Backpacking with Kids in Western North Carolina

Backpacking with kids in Western North Carolina is a dream! The region has vast tracts of national forest land to explore with Pisgah National Forest and Nantahala National Forest, plus it shares Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Eastern Tennessee. A long section of the world-famous Appalachian Trail also runs through the state, over 300 miles in North Carolina or along the border with Tennessee. 

There is a great variety of flora to experience, from the pine forests of the lower elevations to the mountaintop spruce-fir forests. In the spring, wildflowers are abundant at all elevations. In the summer and fall, a wide variety of fungi dot the landscape. 

I moved here in the fall of 2022, and since then have taken dozens of backpacking trips with my kids and on my own. In this post, I’ve compiled some of the best kid-friendly backpacking trips we’ve found in this area, especially those with easy to moderate trails, abundant water sources, and interesting landscapes.

Safety and Other Considerations

Be Prepared for Inclement Weather

Western NC is pretty temperate in terms of weather, with cold, but not brutal, winters and hot, but not miserable, summers. However, weather conditions can also be really volatile and unpredictable, so it’s best to be prepared even if you think the weather will be pleasant. When it’s warm and sunny in Asheville, it can be cold and wet at higher elevations nearby. 

A kid wearing a blue rain jacket and black rain pants leans against a rock.
On this trip to the Smokies, the weather went from warm and sunny to cold and pouring rain within 24 hours!

The weather can also change rapidly and unexpectedly, with downpours or thunderstorms rolling in. Thunder and lightning is common in the summer and fall months, particularly in the afternoon. Although most of these trails will not take you above treeline, it’s still best to be cautious when backpacking with kids in thunderstorms. 


Western NC is home to about 5,000 black bears, and the numbers are increasing every year. In this area, you will see them both in the city and in the mountains – we had a mama and yearling visit our backyard in the middle of the city once!

They are usually not aggressive unless startled or approached with their cubs, so not as much of a worry as other types of bears. Be cautious and store food properly (see our post here on food storage in bear country!) If hiking with kids, teach them what to do if they see a black bear and tell them not to panic or run, but rather make noise, talk to the bear, and walk slowly backwards.

Driving to Trails

Mountain roads in Western NC can be incredibly windy and steep, and icy and slippery in the winter even if it’s above freezing at lower elevations. Drive slowly and carefully, especially on roads you are unfamiliar with.

If you have a kid prone to carsickness, be prepared with medication or other relief (I store those blue hospital vomit bags in the pockets behind the front seats of our car at all times for this very reason!) 


Cell service is extremely spotty in a lot of the mountains we explore, so be prepared to be outside cell service during much of your hiking. I carry a Garmin InReach satellite communicator for its SOS capabilities and to update family when I’m away.

Backpacking Gear List

Backpacking with kids does require lightweight gear that is different from car camping. While you don’t need the most expensive ultralight setup, it’s helpful to have a lightweight tent, sleep solutions, and a way to cook food.

Check out our some of our best backpacking gear posts!

A kid in a pink coat sits in the vestibule of a green Tarptent. It's winter and there is other backpacking detritus scattered around.

Where to Go

There is so much public land available for backpacking in this region, it can be daunting to know where to get started with your kids! Look for trails that are suitable for kids in terms of difficulty and length. Trails with gentle inclines, shorter distances, and interesting features like waterfalls or streams to play in (which are abundant in this region!) 

Here are a few of my favorites, divided up by area: 

Pisgah National Forest 

Campsites in Pisgah National Forest are first-come, first-served, with no need for a permit. Although they get busier in the summer months and on beautiful weekends, I’ve never had trouble finding a site.

Flat Laurel Creek Loop

Flat Laurel Creek was one of my first backpacking trips I took here in Western NC, and it remains a favorite, especially with kids. The trail is gentle, with only a little elevation gain. Plus you are along a beautiful creek with access to water for both filtering for drinking and for playing in when the weather is warm. 

There are a lot of creekside campsites only a few miles in from the parking area. You can return via the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to make this a loop. Or take an additional trail up to Sam’s Knob for sunset! In the summer, there are thousands of wildflowers up on these treeless knobs and the views are spectacular.

The parking area for this trail is along NC-215 from Canton towards the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

Black Balsam Knob

Located very close to Flat Laurel Creek and Sam’s Knob, Black Balsam Knob is an iconic Western NC hike and sunset photography spot. With 360-degree views, this is a great spot to enjoy the sunset, then cozy up in your tent for the night to wake up in the morning to enjoy the sunrise! 

You can access Black Balsam Knob, with its handful of campsites, from the Forest Service parking area off the Blue Ridge Parkway or (in the winter, when the parkway is closed) from the parking area along NC-215 mentioned above. The hike from the Forest Service parking area is short (less than a mile) and not too strenuous. To make it a longer hike, combine with Flat Laurel Creek or head towards Graveyard Fields and loop around. 

Cedar Rock via Cat Gap Trail

This is a relatively flat, easy trail for young backpackers. The Cat Gap Loop is 4.4 miles, perfect for an overnight backpacking trip with the mileage divided out over two days for new backpackers. The only difficult part is a deep river crossing at the beginning of this loop, which will require taking off shoes and wading or (as was the case when I hiked this trail last winter) walking (or butt-scooting) over a fallen tree. 

You can hike further to the Art Loeb trailer and sleep in the newly-rebuilt Butter Gap shelter. 

For a beautiful view, you can hike the John Rock Trail Loop and walk out onto John Rock. There is a steep drop off though, so be careful if taking small kids out on the rock! 

To access this trail, park at the Fish Hatchery along Forest Service FS 475 near Brevard. 

Turkey Pen Gap Trail

Another trail in Pisgah National Forest down near Brevard with clear and fresh water to play in, this trail follows the North Mills River to campsites up and down the banks. There’s an amazing site that can be tricky to find, but is magical with a sandy beach and a deep swimming spot. 

Three kids with backpacking backpacks stand with their backs to the camera, the sun is beaming through the trees and they are standing on a bridge.

There is plenty of parking at the Turkey Pen Gap trailhead, and it’s a steep but well-maintained hike down to the river from there. To make this more of a loop, return along the horse trail, but you’ll need to step aside for passing groups of horseback riders and dodge horse poop! 

Nantahala National Forest

Like in Pisgah National Forest, Nantahala National Forest has numerous opportunities for backpacking with established campsites and beautiful scenery. Campsites are first-come, first-served with no need for a permit. 

Panthertown Backcountry Area

Called the “Yosemite of the East,” Panthertown Backcountry Area is part of the Nantahala National Forest and an amazing location for backpacking with kids. There is so much diversity of landscape and flora and fauna in a relatively small area, and several ways to create easy loops for a weekend trip. There are also at least five waterfalls in the area with lots of opportunity for swimming, splashing, and sliding.

Three kids stand in front of a waterfall, they have long blonde hair and are wearing backpacks and carrying hiking poles.

You can find established campsites with flat spots for tents and makeshift fire pits scattered throughout the area, but there is also a large shelter located centrally near Granny Burrell Falls.

Another fun spot to camp at is Schoolhouse Falls, camping right on a beach next to a roaring falls. 

A Tarptent Hogback tent in the foreground, with a waterfall and kids playing on the beach in the background.

There are two access points for Panthertown on the east and west – they are easy to find with plenty of parking, though it can fill up on sunny weekends. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains area have an abundance of backpacking opportunities with kids! One thing to consider when choosing the Smokies to backpack is you must obtain a permit in advance for all backcountry sites and shelters. These can go fast in the summer months and shoulder seasons on weekends, so plan ahead. 

Permits are $8/person/night, which can make them quite pricey for larger families so I tend to only go when I’m backpacking with a kid or two rather than the whole family. 

But it’s nice to know you’ll have a spot to camp, and as a bonus, all sites are equipped with bear cables to hang your food.

While there are so many options in the Smokies, here are a few of my favorites for family-friendly hike-ins:

Deep Creek Loop

Deep Creek is part of the Smokies near Bryson City and is a very popular area during the summer months for tubing and relaxing by the abundance of clean, refreshing water and waterfalls dotting the landscape. For a backpacking trip with kids, try backcountry sites 58, 59, or 60, looping around on the Indian Creek Trail and staying at site 46 on the second night. 

Kephart Prong Trail to Kephart Shelter

For an easy out-and-back spot with beautiful water and exciting bridges to cross, try the Kephart Prong trail to the Kephart shelter. This is a hike with a slight incline, but is easy for little legs.

And mom and her child cross a tree bridge over a river in the woods.

Shelters are a great resource if weather is questionable or cold and can be a fun place to hang with kids during inclement weather on a backpacking trip. Shelters in the Smokies have bear hanging cables and most have privies as well. They also have fireplaces in the shelter for very cold winter nights.

A kid in overalls stands on top of a ladder in a shelter in the Smokies, you can see the fireplace in the background.

Section of the Appalachian Trail

The AT runs 300 miles in North Carolina (or along the border with Tennessee), and there are a few sections in Western NC that I’ve found are ideal for a trip with kids. Here are two of my favorites:

Max Patch to Lemon Gap

Located about an hour from Asheville, Max Patch is a popular sunset destination for locals (and for good reason!) The bald will give you incredible views all around, and the wildflowers and grasses are abundant in the summer and shoulder months. While it used to be possible to camp up on Max Patch itself, that is no longer allowed, so you’ll have to hike down to find a campsite. 

A kid in a blue hoodie and hiking pants walks along the AT, there's a white blaze on a tree and others are hiking in the background.

There is a camp spot about a quarter-mile past the summit of Max Patch (going northbound on the AT towards Lemon Gap), but if you hike about 2 miles further, you’ll reach Roaring Fork shelter and can set up camp there. In the spring months, you will meet quite a few AT thru-hikers setting up for the night! 

A girl in a hat and t-shirt carries a backpack and is hiking with green in the background.

If you are out for multiple nights, you can hike ahead to Lemon Gap and set up camp in that area, then hike back to Max Patch to your car or check out a local shuttle to get you back to Max Patch! 

Roan Highlands

One of the most picturesque hikes in Western NC is the Roan Highlands, which is a series of five mountain summits and balds with absolutely stunning views of the surrounding areas. Going northbound on the AT from Carver’s Gap leads you through rhododendron tunnels which are incredible during full-bloom in June and provide 360 views on clear days. There are campsites located on the balds, but be careful about impact as the area contains protected plant species and it’s important to stay on the trail.

Going southbound on the AT, the Roan High Knob shelter is easily accessed from the parking area at Carver’s Gap, passing through lush, mossy forests on the way up to the shelter. In the winter, Roan Mountain gets far more snow than the surrounding areas, making it a destination to play in deep snow in the magical forests. 

Either way you go, north or south, you’ll get a unique experience with lots of opportunities for camping and a fun and engaging hike. 


For a very accessible backpacking trip close to Asheville, head to Montreat right outside Black Mountain. There is backcountry camping at two locations in Montreat: the Buck Gap Shelter approximately 1.5 miles from the Lookout trailhead and the Walker Knob shelter approximately 4 miles from the Greybeard trailhead. 

A mom and girl stand on a hiking trail, they are backpacking and it's winter, they are wearing green and pink puffy coats.

While both are not difficult to hike to, the Buck Gap shelter is a favorite of mine. I love this spot for introducing friends with young kids to backpacking. There’s even a privy located nearby, which is very convenient!

A wooden shelter with a green tent hanging in it. There's a backpack hanging as well.

These shelters are by reservation only and cost $1/adult/night; you can book your night here.

Backpacking with Kids in Western NC

Whether you live in the area or are traveling from further out, Western North Carolina is a magical spot for backpacking with kids. With the right information and preparation, you can plan an adventure that includes beautiful plants, animal sightings, and lots of water to explore.

Be sure to double-check trail conditions and local regulations before heading out, since some sites (like in the Smokies) require permits. But most importantly, focus on enjoying the experience and creating lasting memories with your family. Take time to appreciate the natural beauty of Western North Carolina and the bonding moments shared on the trail with your kids.

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Backpacking with Kids in Western North Carolina

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  • Cait currently lives in Western North Carolina with her three kids, but they have bounced all over from Utah, Texas, Wisconsin, and Sweden before moving to their current home. She loves any and all outdoor activities, and spends a lot of her week hauling her kids around on an electric cargo bike and trying to convince anyone and everyone to go backpacking or climbing with her. She has a PhD in Sociology with an emphasis on Gender and Sexuality, and currently works full-time as a User Experience Researcher in the tech industry. She loves to talk all things feminism, gardening, car-free life, and the Danish political drama Borgen.

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