Ask a Park Ranger

By: Jackie Eurice-Kenney
A national park ranger

What-to-Do got some insider information about the Great Smoky Mountains from a park ranger. Here are some answers to popular questions:

Q: Do you have any tips for first time visitors?

A: Absolutely! Here are a few: First and most importantly, do not feed or interact with the wildlife. It’s not only illegal but it can be very harmful to you and to them. Second, you may want to bring extra socks and maybe even another pair of hiking boots if you plan to do considerable trekking through the Smokies. Even on flatter terrain, they will probably get wet! And please be sure to bring necessities including extra water, snacks, sunscreen and bug spray with you on your hikes. Finally, The limited parking spaces fill up quickly at the popular trailheads, so it is recommended that you plan on arriving early—before 8am.

Q: Can I be a Smoky Mountains Ranger?

A: Just like other professional jobs, a lot of work goes into becoming an official Smoky Mountains Ranger. We have to be knowledgeable in the laws and rules pertaining to the park, courageous to protect the park and we are also educators—we teach the public how to care and respect the park so that they will love it like we do. However, if you would like to try and see what goes into being a park ranger, there are introductory programs available such as the Junior Smoky Mountains Ranger program and another similar program for older kids and adults. Stop by the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Elkmont Campground or Cades Cove to pick up a booklet for $2.50 and get started. When you complete the Junior Smoky Mountains Ranger program, you will be sworn in by reciting the following pledge:

“As a Junior Ranger, I promise to help protect the plants and animals of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and keep the air, water, and land clean. I will continue to learn more about the park so I can help protect it for all the years to come.”

Q: Can I bring my dog along on my hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

A: For the safety of your pet as well as for the wildlife, dogs are not permitted on almost all of the trails in the park. Their presence, scent and sound will likely disturb the local species and hinder their breeding or feeding regimens. Dogs can also unintentionally infect the resident wild animals with diseases that are not currently known to them. Plus, you certainly don’t want to place your dog in harm’s way. Your pet could be considered a threat (or worse—dinner) to indigenous predatory animals. There are, however, two trails that are dog friendly: the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. Otherwise, feel free to visit forests and public lands outside the national park where you can relax or exercise with your pet. Plus, they are allowed on campgrounds, picnic areas, and along roads.

Q: Can I swim in the rivers?

A: It’s not a good idea. Many of the rivers and streams are not large enough for swimming, and the rushing water and slippery rocks can be hazardous. If you are at a waterfall and see a large welcoming pool, you should know that it is incredibly dangerous to swim there. The pressure of the water has killed people who get dragged under the surface by the undertow. Also remember not to climb near waterfalls. The rocks can get very slippery. Please be safe.

Q: Where are some of the best places to go in the park?

A: The views and the 14-mile challenge of the Rocky Top Trail that you can get to by beginning on the Anthony Creek Trail at Cades Cove. Once you get to the summit of this steep trail—Rocky Top—you can see for miles and the sight is gorgeous. However, Rainbow Falls—though still challenging—is a shorter 3-hour hike to a beautiful spot, deep in nature. It can be accessed by a trail off of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Also, be sure to see the mills and old farmsteads in Cades Cove.