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Day and Overnight Hikes: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Includes 13 day loop and 10 overnight loop hikes, as well as recommendations based on winter, solitude, easiest, wildlife & most scenic hikes.  

Trails Illustrated map for the Western Smokies. Includes Cades Cove and Elkmont.

Rocky Top / Thunderhead Mountain

Trail Features: Panoramic Views, Mountain Laurel rocky top
Trail Location: Cades Cove Picnic Area
Roundtrip Length: 13.9 Miles
Total Elevation Gain: 3665 Feet
Avg. Elev Gain / Mile: 527 Feet
Highest Elevation: 5527 Feet
Trail Difficulty Rating: 21.23 (strenuous)
Parking Lot Latitude 35.60493
Parking Lot Longitude -83.77008

Directions to Trailhead:

This hike to Rocky Top and the summit of Thunderhead Mountain begins from the Anthony Creek Trailhead in Cades Cove. From the Townsend "Y" intersection drive 7.5 miles west on Laurel Creek Road to reach Cades Cove, and then turn left towards the Cades Cove campground. Almost immediately you'll need to make another left turn towards the picnic area. The Anthony Creek Trailhead is at the far end of the picnic area.

Trail Description:

One of the best times to hike to Rocky Top is in mid-June when the rhododendron is just beginning to bloom along the lower elevations of the trail, and the mountain laurel is in full bloom at the higher elevations.

Just three-tenths of a mile from the picnic area the Anthony Creek Trail passes the Crib Gap Trail junction, and then shortly thereafter, the Anthony Creek Horse Camp. You may have already noticed some of the "clues" left on the ground indicating that this trail also functions as a horse path.

Roughly 1.7 miles from the trailhead hikers will pass the Russell Field Trail, which branches off to the right. Continue towards your destination by going straight at this junction. Further up the path, roughly 3.5 miles from the picnic area, the Anthony Creek Trail dead-ends into the Bote Mountain Trail. Hikers should turn right at this junction.

As you climb the Bote Mountain Trail you'll begin walking through a long stretch of trail where the rhododendron forms a tunnel over the trail. You'll also notice that the trail has sunk a couple of feet below the ground on either side of the trail. My guess is that this is the result of a combination of erosion and the trampling of the cattle that were driven to and from Spence Field prior to the establishment of the national park.

At just over 5.1 miles you'll finally reach the Appalachian Trail at Spence Field. If you turn right here the trail passes through a series of small grassy meadows. These are pleasant enough, but nothing compared to what you'll find on the other side of the junction.


Turning left onto the Appalachian Trail will offer you stunning views of the North Carolina side of the Park. And, if you're hiking in June, you'll have the most spectacular display of mountain laurel I've ever seen. The hillsides and meadows will literally be covered in the white and pink flowers from this heath family shrub.

You'll only need to walk a hundred yards or so beyond the trail junction to find a great spot to take in the grand scenery, or maybe even enjoy a picnic lunch.

Spence Field is named after James Spence, who built a cabin in this area in 1830. According to History of the Grassy Balds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an online book on the Smokies website, neither Russell or Spence fields are natural grassy balds. Both were cleared by homesteaders for the purposes of grazing cattle during the summer months.

thunderhead-mountainTo reach Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain, hikers should continue walking eastward along the Appalachian Trail.

 "Rocky Top, you'll always be,
  Home sweet home to me.
  Good ole Rocky Top,
  Rocky Top Tennessee."

Thunderhead Mountain consists of three summits, all of which are visible from the eastern end of Spence Field (the photo on the left shows the view you'll have of Thunderhead Mountain from Spence Field - the knob towards the far left is the highest point on the mountain). The first summit is known as Rocky Top. And yes, this is the same Rocky Top that inspired Felice and Boudleaux Bryant to write the famous lyrics that are now the fight song for the University of Tennessee, as well as one of the official state songs for the state of Tennessee.

rocky-topRocky Top is roughly 1.2 miles from the Bote Mountain / Appalachian Trail junction, and requires a fairly steep climb of more than 550 feet to reach the small bald area on the western flank of the mountain (the photo on the right shows the view you'll have of Rocky Top right before you make your final ascent). The effort is well worth it though. The views are outstanding; maybe even some of the best in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The day before one of our hikes a few years ago, a major front passed through the Smokies and blew most of the haze out of the area. From "good ole Rocky Top" we could see Fontana Lake, Cades Cove, Townsend and Maryville, and possibly all the way up to Knoxville.

Many hikers will choose to end their hike at Rocky Top, which in my opinion offers the best views among the three summits. However, if you wish proceed towards the highest point you should continue hiking eastbound on the Appalachian Trail. Along the way you'll find a couple of spots that provide some outstanding views of Cades Cove.

Just a third-of-a-mile beyond Rocky Top is the middle peak on Thunderhead Mountain. Some people call this second peak, which is really just a rocky knob, "Rocky Top Two". This spot also provides some pretty good views of the surrounding mountains.


The highest point on Thunderhead Mountain is reached by walking another 0.3 miles beyond Rocky Top Two. Here you'll find a small sign marking the 5527-foot summit. At some point someone was kind enough to stack a few rocks at this rather unremarkable highpoint. Without this small platform you wouldn't be able to see anything but the tall shrubs that grow along either side of the trail.