5 Best Hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Nestled in the misty peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park includes enchanting landscapes and unrivaled natural beauty. Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, this protected land is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike. It has an extensive trail system spanning over 850 miles with amazing hikes. Let’s take a look at the top 5.

Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park will immerse you in breathtaking views, including cascading waterfalls, vibrant wildflowers, beautiful forests, and plenty of wildlife. The park’s trails cater to hikers of all ages and skill levels, from easy hikes to challenging treks up rugged mountain terrain.

After reading this article and learning about the park’s top 5 hikes, you will be ready to grab your gear and create memories that will last a lifetime.

Prepare for Your Hiking Adventure

When embarking on your Great Smoky Mountains National Park hiking adventure, it’s essential to be prepared and follow some important tips and guidelines to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Here are some general recommendations to keep in mind:

1. Plan and Prepare:

  • Before your hike, familiarize yourself with the park’s trail maps, information centers, and regulations.
  • Check weather forecasts and trail conditions, as they can change rapidly in the mountains.
  • Inform someone about your hiking plans, including your intended route and estimated return time.

 2. Choose the Right Trail:

  • Select a trail that matches your fitness level, experience, and the amount of time you have available.
  • Consider the length, elevation gain, difficulty rating, and features you wish to explore (e.g., waterfalls, viewpoints, or historical sites).

3. Pack Essential Gear:

  • Wear appropriate footwear that provides ankle support and is comfortable for long walks on uneven terrain.
  • Dress in layers to accommodate changing weather conditions and wear moisture-wicking clothing.
  • Carry a daypack with essentials such as a trail map, compass, flashlight, extra clothing, sun protection, insect repellent, a first aid kit, plenty of water, and high-energy snacks.
  • Consider bringing trekking poles for stability, especially on more challenging trails.

4. Follow Leave No Trace Principles:

  • Respect the natural environment by leaving it undisturbed. Pack out all trash and dispose of it properly.
  • Stay on designated trails to prevent soil erosion and damage to fragile vegetation.
  • Do not pick flowers or disturb wildlife. Maintain a safe distance from animals and never feed them.
  • Minimize noise and respect the serenity of the park for fellow hikers.

5. Be Bear Aware:

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many black bears. Take precautions to avoid encounters. Being BEAR AWARE can save your life.
  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it effectively.
  • Store food and scented items in bear-resistant containers or hang them at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet away from tree trunks.
  • Make noise while hiking to alert bears of your presence and avoid surprising them.

6. Stay Hydrated and Fueled:

  • Carry an ample water supply, as water sources along the trails may not always be reliable or safe to drink.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water regularly, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  • Pack nutritious snacks or meals to keep your energy levels up during longer hikes.

7. Practice Trail Etiquette:

  • Yield to uphill hikers and give way to faster hikers when stepping aside.
  • Use designated rest areas and viewpoints to avoid damaging vegetation.
  • Be courteous to other hikers and respect their enjoyment of the park.

Top 5 Hiking Trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

1. Appalachian Trail

As one of the most iconic long-distance hiking trails in the United States, the Appalachian Trail (AT) runs through Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 71 miles. Begin your journey at Newfound Gap and traverse the rugged mountain terrain, passing through high elevations and pristine forests. 

Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the park, provides awe-inspiring panoramic views that stretch for miles. The Appalachian Trail also presents opportunities to spot diverse wildlife, including black bears, white-tailed deer, and various bird species.

panoramic views at McAfee Knob along the Appalachian Trail
A hiker takes in the panoramic views at McAfee Knob along the Appalachian Trail.

Difficulty Level: Varies depending on the section; recommended for experienced hikers.

Trail Type: Long-distance trail.

Distance: 71 miles. 

Estimated Time Needed: It typically takes several days to complete the entire 71-mile stretch.

Key Features and Viewpoints:

  • Clingmans Dome: This iconic peak, reaching an elevation of 6,643 feet, offers breathtaking panoramic views. The observation tower at the summit provides an unparalleled vantage point to witness the park’s mist-shrouded mountains.
  • Newfound Gap: Serving as a popular trailhead and a major mountain pass, Newfound Gap offers stunning vistas of the surrounding peaks and valleys. It also marks the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.
  • Charlies Bunion: This rocky outcrop along the trail offers captivating panoramic views of the park’s mountainous landscapes. It’s a picturesque spot to pause, rest, and take in the beauty of the Smokies.
  • Pecks Corner Shelter: Located along the AT, this backcountry shelter provides a place for hikers to rest and spend the night. It is situated near the confluence of several trails, making it a convenient stopover point.
  • Shuckstack Fire Tower: This historic fire tower, perched atop Shuckstack Mountain, offers stunning vistas of the surrounding peaks, including Fontana Lake. It’s a worthwhile side trip for panoramic views and a glimpse into the area’s fire management history.
  • Deep Creek Area: The trail passes through the picturesque Deep Creek area, known for its cascading waterfalls and beautiful streams. Hikers can enjoy the serene beauty of Juney Whank Falls and other scenic water features along this stretch of the trail.

2. Alum Cave Trail

The Alum Cave Trail is a popular and diverse hike, offering something for hikers of all skill levels. This 5.5-mile round-trip trail leads to the iconic Alum Cave, a massive concave bluff. 

Along the way, hikers are treated to magnificent sights such as Arch Rock, a natural arch formation, and inspiring views of the surrounding mountains. As you ascend, the trail winds through lush forests, and crosses rustic footbridges, and streams. The hike’s highlight is reaching the Alum Cave, where you can rest, enjoy the cool breeze, and enjoy the stunning scenery.

Two hikers stop to rest and enjoy the view at the Alum Cave Trail
Two hikers stop to rest and enjoy the view at the Alum Cave Trail.

Difficulty Level: Moderate.

Trail Type: Loop.

Distance: 5.5 miles round-trip.

Estimated Time Needed: 3-5 hours.

Key Features and Viewpoints:

  • Arch Rock: Shortly after starting the hike, you’ll encounter Arch Rock, a natural arch formation created by erosion. This unique feature adds intrigue and charm to the trail.
  • Inspiration Point: Roughly 2.3 miles into the hike, you’ll reach Inspiration Point. From this viewpoint, you can take in stunning vistas of the surrounding mountains and valleys, providing a moment of inspiration and appreciation for the park’s beauty.
  • Alum Cave: The trail’s highlight is Alum Cave, a massive concave bluff. Although not an actual cave, it offers a shady resting spot with a panoramic view of the mountains. The bluff is particularly impressive, with its large, sheltering overhang.
  • Eye of the Needle: Beyond Alum Cave, hikers can continue up the trail to reach a narrow tunnel-like passage known as the Eye of the Needle. This unique feature adds an element of adventure and curiosity to the hike.
  • Mount LeConte: While the Alum Cave Trail does not reach Mount LeConte’s summit, it is one of the primary routes to access the peak. At an elevation of 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third-highest peak in the park and offers panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains.

3. Charlies Bunion Trail

The Charlies Bunion Trail is a must-visit for adventurous hikers seeking a more challenging trek. This 8-mile round-trip trail begins at Newfound Gap and takes you along the Appalachian Trail, offering jaw-dropping views. 

Named after a bunion-like rock formation, this trail rewards hikers with panoramic vistas of the mountains and valleys. Watch for unique plant life, such as flame azaleas and mountain laurels, as you traverse the rocky terrain. Bring sturdy footwear and be prepared for changing weather conditions, as the trail can be strenuous and unpredictable.

mountain views and valleys at Charlies Bunion trail
Charlies Bunion offers spectacular views of mountains and valleys. NPS photo/Bob Carr

Difficulty Level: Strenuous.

Type: Out-and-back.

Distance: 8 miles round-trip.

Estimated Time Needed: 4-6 hours.

Key Features and Viewpoints:

  • Appalachian Trail: The trail begins at Newfound Gap, where you’ll join the Appalachian Trail. Hiking along the AT provides a sense of adventure and a connection to the iconic long-distance trail.
  • Views from the Ridge: As you ascend along the trail, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The expansive vistas offer opportunities to appreciate the grandeur of the Smoky Mountains.
  • Charlies Bunion: The trail leads to the self-named Charlies Bunion, a prominent rock outcrop that offers stunning views. Perched on the edge of the ridge, this natural formation provides an excellent vantage point to admire the rugged landscape and take memorable photographs.
  • Wildlife Sightings: Throughout the hike, watch for wildlife, including black bears, white-tailed deer, and various bird species. The quiet and remote nature of the trail increases the chances of encountering the park’s diverse fauna.
  • Appalachian Trail Experience: Hiking the Charlies Bunion Trail allows you to experience a portion of the world-famous Appalachian Trail within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You’ll follow in the footsteps of countless thru-hikers and immerse yourself in the culture and spirit of this renowned long-distance trail.

4. Abrams Falls Trail

For those who appreciate the beauty of waterfalls, the Abrams Falls Trail is a gem within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This moderately difficult 5-mile round-trip trail takes you through lush forests and follows Abrams Creek. 

The hike’s highlight is reaching Abrams Falls, a magnificent 20-foot waterfall cascading into a picturesque pool below. Take a refreshing dip, picnic, or enjoy the soothing sound of rushing water before retracing your steps. Swimming near waterfalls can be dangerous, so exercise caution and follow park guidelines.

Abrams Falls flows into a deep swimming hole surrounded by a beautiful, lush forest
Abrams Falls flows into a deep swimming hole surrounded by a beautiful, lush forest.

Difficulty Level: Moderate.

Trail Type: Out-and-back.

Distance: 5 miles round-trip.

Estimated Time Needed: 2-4 hours.

Key Features and Viewpoints:

  • Abrams Falls: The highlight of the trail is the stunning Abrams Falls. This picturesque 20-foot waterfall cascades into a deep pool below. The powerful rush of water and its soothing sound provide a mesmerizing and peaceful experience. Be cautious around the falls, as swimming near waterfalls can be dangerous.
  • Scenic Forests: As you hike along the trail, you’ll be surrounded by lush forests featuring a variety of tree species, including towering hemlocks and hardwoods. The shaded canopy provides a cool break, especially during hot summer days.
  • Abrams Creek: The trail follows Abrams Creek for a portion of the hike, allowing hikers to enjoy the sights and sounds of this meandering waterway. A few footbridge crossings over the creek add to the trail’s scenic charm.
  • Wildlife Spotting: The quiet nature of the trail provides opportunities to spot wildlife along the way. Watch for black bears, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and various bird species that inhabit the area.
  • Picnic Area: At the end of the trail near Abrams Falls, there is a designated picnic area where hikers can relax, have a snack, and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. It’s a perfect spot to unwind and take in the serene atmosphere before retracing your steps.

5. Rainbow Falls Trail

Named for the rainbow that often appears in the mist of the falls on sunny days, the Rainbow Falls Trail is another must-visit for waterfall enthusiasts. This challenging 5.4-mile round-trip hike leads to Rainbow Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that tumbles over a rocky cliff. 

Along the way, you’ll pass through old-growth forests, marvel at towering hemlock and spruce trees, and cross picturesque streams. Although the trail can be steep and rocky in sections, the reward is well worth the effort.

Rainbow Falls cascades down a rocky cliff face inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Rainbow Falls cascades down a rocky cliff face inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Difficulty Level: Moderate.

Trail Type: Out-and-back trail.

Distance: 5.4 miles round-trip.

Estimated Time Needed: 3-5 hours.

Key Features and Viewpoints:

  • Rainbow Falls: The trail leads to the mesmerizing Rainbow Falls, an 80-foot waterfall known for its impressive cascade. On sunny days, the mist from the falls often creates a beautiful rainbow, hence the name. The falls offer a picturesque backdrop for photos and a soothing environment to relax and appreciate the natural beauty.
  • Old-Growth Forest: As you hike along the trail, you’ll be surrounded by a magnificent old-growth forest. Towering trees, including hemlocks and spruces, create a lush canopy, providing shade and a sense of serenity. The forest is particularly beautiful during the spring and fall seasons, when vibrant wildflowers and foliage enhance the landscape.
  • Streams and Bridges: Along the trail, you’ll encounter several small streams and picturesque footbridge crossings. These serene water features add to the scenic charm and provide pleasant spots to rest and listen to the soothing sounds of running water.
  • Wildlife Encounters: The quiet nature of the trail increases the chances of wildlife sightings. Keep an eye out for various bird species, including woodpeckers, warblers, and other forest-dwelling creatures like squirrels and chipmunks.
  • Mount LeConte: While the Rainbow Falls Trail doesn’t reach Mount LeConte’s summit, it offers an opportunity to catch glimpses of the majestic peak along the way. On clear days, as you ascend the trail, you may enjoy intermittent views of Mount LeConte and its surrounding mountains.

Final Thoughts 

So, to wrap things up, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a captivating haven for hikers, offering an unparalleled opportunity to connect with the wonders of nature. The park’s extensive trail system provides a gateway to explore its enchanting landscapes, from the towering trees and vibrant wildflowers to the serene streams and mist-covered mountains.

No matter your level of experience or fitness, there is a trail in the park that will suit your preferences. Whether you prefer a leisurely stroll through gentle paths or a challenging trek up rugged terrain, the trails of Great Smoky Mountains National Park cater to all hikers. With over 850 miles to explore, there is always something new to discover and breathtaking vistas to behold.

So, lace up your hiking boots, grab your backpack, and venture into the Great Smoky Mountains! Let the trails lead you on a journey of exploration, inspiration, and connection with this national park’s awe-inspiring beauty.

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FAQs

Where is the best place to hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

There are many great places to hike in the park, but some popular options include the Appalachian Trail, Alum Cave Trail, and Rainbow Falls Trail.

What is the longest trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

The longest trail in the park is the Appalachian Trail, which spans approximately 71 miles within the park’s boundaries.

Can you hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Yes, hiking is one of the most popular activities in the park, with over 850 miles of trails to explore.

What time of year is best to hike Smoky Mountains?

The spring and fall seasons are generally considered the best times to hike in the Smoky Mountains due to milder temperatures, beautiful foliage, and fewer crowds.

What is most famous trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

One of the most famous trails in the park is the Appalachian Trail, as it offers a multi-state, long-distance hiking experience.

Do you need reservations to hike in Smoky Mountain national park?

No reservations are required for day hiking in the park. However, backcountry camping requires a permit, which can be obtained through a reservation system.

Do you need bear spray for Smoky Mountains?

While bear spray is not typically necessary for hiking in the Smoky Mountains, it’s recommended to carry bear spray as a precautionary measure in bear country.

What time can you start hiking in Smoky Mountain national park?

There are no specific restrictions on the starting time for hiking in the park. However, it is generally advisable to start early in the day to allow ample time for your hike and to avoid potential crowds or inclement weather.

What is the best way to enter Smoky Mountain national park?

Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be accessed from multiple entrances. The most popular entrances are Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, both of which provide easy access to various hiking trails.

What are the best day hikes on the Appalachian Trail?

Some popular day hikes on the Appalachian Trail within the park include portions of the trail near Clingmans Dome, Newfound Gap, and Charlie’s Bunion.

What are the top 5 smoky mountain trails by difficulty?

The difficulty level of trails can be subjective, but some challenging trails in the Smoky Mountains include Charlies Bunion Trail, Alum Cave Trail, Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail, Ramsey Cascades Trail, and Mount Sterling via Baxter Creek Trail.

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

Let us know what you think about our content and if you have any questions, suggestions, or have any favorite memories or tips you would like to share. We would love to hear from you!

Happy Travels! Sandy

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