11 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains
11 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains are home to some of the country’s most spectacular and scenic hiking trails. Some hikes climb thousands of feet to famous summits like Rocky Top, Mt. LeConte, and Clingmans Dome where, on clear days, the panoramic views can stretch for more than 100 miles in the distance.
The natural wonders of the Smokies are also on display along the park’s many trails. Picturesque rivers and streams that are home to river otters and giant salamanders culminate in breathtaking waterfalls like Ramsey Cascades and Abrams Falls.
Read on to learn more about the 11 best hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains!
Best Smoky Mountain Hikes
Mt. LeConte Hike
Just a 20 minute drive from Gatlinburg, start your hike at the Alum Cave Trail trailhead. The first few miles along the trail are not particularly steep or strenuous as you trace the beautiful Alum Cave Creek. From there, you’ll encounter Arch Rock where you’ll climb a staircase carved into the mountain underneath a naturally formed rock arch. When you reach Alum Cave about 2.3 miles in, you can use this as a turnaround spot or a place to rest and look out over the valley before continuing on.
The total round trip hike to the summit and back is around 11 miles and can take all day, but the views at the peak are worth it, especially in October at the height of fall colors. This beautiful hike is wonderful any time of year, but it’s also especially lovely in June and July when hikers are treated to a stunning seasonal bloom of rhododendrons lining the Alum Cave Creek.
Padgett Mill Trail Hike
Grab your new llama trail buddy at the Smoky Mountain Llama Treks farm and head out on this guided woodland hike through the foothills of the Smokies. Before heading off on the Padgett Mill Trail, take some time at the farm to meet all the friendly llamas, feed them, and learn about their amazing lives.
Perfect for families and hikers of all abilities and ages, this is a fun and unique way to experience the Smoky Mountains. The farm is in Cosby, about a 40 minute drive from Gatlinburg, and is close to the best white water rafting and zip lining in the region.
Mt. Cammerer Hike
This scenic and challenging round trip hike to the summit of Mt. Cammerer will take almost the whole day, but culminates in incredible vistas at the mountain’s peak. Hikers begin the 11-mile hike at the Low Gap Trail trailhead in Cosby where you’ll encounter a steep climb through a beautiful hardwood forest.
At 3 miles in, having climbed almost 2,000 feet already, hikers will pick up at the Appalachian Trail where the terrain evens out a bit. To reach the summit at nearly 5,000 feet, expect some rugged stretches and rock scrambling. Once there though, the views overlooking the Pigeon River Gorge are stunning. You can aslo climb the stone fire lookout tower that dates to the 1930s for even more spectacular panoramas.
Charlies Bunion Hike
Charlies Bunion is a treeless stone outcropping at 6,222 feet in elevation along the Appalachian Trail. The moderate, 8-mile round trip hike offers breathtaking views of the Great Smoky Mountains all along the trail.
Get going north from Newfound Gap on the North Carolina-Tennessee line, and be sure to build in time to stop along the way to the peak. At the intersection of Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, hikers can take a quick detour for a lovely mountain view. Then, they often hike along a ridgeline on the Trail through an alpine forest before encountering the Icewater Spring Shelter where you can filter your own spring water.
The summit was named by Horace Kephart, one of the leading activists for the establishment of the national park, after his friend Charlie Conner’s unfortunate foot condition that he got on a hike to the peak.
Andrews Bald Hike
At 5,920 feet, Andrews Bald is the highest grassy bald in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To get there, hikers will pick up the Forney Ridge hiking trail at the Clingmans Dome parking area, but be aware that the trail is only open from May through October. The hike through the lush spruce and fir forest is rocky, steep, and wet in places, but is only about 1.7 miles to the double peak atop Forney Ridge.
At the top, there are about 500 acres of grassy meadows where, if you hike in the late spring and early summer, you’ll be treated to a colorful display of flame azalea and rhododendron blooms.
Chimney Tops Trail Hike
The strenuous hike up to Chimney Tops – at an elevation of 4,800 feet – is among the most popular thanks to one of the most recognizable geologic features in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because of severe damage on the summit due to wildfires, hikers are no longer allowed to hike out to the rock pinnacles, but can see them from an observation point a quarter mile away.
The hike is challenging and steep, characterized by loose rocks and uneven terrain, so make sure you’re wearing proper footwear and are fit enough for the climb. If you don’t want to brave it all the way to the top, there’s a beautiful pair of wooden bridges not far from the parking area where you can stop and take a dip in the cascading creek they cross.
Clingmans Dome Trail Hike
At a towering 6,643 feet in elevation, Clingmans Dome – known to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as Kuwahi – is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the third highest point east of the Mississippi River. The hike itself is only a half mile up a steep paved walkway from the Newfound Gap parking area. At the top is an observation tower known as the “flying saucer” where visitors can see more than 100 miles in every direction on clear days. Because of the coniferous rainforest ecosystem, the best views are usually seen in the early mornings during the summertime. Sunrise from this vantage is spectacular, but be sure to arrive early.
Other hikes on more natural trails are available nearby, including a pickup of the Appalachian Trail at its very highest point. You can also access the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald near this location.
Abrams Falls Trail Hike
One of the most scenic hikes in the Smokies, Abrams Falls Trail traverses Cades Cove through a pine and oak forest along the tops of the ridges, and dense hemlock and rhododendron closer to Abrams Creek. The creek is home to river otters and lush vegetation that blooms in the early summer. At only 20 feet high, the large volume of water rushing over the sandstone cliff at the top of Abrams Falls makes it a spectacular sight. Plenty of hikers opt to take a dip in the deep pool at the bottom of the falls, but with the strong currents and undertow, park rangers strongly advise against swimming.
While this trail is not particularly steep nor long – only 5.2 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 675 feet – it is deceptively dangerous to hikers due to the slippery rocks around the waterfalls, the potential for hypothermia, and the dangers of drowning. Be careful when visiting this beautiful natural wonder!
Ramsey Cascades Hike
The 4-mile hike to the Ramsey Cascades’ waterfalls takes you through the largest old-growth forests remaining in the Smoky Mountains, having escaped the widespread logging of the Smokies prior to the establishment of the national park. A portion of the route follows the Little Pigeon River that features a number of smaller waterfalls and rapids, as well as wonderful plunge pools suitable for taking a dip.
At the last third-of-a-mile, the trail turns very rugged. In order to reach Ramsey Cascades, hikers must climb several steep rock steps, and go over some rooted, strenuous terrain.
Ramsey Cascades is the tallest waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The spectacular falls are over 100 feet high, but it’s best to observe the falls from the trail and not try to climb up the rocks as several people have died trying to do so.
Rocky Top at Thunderhead Mountain Hike
As the longest and most difficult hike on this list, the journey to Rocky Top at Thunderhead Mountain is almost a 14 mile round trip, with an elevation gain of over 3,300 feet. To get to the top, hikers must follow a series of trails that feature amazing natural formations, including a sunken rhododendron tunnel along the Bote Mountain Trail. In June, that section of the Appalachian Trail boasts one of the most beautiful displays of mountain laurel in the region, with meadows along the hike carpeted in soft pink and white flowers for acres and acres.
Thunderhead Mountain consists of three summits visible from Spence Field, the first of which is known as Rocky Top. To get to the top, you’ll face a steep 550 foot climb, but the panoramic vistas at the top are worth the effort. On a clear day, you’ll see spectacular views of Fontana Lake and Cades Cove.
Little River Trail
Follow the gravel bed of an old railroad track that parallels the Little River, a protected body of water that has some of the cleanest and clearest water in the Smokies, and is home to the Giant Salamander that can measure more than two feet in length. River otters also love to splash in the Little River, so be on the lookout. In March and April, a variety of gorgeous wildflowers are on display all along the trail.
Not only are hikers treated to beautiful natural scenery on this moderate to easy hike, but they’ll also learn a little local history along the way. Near the trailhead are the remains of hundred-year-old resort cottages built as vacation getaways by wealthy Knoxvillians.
A common turnaround point is about 2 miles in at Huskey Branch Falls, a 20 foot waterfall that cascades into the Little River and runs beneath a footbridge.
Visit the Best Hikes in the Smokies Year Round
While some hikes on this list are closed during the winter months, there are plenty of places to hike and enjoy at all times of the year. The springtime puts on a display of wildflowers throughout the park, while May and June are famous for blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel. October sees one of the most spectacular autumnal displays when the entire region lights up in bright red, yellow, and orange foliage. After the leaves fall, there are plenty more views to see from hikes like the Padget Mill Trail at Smoky Mountain Llama Treks.