15 Loop Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On at least two separate occasions in recent months I’ve read in some hiking forum about a lack of loop trails in the Smoky Mountains. It’s possible that these individuals were referring to the lack of park designated loops. If that’s the case, then those people might have a point. However, there are many loop hikes that can be created by simply linking together multiple trails – in all areas of the park.

Many day hikers prefer to hike loops because it gives them “more bang for their buck”, especially if your time is limited. In addition to seeing more terrain, you'll also have the opportunity to see more of the features the Smokies has to offer, such as wildflowers, waterfalls or historic home sites.

Below is a list of 15 loop hike options of varying length, and in different areas of the park. There are many other loops that can be created for people wishing to hike more miles, or for people wishing to put together a backpacking trip (see the bottom of this post). This post includes three sections: loop hikes on the Tennessee side of the park, loop hikes on the North Caroline side of the park, and suggested areas for creating a variety of backpacking loops.

Tennessee Side Loop Hikes:

Cucumber Gap Loop
Trailhead: Elkmont
Length: 5.6 miles
Trail Features: Historic Elkmont cottages, wildflowers, hike along stream

Finley Cane/Bote Mountain/Lead Cove
Trailhead: Laurel Creek Road (about 5.5 miles from the Townsend “Y”)
Length: 7 miles
Trail Features: Quiet walk in woods, old homestead sites and sporadic views of surrounding mountains.

Rich Mountain Loop
Trailhead: Main Cades Cove parking area
Length: 8.5 miles
Trail Features: John Oliver Cabin, wildflowers, sporadic views of Cades Cove and Tuckaleechee Cove

Russell Field / Spence Field Loop
Trailhead: Anthony Creek Trailhead in the Cades Cove Picnic Area
Length: 13.3 miles
Trail Features: Panoramic views from Spence Field, abundant mountain laurel

Wet Bottom / Cooper Road / Hatcher Mountain / Abrams Falls
Trailhead: Cades Cove Visitor Center
Length: 13.4 miles
Trail Features: Abrams Falls, solitude (other than the section to the falls)

Rainbow Falls / Mt. LeConte / Bullhead Trail
Trailhead: Cherokee Orchard Loop
Length: 14.1 miles
Trail Features: Spectacular views from the summit of Mt. LeConte, Rainbow Falls – highest falls in park

Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail / Appalachian Trail / Low Gap
Trailhead: Cosby Campground
Length: 15.5 miles
Trail Features: Spectacular views, Historic Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower

North Carolina Side Loop Hikes:

Goldmine Loop Trail
Trailhead: Lakeshore Drive Tunnel
Length: 3.1 miles
Trail Features: Fontana Lake, remains of an old home site

Deep Creek Loop
Trailhead: Deep Creek
Length: 4.6 miles
Trail Features: Waterfalls and wildflowers

Smokemont Loop
Trailhead: Smokemont Campground
Length: 6.5 miles
Trail Features: Wildflowers and a walk along the Bradley Fork

Twentymile Trail / Twentymile Loop / Wolf Ridge
Trailhead: Twentmile (west of Fontana Village)
Length: 7.6 miles
Trail Features: Mountain streams and a small waterfall

Boogerman Loop
Trailhead: Cataloochee Campground
Length: 7.4 miles
Trail Features: Old growth forest, picturesque streams and falls, and the remains of early settler's home sites

Cooper Creek / Deeplow Gap / Thomas Divide / Mingus Creek
Trailhead: Cooper Creek Trailhead (north of Ela, NC)
Length: 11.1 miles
Trail Features: Waterfalls and sporadic views of surrounding mountains

Shuckstack Fire Tower / Lost Cove / Lakeshore Trail
Trailhead: Fontana Dam
Length: 12 miles
Trail Features: Shuckstack Fire Tower, spectacular views of Fontana Lake, remnants of old home sites

Hemphill Bald / Caldwell Fork / Rough Fork
Trailhead: Polls Gap (near Balsam Mountain Campground)
Length: 13.7 miles
Trail Features: Outstanding views of the Cataloochee Valley

Backpacking Loops:

The Smokies also offer numerous backpacking opportunities, from short two-day trips, to several day treks. Please note, however, that the park now requires a permit and advance reservations for all backcountry camping. You should first visit the park website for more information on this process.

Some of the best areas to launch a backpacking loop, include:

Big Creek Trailhead: Depending on how many days, and how many miles, this trailhead offers multiple options that could include the Mt. Cammerer and Mt. Sterling fire towers, as well as the opportunity to follow along Big Creek. There are several campsites and backcountry shelters that could be used to link various segments together to form your trip. Various trips in this area could begin from Cosby, Big Creek or the Mt. Sterling Trailhead.

Deep Creek Trailhead: With several backcountry campsites, this section of the park just north of Bryson City also offers a variety of loop options. Deep Creek itself is especially beautiful. In addition to loops beginning from the Deep Creek Trailhead, backpackers will also have the option of starting from the end of Lakeview Drive, or from the Cooper Creek Trailhead.

Newfound Gap: From the top of Newfound Gap backpackers will have the opportunity to hike along the Appalachian Trail to Icewater Springs, or even Pecks Corner. A partial loop (lollipop) can be created by including the Dry Sluice Gap or Hughes Ridge trails.

Tremont: This multi-day loop could include a hike up the Bote Mountain Trail to visit Spence Field and Rocky Top. After traversing eastbound along the Appalachian Trail, it would then return via the Greenbrier Ridge and Middle Prong trails. Backpackers could also begin a loop from Tremont that heads eastbound on the Lumber Ridge Trail, which could then be used to link up with the Jakes Creek Trail. From there, depending on how many days and how many miles you want to hike, you could head up to Buckeye Gap along the AT, or return directly back to Tremont via Panther Creek Trail.

Cades Cove Visitor Center: This area of the park also offers numerous loop options, which could include Abrams Falls. This area has some of the lowest elevations in the park, and offers some of the easiest terrain.

Gregory Bald: Also in the Cades Cove area is the Gregory Ridge Trailhead, which will offer loop options that head up to Gregory Bald, arguably one of the most scenic areas in the park. Using the Long Hungry Ridge Trail, Twentymile Loop Trail and the Wolf Ridge Trail, backpackers could create a lollipop loop as well. Backpackers can also link up with the Appalachian Trail and travel eastbound to the Spence Field / Rocky Top area. With two vehicles, or the use of a shuttle, you could create a one-way hike that includes some of the best scenery the Smokies has to offer.

Backpackers will also have the option of hiking one of three long-distance trails that travel through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This includes the Appalachian Trail, the Benton McKaye Trail, and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Even if you don't have two vehicles in your party you can still do a one-way hike, whether it's the entire trail, or just a portion, by using a hiker shuttle service.

Finally, to help plan your trip, your best bet will be to have a detailed map, which will allow you to estimate mileage and the terrain (elevation) you can expect for any given route. For those that are hiking the Appalachian Trail, you may want to consider the new National Geographic Topographic Map Guides. These are light-weight, small book format maps printed on rugged waterproof, tear-resistant paper. In all, there are 13 sectional maps that cover the entire length of the A.T. The Springer Mountain to Davenport Gap section covers the Smokies.


Ramble On: A History of Hiking
Exploring Glacier National Park
Exploring Grand Teton National Park


Anonymous said...

I think the person may be referring to long loops. I've hiked the smokies for awhile and it can be a little challenging planning a 70-100 mile loop for a whole week of hiking. sometimes it requires a short off-trail hike but most of the time it requires illegal camping.(not at designated areas)

Jeff said...

Nice, Jeff. Thanks.