Dogs and The Smokies: What You Need to Know
There’s nothing quite like heading into the great outdoors with my best friends. Those best friends happen to have four legs and waggy tails, and while I wish they could accompany me everywhere, that isn’t always the case. Each year, many thru-hiker hopefuls set out from Springer with their furry friends by their sides. While a vast majority of the AT is pet friendly, there are a few exceptions. One of those is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or the Smokies.
Pet dogs are NOT allowed in the Smokies under any circumstances. The only dogs that are allowed in the park are service dogs (discussed later). Planning is key for managing your dog while traversing the Smokies during your thru. In this article, I hope to help you better understand the why’s and how’s of managing your canine hiking partner while you hike the Smokies.
Why Are Dogs Not Allowed?
There is a bit of controversy surrounding the fact that dogs aren’t allowed in GSMNP. However, despite how you feel about these rules, they are the rules. If you are using the park you have to agree to follow the rules. I reached out to GSMNP to get the scoop on exactly why this is a rule.
First of all, I was told that many national parks with large backcountry areas don’t generally allow dogs in these areas. Such parks include Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, and Rocky Mountains National Park, among others. This rule is in effect for several reasons. I’m quoting a park volunteer who took the time to answer all of my questions:
Dogs can carry diseases into the park’s populations.
Dogs can chase and threaten wildlife, scaring birds and other animals away from nesting, feeding, and resting sties.
The scent left behind by a dog can signal the presence of a predator, disrupting or altering the behavior of park wildlife.
Small animals may hide in their burrow the entire day after smelling a dog and may not return to feed.
Dogs bark and disturb the quiet of the wilderness.
Unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells can disturb even the calmest, friendliest, and best trained dogs, causing them to behave unpredictably or bark excessively.
Pets may become prey for larger predators, such as coyotes and bears. In addition, if your dog disturbs or enrages a bear, it may leas the angry bear directly to you.
Dogs can also encounter insects that bite and transmit disease and plants that are poisonous or full of painful thorns and burrs.
Many people, especially children, are frightened by dogs, even small ones. Uncontrolled dogs can prevent a danger to other visitors.
As you can see, most of the rules are in place to protect either the wildlife in the area OR the dogs themselves from harm. National parks exist as a space to preserve the unique wildlife and plant life in that area. The park wants to do everything they can to maintain the natural state of the park. If having dogs around means the animals become more susceptible to disease or their natural patterns are disrupted, it makes sense to keep the dogs out.
Ok, that makes sense. But what am I supposed to do with my dog while I hike the Smokies?
There are several options available to hikers that answer this question. I posed this question to a group of thru-hiker hopefuls to scope out what they have chosen to do. I’ll discuss the more common answers here.
1. Skip the Park
This is probably the least desirable/most controversial answer I received. Most thru-hikers have an ultimate goal of hiking ALL of the Appalachian Trail. This includes the ~70 miles of trail that passes through the Smokies. Skipping this technically means you didn’t hike the whole trail. However, there are many reasons a hiker may choose this option.
One is finances: it can cost a significant chunk of money to board a dog for the ~week that you’re hiking the park, plus there is the additional cost of either transporting your dog to you or transporting yourself to pick up the dog. Many hikers choose to skip this section, even if it means they may not be considered legitimate thru-hikers. This avoids the steep costs associated with other options.
If you’ve already hiked this section of the AT, maybe you don’t want to waste the time and money to do it again. Hikers may choose to opt-out of the Smokies to avoid being separated from the dog. This option still requires planning (and money) in terms of transportation. You have to find a way to get you and your dog from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap. However, it is not as expensive as a week of boarding and can be a good option for hikers on a budget.
2. Board your dog while hiking the Smokies and arrange dog transport around the park
This seems to be the most common/popular answer to the question of “what do I do with my dog while I’m hiking the Smokies?” Over the last few years, several places have popped up that will assist thru-hikers with managing their canine partners for the time period spent in GSMNP. Most of these work in such a way that the boarding facility picks up your dog at a pre-arranged location (usually Fontana Dam) and drops your dog off at the end of the park (Davenport Gap). In the next section, I’ll offer more information on specific services available for boarding.
In addition to letting you enjoy the Smokies to their fullest, this option also gives your furry friend a break to rest and recover. You’re 200 miles in when you hit the Smokies. A week off will help your pup gain some weight back, aid in muscle recovery, and give their paws some time to heal from any wear and tear.
3. Have a friend watch your pet for you
For those hikers who are lucky enough to have friends or family members that live relatively nearby, this can be a good option. You never know who might step up to help, so if you are considering this it may be a good idea to make a post on facebook or other social media sites scoping out potential friends/relatives that would be interested. Perhaps offer to pay them a small fee (or buy them beer, whatever works). Just make sure if you choose this option that your friend is fully aware of the responsibilities that go along with pet-sitting a dog.
Ok, I’ve decided what to do. Now how do I do it?
1. If you’ve decided to skip the Smokies by shuttling around
If you’ve opted to skip the park entirely, your biggest hurdle is going to be finding a shuttle driver that is pet friendly and willing to drive you that distance. This isn’t necessarily going to be cheap. Don’t count on being able to hitchhike, either. A straight hitch from Fontana all the way to Davenport Gap isn’t going to be easy. In fact, I’d really recommend getting your shuttle from Stecoah Gap due to it’s much greater ease of access for shuttle drivers. It’s probably going to cost you less than a pickup at Fontana. Either way, you really need to have a plan in place – you are not likely to have great cell signal from from Stecoah, Fontana, or Davenport Gap.
I reached out to Ron of Highlands Shuttle Service to get a gauge for what to expect when getting this shuttle. He says: “A specific rate from Stecoah Gap or Fontana would depend to a certain extent on date and time, but $150.00 would be in the ballpark.” Advance notification is most always required.
- Ron of Highlands Shuttle Service – 423-625-0739
- $150 ball-park fee
- Dog must be trained to ride in owners lap during the trip
- A Walk in the Woods (Gatlinburg based) – 865-436-8283
- 70lb maximum weight – dog rides in a crate during the trip
- Cost for pickup at Fontana and drop off at Davenport Gap is $236 (on a card) or $225 (cash) for up to 5 people, and there is a $20 extra fee for the dog. This price includes pickup at Fontana as early as 9am. Earlier can be arranged for an extra fee
- Will pick up your dog from Fontana and deliver to a boarding facility in the Gatlinburg area (Barks and Recreation), then pick up your dog from boarding and return to you at Davenport Gap – call for prices and availability
2. If you’ve decided to board your dog while hiking the Smokies
This option allows your dog to have a bit of a rest while you hike the Smokies pet-free. The biggest hurdle when choosing a boarding facility is making sure that your pet is going to be WELL taken care of in a safe, minimal stress environment. I can’t stress enough here that the cheapest or most convenient option may not always be the best option for your dog. If you have a dog that is easily stressed, you’ll want to make sure you pick a place that is quiet, calm, and clean, and where your dog will have plenty of time to relax. If you have an ultra high energy dog that doesn’t do well being caged, you’ll want to make sure the facility you choose has safe options for exercise, such as playing fetch, swimming, or supervised group play.
I highly recommend checking references and calling around to find the best facility. Make sure the business you choose to care for you pet while you’re hiking understands that you may be unreachable in the event of an emergency (even with Verizon, cell service is spotty at best in the Smokies). I would never board my pet at a facility that didn’t have full insurance coverage. You also want to make sure they have arrangements with a veterinarian for emergency care.
Find out if you need to provide your own food in advance and make arrangements to have that delivered. A pet food delivery service such as Amazon or Chewy can direct-ship your dog’s food to the facility. Check with the boarding facility and make sure this is OK before sending! Do your research (aka- CALL!) and find out which vaccines are required for boarding. Make sure you either have proof of those vaccines on your person or have them mailed or faxed directly from your veterinarian to the boarding facility. Also remember that some boarding facilities have breed restriction, weight limitations, or have rules on spaying and neutering. Make sure ahead of time that you know all of these restrictions.
Here are a few options for boarding your dog as well as some additional information about each facility:
This Gatlinburg-based facility will accept hiking dogs. I was unable to get them on the phone and at the time of publishing they had not returned my emails. From the research I did, I was able to determine that this facility does not do pick-up or drop-off so you have to figure that out on your own. They require proof of vaccinations (required are: Parainfluenza Virus, Rabies Virus, Canine Distemper Virus, Canine Parvo Virus, Infectious Canine Hepatitis), proof of spay or neuter for dogs over 6 months, and a negative fecal exam within a year. These are all things you will want to take care of before you leave for your hike.
I was able to speak on the phone with the lovely woman who owns this kennel. While not the least expensive, I would absolutely trust her with my pet. This kennel is located in Pigeon Forge and has been providing boarding services to hiking dogs for 25 years. The prices in AWOL’s guide are not accurate. Updated prices are $375 for one dog and $550 for two dogs. This cost INCLUDES pick up (Fontana) and drop off (Davenport Gap), food, and daily care for your dog for up to 7 days. She will also accept dog food shipments if your pet is on a special diet.
If you need to send a mail drop, she can bring it to you on trail when she delivers your dog. She also said that she offers a grocery service: when you call to set your pickup date/time, give her a grocery list and she will pick up your resupply and bring it to you. Dogs over 25lb must be neutered and she does not accept unspayed females that are in heat. Call to find out about vaccination requirements.
Standing Bear Farm
Standing Bear Farm is a popular option due to its proximity to the trail. The AT passes very near the property, and there is also a hostel on site. Standing Bear will pick your dog up from Fontana and have him waiting for you at the hostel when you arrive. The current cost is $250, but it was stressed that this is subject to change depending on season/duration of stay/etc. This cost does include dog food (Purina Dog Chow). At the time of publishing, I was unable to obtain information on facilities, vaccine or spay/neuter requirements. I would call ahead (before you begin your hike!) to check on these if you plan on using this facility.
3. My friend/family member is going to watch my pet. What else do I need to do?
Make sure said friend has a copy of vaccine and medical history for your dog. Provide them with phone numbers for the dog’s regular vet and an emergency veterinarian in the area. Your friend needs to be able to get in touch with someone if something terrible happens. If they can contact your parents, your significant other, or anyone who can help them make decisions about your dog it will ease their mind in the event of an emergency.
If possible, allow your dog to meet his/her caretakers beforehand. This will ease the transition. Make sure that you have your dog’s food either shipped to your friend or provided at an earlier date. Don’t expect your friends to buy this for your dog, especially if your dog has dietary restrictions. Make sure that your dog is up-to-date on vaccinations according to laws where your friend lives. You don’t want them getting in trouble because of you/your dog.
Pre-arrange pickup and drop off; again I recommend pickup at Stecoah Gap due to ease of access, rather than the remote Fontana Dam. Also remember that it is highly likely that you will not have cell phone signal to communicate changes in planning and scheduling. Try your best to set a time to meet and stick to that time to avoid complications.
What if my dog is a therapy dog/emotional support animal/service dog?
Therapy dogs DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT have public access rights. These are pets that have had some minor specialized training to be able to visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, etc. to provide pet therapy to residents/students/patients. You don’t need a therapy dog to hike through the park. If your dog is a therapy dog, that’s wonderful! Congratulations on having an awesome, well-trained pet. But you can’t take it through the Smokies with you. Make other arrangements.
Emotional Support Animals
Otherwise known as ESA’s, these are generally pets that are acknowledged to provide a certain level of comfort to their owner. An ESA has to have zero specialized training in order to be called an ESA. The owner of such a dog does not have to be legally disabled. Here’s the kicker: ESA’s DO NOT have public access rights. The only rights they are afforded beyond “just pets” is that they are allowed in non-pet friendly housing and in some cases are also allowed to ride in the cabins of airplanes. An ESA cannot accompany you through the Smokies. Make other arrangements.
A lot of hikers call their dogs “service dogs” in order to make their trip easier with their dog. DON’T DO THIS! IT’S NOT COOL! If you think your dog is a service dog, you have to be able to answer two questions:
- Are you disabled? (If the answer is no, your dog is not a service dog)
- Is your dog specially trained to mitigate YOUR specific disability? (If the answer is no, your dog is not a service dog)
In case this still isn’t clear, here’s an example:
My dog Sookie is a fully-trained guide dog (for the blind). I am not blind. Therefore, Sookie is not a service dog. I have a friend that uses a wheelchair. If she took Sookie from me, Sookie would STILL not be a service dog (she’s trained to help blind people, not people in wheelchairs). If I were blind, then Sookie would be a service (guide) dog.
So, if you are indeed disabled and your dog is indeed trained to mitigate your disability, then your dog IS a service dog – you can take it through the Smokies with you. Make sure you have it clearly labeled as such to avoid confusion and confrontation (sidenote – this isn’t required by law but is highly encouraged to make yours and everyone else’s lives easier). You do NOT have to have any special service dog ID, registration, certificate, etc. (but if you’re a legitimate service dog user, you definitely already know this).
If your dog is not trained to mitigate your disability and/or you are not disabled, you cannot take your dog through the Smokies. Make other arrangements. For more information, see the service dogs page at ADA.gov.
There you have it!
These are the most commonly asked questions about dogs and the smokies. Above everything, I hope that you enjoy your Appalachian Trail hike, appreciate the unique and diverse beauty of the Smokies, follow all rules, leave no trace, and have the time of your life with your canine best friend on the parts of the trail that are dog friendly. Get out and hike!
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