Scenic drives are nice, but nothing compares to the serenity of a Smoky Mountain hike. The only problem?
Many of the national park's top trails are too strenuous for the average visitor. Even when they're relatively easy to navigate, these expeditions can quickly eat up an entire day. This is problematic when you have limited time to explore all that the Smoky Mountains have to offer.
Thankfully, a variety of shorter treks are available if you know where to look. These hikes are ideal when you want something a bit more involved than strolling from the parking lot to a lookout point — but you aren't ready to take on some of the region's more challenging journeys. The shortest trails often feature waterfalls, although views of creeks, cabins, and wildflowers are also common.
Feel free to add the following to your Smoky Mountain hiking itinerary:
Fighting Creek Nature Trail: 1.2 Miles Round Trip
If you can only dedicate half an hour to your walk, your best bet is the Fighting Creek Nature Trail. Located just minutes from Gatlinburg, this easy loop is surprisingly peaceful, given its convenient location. Feel free to grab a brochure at the trailhead so you can follow the self-guided journey and learn more about the area's history and ecology. You'll encounter multiple historic cabins along the way. Feel free to extend your hike a bit to see the lovely Cataract Falls.
Indian Creek Falls: 1.9 Miles Round Trip
An hour of hiking will allow you to reach two stunning waterfalls while exploring a quiet trail that wanderers of all ages can navigate. Accessible via the Deep Creek Trail, which was constructed nearly a century ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Just one-third of a mile in, you'll encounter the 80-foot Toms Branch Falls, followed by the namesake Indian Creek Falls soon after. While this short hike requires a significant amount of driving if you're staying in the Gatlinburg area, it's worth the journey when included with a day trip to Bryson City.
Laurel Falls: 2.3 Miles Round Trip
Laurel Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies for a good reason: just over two miles of walking will expose you to some of the region's most stunning views. You'll observe not only the awe-inspiring 80-foot falls but also lush foliage and plenty of wildlife.
Visitors with strollers and wheelchairs favor this walk for its accessibility, as it is paved and only has a slight incline. However, keep in mind that if you stop by in the late morning or early afternoon, you'll find yourself dealing with road traffic and trail-based crowds. This can be especially overwhelming during the weekends in the summer and early fall.
Grotto Falls: 2.6 Miles Round Trip
Another highly-trafficked waterfall hike, Grotto Falls, requires a bit more effort than Laurel Falls, as it's mostly dirt with the occasional exposed root. Still, it's an excellent option for beginners or anyone short on time. The trail leads right behind the magnificent falls, creating a magical experience that is also highly refreshing on a hot day. Set aside at least two hours so you can leisurely meander along the trail and take plenty of pictures of the cascading falls.
Baskins Creek Falls: 3.0 Miles Round Trip
On the hunt for a short waterfall walk that isn't nearly as busy as Laurel or Grotto Falls? You are the perfect candidate for Baskins Creek Falls, which, while more difficult to navigate, shouldn't take long to finish. If you're willing to dedicate several hours to your hiking journey but can also use a break, try combining Grotto Falls and Baskins Creek Falls into a single-day trip. Both are conveniently situated along the Roaring Fork scenic drive.
Porters Creek Trail: 4.0 Miles Round Trip
When you need an escape from the hustle and bustle of the area's most visited trails, head to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies. There, you'll find an easy jaunt: the Porters Creek Trail. This hidden gem provides plenty of charming creek views. You'll also encounter a waterfall, farmstead ruins, and a historic cemetery. If you visit during the spring, you can spot gorgeous wildflowers in bloom.
Twin Creeks Trail: 4.5 Miles Round Trip
This trail may not be the most visually impressive in the Smokies, but it's a great option when you're short on time. It's easily accessible from Gatlinburg and short enough that you can dedicate the majority of your day to activities in town.
At 4.5 miles, the Twin Creeks Trail covers more ground than most of the other hikes on this list — but the low elevation, limited obstacles, and surprising lack of traffic mean that most can complete it in just two hours. During that time, you'll have the opportunity to check out a charming structure known as the Fairy House.
Mouse Creek Falls: 4.2 Miles Round Trip
This well-maintained trail takes you along an old railroad grade and a tranquil creek before providing the ultimate payoff for the hike's modest elevation gain: breathtaking waterfalls. The other main highlight is Midnight Hole — a lovely pool that rests below a small waterfall. Depending on how much time you spend taking in the dreamy views, this trek could last anywhere between two and three hours.
Little River Trail: 4.9 Miles Round Trip
Vacationers staying at the Elkmont Campground adore the Little River Trail, which makes for a peaceful morning excursion. Hike along an old logging trail as you observe evidence of past operations. Included on the Outstanding National Resource Waters list, the river that runs parallel to the path is exceptionally clean. This makes it an excellent place for spotting aquatic life as you hike. Other highlights include Huskey Branch Falls and a variety of wildflowers that make springtime hikes especially picturesque.
Don't let a lack of time, equipment, or physical fitness keep you from experiencing the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains. With a few hours and some sturdy footwear, you can escape into an outdoor wonderland and discover the allure of hiking in the Smokies.