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A Dog’s Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With over 12 million visitors in 2020, Great Smoky Mountains is the United State’s most visited National Park. And it’s pretty easy to see why. With no entrance fee and thousands of acres of Appalachian Mountain vistas and trails, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is beautiful and easy to access.

The 522,427 acres of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are divided almost evenly between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. This area is home to the greatest diversity of plant, animal, and insect life of any region in a temperate climate zone. And like Mammoth Cave National Park, Great Smoky Mountains is a designated International Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park owes its biodiversity mostly to two features: the abundant rain (as much as 85 inches a year in some places) and the wide variation in elevation. Elevation ranges from 876 feet at the mouth of Abrams Creek to 6,643 feet at the summit of Clingman’s Dome.

All of this biodiversity is best explored on the many hiking trails. Not only will you see the best parts of the park, but hiking some of the 850 miles of trails in the park (including 70 miles of the famous Appalachia Trail) is also a great way to escape the crowds. Unfortunately, if you are visiting with your dog, be aware that dogs are only allowed on 2 short trails by two of the Visitor Centers. So you will have to limit your dog to the stunning visits along the roads. And the best ways to avoid crowds if traveling with your dog are to avoid the busiest park seasons (mid-June to mid-August and the month of October) or explore before 10 am or after 6 pm.

You can find out more about visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the official NPS website or keep reading for more details about planning a dog-friendly visit to this popular national park.

Dogs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you are familiar with typical dog regulations within national parks, the following restrictions will not come as a surprise. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, and along roads, but must be leashed at all times. And your leash needs to be 6 feet in length or shorter. You must pick up after your dog (leave no poop behind!). Dogs can also not be left unattended in vehicles or RVs. For more information on pet policies at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visit the official website.

There are 2 dog-friendly trails in the park, one that connects the town of Gatlinburg to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the other that connects the town of Cherokee to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

Gatlinburg Trail

This trail is 1.9 miles one-way. It is relatively flat and runs through the forest alongside the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. This trail can also be used by bicycles, so make sure to attend to your surroundings while walking your dog on a leash.

If you enjoy touristy towns with crowds, fun food, and tourist shops, this is the perfect trail for you. After you walk through the tress and along the river, you can walk your dog through the streets of Gatlinburg. Some of the stores (like Byrds Cookies) even invited the dogs in to shop with us.

Oconaluftee River Trail

The Oconaluftee River Trail is a little bit shorter than the Gatlinburg Trail at 1.5 miles one way. It is also relatively flat but does have a few small hills. The trail runs through forested terrain along the side of the Oconaluftee River. This trail can also be used by bicycles, so keep an eye out.

We also recommend keeping an eye out for elk while hiking the Ocanluftee River Trail. We were blocked on the path by a herd of elk on our way back to the visitor center. It was a fun experience to see the animals grazing in the field, but remember to keep your distance from the elk. You need to stay at least 50 yards (or 150 feet) away from them, per federal regulations. Learn more about viewing elk safely on the Great Smoky Mountains website.

Places to Drive with Your Dog

Since you can’t hike much of the park with your dog, the best way for your dog to see Great Smoky Mountains National Park is from overlooks and scenic drives. Two of the popular (and my personally recommended) drives are the drives to Clingman’s Dome and around Cade’s Cove.

At 6,643 feet Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is also the highest point in Tennesee and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Dogs can’t walk to the observation tower on the summit (which offers 360-degree views of the Smokies), but they can enjoy the views from the main parking area and the many scenic pullouts on the way up to Clingmans Dome.

Be prepared for fog and clouds to block some of the views. But on a clear day, you can see for over 100 miles from the summit of Clingmans Dome. I have been to this area 3 times and only had clear views once, but even with the fog and low clouds, it is a beautiful area. Also, if traveling in the winter, be aware that this road is closed seasonal (typically from December to March).

Cades Cove is located at an elevation more than 4,000 feet below Clingmans Dome in a beautiful Smoky Mountain valley. This area offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park, with white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, groundhogs, turkeys, raccoons, skunks, and other animals living in this area. The one-way 11-mile loop road can take a few hours to drive (especially on busy days), but in addition to wildlife viewing, there are plenty of historical buildings to enjoy.

The valley was settled by Europeans between 1818 and 1821 and had a population of 271 by 1830. As a result, Cades Cove offers the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park.

And if you are visiting on a Wednesday, be aware that there is vehicle-free access on this Loop Road from May 5th to September 1st. On these Wednesdays, you can enjoy the road on foot or via bicycle with your pup.

Camping at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There are 10 front country campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Only two (Cades Cove and Smokemont) are open year-round. The others are open on a seasonal basis. The last time I was in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I stayed a night at Cades Cove and enjoyed tent camping in that location. On our most recent trip with the pups, we stayed at Smokemont in our travel trailer.

Smokemont was a nice campground as well, and we enjoyed walking the pups around the campground. There is a pretty river that runs through this campground, which offers some nice scenery from the road. Campsites are located in a forest setting and almost all of them are shaded. Bathroom facilities are nice, but be aware that there are no showers at any of the campgrounds in the national park.

Dog-Friendly Activities in the Surrounding Areas

If you are visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park with your dog and you like to hike, you HAVE TO visit the national forests outside of the national park boundaries. While Great Smoky Mountains National Park doesn’t allow dogs on the hiking trails, the surrounding national forests do.

There are 3 national forests that border the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Cherokee National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, and Pisgah National Forest. And Chattahoochee National Forest is just south of the park in the state of Georgia. While I wish we would have had time to visit all of these national forests in the Southern Highlands region, we ended up choosing to visit the area around Standing Indian Campground in Nantahala National Forest. We decided to focus on this rea mostly after reading about all the great dog-friendly options in this area courtesy of a post by BringFido.com.

Trails Around Standing Indian Campground in Nantahala National Forest

We camped at Standing Indian Campground with our travel trailer. This lovely campsite location gave us easy access to numerous hiking trails, including the famous Appalachian Trail. While your dog can’t hike the 70 miles of Appalachian Trail (AT) within the Great Smoky Mountains National park, they are welcome to join you on the section of the AT through Nantahala National Forest.

We hiked the following trails and recommend all of them.

Kimsey Creek Trail

The Kimsey Creek Trail starts at the campground and connects with the Appalachian Trail at Deep Gap (mile marker 85). The trail is approximately 4.5 miles one way. We didn’t hike all 4.5 miles of it, as there was a thunderstorm rolling in. But we really enjoyed the part of the trail right along Kimsey Creek.

Big Laural Falls Trail

At 1.1 miles round trip (or just over 0.5 miles one way), the trail to Big Laural Falls isn’t long. But it is beautiful and rewarding. I mean, who doesn’t love a good waterfall trail.

Mooney Falls Trail

If the trail to Big Laurel Falls is short, the trail to Mooney Falls is practically not a trail at all (0.1 mile one direction). But since this falls is only 0.7 miles further down the road from Big Laural Falls, you might as well stop at both. You can never visit too many waterfalls, right?

Bear Pen Gap Trail

On the road between the campground and the waterfalls, is the trailhead for Bear Pen Gap. From the Bear Pen Gap Trailhead, this trail is 2.5 miles uphill to the Appalachian Trail (AT). After you reach the AT, you can choose to go left (north) for 1/4 mile to visit the Albert Mountain Fire Tower. Otherwise, you can head left or right on the Appalachian Trail and link up with one of the other trails in the area to form a loop.

We had plans to hike to the Albert Mountain Fire Tower but ran out of time. We hiked the trail the morning we needed to check out of the campground, so we had a deadline turnaround time. Then we missed a turn on the trail, resulting in some backtracking and extra mileage during our hike. So we ended up turning around before we connected to the AT, but nonetheless, this was still another lovely hike in the Nantahala National Forest.

Summary: Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Dogs

Overall, we enjoyed our visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Parks with our dogs. But ff your goal is to actually hike the trails within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this is a trip that your dogs will have to skip.

However, if you are happy to drive through and see some of the roadside sights of this beautiful national park, get your dogs ready. There is plenty to see and experience without hiking the trails. And then, when your legs are ready for a bit of exercise, head into the surrounding national forests to enjoy a hike in this beautiful mountain region.

If you are looking for a more dog-friendly national park in the nearby area, consider hiking the section of the Appalachian mountains protected by Shenandoah National Park. Or spend some time at Mammoth Cave National Park or New River Gorge National Park, which are both very dog friendly and less than 5 hours from the Great Smoky Mountains.

Have you already been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with or without your dog? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section below.

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