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Heading out to the Great Smoky Mountains National park and wondering – is it safe to hike in the Smoky Mountains?

The short answer to this question is that yes, it is safe to hike in the Smoky Mountains and millions of visitors do it every year. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is just as dangerous as any other forest or wild area to hike in. In fact, most fatalities in the park are attributed to motor vehicle crashes and medical events, so driving to your hike will probably be the most dangerous part of it all.

bridge over river on a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

What to Know Before Hiking in the Smoky Mountains

That being said, there are a few things you should keep in mind before heading out on the trails in the Smokies. First and foremost, always check the weather conditions before you go. If it has been raining or is forecasted to rain, flash flooding is a possibility in some areas of the park. Road closures are updated on the National Park Service website.

Also, be aware of your surroundings and what wildlife may be in the area. The Smokies are home to black bears, coyotes, deer, snakes, and other animals. Make noise while you hike, especially if you are hiking alone, so as not to startle any animals that might be nearby. And never feed the wildlife!

Finally, be aware that most deaths while hiking in the Smoky Mountains can be attributed to falls and drowning, most of which have been around waterfalls. There are undercurrents near the falls that take people by surprise, and the rocks are slippery, so stay out of the water near the falls to avoid falling or drowning.

If you stay on the trails, you’ll find that it’s very safe to hike in the Smoky Mountains and you’ll see why so many visitors come to the park to enjoy the hiking each year.

black bear and cubs on roadway in the park

How Common are Bear Attacks in the Smoky Mountains?

One of the biggest concerns people have when hiking in the Smokies is encountering a black bear. While it is possible to see a bear while hiking, attacks are very rare. In fact, there has only been one fatal bear attack in the history of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. (source)

So, while you should always be aware of your surroundings and make noise while hiking, you shouldn’t worry too much about encountering a bear.

If you are concerned, the park does allow you to carry bear spray.

Bears are not the only wild animals in the park, though, so also be on the lookout for snakes, wild boars and other wildlife.

What to Do if You Encounter a Black Bear on the Trail

If you do encounter a black bear on the trail, the National Park Service recommends the following:

  • Do not approach the bear. Give it space and time to move away.
  • Make sure the bear has an escape route. If it feels cornered, it may become aggressive.
  • Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
  • If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears.
  • Pick up small children immediately. Do not make any loud noises or screams—the bear may think it’s the sound of a prey animal.
  • Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person.
  • Do NOT run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals.
  • Do NOT climb a tree. Black bears can climb trees.
  • Be especially cautious if you see a female with cubs; never place yourself between a mother and her cub, and never attempt to approach them. The chances of an attack escalate greatly if she perceives you as a danger to her cubs.

Read more about bear safety here

What to Do if You Get Lost or Injured While Hiking in the Smokies

If you find yourself lost or injured while hiking in the Smoky Mountains, the best thing to do is to stay where you are. Do not try to hike out on your own.

If you have cell phone service, call 911 and give them your location. The dispatcher will be able to connect you with a ranger who can help you.

If you do not have cell phone service, stay where you are and wait for a ranger to find you. It is important that you remain calm and stay hydrated.

You can also help the ranger find you by making yourself visible. Wave your arms and shout if you see a ranger coming your way.

And remember, the best way to avoid getting lost or injured while hiking is to be prepared before you hit the trails. Make sure you have a map of the area and know your route before you start hiking. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. And always carry plenty of water and snacks with you in case you get lost or stuck on the trail.

A young woman stands behind Grotto Falls in early summer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.
Grotto Falls

Safety Tips for Hikers Heading Out into the Park

The best way to stay safe while hiking in the Smoky Mountains is to be prepared. Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind before you hit the trails:

  • Make sure you have a map of the area and know your route before you start hiking.
  • It’s not a good idea to hike alone, but if you are going solo, let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. This is a good tip even if there are more people going on the hike. Even experienced hikers need to let someone know where they plan on going.
  • Carry plenty of water and snacks with you.
  • Wear proper hiking shoes and clothing.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and make noise while hiking.
  • Remember that cell phones may not get reception in many areas of the park, so don’t count on that as your lifeline.
  • Carry bear spray with you if you are concerned about encountering a black bear.
  • If you do encounter a black bear on the trail, do not approach it or run away from it.
  • If you get lost or injured while hiking, stay where you are and wait for a ranger to find you.

By following these safety tips, you can ensure that your hike in the Smoky Mountains is a safe and enjoyable one.

The Safest Hikes in the Smokies

If you’re concerned about the safety of hiking in the Smoky Mountains, especially if you have smaller children like we do, then there are some hikes that are definitely better for you and your family than others. These are what we feel are the best trails for our family out of the more than 800 miles of trails in the park.

Here are our 3 favorite hikes that are safe and usually will have other families on the trails:

Laurel Falls

This trail is 2.4 miles round trip and a bit of a climb, but nothing too strenuous. We’ve made this trek with a five and two year old and I was seven months pregnant. We saw black bears on the trail but at a great distance and it was exciting since they were so far away and didn’t pay any attention to us.

You’ll find plenty of other families on this trail as it’s one of the most popular trails. Laurel Falls is really beautiful and it’s nice to stop and rest before heading back down.

Here is a picture of us at Laurel Falls on that hike:

the author and her family in front of Laurel Falls, 2015

Clingman’s Dome

This is a short hike but it has a steep trail – we had to sit down several times along the way, but there are plenty of benches to sit and rest on. It’s a 1.2 mile (roundtrip) trail that is paved and heavily trafficked, so you’ll see plenty of other families on your journey. There is a nice parking area with restrooms at the base of the trail (the Clingmans Dome Parking Lot). It’s definitely one of the most popular hikes in the park.

At the top you’ll find spectacular views from the observation tower, which is amazing because you can see for 100 miles on a clear day including several states like North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and more. Just be prepared for the weather to be quite a bit cooler than in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge – we went when it was in the 50’s but there was ice up in the higher elevations and we weren’t dressed for it! Make sure to wear a wind-resistant jacket as it’s very windy up there at the Clingmans Dome Lookout, depending upon the time of year.

Another side note is that the Appalachian Trail runs right into this trail, so we made sure to hike a bit on it so we could say we’ve been there.

Here is a picture of me with the Appalachain Trail sign:

author in front of the Appalachian Trail sign on the Clingmans Dome Trail

The Gatlinburg Trail

This is another popular trail and it runs from just outside the city of Gatlinburg to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, about 1.9 miles one way. This is one of two trails in the park that allows dogs, so you can bring your furry friend along on this trail.

This one is relatively flat (especially compared to the other two on this list) so it’s one of the easier trails and bicycles are also allowed. You can see some great views of the Little Pigeon River, cross a pedestrian footbridge, and see remnants of several old homesites.

Of course there are plenty of longer hikes in the park, and we also enjoy a family hike on the Abrams Falls Trail, the Alum Cave Trail and the Middle Prong Trail. There are also other easy hikes in the park, too!

Final Thoughts

Is it safe to hike in the Smoky Mountains? Yes, but you will need to take some safety precautions. Make sure you have a map and know your route, wear proper clothing and shoes, carry plenty of water, be aware of your surroundings, and make noise while hiking. If you are concerned about encountering a black bear, carry bear pepper spray with you. And if you do get lost or injured while hiking, stay where you are and wait for a ranger to find you. By following these safety tips, you can ensure that your hike in the Smokies is a safe and enjoyable one.

Happy trails!
Amanda

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