Many dog owners love hiking with their pooches, understandably. It can be sheer joy to share the trail with that four-legged buddy of yours, marveling at the scenery—and all those fascinating wildland smells!—while getting a good workout.
In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, however, your options for hiking with a dog are very limited. That’s not unique to here, but rather true across much of the National Park system. In this article, we’ll spotlight the two trails where dogs are allowed in the park.
But first, let’s run down the basic regulations for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park with dogs, and why the rules regarding hiking with your pet are so stringent.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Dog Rules & Regulations
You can certainly enjoy Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Fido, but you need to understand the laws ahead of time and prepare for your trip accordingly.
Dogs can be in campgrounds, picnic areas, and along roads in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but they must be on a leash six feet or less in length. And aside from the two routes, we’re spotlighting here, dogs aren’t allowed on hiking trails or in the backcountry in general.
Why do most national parks have these kinds of tight restrictions on dogs? Well, there are multiple reasons. Unleashed dogs may chase or otherwise harass wildlife, even spread diseases to them. The scent of a dog alone on a trail may be stressful for some critters, which interpret the smell like that of a predator.
Dogs running around off-leash can also trample, dig, and otherwise disturb groundcover vegetation and soil.
Dogs may also disturb other park visitors, including people who are genuinely afraid of them. Given the national parks are, besides protecting natural resources, meant to provide outdoor enjoyment for all, the Park Service generally doesn’t allow pooches on the trails.
Finally, Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn’t a zoo, and prohibiting dogs from most of the acreage is also about protecting them. Black bears, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, even white-tailed deer: Park wildlife may injure or kill dogs they perceive as a threat—or as potential prey. Then there are the poisonous or barbed plants, and (in some areas) the steep drop-offs. Dogs that get away from you can also easily get lost in the substantial Smoky Mountain wilderness.
It’s thus a good idea to really think about how you’ll handle a park visit with your pooch. If you’re mostly hanging at campgrounds, driving park roads, and picnicking, your dog can be a happy camper (if you will) here.
But if you want to do a lot of hiking, you should either leave your dog back home or make sure somebody in your party can stay behind at the campground with it. You shouldn’t leave your dog unattended in vehicles or at campsites: It’s against park rules, for one thing, but also not an ethical approach.
If you do want to do more hiking with your dog in the Southern Appalachians, keep in mind you’ve got much more extensive opportunities in the national forests adjoining and nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These include the Pisgah, Nantahala, Cherokee, and Chattahoochee national forests. Obviously, be sure to check site-specific Forest Service regulations regarding dogs, but in general, you’ll have more flexibility for a pooch-powered visit to these close-by recreation areas.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Trails Open to Dogs
In some national parks, there aren’t any trails open to dogs. Not so in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where two easy and lovely paths allow four-legged friends. These are the Gatlinburg and the Oconaluftee River trails. They’re kind of mirror images of one another, both linking popular park visitor centers with gateway towns on the park boundary.
We should also note that the Gatlinburg and Oconaluftee River trails are also the only two in the park open to bicycles. So keep an eye out for cyclists while hiking and keep your pup close when they zip by!
The Gatlinburg Trail
This easy trail, The Gatlinburg Trail is 3.9 miles round-trip, runs between the outskirts of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Involving only 235 feet of elevation gain, it proceeds on a well-maintained gravel tread along the West Prong of the Little River.
Along the way, you and your pooch can see the remnants of old Smoky Mountains homesteads, cross the West Prong on one of the park’s longest footbridges, and take advantage of numerous options for riverbank access. (You’ll also notice evidence of the major wildfire, sparked by people near the Chimney Tops, which threatened Gatlinburg in 2016.)
Expect some traffic noise—the trail shadows Newfound Gap Road for much of its length—but also plenty of fine riverside scenery.
The Oconaluftee River Trail
On the other side of the park, the 1.5-mile Oconaluftee River Trail connects Cherokee, North Carolina with the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. It’s easier yet than the Gatlinburg Trail, involving a mere 70 feet of elevation gain. Like it, it’s a gravel path that follows a river: surprise, surprise, the Oconaluftee.
Along its gentle way, the Oconaluftee River Trail passes under a handsome mixed canopy of classic lowland Smoky Mountains trees, including eastern hemlocks, tulip trees, yellow buckeyes, beeches, dogwoods, basswoods, and sycamores. It’s especially dazzling in spring when a nice wildflower show draws the eye. But fall hikers, mind you, have their own blooms to enjoy in the form of pretty asters.
You’ll also get to enjoy interpretive signage focused on Cherokee culture along the trail. It offers a great chance to learn more about—and reflect on—the Smokies’ indigenous peoples, still very much a part of this place.
Share a Riverside Ramble in the Great Smokies With Fido
No, you can’t hit just any trail in the Great Smokies with your dog. But at least you’ve got two great riverside paths to enjoy with man’s best friend!