Hiking Overview: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Ben Sumner)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

  • Explore the top hiking and backpacking destination in the Southeast. The Smokies boast 900 miles of trails, 100 backcountry campsites, and a climate suitable for trekking year-round.
  • Steer clear of summer traffic—foot traffic that is—on the 69-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that crosses the high-country spine of the park, rugged terrain, and trail shelters, all accompanied by mind-blowing views.
  • Take a water shuttle on Fontana Lake to the mouth of Hazel Creek, a large and historic valley full of settler relics and good trout fishing. Numerous spur trails offer good day loops from backcountry campsites.
  • Twentymile Ranger Station is a good jumping-off point for hikers headed to Gregory Bald, a mile-high meadow with views. Watch out for bears at Sheep Pen Gap campsite, just below Gregory Bald.
  • Witness nature at its finest on Cataloochee trails that wind past noble elk, rare spruce-fir forest, and tumbling rock streams.
  • Tour the down-low homesites of Cosby, and then trek to one of the many connector trails leading to high country. Two great paths are the rugged Snake Den Trail and the steep Maddron Bald Trail, which brims with great views and ecotones.

The Smokies are crisscrossed by some 900 miles of footpath—with so much trail mileage, it's no wonder visitors are often daunted as to what particular trail to take. But have no fear, GORP is here: We'll help you sort through all the options and find the day-hikes of your dreams.

The Smokies, of course, are a tremendously varied landscape—a place where you can walk through forest primeval, see a pioneer homestead, head to a dramatic waterfall, or climb to an inspiring vista. Which of these things you'll do during your visit depends somewhat on timing; in the cold months, you'll want to stick to the lowlands, whereas in the summer heat it's wise to head for the relative cool of the highlands.

You also might want to consider the "crowd factor." Which is more important to you: Getting your dose of nature in solitude, with no one but birds for company, or getting to that special overlook that is considered special by many other park visitors? The Smokies are the most visited park in the nation, but more often than not, a day hiker can get a quarter-mile from a trailhead and leave the crowds behind. Whatever the case, your time is valuable and you want to make the most of it.

There are five particular day hikes that, rewarding though they might be, carry nearly half the hiking traffic in the entire park. They are: Abrams Falls from Cades Cove; The Chimney Tops; Rainbow Falls; Alum Cave Bluff; and Laurel Falls. Join the throngs on these trails and you may very well be elbowing your way up the trail; unless you're interested in a trailside traffic jam, you may want to look elsewhere. And there's plenty "elsewhere" to see.


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