Top Trails: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Johnny Molloy, horseback riding in the Smokies

Best Trails for Horseback Riding in the Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts more than 800 miles of trails; 500,000 acres of land; and some of the largest stands of old-growth forest in the eastern US. And with more than 9 million guests annually, it’s the most visited national park in the American system. Which means trails can get a bit…crowded.

One way to avoid some of that foot traffic and experience the park from a different vantage point is to hop on a horse! You can cover more miles and soak in the views rather than staring down at the ground below your feet. GSMNP offers 550 miles of trails open to horses. Visitors can either hit one of the local stables for a guided trail ride or bring their own horse. And if you travel to the park with a horse in tow, you can check out one of the drive-in horse camps that provide easy access to the backcountry.

Here are some options for exploring on an equine in the Smokies.

Cades Cove Area

Cane Creek Hike, 9.8 miles

Sometimes it can be difficult to find solitude along the trails of GSMNP, but you just need to know what trails to take. This secluded ride leads from Abrams Creek Ranger Station through lush valleys and over piney ridges to the Buchanan Cemetery, then out further onto the desolate Cane Creek Trail.

This hike takes place at the extreme northwestern part of the park, in the Abrams Creek area. Characterized by pine- and oak-covered ridges dividing small creeks that once harbored subsistence farms, the area has the Smokies’ lowest elevations yet also some of its most remote locales. Despite being near civilization, the area contains vast swaths of trailless terrain—good habitat for the fauna of the park. Don’t be surprised to see a deer, a turkey, or even a bear.

Cades Cove also houses the only national park-authorized riding stables. And if horseback riding is too much for you, the stable offers guided carriage rides and hayrides.

Top Trails: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Johnny Molloy, horseback riding in the Smokies

Deep Creek Area

Forney Creek Loop, 19.4 miles

This tough but rewarding trek involves numerous creek fords, an elevation change of more than 4,000 feet one-way, and will make you glad to be on horseback!

Leave Clingmans Dome and travel Forney Ridge, passing Andrews Bald with its wonderful views.  Turn up Forney Creek, ascending a wild valley along a scintillating mountain stream capped with a visit to Forney Creek Cascades, one of the best rock slides in the entire Southern Appalachians. Along Forney Creek, logging and settler relics can be spotted by observant hikers. Remember to leave artifacts for others to discover and enjoy.

If you’re traveling with a large group and want to see numerous waterfalls without a strenuous ride, head to Smokemont Riding Stables, in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Top Trails: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Johnny Molloy, horseback riding in the Smokies

Big Creek Area

Mount Sterling via Mount Sterling Gap, 5.4 miles

This steep trail starts high and gets higher as it enters spruce–fir forest, culminating atop 5,842-foot Mount Sterling. A fire tower stands atop the mountain, where those who climb its heights are rewarded with an eye-popping 360-degree view of the Smoky Mountains and beyond.

Leave Mount Sterling Gap and soon pass the Long Bunk Trail before entering Smokies spruce–fir forest, found only atop the park’s highest points. Reach Mount Sterling Ridge, use the horse-hitching post, and then make a final push for the mountaintop and tower. Mount Sterling Gap, at an elevation of 3,890 feet, offers a leg up to the high country.

Top Trails: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Johnny Molloy, horseback riding in the Smokies

For help finding the perfect hike in the Smokies, pick up a copy of Top Trails: Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Johnny Molloy.

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Tanya Twerdowsky

I am a Jersey girl living in Alabama who loves to run far and eat lots.

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