Hiking the trails and driving scenic roads through the park are by far the most popular activities in the Smokies. But if you’re here for more than a few days, you can tack on other outdoor adventures, including horseback riding, kayaking and white-water rafting.
Whether you have an irrepressible urge to climb a mountain or just want to get some fresh air, hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the single best way to experience the sublime beauty of this area. Even if you’re only here for a short visit, be sure to include at least one hike in your itinerary. Trails range from flat, easy and short paths to longer, more strenuous endeavors. Many are excellent for families and there's even one wheelchair-accessible trail. No matter what your physical ability or endurance level, there’s a hike out there for you.
The storied Appalachian Trail (AT) is an irresistible draw for many hikers. For some it’s the only reason they come to Great Smoky. Around 71 of the AT’s 2180 miles pass through the park, and many through-hikers consider these to be the highlight of the entire trail. For the most part, the trail follows the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains, shadowing the shared border between North Carolina and Tennessee.
An excellent time to make the hike is in September or October, when traffic on the trails has dissipated somewhat and autumn leaves are at their finest. In October, however, snow should be expected.
Hikers on the AT sleep in backcountry shelters spaced 3 to 8 miles apart; reservations are required. During the summer, you’ll likely need to make the necessary consecutive reservations well in advance.
Check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website (www.appalachiantrail.org) for more information.
We've rated hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains by three levels of difficulty to help you choose the trail that’s right for you.
- Easy Manageable for nearly all walkers, an easy hike is less than 4 miles, with fairly even terrain and no significant elevation gain or loss.
- Moderate Fine for fit hikers and active, older children, moderate hikes have a modest elevation gain – in the range of 500ft to 1000ft – and are usually less than 7 miles in length.
- Hard Hikes have elevation gains of more than 1000ft, are mostly steep, may have tricky footing and are often more than 8 miles long. Being physically fit is paramount.
All hikes, from day hikes to backcountry treks, follow well-marked, established trails and, unless otherwise noted, the distance listed in each hike description is for a round-trip journey. The actual time spent hiking will vary with your ability. When in doubt, assume trails will be harder and take longer than you think.
There are scores of options for overnight hikes in the Smokies. You can make a two-day trip that includes park highlights such as Charlies Bunion or Mt LeConte, or hike to less-visited corners of the mountains along routes such as the Lakeshore Trail or the Baxter Ridge. There's also the granddaddy of backpacking trips, the Appalachian Trail, parts of which you can include in many itineraries.
There are few dedicated loop routes in the Smoky Mountains, though the many intersecting trails in the park mean you can plan a loop without having to end far from your starting point. If you are planning on ending at a distant point, however, you can use shuttle services to either take you to the trailhead or pick you up at an arranged time when you finish.
A backcountry permit and a backcountry campsite reservation are required for all backcountry stays in the park. The Backcountry Permit Office is an excellent resource for planning an overnight or multiday hiking trip.
Charlies Bunion & Kephart Loop
- Start/End Newfound Gap
- Duration two days
- Distance 14.1 miles
- Difficulty Moderate
- Elevation Gain 4185ft
The Smoky Mountains are packed with great viewpoints, but the rocky outcropping known as Charlies Bunion offers one of the most memorable panoramas in the park. You'll also get a brief taste of the Appalachian Trail as you walk along the ridgeline. Most visitors do Charlies Bunion as an out-and-back day hike (8 miles return), but you can leave the day-trippers behind and overnight in a lush valley near the Kephart Prong.
This two-day hike starts near the Rockefeller Memorial, which straddles two states at Newfound Gap, around 13 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Check out the views into Tennessee and North Carolina, then find the sign indicating the Appalachian Trail just below. This section of the AT is fairly well traveled (and is busy in springtime with through-hikers), so if you want the scenery to yourself, hit the trail early.
The first 2 miles of the hike follow a fairly steady elevation gain along cool, mixed forest before passing through Fraser fir forest, the bare limbs of the trees evidence of the balsam woolly adelgid wreaking havoc. You'll also see plenty of wildflowers in spring and blackberries in late summer, with views opening up along both sides of the ridge.
Around mile 1.7, you'll pass the junction with the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, which you'll be coming up the next day. A little further along, around mile 2.7, you'll pass the turnoff to the Boulevard Trail, which leads up to Mt LeConte. A little further along, the Icewater Spring Shelter is a popular overnight stop for through-hikers. The piped spring just beyond does indeed have ice-cold water, though as elsewhere in the park, you'll need to treat it before drinking. From here the path descends through a cool spruce and fir forest before leveling out amid secondary forest of American beech and yellow birch. After a short ascent, you'll see the big rock face just ahead. Then at mile 4.0, a well-weathered signpost announces your arrival at Charlies Bunion.
As you take the narrow spur out to the overlook, keep in mind that careless travelers have fallen to their deaths out on the rocks, so it's best not to scramble around on these ledges.The curious name incidentally comes from Horace Kephart, who was out exploring this section of the Smokies in 1929 with his friend Charlie Connor and photographer George Masa. After spotting the bulbous rock face, he paid homage to his hiking companion (or at least his companion's foot ailment), saying, jovially, that it looked just like Charlie's bunion. Somehow the farcical name stuck – it helped that Kephart was later involved in choosing place names within the park boundaries. If you haven't eaten already, this is a fine place for a long break. With dizzying 1000ft drop-offs, the sweeping panorama spreads from Mt LeConte eastward to the the jagged peaks of the Sawteeth Range.
From Charlies Bunion, you'll continue along the Appalachian Trail for another half-mile before making the right (southward) turn onto the Dry Sluice Gap Trail. You'll likely have this quiet, little-used track all to yourself as you descend through stands of Catawba rhododendrons – at times so thick, they form an enclosed Gothic arch overhead. Around mile 5.8, you'll see the signpost for the Grassy Branch Trail leading off to your right. Take this trail, which keeps descending. You'll pass wind-whipped oak and birch trees, and cross a few small streams, including an offshoot of the Icewater Spring that you traversed far above.
After the long, steady descent, you'll soon hear the rush of the Kephart Prong. Then around mile 8.4, you'll reach a forest of rich secondary growth and arrive at the Kephart Shelter. After dropping your pack (and hoisting up your food items with the bear-proof cable system), you can explore a bit of this former lumber site. If you have the energy, you'll also find remnants of a former CCC corps further downhill (but it's a bit of a hike back up to the shelter).
Try to get plenty of rest, because you'll have lots of climbing on day two – around 2500ft. The day begins along the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, which starts a few paces from the shelter. Cross a log bridge over the rushing stream and mossy boulders, then make the slow, steady ascent. Plan a rest stop around mile 1.6 (from the shelter), beside the cooling multi-stage falls of Sweat Heifer Cascades. At mile 3.8 you'll meet back up with the Appalachian Trail. Turn left and continue another 1.7 miles to return to your original starting point of the two-day hike.
Twentymile to Gregory Bald Loop
- Start/End Twentymile Ranger Station
- Duration two to three days
- Distance 18.3 miles
- Difficulty Hard
- Elevation Gain 4500ft
In a remote corner of the park, the Twentymile Ranger Station is the starting point for this challenging, uphill trek to one of the loveliest high-mountain meadows in the Smokies. Along the way, you'll also travel a bit of the Appalachian Trail and have the opportunity to take a detour to an old fire tower with magnificent views over a horizon filled with mountains in all directions.
Twentymile was the sight of the Kitchen Lumber Company, which operated here in the 1920s. The first part of the hike travels along a wide trail, which was once a narrow-gauge railroad used to haul out timber. The grade is fairly gentle for the first 3 miles as you follow along the idyllic Twentymile Creek. Things start to get steeper around mile 3.1 as you follow a south slope of mixed forest up to Sassafras Gap, and the intersection of the Appalachian Trail at mile 5.
Before continuing north toward the Gregory Bald Trail, it's well worth taking a 500yd detour south along the Appalachian Trail to Shuckstack Tower. This six-story wood and steel fire tower has mesmerizing 360-degree views. The Smoky Mountains undulate off into the distance to the north, while the Unicoi Mountains lie to the west, the Snowbird and Nantahala Mountains to the south and the tail end of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the southeast. You'll want to watch your step on the way up, as the trail is not in the best shape, with a missing handrail and rickety floorboards in places.
After the detour head back north on the Appalachian Trail. If you're making this a two-night trip, you can spend one night at the small campsite 113 located right along the Appalachian Trail. Otherwise, press on up to Doe Knob, 3 miles north of the Twentymile Trail intersection. There you'll turn left along the Gregory Bald Trail and follow this for 3 miles up to the ridge. At the top, you'll reach a grassy meadow, blazing with flame azaleas in the summer, and sweeping views to the north and south. This is Gregory Bald, one of those high-elevation bald patches unique to the southern Appalachia. It was once used by settlers (ones with strong calf muscles, at least) for grazing cattle.
Continue along the same trail, about a half-mile past the bald, to reach campsite 13, which is tucked into a shady patch of yellow birch forest. Congratulations, the worst is over. After hiking up more than 4000ft, you can unwind in one of the loveliest backcountry sites in the park, with ample space and several fire rings – plus the obligatory bear-proof cable system for hanging your food. You'll find water (which needs to be treated) a further 300yd from the campsite along the same Gregory Bald Trail. If you're not too exhausted after the uphill slog, it's worth heading back uphill to watch the sunset from the open meadow.
The next day is an easier, mostly downhill jaunt of just under 7 miles. Follow the Wolf Ridge Trail, located a few paces south of the campsite. Gray wolves once roamed the Smokies and were a bane on livestock-raising settlers, who hunted them to extinction. After about 1300yd, you'll reach Parson Bald, a former grassy bald that the park service is now allowing to return to its native state – with encroaching trees and shrubs, there won't be any views from here. This bald, incidentally, was named after Joshua Parson, an early 1800s–era settler who lived near Abrams Creek (the now-closed Parson Branch Rd is also named after him).
After 4.5 miles you'll pass a side trail leading off to campsite number 95, another fine space to overnight, located in a mixed forest above the rushing Dalton Branch. Continue another half-mile along the Wolf Ridge Trail, where you'll pass the turnoff to Twentymile Loop Trail; just ignore this and keep going south. In another 1.6 miles you'll return to your original starting point.
Twentymile Ranger Station is located on Hwy 28, about 18 miles east of the southern end of Foothills Pkwy.
Big Creek & Mt Cammerer
- Start/End Big Creek Ranger Station
- Duration two days
- Distance 16.7 miles
- Difficulty Moderate to hard
- Elevation Gain 3568ft
The eastern side of the Smoky Mountains offers some enchanting landscapes, and on this hike you'll see grand views from a historic watchtower, hike a rolling stretch of the Appalachian Trail and follow beside a cascading, boulder-filled stream that evokes a bit of paradise lost.
A good base for the night before (and perhaps after) the hike is the Big Creek campground, within strolling distance of the trailhead. The walk begins on the Big Creek Trail, which follows the scenic, aptly named waterway as it winds its way through lush forest. Around mile 1.4, look for a small side trail leading down to the water and Midnight Hole. This unsigned spot features a 6ft-high cascade of water rushing between huge boulders and filling a large, deep, blue-green pool below. Fringes of rhododendron hang overhead. It's a gorgeous spot for a picnic.
Continuing on, you'll reach Mouse Creek Falls at mile 2.0. Its churning white waters spill 20ft down gray stone and join up with Big Creek. Shortly after this, you'll cross a sturdy bridge (which used to support a railway that was used by the lumber company that exploited this area in the early 1900s). The gentle uphill grade continues as you follow along the river, this time tracing its left bank as you walk westward.
Around mile 5.1 you'll reach another solid bridge to cross back over the river. Before continuing, it's worth stopping for a break along a lovely and serene stretch of Big Creek. Shortly after you cross the bridge, you'll come to the intersection of the Low Gap Trail. You'll be heading up this trail next. However, if you prefer to leave the strenuous ascent for the following day, you'll find several excellent backcountry campsites just south of the turnoff. Campsite 37 is the pick of the two, with sites just a few paces from the rumbling creek. Campsite 36, a few hundred yards further, is for both backpackers and horse riders.
Along the Low Gap Trail, you'll travel 2.5 miles up to the intersection of the Appalachian Trail. Along the way, you'll gain more than 1350ft in elevation, though the first mile is fairly easy going (even downhill in parts). You'll enjoy new perspectives over Big Creek as you wind your way north. Around 1 mile into the trail, you might see signs of former homesteads – piled-up rocks that formed the bases of chimneys, dry-rock bases that supported small spring houses (for keeping food items cool) over trickling springs. Second-growth tulip trees soar high above the cool forest floor.
The last half-mile of the Low Gap Trail gets particularly steep as you make your way past wildflowers and silverbell trees to the Appalachian Trail. Pause here before continuing on – there's more climbing ahead, though the worst of the uphill part is behind you.
The Low Gap, at 4240ft, is indeed a low point on the Appalachian Trail. Over the next 2 miles, you'll ascend another 800ft along a well-used trail with fine views (and refreshing breezes the higher you go). Just after hitting the 2-mile mark, you'll see the turnoff to Mt Cammerer. Although it adds an extra 1.2 miles (round-trip) to your hike, it's well worth taking this spur trail to the rocky overlook. There you'll find a stone fire tower, first built by the CCC in the late 1930s, then, after falling into disrepair, reconstructed in 1995. The 360-degree views from the surrounding circular platform provide a fine lay of the land.
After you return to the Appalachian Trail, it's all downhill. You'll continue east along the AT for another 3.2 miles, descending about 2000ft by the time you meet up with the Chestnut Branch Trail. Take this trail leading down to the right. It passes through verdant forest complete with gurgling streams, mossy stones and a profusion of wildflowers, with very few other hikers in sight. You'll keep dropping down another 1250ft over the next 2.2 miles before returning to Big Creek Ranger Station. Note that when you reach the end of the trail, turn right and walk another 1000yd along the road to return to your starting point at the Big Creek trailhead.
To reach the starting point of the hike, take I-40 to exit 451 and follow Waterville Rd to Big Creek Ranger Station. The trailhead is on the right, just before you reach the campground.
Before heading out, make sure you secure a backcountry permit and reserve a campsite or shelter. It's best to do this in advance online (www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/backcountry-camping.htm), though you can also do it in person at the Backcountry Permit Office. This office can also help you make changes to your itinerary if needed.
You'll get your permit at the same time your backcountry campsite is confirmed. Afterwards, you'll need to print out your reservation and carry it with you throughout your backcountry trip. If you don't have access to a printer, head to the office and they'll print it for you.
Backcountry Campsites & Shelters
The national park has more than 80 backcountry campsites. It also has 15 shelters, most of which are located along the Appalachian Trail. The price to stay at either, including the permit, is $4 per person per night, with a maximum fee of $20. Permits are valid for up to seven nights. Sites have a capacity of anywhere from four people to 14. They can book up on weekends and throughout the busy summer months, so reserve well ahead. Reservations can be made up to 30 days in advance of the first night of your trip.
Keep in mind that some sites also accept horses, mules and other stock. Contact the backcountry permit office if you're planning to travel with your favorite llama.
- Bear Cable System All scent-bearing items (food, garbage, toothpaste) must be hung on the bear-cable system at each campsite or shelter. It's wise to cover it with a plastic bag before hanging to protect it from rain. To use the system, detach the clip, pull down the cables and hang your bag from the hook. Then pull it back up and attach the clip back to the eye bolt at the base of the tree. These food-storage cable systems are available at all backcountry campsites. If you don't see it, look around.
- Toilet Use If you need to dispose of human waste, bury it in a hole at least 6in deep, and make sure you're at least 100ft from any campsite, trail or water source. Pack out all toilet paper, sanitary napkins, tampons etc. Don't bury these items!
- Leave No Trace Pack out all food, trash and gear. Leave nothing behind!
- Campfires Fires are allowed only at designated sites and are permitted only in established fire rings. The burning of trash, food items and anything else apart from wood is prohibited. If you can forgo a fire, that's even better.
- Washing Up Polluting park waters is prohibited. Do not bathe or wash dishes in streams. Instead, collect water and bathe or wash dishes with it at least 100ft from the water source. Biodegradable soap does not break down in water and is in fact a pollutant.
- Group Size The maximum group size is eight people. For bigger groups, you'll have to apply for a special permit from the permit office.
- Where to Camp Camping is permitted only at designated campsites and shelters.
- Maximum Stay Hikers are not allowed to stay at a campsite for more than three consecutive nights. At shelters, the maximum stay is one night.
Before departing on an overnight hike in the Great Smoky Mountains, be sure to leave your hiking itinerary, backcountry permit number and date of your return with a contact person who will not be hiking. Pass along to your contact the park's emergency phone number (865-436-9171) as a resource if you do not return as planned.
If you're planning a hiking route that doesn't end near your starting point, you'll need to use a shuttle service. These can take you to the trailhead, or pick you up at the end. For something a little more creative, you can even book a boat shuttle across Fontana Lake to hike remote western sections of the Lakeshore Trail.
Note that none of these outfits are run by the park service, but all are authorized to operate within the national park.
The Great Smoky Mountains offers some fabulous day hikes. These range from short and flat riverside jaunts to challenging hikes to craggy overlooks with jaw-dropping views. Wherever you go it's best to set out early, as you'll beat the worst of the crowds, and have the best opportunities for wildlife-watching.
Alum Cave Bluffs
- Start/End Alum Cave Bluffs parking area
- Duration 2½ to 3½ hours round-trip
- Distance 4.6 miles
- Difficulty Hard
- Elevation Gain 2200ft
One of the 10 most popular trails in the Smoky Mountains, Alum Cave Bluffs often draws a crowd. It's a fantastic walk crossing log bridges, spying old-growth forest and enjoying fine views, though you should try to be on the trail before 9am to enjoy the scenery without the maddening crowds.
From the trailhead along Newfound Gap Rd, you quickly leave the sounds of traffic behind as you cross a stout bridge over a gurgling mountain stream (the Walker Camp Prong) and enter a wilderness of rosebay rhododendrons and thick ferns, with American beech and yellow birch trees soaring overhead.
Soon you'll be following along the rushing waters of Alum Cave Creek, which offers many fine places to stop and enjoy a bit of leisurely stream time (indeed, many families don't make it farther than the first mile). Enjoy this fairly flat, scenic stretch as the climbing begins after mile 1.1.
At that point you'll cross the Styx Branch, named after the mythological river forming the boundary between the natural world and the underworld. From here it's about 600yd to Arch Rock, a picturesque natural tunnel, which you'll pass though along carved stone steps leading up the steep slope.
The tough ascent continues, leading past old-growth hardwoods as it winds up Peregrine Peak (keep an eye out for the falcons for which the mountain is named). Around mile 1.8 you'll reach a heath bald where the views begin to open up, amid mountain laurel and sand myrtle. A bit further (around mile 2), you'll reach the aptly named Inspiration Point, offering even more impressive views of the forested valley below. Stop here to catch your breath before pressing on the final 600yd to Alum Cave Bluffs. Despite the name, this is not a cave but rather an 80ft-high concave cliff. It provides fine views and dry shelter when the rains arrive.
Though most people turn around here, you can press on to Mt LeConte, another 2.7 miles uphill, if you still have plenty of energy left. The terrain on this stretch is particularly challenging, as the trail passes over narrow rock ledges – steel cables bolted into the mountain provide useful handholds. At the summit, hot chocolate and other snacks await. Otherwise, it's an easy downhill descent back to your starting point.
- Start/End Laurel Falls parking area
- Duration 1½ to two hours round-trip
- Distance 2.6 miles
- Difficulty Easy to moderate
- Elevation Gain 310ft
The Laurel Falls trail is one of the most popular waterfall trails in the park. The falls are certainly impressive, but if you're coming in the summer, know that this trail gets frustratingly packed. Come very early or late in the day to beat the worst of the crowds.
The route is so popular, in fact, that the park service has paved the entire length of the trail (in part to prevent added erosion to the mountain). Although it's smooth going, the trail is a little too steep for it to be an easy trip for strollers and wheelchairs, though we have spotted both on the trail.
Apart from the scenic waterfall, this trail has a little of everything: wildflowers in springtime, fiery colors in autumn, wooded ridges and sweeping views over the forest.
From the parking area, the trail starts out with a short steep section, then continues along a steady uphill rise past small shrublike mountain laurels (which turn the hills pink and white in early summer) and stands of rhododendrons. Continuing uphill, you'll soon pass pines, maples and dogwoods before the view opens up to your left and reveals a fine outlook over the valley. Further ahead, you'll pass rocks on your left, which the Civilian Conservation Corps had to partially blast their way through to create the trail back in the 1930s.
The trail continues uphill, at times growing narrower. If in a group, you'll want to go single file, and watch your step in cold weather as it can be icy (a sign reminds hikers that falls have resulted in deaths here).
At mile 1.3 you have arrived. Powered by annual rainfall of 55in, the 75ft-high waterfall is a refreshing sight, though it's nearly always packed. After taking in the view, you can either make the return descent or leave the crowds behind and continue along the trail, which intersects with the Little Greenbrier Trail at mile 3.1.
Look for the trailhead (and many, many cars parked along the road) on the north side of Fighting Creek Gap Rd, about 3.8 miles west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail
- Start/End Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail parking area
- Duration 30 minutes round-trip
- Distance 0.5 miles
- Difficulty Easy
- Elevation Gain 2ft
The national park's only fully wheelchair-accessible trail takes visitors on a leisurely half-mile loop through woodland, along the edge of the rushing West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The trail is wide, fully paved and gently sloped, making it ideal for families with small children and travelers with mobility issues.
If you're in a hurry, you could do this trail in less than half an hour, but it's well worth taking your time. Relatively few visitors stop here, and the peaceful views along the river invite contemplation.
Dappled forest greets you as you begin the walk – a pleasant introduction to the regenerative power of the Smokies. A century ago, this land along the river was completely cleared for timber. Where pine trees now sway in the breeze, there were once farmhouses and fields of corn and wheat.
You'll soon see vestiges of this human-altered landscape as you take the left fork on the trail, stopping beside the stone-walled column sprouting up from the forest floor. This chimney was once part of a summer cottage from the early 1900s.
As you continue further along the trail, the hum of cars along Newfound Gap Rd is replaced by the sound of the gurgling river. Here you can take an unpaved side trail down to the water's edge and look for kingfishers and other birds on the prowl.
As you continue along, take note of the gully that parallels the trail. This started out as a footpath used by Native Americans, and was later transformed by settlers into a road over the mountains that connected this valley with Bryson City to the south.
Pamphlets (50¢) available near the trailhead point out some of the natural and human-made features along the trail.
You'll find the parking area for the trailhead on Newfound Gap Rd, about 0.7 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center (on the left if coming from the north).
Kephart Prong Trail
- Start/End Kephart Prong Trailhead
- Duration two hours round-trip
- Distance 4.2 miles
- Difficulty Easy to moderate
- Elevation Gain 860ft
Although it lacks dramatic waterfalls and panoramic views, the Kephart Prong Trail is an intriguing hike, and offers attractions unique to this corner of the park. Instead of knockout views, you'll get a taste of history as you wander past the ruins of an old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp dating back to 1933. In late spring, it's also a fine spot to see blooming wildflowers.
The trail is named after Horace Kephart, a librarian from St Louis who abandoned his wife and six children to live in a remote part of the Smokies. There he found inspiration, winning acclaim for his honest portrayal of Appalachian peoples in Our Southern Highlanders. He also helped plot the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies and was later named one of the fathers of the national park.
Mountain streams play a starring role in this walk, as you'll follow along the Kephart Prong, crossing it several times during your ascent. The trail is fairly easy going, with a bridge crossing over the rushing Oconaluftee River at the outset. Continuing along this wide path (once a road for 4WDs), you'll reach the remnants of the Conservation Corps camp around mile 0.2. Here you'll find a (non-working) stone water pump, moss-covered foundations and a few rather precarious-looking chimneys pointing skyward. This is all that's left of an area that once contained a mess hall, living quarters, a recreation building and various other structures.
The camp was in use for almost a decade during the 1930s and early 1940s. About 200 workers lived here building roads, a water system still used on the Newfound Gap Rd, trails and bridges – including those found on this trail. Afterwards the camp became a barracks for conscientious objectors during WWII. Those sent here continued the work started by the CCC 10 years earlier, as well as assisting with ranger support and other park activities.
Watch out for poison ivy and other hazards as you explore the site (you might also see a trap, which you should steer clear of, that's set up by the national park to capture wild hogs). Continue up the trail as it narrows and winds its way to the first crossing of the Kephart Prong. A slender footbridge with a log railing crosses the churning waterway. Around mile 0.7 you'll see several concrete platforms tucked just off the trail. Although these look like combat bunkers, they're actually the remnants of a fish hatchery run by the Works Progress Administration. These were used to replenish trout and bass in the overfished mountain streams in the park.
As the trail continues, you'll cross the Kephart Prong four more times over the next mile. Surrounded by forest and spanning moss-covered rocks and rushing white water, these log bridges are quite photogenic. However, you'll want to watch your step, especially after rain and during cold weather, as the wood can be slick and icy.
Towards the end of the walk (around mile 1.7), keep an eye out for a few rusting, lichen-covered railroad irons alongside the trail. These were once part of a narrow-gauge railroad used by the Champion Fibre Company. Back in the 1920s, this logging operator left a swath of more than 2000 clear-cut acres in and along the Kephart Prong. The railroad then transported the spruce lumber taken from the site. Luckily this was some of the last logging in the area. In 1931 Champion Fibre sold 90,000 acres of forest land to the government, in what would soon become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Keep heading uphill a bit further, and at mile 2.1 you'll arrive at the Kephart Shelter, a nicely designed wood and stone structure used by overnight hikers. It sits in an area that was once part of the logging camp. From here you'll notice a signboard indicating various other trails that continue onwards. If you're itching to continue onwards, you can reach a junction with the Appalachian Trail in 3.7 miles by taking the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail. Taking the right fork instead leads along the Grassy Branch Trail, where you can connect with Dry Sluice Gap and eventually up to Charlies Bunion for memorable mountain views. Otherwise it's an easy downhill walk retracing your steps back to the start of the trail.
Parking for the trailhead is along Newfound Gap Rd, located about 7 miles north of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center (right side of the road if coming from the south).
- Start/End Parking area for Clingmans Dome
- Duration 2½ hours round-trip
- Distance 3.6 miles
- Difficulty Moderate
- Elevation Gain 950ft
Spectacular views await from this high-elevation grassy meadow near Clingmans Dome. While it's a fairly straightforward hike to get here, you'll need to save some energy for the return, which is nearly entirely uphill – unlike many other trails in the Smokies, the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald starts high and ends low(er).
The trail starts off along Forney Ridge and passes through forest of red spruce and Fraser fir. The latter is suffering from a devastating infestation of the non-native balsam woolly adelgid, a type of sap-sucking aphid, and you'll see lots of bare branches and fallen firs along the way.
Just after 1 mile, you'll reach a signboard indicating the Forney Creek Trail going off to the right. Instead continue straight along the Forney Ridge Trail. After a slight uphill of perhaps 200ft over 400yd, you'll descend once again. Keep an eye out for patches of blueberry bushes, which typically ripen in August. After another gentle descent, you'll soon arrive at the grassy meadow known as Andrews Bald. The site is named after Anders Thompson, who brought cattle up here to graze in the 1840s.
Assuming fog doesn't cling to the horizon, the views here are outstanding. You can find many fine spots for a picnic, perhaps staking out a place beside some fine flowering plants, including gorgeous flame azaleas – these tend to bloom in late June. Afterwards, retrace your steps to return to your starting point back at Clingmans Dome.
To reach the trailhead, take the road towards Clingmans Dome off Newfound Gap Rd (the turnoff is about 13 miles south of Sugarlands Visitor Center). Park at the lot and walk in the direction of Clingmans Dome. You'll see the trailhead marked 'Forney Ridge' leading down to the left just before you reach the visitor center.
Keep in mind that the road to Clingmans Dome closes from December to late March.
- Start/End Grotto Falls parking area
- Duration 1½ to 2½ hours round trip
- Distance 2.6 miles
- Difficulty Easy to moderate
- Elevation Gain 380ft
This deservedly popular trail leads through lush forest lined with hemlock trees to the lovely Grotto Falls, a cascade that tumbles 25ft into a serene moss-fringed pool. It's also the only waterfall in the park that you can walk behind – though take care if doing so, as the slippery, wet stones can lead to some nasty spills.
The hike to the falls is actually part of the longer Trillium Gap Trail, which goes all the way up to the summit of Mt LeConte (a little over 5 miles past Grotto Falls). Set out early if you plan to make it up to the top and back. If you come on Monday, Wednesday or Friday, you might also spy a train of llamas making its way up to the ridge. These animals help resupply the lodge, packing up food and other supplies.
The trail starts off amid sizable American beeches, maples and silverbells (which have gorgeous blooms in the late spring). May and June are particularly lovely times to be here, with a range of blooming wildflowers, including violets, the whimsical Dutchman's breeches and, of course, trillium. Keep an eye out for large black-and-white pileated woodpeckers, which leave their mark (tiny fresh wood chips spattered on the ground from their vigorous tree drillings) all across the forest.
The trail is a fairly continuous uphill climb all the way to falls, with the loud rush of water (the creek known as Roaring Fork) soon alerting you of your arrival. At the falls, keep an eye out for salamanders. Go early to avoid the crowds, which can pack the place on warm afternoons. After you've had your fill of the pretty setting, retrace your steps to the start of the hike.
The trailhead is located along the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, reachable by taking the Cherokee Orchard Rd from Gatlinburg.
In the winter, when the Roaring Fork road is closed, you'll have the trail all to yourself, though you'll have to hike an extra 5 miles (round trip) along the Trilium Trail from the nearest parking area.
- Start/End Chimney Tops Parking Area
- Duration 1½ to three hours round trip
- Distance 3.5 miles
- Difficulty Moderate to hard
- Elevation Gain 1460ft
The Chimney Tops was once one of the most popular trails in the Smokies. While the views are still impressive, the trail has lost some of its allure following the destructive fires of 2016. You can no longer hike out to the chimneys, which are peaks of bare, metamorphic rock. That final part of the trail will remain closed – likely for years to come – owing to the dangers it poses from its unstable rock face and sheer drop-offs.
That said, it's still a lovely, but strenuous uphill hike taking in a beautiful stretch of the rushing West Prong. Because this area wasn't so heavily logged, you can also find a few old-growth trees rising above the canopy. The trail starts with a fairly gentle ascent for the first mile. You'll pass several bridges, all offering fine vantage points over the churning, boulder-filled stream.
There are also a few spots where you can hike down to the water for idyllic views of moss-covered stones and bountiful thickets of rhododendrons. Wildflowers such as trillium, bee-balm and jewelweed grow in abundance.
After you cross the fourth bridge, you'll have completed the first mile. And now the real fun begins: the next 1300yd is extremely steep, and travels up dozens of steps built into the hillside.
At mile 1.75, you'll arrive at a viewing platform – newly built since the 2016 fires. It provides a vantage point onto the craggy rock faces known as the chimneys, which ironically were the place where the conflagration started. Just below the pinnacles, you'll also see firsthand the devastation of the fires, with blackened trunks and dead trees dotting the scarred, barren hillside. After taking in the view, return to your starting point by retracing your steps along the trail.
The parking area for the trailhead is located along Newfound Gap Rd, about 6 miles northwest of the Rockefeller Memorial, and 7 miles southeast of the Sugarlands Visitor Center (on the right side when driving south).
- Start/End Rainbow Falls parking area
- Duration three to 4½ hours round-trip
- Distance 5.4 miles
- Difficulty Moderate to hard
- Elevation Gain 1600ft
Cascading 80ft down the mountain as the park's highest single-drop waterfall, Rainbow Falls is a magnificent sight, particularly after heavy rains. The hike here is fairly challenging, given the 1600ft of elevation gain over just 2.7 miles. Still, this doesn't deter many visitors, so go early to avoid the crowds. The falls are equally captivating in winter, when you can sometimes find them frozen into a spectacular form – though this rare event occurs only during bouts of extremely cold temperatures.
As you start out, you'll pass through the blackened branches and trunks of a scarred landscape – remnants from the Gatlinburg fires that roared through in 2016. You'll make a few stream crossings and around mile 1.5 you'll huff your way uphill, passing some towering old-growth trees just off the path. Thickets of rhododendrons and mountain laurel crowd the path after you pass a log bridge around mile 1.7.
Look for dark-eyed juncos darting about. These sparrow-sized birds have a gray head, neck and wings, with a snow-white underbelly, and they're commonly spotted in the Smokies. Around mile 2.7, you will reach the falls. Find a spot on the rocks to enjoy the view as the foaming spray arcs off in all directions. On sunny days, you may catch sight of rainbows shimmering in the mists – discovering firsthand how these falls earned their name. After a break, retrace your steps along the same trail to return to your starting point.
If you're still keen for more hiking, however, you can continue on the trail, which goes across the log bridge and ascends for another 4 miles up to LeConte Lodge. You'll quickly leave behind the masses if you decide to continue onwards. Travelers overnighting at the lodge – or those up for a long hike – can go up via Rainbow Falls and descend via the Trillium Gap Trail for slightly different scenery, including a glimpse of lovely Grotto Falls. However, you'll need to be quite fit and start early to complete this 16-mile loop in one day.
Parking for the trailhead is located along the Cherokee Orchard Rd, a little over 3 miles southeast of Gatlinburg.
- Start/End Ramsey Cascades parking area
- Duration three to 4½ hours round-trip
- Distance 8 miles
- Difficulty Moderate to hard
- Elevation Gain 2280ft
The hike to Ramsey Cascades takes in some gorgeous forest scenery. Massive old-growth trees, boulder-filled streams and a forest floor sprinkled with wildflowers are among the highlights. The falls themselves are simply magnificent, with rushing white water spilling 100ft down rocky ledges. You'll have to work to enjoy the falls, however, as you ascend more than 2000ft over 4 miles.
The first part of the hike starts out with a fairly easy climb after a long bridge crossing over the rushing Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The wide path initially follows the old road laid out by the logging company, though luckily they didn't get very far into the forest before the national park was created. Even here you'll find a few massive old-growth trees. A few benches are sprinkled along the first mile, where you can sit and contemplate the greenery.
Around mile 1.5, the path loops around a big circle filled with rhododendrons. Just below, the churning Ramsey Prong meets up with Middle Prong. Here a sign announces Ramsey Cascades as 2.5 miles away. This is where the trail narrows and the real climb begins. Watch your step as you make your way over the blackened roots spreading across the path. You'll pass a small stream cascading over moss-covered boulders around mile 2.1, then shortly after, cross over your first log bridge.
Continuing along, you'll pass through old-growth forest with some staggering giants. Around mile 2.6 you'll walk right past two massive tulip trees, with another even larger specimen just beyond.
The trail steepens as you grow nearer to the falls, with the last 400yd requiring some leg work to climb over the big rocks along the path. Finally, at mile 4.0, you've arrived. Take a break and congratulate yourself on reaching one of the prettiest waterfalls in the park. Afterwards, return to the trail's staring point by retracing your steps.
To reach the trailhead, take Hwy 321 for 6 miles east from Gatlinburg and turn right (south) down Greenbrier Rd. Parking for the trail is at the end of this road, 4.5 miles from the turnoff from the highway.
- Start River Rd
- End Sugarlands Visitor Center
- Duration one hour
- Distance 2 miles one way
- Difficulty Easy
- Elevation Gain 22ft
If you find yourself suddenly allergic to Gatlinburg – it happens – make a beeline south to the edge of downtown. There, just a few steps from the main drag, you'll find a sign marking the start of this pleasant walk in the woods. With a burbling creek splashing over mossy rocks, a few historic ruins and a photogenic national park sign, you'll shake off those symptoms in a flash. The trail is also open to cyclists and leashed pets.
The trailhead borders a public parking lot on River Rd, near its junction with Hwy 441. If you're in need of any last-minute outdoor gear or apparel, pop into the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC; 1138 Parkway) one block away. The trail hugs a creek – the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River – as it breezes through the woods. Next up? A large Great Smoky Mountains National Park sign. Flanked by a stone wall, a split-level fence and soaring trees, it's camera-ready. The path crosses the creek then rolls past old chimneys and other ruins.
You'll also see signs warning passersby that they are walking through a burn area. Here you should watch for hazards such as falling trees and tree limbs. The trail closed for a time after the devastating fires that ripped through parts of the park and Gatlinburg in late November 2016.
Next up is a not-so-photogenic maintenance yard – but hey, at least it's not another Ripley's Museum! Follow the service road and watch for a trail marker telling you to turn right toward Sugarlands Visitor Center. At the visitor center you can pick up information about the park, use the restrooms, catch a ranger program or buy snacks and sodas from the vending machines.
If you don't feel like backtracking to Gatlinburg, hop aboard the Gatlinburg Trolley for a ride on the tan route, which leaves the Gatlinburg Transit Center every 90 minutes between 9am and 5:30pm. From the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the trolley stops at the Laurel Falls parking lot then Elkmont Campground before returning to downtown.
In addition to hiking trails, the national park also has 14 quiet walkways scattered around the park. These are maintained paths that generally attract fewer people than the better known trails. Most run from about 400yd to a half-mile in length along fairly easy terrain, and are meant to provide a fine place to enjoy nature without the crowds. Small, inconspicuous signs mark their location, with parking for just one or two cars. Eight of these quiet walkways are sprinkled along Newfound Gap Rd. Several others are located west of Sugarlands Visitor Center on Fighting Creek Gap Rd; there's even one hidden away on the Road to Nowhere, about 7 miles northwest of Bryson City.
Bicycles are welcome on most park roads, with the exception of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. However, it is important that you choose your road wisely. Because of steep terrain, narrow byways and heavy car traffic, many park roads are not well suited to safe or enjoyable riding. Great Smoky has no mountain-biking trails. Bicycles are allowed only on the Gatlinburg Trail, the Oconaluftee River Trail and the Lower Deep Creek Trail. They are prohibited on all other park trails.
By far the best place for a carefree cycling tour is Cades Cove, particularly when the road is closed to cars (Wednesday and Sunday before 10am from mid-May to late September). In summer and fall, rent cycles from Cades Cove Campground Store.
The 8-mile-long Parson Branch Rd is another option for riding, though it can be unsafe. This gravel and dirt road is closed to motor vehicles owing to hundreds of dead hemlock trees within striking distance of the road.
Beyond the Park
You can find some decent mountain biking outside the national park if you know where to look. If you're staying on the northeast side of the park, it's worth checking out CLIMB Works. This ziplining and mountain-biking site has a 2-mile loop trail that's fun for beginners, and bikes are available for hire on-site.
For a wider variety of trails, head to the Tsali Recreation Area. Set on a peninsula jutting into Fontana Lake, Tsali is famed for its mountain biking. It has four loops (as well as various connector and extension trails) totaling some 40 miles of trails that are challenging but not overly technical and offer spectacular lake and mountain views. It's located about 15 miles southwest of Bryson City, just off Hwy 28.
A staggering – or should we say galloping – 550 miles of the park’s hiking trails are open to horses and their humans. Assuming you’re not towing your own horse, sign on for a trail ride at one of the park’s three stables, all open between mid-March and mid-November. It's best to call ahead to make reservations.
One-hour trail rides cost about $35 per person. Those who want a bit more saddle time can sign up for longer rides, ranging from 2½ to four hours. Unfortunately, the park no longer offers overnight trips.
Kayaking & Canoeing
Owing to the park's shallow, rock-filled streams, options are limited for kayaking or canoeing. One exception is Fontana Lake on the southern edge of the park, west of Bryson City. This picturesque lake is actually a reservoir impounded by Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River. Framed by forest-covered slopes, the 29-mile-long lake, with its deep blue waters, is a lovely spot for a paddle. You can hire kayaks, canoes and even stand-up paddleboards and pontoon boats at the Fontana Marina.
The park discourages people from swimming or even wading in streams and natural pools around the park. The currents are strong and unseen obstacles can lead to bad falls, or getting your legs pinned while the water forces you under the surface. Drowning is one of the leading causes of death in the park.
One of the top spots in the southeast for white-water rafting is along the Pigeon River, just northeast of the park. Various outfitters run trips along the river, including Rafting in the Smokies, one of seven operators on this stretch of river. Most operators offer both adrenaline-fueled trips along the Upper Pigeon (for ages eight and up) and more easy-going paddles for families (ages three and up).
Trips typically last 1½ to two hours for a 6-mile trip, with prices around $45 to $50. Be sure to reserve ahead.