If there is one thing you simply have to do while you are in the Smokies, it is get out on the trail. Seriously, Great Smoky Mountains National Park hikes are some of the best we have done in the parks.
For the seriously hardcore, 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail traverses the center of the park. There are also several other trails you can take for multi-day backpacking excursions.
For those looking for a solid day hike, you have plenty of options as well. We have done several good hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That said, this list is hardly exhaustive. There are tons of hikes we haven’t done yet and are really looking forward to on future trips.
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A Few Words of Caution Before Getting on the Trail
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of all of the national parks. Each year, millions of people visit the park. Especially during the fall or when school is out, you should expect crowds, including crowded trailheads.
The other thing you should pay attention to is the wildlife. The park is home to a large concentration of black bears. While most of the bears will not want to have anything to do with you, you still need to be conscious of the fact you are in bear country.
If you are hiking in remote areas of the park, make sure you make noise so the bears know you are coming. Also, make sure you follow all bear food storage requirements in the park. If you feed a bear, either intentionally or unintentionally, it could lead to the bear losing its fear of humans and seeking out food from them. That typically ends badly for all involved.
And while bears get the biggest headlines in the park, the other animals need their space and respect as well. We saw an elk nearly kick a kid who was trying to feed it while his parents just watched. Don’t be those people!
Still, you don’t need to be afraid or anything like that. Just take appropriate precautions, remember that wild animals are wild and make sure you go into the woods prepared.
Hiking in Cades Cove
In the Cades Cove Area, we’ve hiked the Rich Mountain Loop Trail and Abrams Fall Trail. Both include some reasonably strenuous uphill sections but are relatively mild compared to other trails in the park. While we enjoyed both hikes, the waterfall at the end of the Abrams Fall Trail is particularly rewarding.
Rich Mountain Loop
8.3 miles | 1,991 feet of elevation gain
We hiked the Rich Mountain Loop back in 2011 and it was our first Great Smoky Mountains National Park hike. This hike starts right at the beginning of the Cades Cove Loop. If you follow the loop clockwise, it stays level for the first 1.5 miles, passing by the John Oliver Cabin before turning uphill.
The next 2.5 miles has some pretty steep sections and switchbacks but after that, the trail levels off before topping out at 3,701 feet at Cerulean Knob.
We hiked in the early fall, so there were plenty of leaves on the trees which do obscure the views of Cades Cove somewhat. Still, the trail opens up in a few places for some great views. We even saw several deer along the trail.
While this trail has greater elevation change than we generally attempt these days, we made it the full loop without too much difficulty. Additionally, this trail is not as popular as some others, making it a good hike to avoid the crowds.
Abrams Falls Trail
5.5 miles | 629 feet of elevation gain
The Abrams Falls Trail is located at the far end of the Cades Cove Loop Road and is a relatively easy out and back trail leading to the titular falls.
While the elevation gain is relatively light, there are some steep sections along the trail, particularly on the way back. Still, we saw plenty of folks on the trail and most people should be able to handle it just fine. The nice thing about this hike is that the trail alternates between incline and level, so your legs have a bit of a break after the tough sections.
That said, it is a 5.5-mile hike. You still need to take plenty of water and wear good hiking shoes for this hike. We saw a number of hikers who were woefully underprepared for this trail when we were there. The Park Service even had a couple of volunteers trying to deter folks from going on the hike without proper gear.
Read more about essential hiking gear here.
While the hike isn’t super easy, the end result is more than worth it. The waterfall is gorgeous and made for a great place for a picnic lunch. Of course, we were far from the only folks on the trail with that idea! As you might imagine, the waterfall area was reasonably crowded. If you don’t mind the crowds, this is a nice, moderate hike.
Hiking at Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome is a very popular area not far from Newfound Gap. While it is most famous for the hike to the observation tower, there are several other trails in the area, including the Appalachian Trail. One thing to note is the parking area is quite crowded. Make sure you get there early if you don’t want to wait for a parking spot.
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail
1.2 miles | 331 feet of elevation gain
This is hands down one of the most popular trails and features of the park. The 1/2-mile trail to an observation tower is steep but paved. Once you get to the top of the trail, the observation tower gives you 360-degree views from the third-highest peak east of the Mississippi.
There’s not much else to this hike other than the view from the tower but it is worth it. The walk up the tower winds in a spiral to a relatively crowded observation deck but the views are simply breathtaking. This is a short but steep trail. Don’t be afraid to pause to catch your breath every now and then.
Andrews Bald Trail
3.6 miles | 866 feet of elevation gain
While you are at the Clingmans Dome parking area, you might as well get in a “real” hike! Andrews Bald Trail is a moderate out and back which takes you out to a “bald.”
Balds are a feature of the Southern Appalachian Mountains where the temperatures are too warm to support an alpine environment but at too high an elevation to support much in the way of trees.
The hike out is mostly downhill to start and you quickly leave the bustle of the Clingmans Dome area behind. Once you get to the Andrews Bald, it makes for a great place to stop for a picnic. We sat out in the sun and enjoyed the cool weather, amazing views and a trail beer.
But what goes down must come back up. The hike up had some tough moments but it was more than worth it for the views at Andrews Bald.
Hiking at Deep Creek
The Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located on the south side of the park near Bryson City. It took a bit of a drive to get there from our campground in Pigeon Forge but the trail was worth the drive. This trail would be far more convenient if staying in Cherokee or Bryson City but, still, we got to see some really great waterfalls.
Deep Creek Waterfall Loop
2.5 miles | 449 feet of elevation gain
This trail combines the Juney Whank Falls Trail with the Deep Creek Horse Trail, a spur to Indian Falls and the Deep Creek Trail to form a loop. This relatively easy loop trail will take you to three waterfalls.
We did this loop clockwise and after we passed the Juney Whank Falls, the crowds quickly dropped off until we made our way to the last waterfall, Toms Branch Falls. If you stay to the left and follow the Deep Creek Horse Trail after Juney Whank Falls, you will knock out the steep section of the trail and then the rest of the trail is mostly downhill.
If you are traveling with folks with less mobility, you might consider just walking the Deep Creek Trail out to Toms Branch Falls. That section of the trail is quite flat and an easy walk.
The three waterfalls are very different in character and quite pretty. While we had to get up early to do this hike before we met my parents for lunch in Cherokee, it was more than worth it. Plus, the beer at Native Brews in Cherokee were quite tasty after the hike.
Read more about our visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Final Thoughts on Great Smoky Mountain National Park Hikes
Hiking is one of our favorite activities in any park we visit and this park has tons of great hikes. We have enjoyed each of these hikes and they are each worth your time.
Check out our Favorite National Park Hikes.
There are so many possible Great Smoky Mountains National Park hikes and we have barely scratched the surface. We know there are a lot more hikes worth your time in the park.
We are looking forward to getting back to the park to explore more trails. I am especially interested in visiting the Cataloochee area of the park. We have never been there and can’t wait to explore.
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