Nantahala National Forest: The Best Dog-Friendly Alternative to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Posted by Lauren Barker

Year after year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, brings in more visitors than any other US national park. Its close proximity to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN, make it an ideal destination for families, couples and groups alike. Fido, however, may be less than impressed with his access to the park, which consists of two short (but beautiful) trails. But that doesn’t mean he’ll have to stay behind. Instead, he can enjoy a fun and very pet-friendly trip to nearby Nantahala National Forest.

Things to Do With Your Dog in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

“This is the ‘pawfect’ spot to cool off.” Photo by @justalittlegolden

The lack of dog-friendly activities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn’t without reason. In many US national parks, four-legged tourists aren’t allowed in the backcountry because they pose a threat to wildlife. Perhaps most importantly, they are also in danger of becoming prey for larger animals like bears and coyotes.

Dogs are still welcome to stay in campgrounds, visit picnic areas and explore two trails. The Gatlinburg Trail is a 1.9-mile hike from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to the outskirts of Gatlinburg, and the Oconaluftee River Trail stretches 1.5 miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to the outskirts of Cherokee, NC.

Things to Do With Your Dog in Nantahala National Forest

“Are you sure I can’t jump in?” Photo by @indigo_the_german_husky

If Great Smoky Mountains National Park has left Fido panting for more, head south to Nantahala National Forest. Like the Smokies, there are over 530,000 acres of wilderness and 600 miles of trails to explore, but unlike the national park, your pup is welcome almost everywhere in Nantahala. The forest has many of the same features as the Smokies, like hiking trails, waterfalls, rivers, incredible lookouts, wildlife and more.


“I don’t know what states are, but they say I can see four of them from here.”Photo by @tobi_kate_nc

Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains look forward to incredible viewpoints, and thankfully Nantahala has many. Hike 3 miles to the Wayah Bald Tower and you’ll be able to gaze out over the Appalachian Mountains of four states; Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.

Whiteside Mountain National Recreation Trail also has spectacular views. Fido will want to be in shape to hike this 1.9-mile, moderately difficult loop near Highlands, NC. The climb will take him to an elevation of 4,930 feet, passing 700-foot cliff walls and beautiful mountain laurel.

If your pup would rather ride than walk, the 61.3-mile Mountain Waters Scenic Byway twists and turns through forests and along rivers, passing many jaw-dropping mountaintop vistas.


“I can’t even hike my leg on this thing.”Photo by @getoutpost

The forests of the Smoky Mountains are home to abundant wildlife, various species of plants and trees, and numerous geological wonders. Thanks to its close proximity, Nantahala features many of the same habitats and topography. Traveling by foot and paw is the best way to experience the wilderness here.

For a quick afternoon workout, hike the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail, a 2-mile figure eight route through old-growth forests of eastern hemlock and tulip poplars. To snap Fido’s photo with a waterfall, explore the 1-mile Rufus Morgan Falls Trail, or take a 1-mile round-trip hike to Big Laurel Falls.

More adventurous canines can spend the day tackling the strenuous Yellow Mountain Trail. This dog-friendly, 11.7-mile round-trip hike ascends and descends multiple peaks and twists through tunnels of mountain laurel and rhododendron. At the highest summit, a firetower offers a panoramic view and place to rest before winding back down to the trailhead at Cole Mountain Gap.


“Look what I found out here!”Photo by @burgess.perry

Like its famous neighbor, dogs are welcome at picnic areas throughout Nantahala National Forest. Whether he’s been hiking or riding, these spots are ideal for letting your pup stretch his legs. The Nantahala River Ferebee Memorial Picnic Area offers tables with charcoal grills next to the Nantahala River. It’s also a great place to put in canoes or kayaks and take Fido fishing. Other picnic areas include the Collins Creek Picnic Pavilion and the trailhead of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail.

For a less quiet stop, take a break at the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City, NC. Shop for gear, bring a picnic lunch, or grab food and drinks at Big Wesser BBQ and find a seat by the water. Fido can dip his paws in the river to cool off. You may even be welcomed with live music or a campfire.

Water Activities

“Who else is ready to tame this river?”Photo by @rollwiththunder

The Nantahala River is the “pawfect” place to raft, canoe or kayak. Schedule a tour with Rolling Thunder River Company, where dogs are welcome for free. If boating is more Fido’s style, book a pontoon rental on Fontana Lake with Almond Boat and RV Park Boat Rental.

While dogs are not allowed on beaches established for humans, they are welcome to paddle along undeveloped shorelines in Nantahala. Perhaps the best and most appropriately named is along the Tusquitee (Cherokee for “where the water dogs laughed”) Ranger District. There are three lakes and two rivers spanning this area along the North Carolina and Georgia line.

Where to Stay

“Sittin’ on the shore of the river, watching the time go by.”Photo by @nantahalariverlodge

From the Smoky Mountains to Nantahala National Forest, there is a wide array of pet-friendly lodging options to choose from. At the Nantahala River Lodge in Topton, NC, Fido can relax with you on the water’s edge. One pet of any size is permitted for an additional fee of $30 per night. The Historic Topoco Lodge in Robbinsville, NC, welcomes furry guests with treats and is located near the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail. Two pets of any size are permitted for an additional fee of $75 per pet, per stay.

Canines who love to camp will enjoy Adventure Trail Campground in Whittier, NC. Dogs of any size are welcome for no additional fee and have their own “pet walk.” The campground is just 10 minutes from Cherokee, NC.

If your pooch prefers seclusion, check out vacation rentals like Up, Up and Away, which features stunning mountain views and an outdoor fire pit. Pets of any size are accepted for $50 per stay. Pups who like the water will appreciate this lakefront home in Almond, which is just minutes from Almond Boat and RV Park. Dogs of any size are allowed for $75 per stay.

What’s your favorite dog-friendly place to visit in Nantahala National Forest? Leave a comment or tweet us @BringFido!

Banner photo by @indigo_the_german_husky.