|The Best Hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
Every hiker has a list of favorite trails. After many years of hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park I decided to compile a list of what I consider to be the best hikes in the Smokies. If you're new to the Smoky Mountains you can use this article as a starting point in trying to decide where to hike. If you're a veteran of the Smokies, maybe there are a few hikes on this list that you haven't had a chance to check-off yet. The following hikes are ranked from easy to strenuous.
Andrews Bald (Easy)
Nuts & Bolts: From the Clingmans Dome parking lot, hike 1.7 miles along the Forney Ridge Trail to reach Andrews Bald. Total elevation gain on the roundtrip hike is 900 feet.
Trail Highlights: Only a 1.7 mile hike to see magnificent views? Sounds like a breeze. Well, not so fast. Don't let the mileage fool you - this is still a fairly rugged hike! The trail is littered with rain run-off, rocks and small boulders. But don't let any of this deter you. Thanks to several acres of open grassy meadow, commonly referred to as balds in the Appalachians, spectacular views of the southern Smokies await you at the end of this hike. Andrews Bald is the perfect spot to open up a blanket, relax, enjoy a picnic, and soak in the magnificent views.
Trivia Tidbit: Without periodic maintenance from the Park Service, Andrews Bald would be reclaimed by forest.
Porters Creek (Easy)
Nuts & Bolts: This is an easy roundtrip hike of 4 miles out of Greenbrier, just east of Gatlinburg.
Trail Highlights: The Porters Creek Trail just about has it all. You'll stroll along a beautiful cascading stream through a lush old-growth forest, while walking past many remnants from early settlers before reaching a little known waterfall. If you hike this trail during the spring you'll have the added benefit of witnessing one of the most spectacular displays of wildflowers in the Smokies. The forest floor will be carpeted with bloodroot, hepaticas, violets, white trilliums, fringed phacelia, rue anemone and many other wildflowers throughout the spring seaon. At roughly 2 miles, Fern Branch Falls slides and tumbles nearly 50 feet off the ridge just east of the trail.
Trivia Tidbit: Roughly 1 mile from the trailhead is a short side trail that takes you to the John Messer farm site which includes a cantilevered barn built around 1875. There's also a cabin that was built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in the mid-1930s.
The Jump-off (Moderate)
Nuts & Bolts: Head east from the Newfound Gap parking lot and hike 2.7 miles along the Appalachian Trail before turning onto the Jump-Off trail. You’ll climb a total of 1275 feet during this 6.5-mile roundtrip hike.
Trail Highlights: After a long steep climb from the parking lot your effort will be amply rewarded with outstanding views on either side of the ridge traversed by the Appalachian Trail. Swing onto the spur trail and head up to the Jump-Off for even better views. The Jump-Off sits atop of a 1,000-foot cliff on the northeastern flank of Mt. Kephart. With spectacular views of the central and eastern Smokies, this is an excellent place for a picnic lunch.
Trivia Tidbit: The Jump-Off sits on the side of Mt. Kephart, which was named after writer Horace Kephart, a strong force in the movement that helped to establish the Great Smoky Mountains as a national park.
Alum Cave (Moderate)
Nuts & Bolts: This is a popular 4.4-mile roundtrip hike. It climbs 1125 feet to reach an 80-foot high and 500-foot long concaved bluff.
Trail Highlights: During the warmer months of the year, water drips off the ledges from the top of the bluff. In the winter, these water droplets form into large icicles. In order to enter and exit the bluff, hikers are sometimes forced to dodge icicles falling from the top of the bluff, some of which are more than 3 feet long. Needless to say, extreme caution is needed here during such conditions.
The views from Alum Cave are beautiful. Just before reaching the cave, make sure to look towards the east at the Eye of the Needle where you’ll have a good chance of spotting peregrine falcons that nest on the rock outcropping.
Trivia Tidbit: The Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company was established at Alum Cave in 1838. Until it was sold in 1854, the company mined epsom salts which were used by mountain folk to dye homespun clothing a reddish brown.
Charlies Bunion (Moderate)
Nuts & Bolts: Head east from the Newfound Gap parking lot and hike 4 miles along the Appalachian Trail to reach Charlies Bunion. You’ll climb a total of 1640 feet during the roundtrip hike.
Trail Highlights: A long steep climb from the parking lot quickly leaves most of the crowds behind. Eventually you'll reach a long stretch of trail that traverses a ridge where you'll be hovering around an altitude of 6000 feet. Being at the highest point along this narrow ridge, with excellent views on either side of the trail, you'll feel like you're walking along the spine of the Appalachians. Originally known as Fodderstack, Charlies Bunion is a precipitous rock out - cropping that offers stunning views of the Tennessee side of the Smokies.
Trivia Tidbit: The current name of this popular destination is the result of when Charlie Conner was hiking with Horace Kephart, one of the early proponents of national park status for the Smokies. When they paused for a rest, Conner took his boots and socks off exposing a bunion that looked like the surrounding rocks. Looking at Conner's feet, Kephart remarked, "Charlie, I'm going to get this place put on a government map for you." And so he did.
Mt. Cammerer (Strenuous)
Nuts & Bolts: Start from the Low Gap Trailhead in Cosby for this 2500-foot climb, and 12-mile roundtrip hike, to reach the summit of Mt. Cammerer.
Trail Highlights: Climb 2.5 miles up the Low Gap Trail before hooking-up with the Appalachian Trail. While on the AT you'll cross over a grassy ridge before turning onto the rugged spur trail that leads to the summit. Mt. Cammerer is on the edge of a rock outcropping that overlooks the Pigeon River Gorge. On a clear day, the views are simply awesome; some even say the best in the Park. For an even better vantage point, step up to the deck of the stone fire tower. This "western" style tower, which was fully restored in 1995, provides hikers with 360 degree views. Look in any direction and you'll see row upon row of smoky-blue mountains.
Trivia Tidbit: The octagonal fire tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the late 1930s using hand-cut stone from the surrounding area.
Gregory Bald (Strenuous)
Nuts & Bolts: From Cades Cove, climb 3000 feet and trek 5.6 miles up the Gregory Ridge Trail to reach the 10-acre Gregory Bald summit.
Trail Highlights: As stunning as the year-round views are, Gregory Bald is most famous for the spectacular flame azaleas that bloom on the summit from mid to late June. Azalea lovers from all over the world come here to visit perhaps the finest display of azaleas anywhere on the planet. You'll see a rainbow of colors including fire red, wine red, orange, salmon, yellow, white, pink, and even multi-colored azaleas. Even if you can't make it in June, this hike should still be on your list for any time of the year. The commanding views of Cades Cove, Fontana Lake and the eastern crest of the Smokies, makes this a popular year-round destination.
Trivia Tidbit: This particular bald is named after Russell Gregory, an early settler in the Cades Cove area. He and other cove residents used the field to graze cattle during the spring and summer when the fields in the cove were needed for growing crops.
Mount LeConte (Strenuous)
Nuts & Bolts: Take the 5.5 mile hike up Alum Cave Trail to the Summit of Mt. LeConte. You’ll climb 2763 feet to reach the summit of the third highest peak in the Smokies.
Trail Highlights: If ever there was a classic hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte would certainly qualify. Sure, there are trails in the Park that are far longer, that gain more elevation, or have steeper climbs, but the Alum Cave Trail is unmatched in its combination of interesting geological features, history, high adventure and stunning views.
To reach the summit, climb through Arch Rock, take your first breather at Inspiration Point, spot a peregrine falcon near the Eye of the Needle, marvel at the imposing Alum Cave, and hold-on tight to the cable hand rails as you pass over the rock ledges on the upper portions of the trail.
Upon reaching the summit, go to Cliff Top near the LeConte Lodge for amazing views of Clingmans Dome and the rolling mountains that lie towards the west. On the other side of LeConte is Myrtle Point, which offers outstanding vistas of the eastern Smokies.
Trivia Tidbit: One of the unique things about Mount LeConte is the lodge and overnight cabins at the top. Hikers can spend the night in one of the rustic cabins which can accommodate about 50 guests a night (you'll need to make reservations well in advance).
Rocky Top (Strenuous)
Nuts & Bolts: This is a strenuous hike of 12.5 miles, and more than 3600 feet in elevation gain, that starts from the Anthony Creek trailhead in the Cades Cove Picnic area.
Trail Highlights: You'll huff and puff up the mountain for the first 5 miles of this hike, but all your hard work will be paid-off once you reach Spence Field. If visibility is good the grassy meadows up here will afford you with outstanding views of the North Carolina side of the Smokies. If you can arrange it, hike the trail in late spring when Spence Field showcases the most spectacular display of mountain laurel you'll see just about anywhere. The hillsides and meadows are literally covered in the white and soft pink flowers from this heath family member.
Although Spence Field is an awesome destination in and of itself, the views get even better if you continue along the Appalachian Trail for an additional 1.2 miles. After another stiff climb of 550 feet you'll finally reach Rocky Top, the first of three peaks on the summit of Thunderhead Mountain. The panoramic views from here, in my opinion, are the best in the Park. From good ole Rocky Top you can see Fontana Lake, Cades Cove, Townsend, Maryville, and beyond.
Trivia Tidbit: Yes, this is the same Rocky Top that inspired Felice and Boudleaux Bryant to write the famous lyrics that became the fight song for the University of Tennessee and one of the official songs for the state of Tennessee.
If you would like more information on these trails, or many of the other trails in the Great Smoky Mountains, click here. Our site includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps and elevation profiles for more than 70 trails in the Smokies.