Top Hikes in the Smokies

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Every hiker has a personal list of their favorite trails. After many years of hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I decided to compile a list of what I consider to be the best hikes in the Smokies. If you’re new to the Smokies, this article might be a good starting point for trying to decide what trails to hike. If you’re a veteran hiker of the Smokies and have a different list, step up and voice your opinion. Tell us what’s on your list and why you prefer those trails. The seven hikes that follow are in no particular order.

Mt. Cammerer

Nuts & Bolts: Start from the Low Gap Trailhead in Cosby to tackle this 2500 foot climb, 12 mile roundtrip hike to the summit of Mt. Cammerer.

Trail Highlights: Climb 2.5 miles up the Low Gap Trail before hooking-up with the Appalachian Trail. Cross over a grassy ridge on the AT before turning onto the rugged spur trail that leads to the summit. Mt. Cammerer is on the edge of a rocky outcropping overlooking the Pigeon River Gorge. On a clear day, the views are simply awesome; some even say the best in the Park. For an even better vantage point, step up to the deck of the stone fire tower. This “western” style tower, which was fully restored in 1995, provides unobstructed 360 degree views. Look in any direction and see row upon row of smoky blue mountains.

Trivia Tidbit: The octagonal fire tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the late 1930s using hand-cut stone from the surrounding area.

Andrews Bald

Nuts & Bolts: From the Clingmans Dome parking lot, hike 1.7 miles along the Forney Ridge Trail to reach Andrews Bald. Total elevation gain on the roundtrip hike is 900 feet.

Trail Highlights: Only a 1.7 mile hike to see magnificent views? Sounds like a breeze. Well, not so fast. Don’t let the mileage fool you - this is a tough little hike! The trail is littered with rain run-off, rocks and small boulders. But don’t let any of this deter you. Thanks to several acres of open grassy meadow, commonly referred to as balds in the Appalachians, spectacular views of the southern Smokies await you at the end of this hike. Andrews Bald is the perfect place to open up a blanket, relax, and enjoy a picnic.

Trivia Tidbit: Without maintenance from the Park Service, Andrews Bald would be reclaimed by forest.

Charlies Bunion

Nuts & Bolts: Head east from the Newfound Gap parking lot and hike 4 miles along the Appalachian Trail to reach Charlies Bunion. You’ll climb a total of 1640 feet during the roundtrip hike.

Trail Highlights: A long steep climb from the parking lot quickly leaves most of the crowds behind. Eventually you’ll reach a long stretch of trail that traverses a ridge where you’ll be hovering around an altitude of roughly 6000 feet. Being at the highest point along this narrow ridge, with views on either side of the trail, you’ll feel like you’re walking along the spine of the Appalachians.

Originally known as Fodderstack, Charlies Bunion is a precipitous rock out-cropping offering stunning views of the Tennessee side of the Smokies. If you still have the energy on your way back, take a side trail near the Boulevard Trail junction to visit The Jump Off. The views from this vantage point are well worth the additional one-mile roundtrip.

Trivia Tidbit: The current name of this popular destination is a result of when Charlie Conner was hiking with Horace Kephart, one of the early proponents of a national park in the Smokies. When they paused for a rest, Conner took his boots and socks off exposing a bunion that looked like the surrounding rocks. Looking at Conner’s feet, Kephart remarked, “Charlie, I’m going to get this place put on a government map for you.” And so he did.

Porters Creek

Nuts & Bolts: This is a moderate roundtrip hike of 4 miles beginning out of Greenbrier, just east of Gatlinburg.

Trail Highlights: The Porters Creek Trail just about has it all. You’ll stroll along a beautiful cascading stream through a lush old-growth forest, while walking past many remnants of the early settlers in this area before reaching a little known waterfall. If you hike this trail during the spring you’ll have the added benefit of spectacular displays of wildflowers. The forest floor was carpeted with bloodroot, hepaticas, violets, white trilliums, fringed phacelia, rue anemone and many other wildflowers during our early spring hike. At roughly 2 miles, Fern Branch Falls slides and tumbles nearly 50 feet off the ridge parallel to the trail.

Trivia Tidbit: Roughly 1 mile from the trailhead is a short side trail that takes you to the John Messer farm site which includes a cantilevered barn built around 1875. There’s also a cabin that was built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in the mid-1930s.

Rocky Top

Nuts & Bolts: This is a strenuous hike of 12.5 miles and more than 3600 feet of elevation gain. Start from the Anthony Creek trailhead in the Cades Cove Picnic area.

Trail Highlights: You’ll huff and puff up the mountain for the first 5 miles of this hike, but your hard work will be paid-off once you reach Spence Field. If visibility is good, the grassy meadows up here will afford you with outstanding views of the North Carolina side of the Smokies. If you can arrange it, hike the trail in late spring when Spence Field showcases the most spectacular display of mountain laurel you’ll see just about anywhere. The hillsides and meadows are literally covered in the white and soft pink flowers from this member of the heath family.

Spence Field is a destination in and of itself, but the views get even better if you continue along the Appalachian Trail for an additional 1.2 miles. After another stiff climb of 550 feet you’ll finally reach Rocky Top, the first of three peaks on the summit of Thunderhead Mountain. The panoramic views from here, in my opinion, are the best in the Park. From good ole Rocky Top you can see Fontana Lake, Cades Cove, Townsend, Maryville, and beyond.

Trivia Tidbit: Yes, this is the same Rocky Top that is now the fight song for the University of Tennessee and one of the official songs for the state of Tennessee.

Gregory Bald
Nuts & Bolts: From Cades Cove, climb 3000 feet and trek 5.6 miles up the Gregory Ridge Trail to reach the 10 acre Gregory Bald summit.

Trail Highlights: As stunning as the year-round views are, Gregory Bald is most famous for the spectacular flame azaleas that bloom on the summit from mid to late June. Azalea lovers from all over the world come here to visit perhaps the finest display of azaleas anywhere on the planet. You’ll see a rainbow of colors including fire red, wine red, orange, salmon, yellow, white, pink, and even multi-colored azaleas.

Even if you can’t make it in June, this hike should be on your list for any time of the year. The commanding views of Cades Cove, Fontana Lake and the eastern crest of the Smokies make this a year-round destination.

Trivia Tidbit: This particular bald is named after Russell Gregory, an early settler in the Cades Cove area. He and other cove residents used the field to graze cattle during the spring and summer when the fields in the cove were needed for growing crops.

Mount LeConte

Nuts & Bolts: Take the 5.5 mile hike up Alum Cave Trail to the Summit of Mt. LeConte. You’ll climb 2763 feet to reach the summit of the third highest peak in the Smokies.

Trail Highlights: If ever there was a classic hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte would certainly qualify. Sure, there are trails in the Park that are far longer, that gain more elevation, or have steeper climbs, but the Alum Cave Trail is unmatched in its combination of interesting geological features, history, high adventure and stunning views.

To reach the summit, climb through Arch Rock, take your first breather at Inspiration Point, spot a peregrine falcon near the Eye of the Needle, marvel at the imposing Alum Cave, and hold-on tight to the cable hand rails as you pass over the rock ledges on the upper portions of the trail.

Upon reaching the summit, go to Cliff Top near the LeConte Lodge for outstanding views of Clingmans Dome and the rolling mountains that lie towards the west. On the other side of LeConte is Myrtle Point which offers incredible vistas of the eastern Smokies.

Trivia Tidbit: One of the unique things about Mount LeConte is the lodge and overnight cabins at the top. Hikers can spend the night in one the rustic cabins which can accommodate roughly 50 guests a night (you'll need to make reservations first).

Jeff Detailed information on trails in the Smoky Mountains; includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps, elevation profiles, news, and more.
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1 comment

SouthernHiker said...

I'm heading up to camp at Cosby this upcoming weekend. I'm considering hiking the Mt. Cammerer up to the lookout tower. How strenuous is the climb? My trail book says moderate, but the book has let me down on its ratings numerous times.

I can't wait to get back up in the Smokies, I got rained out on my last trip.