Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains is my favorite outdoor activity. I am extremely fortunate to be living so close, in about an hour drive from home our hiking party can meet at one of the trailheads just inside the park. Many of the hiking trails are great day hikes, easily accessible by car with a parking lot. You can meet lots of friendly people from all over the United States because this national park is one of the most popular and most visited in the county. It doesn’t take much to enjoy any trail, just a suitable pair of hiking footwear and a day pack with snacks and water.
The lush forests, steams, rivers and waterfalls of the Great Smoky Mountains make your hiking adventure an incredible experience. Wildflowers bloom in abundance almost year-round, springtime flowers are especially enchanting. Parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park contain the most extensive virgin hardwood and red spruce forests in the United States. The famous Appalachian Trail winds through the park for more than 70 miles and there are many places where your trail may join up and you will be hiking part of it. The border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles both Tennessee and North Carolina so you can reach landmarks from either state.
There are about 600 miles of clear, spring-fed streams which often end in roaring falls. These streams are full of trout and with a permit, fishing is allowed. Sixteen peaks in the park are more than 6,000 feet high. There are about 150 kinds of trees in the park. Spruce, fir, and hemlock cover the highest mountains and slopes. Many kinds of shrubs and flowering plants grow in the park area. These include several varieties of delicate orchids. Let’s take a look at five of the best and most popular trails which can all be hiked in one day.
One of the highest peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains and in Tennessee is Clingmans Dome. The 6,642 foot high mountain rises on the Tennessee – North Carolina boundary, an is about 35 miles southeast of Knoxville. Clingmans Dome is a resort region with a variety of plants, cool streams and creeks, and wooded mountain scenery. Perhaps the most spectacular road trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the climb from Gatlinburg, TN past Newfound Gap to Clingmans Dome.
Once you have arrived at the lower parking lot at the base of Clingmans Dome, the hike begins with a paved path that gradually climbs up and get a little steep towards the top, a total of 1/2 mile.
At the summit is the observation tower where you can enjoy the scenic vistas of the forests and the mist-covered mountains which looks like smoke — the reason for the park’s name. The hike is perfect for visitors and families, due to the more civilized paved pathway which can use strollers all the way. There are other more primitive trails off the main paved path. Once hiking down from the top, part of our party detoured off the main path and ended up following a huge buck who walked just a few yards on the path before us, perfectly unafraid leading the way. The forest was primeval and lush, it was just one of the precious experiences I’ll never forget while hiking the Smokies.
Charlies Bunion Peak
Before you get to Clingmans Dome by car, you will pass through Newfound Gap. There is a large parking area for the trailhead to Charlies Bunion. Some hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains start out on the level and some with a climb. The Charlies Bunion trail begins with a steady climb for about the first two miles. This will quickly leave the average tourist behind and soon you will be surrounded with natural beauty and at about two-thirds of a mile the forest will open up with spectacular views of the Smokies on the North Carolina side looking south. In the spring and early summer, wildflowers bloom at this higher elevation.
As you proceed on this hike, you’ll eventually arrive at elevations about 6,000 feet. The trail winds along a narrow ridge and you’ll enjoy outstanding views on either side of the trail, almost like you are walking along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. At around 2.7 miles into the hike, another trail will appear called Boulevard Trail, which will take you to Mr. LeConte. Continue straight ahead to Charlies Bunion. A little further down the trail you’ll arrive at Icewater Springs Shelter where a pipe of water from a nearby spring flows near the trail. NOTE: There water sources throughout the Smokies, always treat the water you drink from any source.
How did this mountain peak rock outcropping get its name? The story goes like this: the original name was Fodderstack Mountain and one day when Charlie Conner was hiking with Horace Kephart (who was lobbying for establishing a national park), they took a rest on these rocks. Charlie took off his boots and socks and showed off a bunion that looked just about like the surrounding rocks. Horace took a look and said that he was going to add a place on the official government map just for Charlie. That’s how the name “Charlies Bunion” came to be for this trail.
Charlies Bunion offers outstanding views of the Smoky Mountains to the north, including Mt. Kephart, Mount Guyot to the east and finally Mount Jump Off westward. Don’t take your eyes off the trail too much, beware the extreme and steep drop-offs, watch your footing along this area. By the way, this hike is one of the Boy Scout’s favorites, so far I’ve never heard of any boy being lost. They love it!
Alum Cave Trail
Of the five hiking trails that lead to Mt. Le Conte, the Alum Cave Trail is considered the shortest route, but actually the most scenic and steepest. The trailhead begins on the Newfound Gap Road with two parking areas. It is recommended to arrive early to assure a space for your car during prime season.
The first part of the trail is easy and winds through thickets and tunnels of rhododendron. The Rosebay rhododendron is a common rhododendron found in the Smokies and has clumps of whitish blossoms beginning in June. In the higher elevation, you can find the pinkish Catawba rhododendron, which from a distance looks like a purple tint where it covers the ridges during the first half of June. In higher elevations like the Chimney Tops Trailhead, Alum Cave Trail and Andrews Bald it will bloom in later June.
The blooms are spectacular and I highly recommend taking your Alum Cave hike during the early summer. You’ll cross a creek over log bridge, and then reach one of the first landmarks at about 1.3 miles, called Arch Rock. As you carefully climb some wet carved rock steps, the trail goes under the arch, composed of moist, cold rock. Steel cables act as handrails, the first of many along this trail. As you exit at the top of Arch Rock, the trail begins to ascend rather steeply towards Alum Cave.
First your view will be of Anakeesta Ridge on your left along the trail. About two miles on the trail, Inspiration Point will become a great stopping point to take time out to catch your breath and admire the outstanding view of Little Duck Hawk Ridge towards the west and Myrtle Point which is close to the top of Mt. LeConte on the northeast side. Pause to find a hole in the rock called the Eye of the Needle which can be seen about now. Once when we where hiking this exact spot, we were able to view a pair of nesting eagles, with eaglets in the nest. A little further up the trail you can catch a much better view of the Eye of the Needle.
Less than 1/2 mile, the trail will finally reach Alum Cave. Your first view will surprise you… Alum Cave is not really a cave, but is actually a bluff, a giant mountain overhang. There is a great deal of history associated with Alum Cave, starting back in 1838 when the Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company mined Epson Salts from the cave. The local mountain inhabitants would use the salts to dye their homemade clothes a reddish brown color. Later, saltpeter used to manufacture gunpowder, was mined during the Civil War by the Confederate Army. Today visitors enjoy the natural beauty of Alum Cave. Those hikers who are continuing to the top of Mount LeConte will pass on through, beginning a steep and rocky climb.
One of the most beautiful and tallest waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Ramsey Cascades. This hike takes you through some of the largest old-growth forest still remaining in the U.S. and only found in the Smoky Mountains. The park was created in response to the destruction of these forest by logging and luckily this area has remained untouched. There are giant trees that you will want to stand next too and have your picture taken. It is during the last two miles you will pass through this old growth forest of enormous tulip trees, yellow birches, basswoods and silverbells.
The Ramsey Cascades trail climbs 4 miles and over 2,000 feet to reach the waterfall. You will be hiking along rushing streams and rivers so you will hear water most of the 8-mile round trip hike. This is a difficult and strenuous hike, so plan a full day and take food and water with you. The ranger has posted that black bears are active in this area. Halfway into our hike a few years back, we came across a huge black bear, about 25 yards to the right in an open area in the forest grazing on a log. He heard us and stood up to sniff the air — his stature was breathtaking. We also hurried along and happily the trail turned to the left to leave him quietly behind, albeit with shivers along our spine!
It is highly recommended that once you reach the Ramsey Cascades, that you do not attempt to climb the rocks and ledges around the waterfall. Unfortunately several people have died or have been injured severely over the years when they slipped and fell. The rocks are very slippery as they are always wet and covered with algae.
Sit back, have lunch and enjoy the view of Ramsey Cascades. When the sun breaks out overhead and shines down through the trees, it is definitely a Kodak moment — the falls are spectacular. This hike should be top on your list when you visit The Great Smoky Mountains.
This trail is one of the most poplar hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains. I have personally hiked the Chimney Tops at least four times. Be forewarned — you’ll get a great workout as this is not an easy trip. The trail is a 4-mile round trip starting out by following Road Prong Creek, crossing footbridges and not gaining much elevation, then suddenly turns into a hike pretty much straight up.
During this 2-mile hike, you will climb 1,375 feet, and 960 feet of that is in the last mile. This is a very strenuous hike, take it slow and rest if you are not used to walking up mountains, there is plenty of time and you will reach the top eventually. Before the fire in the fall of 2016, you could climb up the only bare rock summit in the Smokies. No gear was needed, just good hiking boots, balance and no fear of heights. It was a little slippery, especially if the rocks become wet due to a passing summer shower, which are very common in the Smokies.
In the past, there was a second way to reach the top by walking to the right and following a little trail through the bushes to a place where you can hang onto limbs and find footholds in the side of the rock. I actually preferred this path to get up on the Chimney Tops summit, being a little timid about sliding off the steep rock face. Once we reached the top, we sat down and enjoy the view with all the other hikers who have made it to the summit with us. We would break out snacks, a lunch and refreshments. After all that hard work, the reward is a spectacular 360-degree view of the mountains. On one side of the rock summit is a square “chimney” hole which peers down to the cliffs and shrubs below.
Now the Chimney Top’s pinnacle is inaccessible by foot due to instability of the area since the fire, but the popular trail was finally reopened in the fall of 2017 with a new viewing platform built by the park service. It is a safe gathering area for hikers to enjoy beautiful views of the Chimney Tops and Mount LeConte pinnacles.
Whether hiking up or coming back down, the Chimney Tops trail is very scenic with many creeks and wildflowers. At the higher elevation, you’ll be hiking through old-growth forests and walking over roots clinging to the mountain ridge. The incredible views at the summit makes this a
don’t miss hike when visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Top Trails: Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides a summary of 50 of the best hikes in the Smokies. Includes detailed maps, descriptions and hiking information for each trail.