Originally written for RootsRated
From the smoke-shrouded summit of LeConte and the open-armed expanses of Andrews Bald, down into the laurel laden hollows of Porters Creek and the historic homesteads of Cades Cove, it’s difficult to overstate the majesty of the Smokies. If anything, the grandeur can be overwhelming. With such a depth and breadth of wilderness to take in, it’s hard to know where to start. Have no fear. We introduced you to the general layout of the park with our Guide to the Smokies, and now we’re ready to dig a little deeper with our list of the best hikes in the Smokies. Any difficulty, any length, and in any season, we’ll get you ready to strike out on your own in the nation’s most visited national park.
1. Rocky Top/Thunderhead Mountain
Distance: 13.9 miles roundtrip
Highlights: Appalachian Trail, mountaintop views
A tough hike with more than 3,600 feet of total elevation gain, the climb up to Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain is not something hikers should tackle on a whim. For most, the excursion will take all day and require an early morning start to get back before night falls. But if you’re willing to take it on, you’ll be greeted with spectacular views of the North Carolina side of the Smokies and a chance to rub shoulders with thru-hikers.
2. Andrews Bald
Distance: 3.6 miles roundtrip
Highlights: Grassy bald, short hike, mountaintop views
Only 1.8 miles from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot is a grassy expanse of open air ambience known as Andrews Bald. During all but the coldest months, the road up to Clingman’s Dome allows easy access to this perfect picnic spot for families, friends, or anyone that might have a “The Hills are Alive” itch they need to scratch. In the winter, though, when Clingman’s Dome road is closed, access to Andrews demands a lot more resolve and a tough 10 mile hike (one-way!) southbound on the Appalachian Trail.
3. Porters Creek
Distance: 4 miles roundtrip
Highlights: Historic landmarks, spring wildflowers
Porters Creek Trail is great any time of year, but its low elevation and gentle slopes make it especially wonderful in the spring, when some of the higher elevation trails are still unpredictable due to snow and ice. This gentle, peaceful trail mixes beautiful wildflowers and lively waters with some notable historic sites. Hikers can follow the banks of babbling Porters Creek for a few miles among carpets of trillium, eventually coming upon the old stone walls of the Elbert Cantrell farmstead and the tombstones of Ownby Cemetery, both from the early 20th Century. Other historic landmarks along the trail include the John Messner farm site and a cabin built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in the mid-1930s.
4. Mount LeConte via Alum Caves
Distance: About 11 miles roundtrip
Highlights: Lodge with hot chocolate, Alum Cave, mountaintop views
Mount LeConte is one of the most popular mountains in the park, with six ways to get to the summit: the Boulevard, Rainbow Falls, Trillium Gap, Bull Head, Brushy Mountain, and the shortest, steepest, and most popular access, Alum Cave Trail. Along the way, you’ll encounter a number of notable landmarks including Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, and 80-foot high Alum Cave Bluff. Your steep ascent will enmesh you into a swarm of Fraser firs near 6,000 feet before leveling out near the summit. You’ll suddenly emerge onto a series of cabins that make up LeConte Lodge, built in the 1920s and only accessible by trail. Hikers wanting to spend a night here typically have to reserve their spot well in advance, but anyone who makes it this far is welcome to stop in and warm themselves by the stove.
A little bit past the lodge is the true summit of LeConte, marked by a large cairn made mostly of sheet-like shale a little ways off the main trail. A short way past this is Myrtle Point, a panoramic spot with the best sunrises the mountain has to offer. A little closer to the lodge is Cliff Top, which has the best sunset views.
5. Rich Mountain Loop
Distance: 8.5 miles roundtrip
Highlights: Diverse wildflower displays, historic sights, no gridlock!
Vast carpets of spring wildflowers, historic Appalachian homes, and pleasant valley views all come standard with the Cades Cove experience. But that experience is also often paired with a painfully slow crawl of sedans and minivans packed tightly along the main loop. If you want to do Cades Cove without the bumper-to-bumper, get out and stretch your legs on Rich Mountain Loop. Here you can get an up-close-and-personal view of the history and beauty of the Cove and see some of the most diverse wildflower displays in the park.
6. Ramsey Cascades
Distance: 8 miles round-trip
Highlights: Waterfall, old-growth forest
Before you even reach the trailhead, you’re liable to notice how special this tucked away part of the park is. You’ll drive through towering trees as you follow the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. From the trailhead parking lot, set out on foot down an old road bed until the trail curves away onto a more rugged (but still discernible) trail where you’ll be greeted by large tulip trees, hemlocks, and big black cherries—some of the largest trees in the park. You’ll soon encounter Ramsey Prong, which will be your babbling, gurgling, surging companion for almost the entirety of the remaining hike. After a pretty steep final climb, the trail ends at stunning, 90-foot tall Ramsey Cascades. There’s a large stone ledge near the falls that’s great for a picnic lunch.
7. Chimney Tops
Distance: 4 miles roundtrip
Highlights: Steep, rugged peak, short (but steep!) climb
“The twin-peaked, rugged profile of The Chimney Tops gained infamy with its appearance on the cover of Horace Kephart’s classic, Our Southern Highlanders. The summit of this 4,724-foot peak has weathered away over the centuries leaving behind a backbone of folded metamorphic rock, which has turned into a playground for the adventurous. The trail to the Chimneys was badly damaged several years ago by torrential downpours and flooding. Thanks to the Great Smokies’ Trails Forever Program, a newly renovated trail takes hikers from the Trailhead to the airy summit by way of a steep, intricately constructed, 2 mile trail.”
8. Charlies Bunion and the Jump Off
Distance: 9.5 miles roundtrip
Highlights: Mountaintop views, exposed outcroppings, Appalachian Trail
Charlies Bunion and the Jump Off are typically at the top of the list for any Smoky Mountain explorer. And for good reason. These two ridge-line overlooks offer a worthwhile trip when sought out separately, but when tackled together, they create one of the most quintessential Smoky Mountain experiences you can have. Delight in the thinning crowds as you set out from the overpopulated Newfound Gap into the high mountain wilderness along perhaps the best section of the Appalachian Trail found in the park. The cover of trees opens frequently to reveal majestic views of the surrounding mountainscape as you climb a steep and spiny path for the first few miles. At 2.7 miles in, you’ll take the left junction toward the Boulevard Trail, which would take you all the way to Mount LeConte, if you felt so inclined. But for this excursion, you’ll only hike briefly here before turning onto the the junction for the Jump Off. Another half mile and you’ll reach your destination: a 1,000-foot, vegetation-covered cliff face on the side of Mt. Kephart. The Jump Off gives you dazzling views of Mount Guyot as well as of your next destination, Charlies Bunion.
Double back to the Appalachian Trail and continue on for a little more than a mile until you see the spur trail for Charlies Bunion. As you curve along the high rock walls to the overlook, prepare yourself for some pretty killer views of Mt. LeConte and Mt. Chapman. This large exposed rock face is rare in the Smokies and is a product of fire and flood that destroyed the trees and soil that covered the area a hundred years ago. Now, it’s one of the best day hikes in the park.
9. Spruce Flat Falls
Distance: About 11 miles roundtrip
Highlights: 360-degree views, Appalachian Trail
Mount Cammerer guarantees one of the best Smoky Mountain views for those dexterous hikers who manage to reach the summit. From the lookout tower at the top of the mountain, one can see the rolling mountains and foothills of the Southern Appalachians in a 360-degree panorama. That’s not to say, of course, that this hike is only about the destination. Both popular access points from Cosby Campground and Big Creek offer history, beauty, and a chance to meet Appalachian Trail thru-hikers along the way.
Rock/Creek’s official rules to prevent “up a creek” syndrome:
- When hiking in winter, the temperature at the top of the Smokies is usually 15 degrees cooler than down in the valleys. Make sure to bring an insulated jacket, synthetic or merino layers, gloves, and a hat. No cotton! You should always bring a rain jacket regardless of the weather because it can also be used as a wind breaker.
- Waterproof shoes are a good idea during winter months. Wool socks are the standard selection for hiking footwear. Cotton is not acceptable!
- There’s a high probability that snow or ice in the higher elevations has melted and re-frozen, so be sure to take Yaktrax with you regardless of the weather in town. Extendable poles are also critical for navigating icy terrain.
- You deserve a good meal! Treat yourself to something tasty and take a small stove and pot to make something warm for lunch. This will ensure that you take a second to really sit and enjoy the scenery. (Editor’s note: The GigaPower Auto from SnowPeak is the pro’s choice.)
- If you are going to be hiking past water sources, there is no need to carry a gallon of water. Instead, carry a water filter and refill. Never drink unfiltered/untreated water! Try the Sawyer Mini for short hikes and backpacking trips.
- Invest in a reliable headlamp that never leaves your pack. Make sure the batteries are good! You’ll eventually be glad you did.
- Pack a first aid kit capable of dressing a wide variety of wounds. Make sure you are able to treat blisters.
- Leave a note telling where you are going, which trails you will be hiking, which trail head you have parked at, who you are with, and when you expect to be back.
- No matter how many times you have been on a trail, it’s a great idea to carry a map in case of emergency.
- Take your phone and either turn it off or put it on airplane mode to conserve battery life. Put your phone in a zip lock bag or a waterproof container. If you really want to know you’re covered, invest in a Spot GPS.
For more info and suggestions from the guys who have made all of these mistakes and more, visit any Rock/Creek location or call customer service to chat with one of our local gear experts.