9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

This guide with the best hikes in the Smoky Mountains is a guest post by Sarah and Matt, of Two Outliers, an adventure travel and photography blog dedicated to helping you plan your next adventure!

With 800 miles of trails and over half a million acres of beautiful wilderness to explore, the opportunities for hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are seemingly endless. As a result, picking a hike (or hikes) in the park can be a daunting task.

In this article, we’ll break down our favorite hikes in the Smoky Mountains and tell you everything you need to know to plan your perfect hiking trip. Growing up in nearby Virginia, we’ve spent a lot of time exploring the Smokies and are excited to share our favorite spots!

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Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About the Smoky Mountains

Clingman's Dome | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Did you know the Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the United States? With over 12 million annual visitors, no other national park comes close to the amount of traffic received by Great Smoky Mountains (Yellowstone is a distant second with 3.8 million annual visitors). 

Home to over 19,000 different species of plants and animals, hundreds of waterfalls, 150 different hiking trails and 2,000 miles of rivers and streams, it’s no wonder the Great Smoky Mountains are America’s most popular park! Rolling misty mountains, verdant pine forests, colorful fall foliage, bright spring flowers, cascading waterfalls and a diversity of wildlife await those who come to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Interestingly, 187,000 acres or about 36% of the park has been designated as old growth forest, meaning the trees predate European settlement of the area. In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest areas of old growth forest in North America! I bet those trees have some stories to tell! 

Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!

These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors. 

When to visit the Smoky Mountains

Without a doubt, the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains is during the fall, from late September through October, when it is peak foliage season and the mountains are blanketed in bright red, orange and yellow. It will be a bit chilly, but is definitely worth it to see the amazing fall colors!

Spring is also a great time to visit, as temperatures are mild and flowers are blooming. You can expect crowds to be at their peak during the summer months (late May through early September) and temperatures can regularly reach the upper 80’s and lower 90’s during the day. 

Cammerer | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

If you want to enjoy the park with fewer crowds, consider visiting during the winter months (December through February). It will obviously be colder, but you might be surprised to learn that half of the winter days in the park see temperatures above 50 degrees, which isn’t that bad if you are equipped with some warm layers.That being said, be sure to check road and trail conditions before visiting in the winter. Trails and roads may be snow-covered, icy, and/or closed.

More generally, weather in the Smoky Mountains can be unpredictable. Foggy, misty days are common (the park’s name is fitting!). It’s possible to start a hike engulfed in a cloud and arrive at a perfectly clear summit – we know from personal experience! Be prepared for changes in weather throughout the day and don’t let a few clouds spoil your plans. 

Getting to + around the Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located on the border of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, making it fairly accessible from many larger cities on the east coast.

Flying to the Smoky Mountains

The closest major airport to the Smoky Mountains is located in Knoxville, TN (TYS), about an hour drive to the main west entrance to the park located near Gatlinburg, TN.

There is also a smaller regional airport in Asheville, NC (AVL), about 1 hour and 20 minutes from the east entrance near Cherokee, NC. Larger airports in Nashville, TN and Charlotte, NC are also an option and will have more flights available compared to Knoxville or Asheville, but they are both about 4 hours from the park. 

Driving to the Smoky Mountains

Because you can drive for hours once you are in the park, exact driving times will depend on where you enter the park and where your destination is located within the park. The Smoky Mountains are accessible from:

  • Gatlinburg, TN: 20 minutes
  • Knoxville, TN: 1 hour
  • Asheville, NC: 2 hours
  • Nashville, TN: under 4 hours
  • Charlotte, NC: under 4 hours

Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina is located about a 3 hour drive from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which can make a great detour if you have extra time and are interested in exploring a less crowded section of the Appalachian Mountains with similar (though less striking) views.

If you are a foodie or enjoy local craft beer, be sure to add Asheville to your itinerary. Asheville is a fun, artsy town with tons of great restaurants and the highest number of breweries per capita of any U.S. city!

Getting around the Smoky Mountains

To get around in the Smoky Mountains, you will need to drive or rent a car, as there are no park shuttles. Most of the roads in the park are paved and well-maintained, with the exception of the road to the Ramsey Cascades trailhead. 

RV’s and trailers are prohibited on certain roads in the park – you can find a complete list of roads to avoid here. Parking is limited at the trailheads for Chimney Tops and Alum Caves/Mount LeConte, so those with larger RV’s may have trouble finding parking. 

A quick note about traffic: 

We visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park over Labor Day weekend in 2020, which we expected to be busy. But “busy” is probably an understatement! The park was packed and the car traffic was really bad, especially through downtown Gatlinburg. 

We must have waited an hour in barely-moving traffic each time we tried to get through Gatlinburg, granted it was a holiday weekend and the peak of the COVID-induced national park frenzy. We haven’t had trouble with traffic during other visits to the park, so try to avoid holiday weekends if possible.

What to bring with you to the Smoky Mountains

Ramsey Cascades | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

To prepare for your hiking trip, don’t forget to pack the following items in addition to the usual hiking essentials.

Rain jacket

As mentioned, weather can be unpredictable and moist conditions are common. Pack a rain jacket for hiking in case of unexpected showers.

Bear spray

The Smoky Mountains are home to over 1,500 black bears – that’s 2 bears per square mile!  Encountering a black bear is not an uncommon occurrence in the Smokies, so be sure to carry bear spray

Hiking boots 

Rocky, rooty, and often damp terrain awaits hikers in the Smokies. Boots with good traction are key to staying safe and keeping your feet comfortable.

Hiking poles

Several of the hikes on this list involve fairly challenging climbs with significant elevation gain. Hiking poles make a world of difference in steep sections by taking pressure off your knees!

Things to know before you visit the Smoky Mountains

Cammerer | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Entrance Fee

There are no fees to enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s right – unlike most national parks, entrance is entirely free!

Park Hours

The park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the exception of the Cades Cove Loop Road, which is only open from sunrise to sunset.

Cell Service

Cell service is available in some areas of the park, but it is spotty and unreliable. Plan ahead and don’t rely on cell service to navigate. 

Dogs are not allowed on trails

Dogs are permitted in campgrounds and picnic areas (must be kept on leash), but are not allowed on any hiking trails in the park. 

Road closures

Certain roads may be closed in the winter due to inclement weather. Additionally, trails may be closed due to frequent bear activity. You can find a list of current road and trail closures here.

Fuel up before you enter the park

There are no gas stations inside the park, so be sure to fill up your tank in any of the three nearby towns (Townsend, Gatlinburg, or Cherokee).

Parking can be a challenge

Parking at popular trailheads can be quite the challenge. Try to start your days as early as possible to avoid waiting for a spot. 

Map of the Smoky Mountains 

The map below displays the trailhead for each of the hikes listed in the article, the location of the 10 campgrounds in the park, the four closest towns to the main park entrances, and recommended hotels and lodging. 

The Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Now that we have covered all of the details, let’s talk about the fun part – the hikes! We have explored almost every corner of the park and are excited to share our 9 favorite hikes.

Note that these hikes are listed in no particular order. 

Top 9 Hikes in the Smoky Mountains:

  1. Mount Cammerer
  2. Mount LeConte
  3. Alum Caves
  4. Charlies Bunion
  5. Deep Creek Loop
  6. Ramsey Cascades
  7. Chimney Tops
  8. Clingman’s Dome
  9. Andrew’s Bald

Mount Cammerer

Cammerer | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Miles: 12
Elevation gain: 3,169 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Reviews & Current Conditions 

Although it is located far from some of the more popular areas of the park, you don’t want to miss the hike to Mount Cammerer, where an old lookout tower perched atop a rocky cliff offers panoramic views of the rolling mountains below. Gaining 3,169 feet over 12 miles is no walk in the park, but the 360-degree views from the lookout tower at the peak make it 100% worth the effort.

Mount Cammerer is easily my favorite hike in the Smoky Mountains, and if I had just one day to spend in the park, hiking to Mount Cammerer is how I’d want to spend it!

Mount LeConte

Mount LeConte | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Miles: 11
Elevation gain: 2,896 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Reviews & Current Conditions

As the third highest peak in the Smoky Mountains, few viewpoints can compete with the panoramic vista from Mount LeConte. Though slightly less elevation gain than Mount Cammerer, the 11 mile trek to Mount LeConte is nearly as challenging. Luckily, there are plenty of unique sights along the way to distract you from the physical pain, including a picturesque babbling stream, a natural rock tunnel, a massive cave overhang (see Alum Cave below), and ever-improving mountain views. 

This is a very popular trailhead and parking can be a pain. Be sure to start your hike as early as possible. 

Alum Cave

Alum Caves | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Miles: 5 miles
Elevation: 1,200 feet
Difficulty: moderate
Reviews & Current Conditions 

The term “cave” is probably a bit of a misnomer, as Alum Cave is more of a large rock outcropping than a true cave, but the hike to get there is an amazing adventure nonetheless with plenty of mountain views. If you plan to hike to Mount LeConte, you will pass directly through Alum Cave along the way. Although we highly recommend continuing the hike to Mount LeConte, if you are short on time (or energy), the hike to Alum Cave is a great option! 

Same as we said above for Mount LeConte, the parking area for the trailhead is limited and most people end up having to fight for a parallel parking spot along the side of the road.

Charlies Bunion

Charlies Bunion | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Miles: 8
Elevation: 1,886 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Reviews & Current Conditions

Despite its unappealing name, Charlies Bunion, which is a large outcropping of rocks, offers one of the best views of the Smoky Mountains anywhere in the park. This 8 mile hike climbs about 1,900 feet, making it moderately difficult and the perfect day hike. The trail up to the “bunion” passes through dense, moss-covered forest that is particularly beautiful with the sun peaking through the treetops, illuminating the forest floor below. Once you reach the top, you will be treated to sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, including Mount LeConte off in the distance. 

Deep Creek Loop

Miles:
Elevation: 895 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Reviews & Current Conditions 

A quieter trail on the eastern side of the park, the Deep Creek Loop is a more relaxed hike away from the crowds found on many of the other trails in the park. This 5 mile hike includes 3 gorgeous waterfalls: Tom Branch Falls, Juney Whank Falls, and Indian Creek Falls.

While all three are worth seeing, our favorite waterfall is Tom Branch, with smaller streams of water that gently flow over the rocky cliff. Tom Branch Falls is only about a quarter mile from the trailhead, so if you are short on time you can opt for a quick half mile out-and-back rather than the full 5 mile loop. 

Ramsey Cascades

Miles: 8.1 
Elevation: 2,224 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Reviews & Current Conditions 

Ramsey Cascades is the tallest and perhaps most impressive waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, tumbling almost 100 feet down a pile of boulders before collecting in a small pool. While the waterfall itself is magnificent, the trail to get there is just as beautiful. Wandering through an old growth forest of giant trees, bustling creeks, several river crossings, and an abundance of plant life, the hike to Ramsey Cascades is exactly what you picture when you think of the Smoky Mountains. 

However, getting to Ramsey Cascades won’t come easy. The 8-mile round trip hike climbs 2,224 feet and the last half mile is very steep and rocky. That being said, the difficulty definitely deters some less ambitious hikers, meaning you may actually get some alone time on the trail. I had the place to myself for a solid 30 minutes on a Saturday morning in early November. 

Reaching the trailhead requires a 4.5 mile drive on a dirt road, which gets narrow in sections. It might be a little bumpy, but you should be able to make it in any car. 

Chimney Tops

Chimney Tops | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Miles: 4.4 
Elevation: 1,351 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Reviews & Current Conditions

One of the few mountains in the area with a bald rock summit, the Chimney Tops are unlike anything else in the park and roughly resemble, you guessed it, chimneys! 

Previously, hikers could climb up to the top of the Chimneys, but forest fires in 2016 eroded the trail making it unsafe to pass. The park service has closed the trail off just before the Chimney Tops, but you can still access a lovely viewpoint overlooking the rocky pinnacles. It’s unlikely that the trail up the chimneys will reopen anytime in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, this remains one of the most popular hikes in the Smoky Mountains due to its shorter distance and great views.

Clingman’s Dome

Clingman's Dome | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Miles: 1.2 miles
Elevation: 331 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Reviews & Current Conditions 

At an elevation of 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the tallest point in the Smoky Mountains (and all of Tennessee for that matter) and features sweeping 360-degree views that can span over 100 miles! A massive lookout tower sits at the top of the peak, offering hikers the ability to stand above the treeline, with unbeatable views in every direction. Reaching the famous lookout tower requires a steep half mile trek up a paved path. Though the trail is paved, don’t underestimate how steep this hike is – it’ll get your heart pumping for sure!

Because of its accessibility and incredible views, Clingman’s Dome is a very popular spot, so expect to share it with quite a few others. Also note that due to it’s high elevation, Clingman’s Dome can see heavy winds and much colder temperatures than the rest of the park. Pack layers and be prepared to bundle up!

Andrew’s Bald

Andrews Bald | 9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Miles: 3.5 
Elevation: 850 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Reviews & Current Conditions 

If you plan to visit Clingman’s Dome and want to extend your hike, look no farther than Andrew’s Bald! The trail departs from the same trailhead as Clingman’s Dome, but instead of climbing up to Clingmans Dome, the trail to Andrew’s Bald heads down the mountain. In less than 2 miles, you will reach an open grassy knob that offers incredible views and, during the spring, one of the best opportunities to see the park’s colorful wildflowers!

We’d recommend starting your hike by going down to Andrew’s Bald and then continuing all the way up to Clingman’s Dome to break up the downhill section and save the most stunning views for last.

Where to Stay in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Since Great Smoky Mountain National Park is so huge, the best home base depends on which hikes you plan on doing. There are 3 main entrances to the park, each with a small town nearby: Gatlinburg, TN, Cherokee, NC, and Townsend, TN.

For most of the hikes on this list, including Alum Caves, Mount LeConte, Chimney Tops, Mount Cammerer and Ramsey Cascades, Gatlinburg is the most convenient town.

For Andrew’s Bald, Charlies Bunion, and Clingman’s Dome, Cherokee and Gatlinburg are equidistant. Cherokee and nearby Bryson City are the closest towns to the Deep Creek Loop.

Elkmont Campground Smoky Mountains
Elkmont Campground

Camping 

There are 10 campgrounds located in the park. Campgrounds book up well in advance, so if you want to claim one of these coveted spots, be sure to plan ahead. You can find more information about camping in the park here. If you plan to hike Mt. Cammerer, definitely try to snag a spot at Cosby Campground, which is located right at the trailhead. 

Dispersed camping 

While dispersed camping or boondocking is not available inside Smoky Mountains National Park, there are a few options nearby.

A few great camping areas include Bear Creek Hunt Camp, Santeetlah Lake, and Panther Creek in Nantahala National Forest. Although camping in these areas is free, they are all at least an hour drive to the park so getting a campsite in the park is definitely more convenient. You can read more about dispersed camping in the Nantahala National Forest on the USDA Forest Service website.

Hotels/Lodging

There are no hotel or lodging options inside the park, besides LeConte Lodge, a rustic cabin accessible only by foot. If you aren’t planning to camp, you will want to stay in Gatlinburg, Cherokee, Bryson City, or Townsend. Below we’ve compiled a few great options in each area. 

Where to stay Smoky Mountains

Hotels & Airbnbs

Gatlinburg

2-bedroom Cabin with views (1 bedroom, 1.5 bathrooms): This beautiful cabin located just outside of Gatlinburg sleeps 4 and offers beautiful views from its front deck and hot tub. 

Condo in Downtown Gatlinburg (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): If you’d prefer to stay in the city, this lovely condo is located in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg, within walking distance to restaurants and wineries. 

Old Creek Lodge: Centrally located in downtown Gatlinburg, this lodge is the perfect basecamp for exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  

Cherokee/Bryson City

Sugar Shack (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This tiny, rustic studio cabin in Bryson City features incredible views of the mountains!

Lil’ Red Caboose (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): If you’re looking for a unique glamping experience, check out this converted red train caboose in Bryson City near the East entrance to the park. 

McKinley Edwards Inn: This is a boutique hotel that was originally built in the 1920’s with a quaint, homey feel.

Townsend

Mountain View Cabin (2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms): This old-school cabin sleeps 4 and features a lovely wrap around porch with hot tub, perfect for soaking in the views!

Hemlock Hideaway (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): Rustic tiny studio cabin located just minutes from downtown Townsend and the entrance to the park!

Dancing Bear Lodge: Offers cabins and small villas, located just a few minutes from downtown Townsend.

About the Authors

Two Outliers

We’re Sarah and Matt, two digital nomads, outdoor enthusiasts, and the creators of Two Outliers, an adventure travel and photography blog dedicated to helping you plan your next adventure! We road trip full-time across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home each month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time hiking, camping, backpacking, kayaking and pretty much anything else you can do in the outdoors. We hope that our experiences will help you plan your next adventure and inspire you to be an outlier!

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9 Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains | Great Smoky Mountain National Park Hikes

about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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