Top Hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. America’s most visited national park is renowned for its diversity in plant and animal life, and the beauty of its mountains. Hikers can enjoy the park all months of the year with opportunities to chase waterfalls, take in incredible views from mountain top vistas, or walk amongst old-growth forests. There are 150 official trails within the park with popular destinations being Alum Cave Bluffs, Rainbow Falls, and Chimney Tops.
Outlined in this article are the must-do hikes when visiting the park, but first, let’s review the essentials to bring along with you when hitting the trails.
- Map: Remember, your smartphone may not have reception at every trailhead. So print out a map of the area and know the important junctions on the trail.
- Water: The amount depends on the climate where you are hiking, but a good rule of thumb is 1 liter (32 ounces) for every two hours of activity.
- Snacks: Always bring a snack, just in case your hike goes longer than planned. Trail mix, granola bars, dried fruit. Keep it nutritious.
- Sun Protection: Apply a layer of sunscreen on your skin before heading out for a hike, even if it’s a cloudy day. Consider wearing a hat or sunglasses to minimize exposure to the sun. You can wear SPF protective clothing as well.
- Headlamp: Whether for an overnight or day hike, bringing along a headlamp is an essential safety must-have. These are small, lightweight devices that fit easily into any bag. You never know when you might need it, and if you do, you’ll be happy to have one.
- Rain gear: Ultralight rain jackets pack down small and can easily fit into your bag. Rainstorms can pop out of nowhere and it’s best to be dry when out in nature.
- First aid kit: Your first aid kit doesn’t need to be big. But make sure you have the basics: bandaids, alcohol wipes, waterproof matches, moleskin, burn treatment, and duct tape.
Okay, now that we’ve got our hiking safety taken care of, here is our list of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s best trails.
- Difficulty: Easy
- Distance: 3.6 miles (5.8 kilometers) roundtrip
An outstanding destination for hikers seeking spectacular views of the Great Smoky Mountain highlands. The first section of the trail passes through a spruce-fir forest then leads to open grassy meadows, known as balds. Balds are known for their spectacular displays of flame azalea and rhododendron blooms during the late spring and early summertime periods. Peak bloom for flame azaleas atop Andrews Bald usually occurs around early July. The grassy meadows provide a perfect location for a picnic while offering stunning views of Fontana Lake.
This trailhead begins from the parking lot of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park and a site worth checking out on its own. Note that Andrews Bald is a popular hike, so it’s best to start early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
In the winter, though, when Clingmans Dome Road is closed, access to Andrews Bald requires a tough 10-mile (16 kilometers) hike via the Appalachian Trail
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Spruce Flat Falls
- Difficulty: Easy-moderate
- Distance: 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) roundtrip
Technically, this is not an official park trail and often the falls are not found on any park maps. Thus making it one of the Smokies' true hidden gems. Though, don’t be surprised if you encounter other hikers due to its close proximity to the Tremont Visitors Center.
To find the trailhead, walk up the gravel road from the parking lot towards the staff dormitory building. Turn right on the Buckeye Trail junction and follow a sign marked “falls” leading steeply uphill. After about a half-mile, the trail begins to descend down to the falls. The trail is well defined though sections of the trail become rugged due to rocks and roots.
Arriving at the falls, hikers will be greeted with one of the most picturesque views as water tumbles down four separate tiers, dropping approximately 30 feet (9 meters).
Mouse Creek Falls via Big Creek Trail
- Difficulty: Easy-moderate
- Distance: 4.2 miles (6.7 kilometers) roundtrip
Several waterfalls and access to the river for the majority of the hike, make this one of the more enjoyable trails in the park. With a relatively smooth and even surface that climbs gradually for 2.1 miles (3.3 kilometers) to Mouse Creek Falls, this is an outstanding hike for young or novice hikers.
Beginning at the Big Creek area, the first part of the trail climbs high above Big Creek Campground. After about 1.3 miles (2 kilometers), the trail returns to the creek where it will follow until you reach the falls. Along the way, there will be plenty of opportunities to take pictures of the water flowing over the creek rocks and several spots to set up a picnic or snack break. It is common for hikers to spend a majority of their time exploring the side trails down to the creek in search of swimming holes before reaching the main falls.
The 45-foot (13-meter) Mouse Creek Falls emerges from the forest at around the 2-mile (3.2 kilometers) mark. There is a viewing area with benches to take in the beauty of the falls as the water cascades down several tiers of moss-covered rocks.
Note: At around 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) there is a hidden swimming hole named Midnight Hole. This is a deep, emerald green pool that lies under a waterfall, and is a great place to cool off if one can find it.
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Porters Creek Trail
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Distance: 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) roundtrip
This trail gives hikers a bit of everything: historical sites, footbridges, wildflowers, and a waterfall. But best of all, due to its lower elevations, this trail can be hiked all year round even when snow closes other areas of the park.
The first mile of the trail follows an old gravel road as it meanders the banks of Porters Creek. Along the gravel road, hikers will pass remnants of Elbert Cantrel farmstead and old stone walls of the Ownby Cemetery, sites dating back to the early 1900s. After about a mile, the trail cuts into the forest and turns into a dirt footpath, continuing upstream until it reaches the 60-foot (18-meter) Fern Branch Falls.
Note: Fern Branch Falls is the turnaround point for this hike though the trail does continue on for another 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) to Backcountry Campsite 31. For those looking to experience backcountry camping be sure to obtain a camping permit at a park office.
Deep Creek Loop
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Distance: 4.6 miles (7.4 kilometers) roundtrip
Located near the popular Deep Creek Campground, the first section of this trail is the main access point for visitors tubing along Deep Creek. But once you leave the tubers behind, you will be rewarded with an amazing hike that accesses three waterfalls.
Beginning at the trailhead for the Deep Creek Trail, hikers will be immediately rewarded with the 80-foot (24-meter) Tom Branch Falls, located about three-tenths of a mile along the trail. After a quick stop to enjoy the falls, cross over a footbridge and climb uphill until reaching the Indian Creek Trail Junction. Here hikers will need to take a right to begin the “loop trail”. After a short walk along the Indian Creek trail, there will be a small spur trail on the left that leads down to the 45-foot (13-meter) Indian Creek Falls. This is a great little spot for a break and another opportunity to enjoy a beautiful waterfall.
After Indian Creek Falls, return to the Indian Creek trail and cross over another footbridge as the path enters a more forested area filled with rhododendron. At around 1.4 miles (2.25 kilometers), the trail will come to a junction with the Thomas Divide Trail. Continue straight at this junction, ensuring that you stay on the Indian Creek trail which leads to the junction of the Deep Creek Loop Trail at around the 1.7-mile (2.73-kilometer) mark. Turn left at this junction, then get ready for a steep climb up to the junction of the Sunkota Ridge Trail. After this junction, the remainder of the hike is mostly downhill.
After reaching the Sunkota Ridge Trail junction, continue straight and begin the downhill descent, at around 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from the trailhead, hikers will come to the Deep Creek Trail again. Cross over the footbridge and follow the trail back to the parking lot. On your way back to the parking lot, there is a spur trail that leads to the 80-foot (128-meter) Juney Whank Falls. This adds a little over 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) to the hike for those looking for an alternative back to the parking lot.
Note: This is a great hike for visitors looking for a slightly challenging hike that explores waterfalls while still enjoying the amenities of camping at Deep Creek Campground.
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Distance: 5.2 miles (8.3 kilometers) roundtrip
This is one of the more popular hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to the sheer beauty of the waterfall. Abrams Falls is only 20 feet (6 meters) in height, but it is the most voluminous waterfall in the park.
The trail begins by passing over Abrams Creek by bridge and then turning left to head towards the waterfall. Throughout most of the hike, the trail will meander along Abrams Creek, where hikers may encounter several anglers as the creek is great for fly fishing. The route traverses through a pine-oak forest along the ridge tops while passing through rhododendron and hemlock forests closer to the creek.
At around 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) you’ll reach a small side trail that leads to Abrams Falls. Turn left on this trail, crossing over a footbridge, to access the waterfall. The little pool underneath the waterfall is a great spot to cool off with a swim, though be careful of the strong undertow. Several drownings have occurred at this waterfall throughout the history of the park.
Note: This is a very popular hike and the trail can be crowded. It’s best to start early in the morning or avoid hiking the trail on weekends.
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Distance: 8 miles (12.8 kilometers) roundtrip
Located in the Greenbriar area of the park, this rugged trail gains over 2,000 feet (600 meters) in elevation as it leads hikers to the tallest, most spectacular waterfall in the park. Along the way, hikers will travel through the Smokies’ largest old-growth forest and follow the rushing waters of the Ramsey Prong. This is known as one of the most beautiful areas of the park.
It’s important to note that the last half mile of the trail travels over rugged terrain where hikers will need to navigate numerous roots, rocks, and boulders, including several steep rock steps.
The National Park Service warns that hikers should not attempt to climb rocks near any waterfall. Four people have died climbing Ramsey Cascades.
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- Difficulty: Challenging
- Distance: 3.3 miles (5.3 kilometers) roundtrip
This may be a relatively short hike but the trail gains almost 1,400 feet (426 meters) in elevation as you climb to one of the best mountain top views in all of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
From the trailhead, the first section of the hike follows the waters of Road Prong Creek. You’ll cross over several footbridges along the way before beginning the ascent up the side of Sugarland Mountain. At around the 1-mile mark (1.6 kilometers), hikers will reach the junction with Beech Flats. Veering towards the right, continue on the main trail which eventually turns into a series of steps cut into the dirt. The last section of the hike is the steepest as hikers climb a ridge towards the summit. The observation platform at the end of the trail provides great views of the Smoky Mountains and nearby Mount LeConte.
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Distance: 8.1 miles (13 kilometers) roundtrip
Offering panoramic views of the Smokies and large varieties of wildflowers, especially during the blooms of spring and early summer, this hike is one of the most quintessential Smoky Mountain experiences you can have.
The trailhead begins at the parking lot of the famous Newfound Gap overlook. Don’t be overwhelmed by the crowds for once you get on the trail you will be leaving them behind. Walking along a section of the Appalachian Trail, hikers will enjoy grand views of the surrounding mountains as they climb a steep and spiny path for the first few miles. Roughly 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) from the trailhead, look for a short spur trail leading up to the Charles Bunion rock outcropping. The panorama offers stunning views of Mount Kephart and Mount Le Conte, the third highest peak in the Smokies.
On the return trip, add on to the hike by taking a short spur trail to the Jump Off: a 1,000-foot, vegetation-covered cliff face offering views of Mount Guyot and Charlies Bunion.
Note: At around 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) you will encounter Icewater Spring Shelter, an option for overnight camping. There is also a natural spring here if you need a water refill. Be sure to filter and purify the water properly before drinking.
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Distance: 11 miles (17. 7 kilometers) roundtrip
Recognized by many as one of the best views in Smoky Mountain National Park, Mount Cammerer stands at a height of 4,928-feet (1, 502 meters). A fire tower at the summit can still be climbed offering an incredible view of the Pigeon River Gorge and the rolling foothills of the Southern Appalachians. 360-degree panorama of the North Carolina and Tennessee Smokies.
Begin the trail at the Cosby Creek Campground, following the Cosby Creek Nature Trail that runs parallel to the creek. After about four-tenths of a mile, turn right on the Lower Gap Trail (Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail) junction. For roughly the next 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) the trail climbs over 2,000-feet (600 meters) in elevation until it reaches the Appalachian Trail junction. Take a breather here knowing that you’ve completed the hardest part of the hike!
Turning left onto the Appalachian Trail the trail will begin to level out while offering incredible views of the Cosby and Tom Creek valleys below. Just under 5 miles (8 kilometers), hikers will reach a spur trail leading up the summit of Mt. Cammerer. The last half-mile involves rock scrambling and a series of switchbacks, though nothing that is considered extremely difficult. Your efforts will be rewarded with a 360-degree panorama of the North Carolina and Tennessee Smoky Mountains.
Note: This is a very strenuous hike involving a breathtaking amount of elevation gain that often takes hikers over 6 hours to complete.
Other articles relating to Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
- Visitor Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Top 5 Things to Do in Bryson City, North Carolina
- Extend Your Stay in Asheville
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