The 10 Best Hikes in Smoky Mountains National Park

Sunlight on Cades Cove Mountains
Sunlight on Cades Cove Mountains. Dennis Govoni / Getty Images

Situated on 522,427 acres along the North Carolina and Tennessee border in the southern Appalachian Mountains, Smoky Mountains National Park welcomes over 12 million visitors annually, making it the country's most-visited national park. Explore the park's canopies of old-growth forest, tumbling waterfalls, and abundant wildflowers and wildlife via nearly 800 miles of hiking trails, including 70 miles of the storied Appalachian Trail. Ranging from short, family-friendly strolls to grassy meadows to day-long, strenuous treks to the park's highest peaks, these are the 10 best hikes in Smoky Mountains National Park.

01 of 10

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower

Clingmans Dome
Ali Majdfar / Getty Images

This short but steep hike is only one mile round-trip and takes you to the highest point in Tennessee: Clingmans Dome. Perched at 6,643 feet, the peak has a large observation tower, where guests can see for nearly 100 miles on a clear day, but bundle up—the peak is exposed and much colder than lower elevations in the park. The wide, paved path departs from a large parking lot and visitor center off Clingmans Dome Road. Note the road is closed from Dec. 1 through March 31, and the observation point can only be accessed on the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap, a strenuous 7-mile one-way hike.

02 of 10

Charles Bunion

Charles Bunion Smoky Mountains National Park

Courtesy of NPS

The 8-mile round-trip hike along the Appalachian Trail offers some of the park's best summit views. Follow the moderate, well-maintained trail, which begins in the northeastern corner of the Newfound Gap parking lot and tunnels through the area's Fraser firs and red spruces and blankets of wildflowers before climbing through rocky ridgeline and around steep cliffs to its peak: Charles Bunion, a net gain of 1,600 feet. The rugged outcrop offers panoramic views of nearby Mount Kephart, Mount Guyot, and Mount Le Conte, the third-highest peak in the Great Smokies. Consider adding on the half-mile Jumpoff spur to your journey for more mountain vistas.

03 of 10

Laurel Falls Trail

Laurel Falls at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

An excellent option for families and beginners, this relatively easy hike is a 2.4-mile out-and-back trip to its namesake falls. Arrive early to avoid crowds, especially in summer and on weekends, and park in one of two lots on either side of Little River Road, approximately 3.5 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. The path is mainly shaded by towering forest and lined with thickets of mountain laurel that give the hike its name before arriving at the 80-foot high Laurel Falls, which tumbles rapidly to a rocky pool below. Note that while the path is paved, it is steep and broken in some places, so not ideal for visitors using wheelchairs or strollers.

04 of 10

Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top

Rocky Top at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Thunderhead Mountain towers at 5,527 feet in the western section of the park, and the 13.9-mile loop hike to its summit, Rocky Top (yes, the origin of the famous Tennessee anthem), is a regular path for thru-hikers. Set out early for the strenuous trek, which climbs 3,665 feet and is recommended only for experienced climbers. The trailhead begins at the Anthony Creek Trail and follows Abram Creek for 3.5 miles when you'll turn right toward Rocky Top, passing grassy meadows dotted with wildflowers in the warmer months. At Spence Field, turn left and follow part of the Appalachian Trail around sandstone boulders along a narrow singletrack to the bald summit, which offers 360-degree views of historic Cades Cove, Fontana Lake, and the mountains.

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05 of 10

Chimney Tops

Chimney Tops at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Courtesy of Visit Pigeon Forge

While just a short, 4-mile round-trip hike, Chimney Tops is a steep and strenuous route, with 1,375 feet of elevation gain to the summit. The trailhead departs from a parking lot just past the Sugarlands Visitors Center and is gentle for the first mile as it follows and then crosses Road Prong Creek Creek via a footbridge. The trail gains nearly 1,000 feet in its final mile, ascending through an old-growth forest filled with yellow buckeye trees and wildflowers like trillium and hepatica before a very steep rock scramble to the top. Beware slippery rocks after rainfall, but otherwise, enjoy your reward: panoramic mountain vistas and miles of forest and valley below.

06 of 10

Porters Creek Trail

Porters Creek Trail
Dana Neely / Getty Images

Opt for the 4-mile Porters Creek loop for a scenic and shaded hike. The moderate gravel path departs from a small parking lot off Greenbrier Road and follows the babbling creek past moss-covered rocks and through a lush forest carpeted with blue phlox, halberd-leaved violets, wild geranium, and other wildflowers in the spring. Highlights include the 60-foot Fern Branch Falls and notable historic sites, including old farmsteads, a cemetery, and a 1930s-era cabin constructed by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club. Due to its low elevation, this trail is open year-round, making it a great option when ice closes other portions of the park.

07 of 10

Alum Caves Bluff

Alum Caves Bluff Trail

Courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This challenging, 4.4-mile round-trip trail features one of the park's most unique features: Arch Rock, a narrow tunnel formed from wind and water erosion, and a favorite spot for a mid-hike photo. The path departs from a parking lot just off Newfound Gap Road and starts with creek crossings on log bridges as it climbs into hardwood forest before passing through Arch Rock 1.4 miles in. From there, it climbs Peregrine Peak and then a mountain bald blooming with rhododendron and mountain laurel in the spring before reaching another rocky outcrop and ascending through a ridge line and 100 stairs to the summit. Stop for a picnic or to soak in the views before returning to the parking lot, or continue another 2.5 miles to the peak and exposed cliffs of Mt. Le Conte.

08 of 10

Ramsey Cascades

Ramsey Cascades
LaserLens / Getty Images

One of the area's most challenging and traversed trails, Ramsey Cascades rewards hikers with views of the park's tallest waterfall. The trailhead parking lot is tucked in a quiet area of the park off Ramsey Park Road. The 8-mile out-and-back route starts with a gradual climb over a wide path along an abandoned logging route that crosses several creeks and is shaded by warm-hued tulip trees, basswoods, and yellow birches forming the forest canopy. The last mile is remote, steep, and rocky and ends at the cascading 90-foot falls.

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09 of 10

Andrews Bald

Andrews Bald
Jerry Whaley / Getty Images

Looking for a short hike with exceptional views? Try the 1.7-mile hike to Andrews Bald, one of several treeless, grassy meadows in the Appalachians. While the total elevation is just under 1,000 feet, the path is steep and rugged, with several wooded and rock steps and elevated boardwalks. The trail begins at the Clingmans Dome parking lot and descends steeply before leveling out over a broad ridge covered with patches of blackberries and raspberries before turning toward a final ascent through Fraser firs and other towering trees to the peak. In addition to scenic vistas of the Smokies and Fontana Lake, the vast and grassy bald is ideal for a mid-hike snack break or picnic.

10 of 10

Spruce Flat Falls

Spruce Flat Falls
BambiG / Getty Images

The gentle, 2-mile out-and-back Spruce Flat Falls path is ideal for those seeking a less crowded yet beginner-friendly waterfall hike. The trailhead is located across from the Tremont Visitors Enter and follows a wide, paved road to a small dirt path with rocks and roots that winds gently uphill before descending to the cascading 30-foot falls in the valley below.

Article Sources
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  1. National Park Service. "Visitation Numbers." 2021. https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/visitation-numbers.htm

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