For those with an enthusiasm for the wild places on Earth, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the ideal playground for an outdoor vacation. And one of the best ways to enjoy the splendor of this great outdoors experience is by hiking the scenic trails, or rafting down one of the rivers.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, although some of the more remote roads and passes are closed during the winter months. It is a hiker’s paradise with more than 150 trails that, combined, are close to 800 miles of perfect scenic hikes through valleys, across rivers, and ending with spectacular scenic overlooks that make the park the most visited national park in the country.
Hiking in the Smoky Mountains ranges from easy, short strolls to expert-level treks that may require backcountry camping. While hiking is great year-round, the winter months present the challenges of swollen streams, bridge washouts, downed trees, and trail erosion. But should you accept the challenges of a winter trail, the payoff is well worth it. Views in the winter are especially breathtaking—the lack of deciduous leaves opens new vistas that reveal the historic buildings, rock formations and other features that dot the park’s landscape.
The Smokies offer amazing experiences in every season. Autumn hikers enjoy the spectacular splashes of color brought by the changing leaves and mildly cool temperatures perfect for longer hikes. Spring hikers are rewarded with a landscape speckled with millions of wildflowers and flowering trees. In the hot summer months, hikes below the thick canopy offer cool respite from the heat, and frigid mountain springs and waterfalls refresh the body and soul.
Selecting which trails to explore may be more difficult than reaching the summits! Beginners should start with roundtrip hikes of no more than five miles, and there are plenty of amazing trails in this range close to the U.S. 441 park entrance near Gatlinburg.
Easy Smoky Mountains Hikes
Laurel Falls Trail
Arguably one of the most popular hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Laurel Falls trail is an easy hike, just over a 2.5-mile round trip. Its trailhead is roughly 6 miles from the Gatlinburg park entrance and parking is limited. The trail leads to the 80-foot-high Laurel Falls, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the park. The trail is paved and is suitable for strollers.
Sugarland “All Access” Trail
This is another popular and easy hike, and is especially ideal for kids, strollers, and wheelchairs. It’s a short, fully paved and very interesting hike, as it meanders through various scenic features like historic ruins, creeks and old-growth forest. There are also tactile exhibits along the trail that kids will love. It’s just over a 1-mile round trip, and the trailhead can be found right on U.S. 441 after entering the park at the Gatlinburg entrance.
Offering a one-way trip of just under 2 miles, this is one of only two walking paths in the park that permits bicycles and pets. It is a very easy hike on a very level trail that runs alongside the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The trail features great views of the river, with an easy footbridge crossing and a view of some homestead ruins. The trailhead is located right at the Sugarlands Visitor Center just inside the Gatlinburg entrance to the park.
Intermediate Smoky Mountains Hikes
Chimney Tops Trail
This trail is also an extremely popular hike. It’s only a 4-mile round trip, but it can be strenuous in spots. The payoff at the summit is a 360-degree view of the valley highlighted by natural stone turrets that look like chimneys, hence the trail’s name. The views offer perfect opportunities to take a photo to commemorate a great vacation. The trail has some elevation and the view from the “chimney tops” is not for those who are afraid of heights! The trailhead can be found on U.S. 441, six miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Alum Cave Trail
This trail can be easy or moderate, depending on the route chosen. Hikers can trek 2.5 miles to the “cave”—actually just a giant stone arch that the trail passes underneath—or go the full 5.5 miles out to the Mount Le Conte summit. Voted by hikers as one of the best views in the park, Mount LeConte has an elevation of 6,593 feet, and the summit is noticeably cooler than the rest of the trail. For the long route, expect to hike four hours up and two hours down—a great day-hike for the experienced. The summit is also home to the only lodging inside the park: Mount LeConte Lodge, accessible only to those who hike to the top. The trailhead is right on U.S. 441, south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center, and is marked by a large parking lot, the only one of its kind along that stretch of road.
Expert-Level Smoky Mountains Hikes
Ramsey Cascades Trail
At over 100 feet, Ramsey Cascades is the tallest waterfall in the park. With an elevation gain of more than 2,000 feet over 4 miles, the 8-mile round trip hike is considered very strenuous—for expert, fit hikers only. The trail runs parallel to rivers and streams, and the last 2 miles of it pass through picturesque old-growth forest. If you can manage it, the waterfalls are a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity. The trailhead can be found off Highway. 321, 6 miles east of Gatlinburg.
Mount Cammerer Trail
Another popular—and strenuous—Smoky Mountain hike is the route to Mount Cammerer, an 11-mile roundtrip day-hike for experts. The unique feature of this trail is the stone fire tower at the end. This historic tower is one-of-a-kind and looks more like a castle turret than a fire tower. You can climb to the top and see for miles from the catwalk. Plan on hiking three hours out and two hours back. The trail starts at Cosby Campground, just off Hwy. 321 about 20 minutes outside Gatlinburg.
Hikers’ “Taxi” Service
Many trails are one-way stretches instead of loops. These usually require a car at each end, which can be bothersome for vacationers. The solution is a hiker shuttle or “taxi” service that picks you up and drops you off at the beginning and end trailheads. Several companies offer this service. A Google search for “Smoky trailhead taxi” turns up several. The best way to plan a day hike, or days of hiking, in the Smoky Mountains is to purchase one of the many guidebooks available and talk to the park experts.
The first place a hiker should go is the Sugarlands Visitor Center, park officials recommend. They suggest asking staff members there for personal recommendations. It’s also a good idea to pick up the Hiking Trails of the Smokies, which is available at the Visitor Center or online.