's Courthouse. The trail is primarily paved all the way up, and begins at the large parking lot next to Devil's Courthouse.
The climb to the top is well worth it, as the view is outstanding. The summit offers views of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.
The mountain and trail name comes from the devil like appearance the mountain itself has. Legend says that within a cave in the mountain, the devil himself holds court. Cherokee claim the save is a private dancing dancing chamber, and dwelling place of Judaculla, a giant that roamed the area. Local Cherokee have also told us that the mountain was used by Cherokee Indians for executions.
Devil's Courthouse is home to a number of very rare and protected plants, so please stay on the trail as you hike to protect the plants.
3 - Graveyard Fields Loop Trail
Location: Milepost 418, Blue Ridge Parkway in NC
Roundtrip Distance: 3.2 miles
Features: Scenic views, unique plant life, waterfalls, dense rhododendron thicket
Directions: Located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 418 between Asheville and Waynesville NC. There is a large parking lot for the area.
During the spring, summer and fall months this parking lot is often very busy and full. The trailhead at the parking lot is clearly marked, and begins with flight of stairs going down into a dense rhododendron thicket.
The paved trail weaves its way through the thicket and ends at a wooden platform at Yellowstone prong. Many people stop here, find a comfortable rock and enjoy the beautiful scenery and the sounds of clear rushing water. While nothing wrong with that, but by not continuing on, you'll really be missing out!
From Yellowstone prong, you can either go left to Upper Falls or right to Lower Falls, both are beautiful waterfalls. The Trail to Upper falls is about a mile, and the longer and more difficult of the two.
Graveyard fields is a wonderful hike that is very family friendly and is one of our favorite places to visit during the summer both for hiking and swimming.
4 - Waterrock Knob
Location: Milepost 451.2, Blue Ridge Parkway in NC
Roundtrip Distance: 1.2 miles
Features: Scenic views, really great sunrise and sunset views, Visitors Center, bathrooms
Directions: On the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 451.2 between Waynesville and Maggie Valley, NC. Watch for the signs, and take the access road up to the Waterrock Knob parking area.
Waterrock Knob is a popular area, located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 451.2. This popular spot is the 16th highest mountain in the eastern US, and the 15th highest in North Carolina at 6,292 feet.
The Waterrock Knob parking lot is located on a short side road off the Blue Ridge Parkway and features a large parking lot, Visitor's center, and a 1.2 mile hiking trail that takes you from the parking lot to the peak.
Waterrock Knob gets its name from local hunters and farmers that would stop to get water from a cool spring that flows over a "water rock".
Most people stop at the parking lot, and don't take the trail up to the top, so the trail isn't typically too busy. The parking lot itself offers some incredible views, some of the best on the Parkway, and the views from the trail, which goes even higher are beautiful as well.
Taking the trail is a moderate 1.2 mile roundtrip hike to the summit of Waterrock Knob, at 6,292 feet. The trail gains 412 in elevation, and while a bit steep is paved and easy to walk up and down. The trail ends a an overlook at the summit, and while not a 360 degree view, separate areas offer beautiful distant views. On a clear day, you can see up to 50 miles away. Waterrock Knob also includes views of Maggie Valley and Ghost Town in the Sky.
This is a great trail that is short, easy to hike, and offers some of the best scenic views on the Parkway. The trail is great for families! Our kids have hiked this trail many times, both with us, and with their church youth group.
5 - Gabes Mountain Trail to Hen Wallow Falls
Location: Cosby Picnic Area in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Roundtrip Distance: 4.4 miles
Features: Old growth forest, hemlock and rhododendron, Hen Wallow Falls
Directions: At the intersection of highway 441 and Highway 321 in Gatlinburg, TN, turn eastbound on Highway 321/73. Drive about 18 miles until the road dead-ends into Highway 32. Turn right towards Cosby, and drive 1.2 miles to the entrance to The Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Turn right into the Park and drive another 2 miles to the Gabes Mountain trailhead. The trailhead is on the right side of the road up from the the large Cosby Picnic Area parking lot. Hen Wallow Falls is located off the Gabes Mountain Trail.
Hen Wallow Falls is located in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is one of our favorite hiking trails to do as a family. The hike is easy until you reach the very last portion to the waterfall, which is more strenuous.
The reward for the 2.2 mile hike out (the trail is 4.4 miles round trip) is Hen Wallow Falls.
Hen Wallow Falls is a 90 foot high waterfall that starts at only 2 feet wide at the top and fans out to over 20 feet at the base. The falls are gorgeous, and make for a great place to stop and have a picnic. The base of the falls is very rocky with many small pools of water.
The roundtrip trail distance to the waterfall and back is 4.4 miles and takes about 3-4 hours, depending on how long you stay at the base of the waterfall. The trail contains many scenic points of interest, including small creeks, bridges and beautiful forest.
6 - Linville Falls
Location: The Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 316.4
Roundtrip Distance: Erwin's View Trail 1.2 miles, Linville Gorge Trail 1.5 miles
Difficulty: Erwin's View Trail - Moderate, Linville Gorge Trail - Strenuous
Features: Waterfalls, Scenic Views, Picnic area, Visitors center, restrooms
Linville Falls is a very popular recreational area located off the the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 316.4. To reach the parking lot, turn into the entrance, and follow the road about 1.5 miles to the parking lot and visitor's center.
There are two trails you can take from the visitors center. Both are clearly marked and are shown on a large trail map next to the visitors center.
Erwin's Trail - Moderate
The most popular trail is Erwin's Trail, which leads you alongside Linville River. This trail leads to four different overlooks and is a 1.6 miles roundtrip. The majority of the trail is easy to moderate, with some elevation gain.
The first overlook is of Upper Falls which offers up close and fantastic views of the "twin falls". A little further down the trail you can see the water rush into a narrow area before plunging over Linville Falls below.
The next overlook is called Chimney View and offers an excellent view of both upper falls and Linville Falls, as well as views of steep cliffs. If you enjoy taking photos, this is a great location.
A little further down, the fourth and final view is Erwin's View Overlook. This overlook provides and incredibly scenic and wide view of Linville Gorge and the falls as well. The trail up to this overlook is a bit more steep and goes from easy to moderate. The elevation here is 3, 330 feet, the highest in the area. Return to the parking lot along the same trail.
Linville Gorge Trail - Strenuous
The second trail, Linville Gorge Trail provides a more remote experience, and offers up close views of Linville Falls, cliffs, and natural forest. This trail is far less popular and is the trail to take if you want to avoid the crowds.
Linville Gorge Trail is strenuous, and due to large rocks requires hikers to be able to lift their knees to waist height in order to climb some of the rocks. The trail gets pretty steep in some areas as well. If you are physically able to make it though, you will be rewarded by outstanding views at the base of Linville Falls.
There is no swimming in this area due to the strong currents. Like Erwin's View Trail, your return to the parking lot is via the same trail. No loop trails at Linville Falls.
We've been to Linville Falls a number of times and it always makes for a great family hiking destination, especially along Erwin's View trail.
7 - Max Patch Mountain
Location: Near Hot Springs, NC in the Pisgah National Forest
Trails: 2: Short loop and a long loop
Roundtrip Distance: Short Loop - 1.4 miles, Long Loop - 2.4 miles
Features: Scenic Views, High Elevation, Wildflowers, Appalachian Trail
Directions:Take I-40 West from Asheville to exit 7 (Harmon's Den). Turn right on Cold Springs Road. The road very quickly becomes gravel. Cold Springs Road climbs upward for 6.2 miles to Max Patch Rd (SR-1182). Turn left and drive 1.5 miles to the Max Patch parking area.
Max Patch Mountain is a great hiking location and offers stunning high elevation views. The mountain makes for an excellent family friendly destination and wonderful picnic lunch trail.
Max Patch Mountain was cleared in the 1800s and used for pasture. While you won't get a great deal of forest, what you do get is clear, unblocked views of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. Many of the views, especially at the summit are 360 degrees around.
There are two primary trails at Max Patch Mountain and 1.4 mile loop and a 2.4 mile loop. Both are easy and run across the top of the mountain. The 1.4 mile loop crosses over the summit close to 4,600 feet in elevation.
The 2.4 mile loop trail goes around the mountain, offering wonderful views from all sides. From the parking lot, just follow the marked trails. You can also walk north or south on the Appalachian Trail which crosses through the area.
8 - Alum Cave Trail
Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, off Newfound Gap Road
Roundtrip Distance: 4.4 miles
Features: Scenic Views, Geological features
Alum Cave Trail is a popular hiking trail located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The primary destination for the trail is Alum Cave, which really isn't a cave by more of a concave shaped bluff or cliff. But you can continue on this trail all the way up to the summit of 6593-foot Mount LeConte.
Directly off of Newfound Gap Road in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the large parking lot for Alum Cave Trail. This can be a very busy spot during the spring, summer and fall, especially on the weekends. We suggest arriving early to get a parking place.
The trail begins as a gentle climb up, following Alum Cave creek for the first mile or so. You'll go through a dense growth of rhododendrons near the one mile mark. If you hike early in the summer, the rhododendrons are in bloom.
At 1.3 miles, you'll reach Arch Rock, the first main feature of the trail. The arch itself was formed by years and years of freezing and thawing that caused erosion. Continuing on the trail involves climbing a set of stairs carved into the raw rock of the arch.
At the 2 mile mark, you'll reach Inspiration Point, for stunning views of the Great Smoky Mountains.
At 2.2 miles, you'll reach Alum Cave. The cave is roughly 80 feet high and 500 foot long. The views from here are gorgeous and offer a number of photo opportunities for photographers.
9 - Craggy Gardens - Blue Ridge Parkway
Location: On the Blue Ridge Parkway, begins at milepost 364.1
Trails: 3 - Craggy Pinnacle Trail, Craggy Gardens Trail, Douglas Falls Trail
Roundtrip Distance: Craggy Pinnacle Trail - 1.5 miles, Craggy Gardens Trail - 0.6 miles, Douglas Falls Trail - 8 miles
Difficulty: Easy - Moderate, except Douglas Falls Trail which is strenuous
Features: Scenic Views, Rhododendrons, Wildflowers, Visitors Center, Restrooms, picnic areas
Directions: Take the Blue Ridge Parkway north to the Craggy Gardens area, which starts at milepost 364.1
Craggy Gardens is just to the north of Asheville, NC on the Blue Ridge Parkway (beginning at milepost 364.1) and is a very popular destination and is well known for some of the most scenic views on The Blue Ridge Parkway.
Craggy Gardens gets its name from the combination of "rocky crags" and numerous Rhododendron and wildflowers that grow in the area.
Craggy Pinnacle Trail
The most popular trail at Craggy Gardens in the Craggy Pinnacle Trail, which leads you to the top of the 5,892-foot summit for 360 degree views. The trail provides both excellent sunrise and sunset views.
From the visitors center, continue north on the parkway, through a small tunnel and to the Craggy Pinnacle parking lot (Milepost 364.4). Look for the trail sign near the parking lot.
Just follow the trail and you'll eventually end up at a fork, where you can either visit the summit of the lower overlook. We recommend both! The summit overlook offers views of Mount Mitchell, Asheville's water reservoir and views of the parkway itself.
Craggy Gardens Trail
The Craggy Gardens Trail can be accessed from two separate locations: The Visitors Center and from the Picnic Area. The Craggy Gardens trail is a nature trail that has a moderate uphill climb for .3 miles to a trail shelter if you begin at the Visitors Center and .8 miles uphill if you begin at the Picnic Area.
The trail shelter makes a great spot for a picnic. The shelter is nearly a century old!
Douglas Falls Trail
The Douglas Falls Trail at Craggy Gardens is one of two trails that will take you to Douglas Falls a 70 foot free falling waterfall. The roundtrip hike to Douglas Falls from Craggy gardens is 8 miles and not for the inexperienced. The hike is steep, remote and takes you through some very wilderness areas. A shorter hike to Douglas Falls is accessible further up the parkway.
10 - Big Creek Trail to Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls
Location: Big Creek Area, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Features: Old growth forest, two waterfalls, swimming hole, creekside hike
Directions: Take I-40 west from Asheville approximately 50 miles to first exit in Tennessee (exit 451). At the stop sign, turn left under I-40, then right and cross the bridge. Continue down this road, past CP&L generating plant.. You'll see lots of rafting in the river during the summer. The pavement will end and you will continue on gravel road to a 4-way stop. Go straight entering The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Continue 1 mile to the parking lot, with picnic areas and rest rooms.
The Big Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just plain gorgeous. Hiking on Big Creek Trail, you'll cross through old growth forest, and follow alongside Big Creek, which is full of huge boulders and rushing water.
The hike up Big Creek Trail is a gradual climb that follows an old railroad grade that was used for logging in the area. Big Creek Trail is an easy hike that leads to not one, but two "rewards", Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls.
Midnight Hole is a deep water area of Big Creek that is surrounded by large boulders. Midnight Hold is located about 1.4 miles up Big Creek Trail on the left. Midnight hole is one of the more popular "swimming holes" in the park and during the summer is often busy with kids and adults wading, swimming and even plunging into the deeper areas from the large surrounding boulders.
Midnight hole is a great destination during the summer to get cooled off, and makes for a great picnic location. We often hike up to Midnight hole on a Saturday or Sunday and spend most of the day.
Mouse Creek Falls
Mouse Creek Falls is on up Big Creek Trail another .5 miles up Big Creek Trail, and well worth the extra walk. Mouse Creek Falls is a 20' tall waterfall, that cascades over moss covered rock, and then falls another 15 feet into Big Creek.
A very pretty falls, and easy to access. You'll often find people here during the summer at the base of the falls playing in the water.
Family Hiking Tips
- Allow plenty of time to complete your hike. The average hiker travels about 1.5 miles per hour. Plan for that speed or even slower.
- Download a trail map, and read up on the trail before your hike. When hiking, stay on the trail.
- Bring a flashlight, in case you get caught out after dark
- Wear comfortable clothes, and plan for the expected weather conditions.
- Wear comfortable hiking boots or hiking shoes
- Bring water and snacks.
- Bring a lightweight daypack
- Tell someone not traveling with you where you are going and what time you will be back.
- Do not hike alone, always hike with at least one other person.
- Expect you will encounter wildlife, including bears
- Bring a small first aid kit with you