The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States, covering 520,000 acres and making up one of the most phenomenal outdoor playgrounds in our country. It’s a park that is filled with history, wildlife, wildflowers, waterfalls, rivers, breathtaking views, and absolute magic. It’s an area so vast that everyone can find something that they love and a place to come home to.
The Smoky Mountains are the cure for the itch to be outside, to explore and to find adventures.
1. Hemphill Bald Loop
Distance: 13.5 miles round trip
Highlights: mountain views, views of the Maggie Valley ski area, old growth forest, history
Looking for a break from the crowds and the best picnic spot in the Smokies? Well, you’ll find it just five miles in on this hike. The Hemphill Bald Loop takes you up to Hemphill Bald on the Cataloochee Ranch, where you’ll get amazing views and even a Flintstone-style picnic table. When you’re finished, return from the bald the way you came for a 10-mile hike, or turn right off the bald and continue on the Hemphill Bald trail. At 8.5 miles, make a left onto the Caldwell Fork Trail and you’ll end up at backcountry campsite #41, which is the last opportunity you’ll have to fill up on water.
After leaving the campsite area, keep your eyes on the trail but also take time to look up at the massive poplar trees on your right. The trees are survivors of the logging operations that once occurred in this area, and now towering at more than 150 feet high, they are difficult to miss.
2. Appalachian Trail—Clingmans Dome to Newfound Gap
Distance: 7.5 miles point-to-point, or 15 miles round trip
Highlights: Appalachian Trail, views, highest point of the GSMNP and on the AT
The entire Appalachian Trail runs 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, and is filled with truly stunning sections—a description that also happens to fit this particular section in the Smoky Mountains. At 6,643 feet in elevation, it’s the highest section of the AT, and can be done as an out-and-back hike at 15 miles or as a shuttle hike. For the shuttle, leave one vehicle at Newfound Gap and then drive to the Clingmans Dome parking lot with the 2nd vehicle.
Once you’ve parked, head up to Clingmans Dome Observation Tower, check out the views of the surrounding scenery, and then hop on the Appalachian Trail at the base. You’ll see a sign for the AT and the Mountains to Sea Trail.
Because it’s so easily accessible, this section of the trail can be popular. But once you head into the serene forests, you’ll forget all about everyone else. Keep an eye out for black bears and the sign at Indian Gap Road, which was the original wagon road in the area. Whether you go out-and-back, or take a one-way to your shuttle car, try to plan your route to be back at the Clingmans Dome parking lot at sunset—and bring your camera.
- Note: Clingmans Dome Road is closed vehicles from December 1st until March 31st.
## 3. Clingmans Dome to Elkmont via Goshen Prong##
Distance: 14 miles one-way, 28 miles round trip
Highlights: Views, secluded trail, distance
If you tell someone that you’re hiking from Elkmont to Clingmans Dome or vice versa, they might say you’re crazy. We say it’s worth it to explore Goshen Prong—a rarely used trail.
If you are hiking this one as a point-to-point, leave one vehicle at the Little River trailhead in the Elkmont section of the park and drive another car over to the Clingmans Dome parking lot. Walk up the paved, 0.5-mile trail and turn right at the Appalachian Trail marker. The first couple miles along the AT can be steep and rocky, but within minutes you’ll be absolutely blown away by the views. Not to mention that most of the hiking is through lush green forest, and once you get onto the Goshen Prong Trail, you will probably have the wilderness all to yourself, so soak it up.
Seclusion isn’t always easy to find in the Smokies, but along Goshen Prong is the backcountry campsite #23, which gives you just that. Once you get to Little River trail, it’s smooth sailing on a wide path past a waterfall and along the Little River. Daydream the time away until you get back to your vehicle.
4. West Prong Trail
Distance: 5.4 miles round trip
Highlights: hardwood forest, backcountry campsite #18, West Prong
Looking for a short, yet gorgeous hike? Want to test out backcountry camping for the first time? If so, add West Prong to your list. Found in the Tremont section of the park, the West Prong Trail will take you to one of the biggest and most tranquil backcountry campsites inside of the GSMNP.
Starting with a steady climb up Fodderstack Mountain, the closer you get to the campsite the louder the rushing waters of the West Prong of the Little River will be. About two miles in, and after getting your shoes wet with a creek crossing, you’ll find backcountry campsite #18. There are three camping areas here that allow you to fall asleep to the sound of the water right next to your tent. Even if you don’t camp, this is a great spot for a picnic or to relax in a hammock. This is also a good adventure for kids in the summer, as the area is known for having tons of butterflies this time of year. Bears are also known for hanging out here, so be careful and Leave No Trace.
From the campsite, continue on to Bote Mountain Trail junction, which is the turnaround point for this hike. You can also extend your hike by taking a left to head 1.2 miles up Laurel Creek Road, or going right to meet up with the Appalachian Trail at Spence Field in about 5.7 miles.
5. Middle Prong Trail
Distance: 8.3 miles round trip
Highlights: waterfalls, history
The Middle Prong Trail is tucked away in the Tremont section of the park that leads to the Indian Flats Falls—a series of waterfalls that cascade down four tiers. Following along an old railroad bed from the 1900s, you’ll pass a few smaller waterfalls, too. About two miles in, there is a short side trail where you’ll find a Cadillac from the 1920s, which likely belonged to a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the group that helped to build the roads and trails that we use today. When you cross the bridge over Indian Flats Prong, you’re almost to the main attraction. You should start to hear the falls before you actually see them.
The highest drop is the most accessible, so take a break at Indian Flats Falls for a mid-hike picnic, or to look for some of the little salamanders that call the falls home. Once you manage to break away from the falls, make your way back down Middle Prong to the parking area to complete the 8.3 mile hike.
6. Big Creek Trail to Mouse Creek Falls
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Distance: 4.2 miles round trip
Highlights: gorgeous creek views, Midnight Hole, Mouse Creek Falls, history
If you’re on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, the hike to Mouse Creek Falls is short, but sweet, and has something to offer year-round. In the summer, this trail offers plenty of opportunities for cooling off in the Big Creek, and you can even take a dip in the Midnight Hole, a pool that is about 1.5 miles in and sits under a pristine, six-foot waterfall. You might even find yourself swimming next to a trout or two.
There are blooming wildflowers in the spring, and vibrant hues in the fall. It gets quieter and much less crowded—yet equally as gorgeous—in the winter. Mouse Creek Falls in particular is breathtaking at all times of the year, but especially on the coldest of winter days when the water is turquoise and ice forms on the edges. So, don’t let the frigid temps keep you inside this year—bundle up and hike out to see Mouse Creek Falls!
7. Ferguson Cabin To Gooseberry Knob and The Swag
Distance: 8 miles
Highlights: views, history, highest cabin in the Smokies, The Swag Inn
Visit the highest cabin in the Smokies and have a picnic in this scenic area of the park known as Cataloochee Divide. In the summer, this trail is lush and secluded, but in the winter, you will have wonderful views of the valley between the trees as you hike up to the Ferguson Cabin. At 4,700 feet, it’s the highest elevation cabin in the Smokies. The cabin was built in the late 1870’s and remained a home until 1902. While you can’t stay there today, you can still explore the building and imagine what it would have been like to live here. If you visit in the fall, you’ll find two apple trees from that time period that still produce apples.
Take the trail beside the cabin up to the junction with the Cataloochee Divide trail. After a couple miles you will have reached the property of The Swag Inn. Luckily, they don’t mind if you spend a little time relaxing at Gooseberry Knob. Sit back and soak up the views of the mountains of Western North Carolina that go on as far as the eye can see. Once your finished on Gooseberry Knob, explore the area around The Swag Inn, a secluded mountain retreat, and then head back down.
8. Gabes Mountain Trail to Hen Wallow Falls
Distance: 4.4 miles round trip
Highlights: solitude from the crowds, old growth forest, waterfall
If you’re looking for a hike away from the crowds of the Smokies, head to the Gabes Mountain Trail, hidden away in the Cosby section of the park. Like many trails in the park, it travels through the green forest, past ferns and rhododendrons. About two miles in, you’ll get to Hen Wallow Falls. The 90-foot high falls are about two feet wide at the top and fan out about 20 feet wide by the time the water reaches the bottom of the falls. In the warmer months, you can often find salamanders near the base, and in the winter, the falls typically freeze over.
If you want to spend some time taking in the beauty of the area, pitch a tent at backcountry campsite #34, 4.8 miles from the trailhead of Gabe’s Mountain. Not up for backcountry camping? The Cosby Campground at the trailhead almost always has spots open and is much less crowded than other campgrounds in the park. It is also where you’ll find the trailhead for a longer trek to the 4,928-foot summit of Mount Cammerer.
9. Twentymile Loop
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Distance: 7.3-8 miles round trip
Highlights: a break from the crowds, Twentymile cascades, variety of forests, history
Despite what the name suggests, the Twentymile Loop is actually less than eight miles round trip. Covering Twentymile, Twentymile Loop and Wolf Ridge trails, this hike starts at the Twentymile Ranger Station on the Fontana side of the park, and is all about the water. There are creeks, mini-waterfalls, and rushing water alongside you almost the whole way.
With all this water, you can expect some some creek crossings, but there are logs to help you across (just watch your step!). Most of the trail is wide and well-maintained with gradual elevation gains, making for a relatively easy day hike through the forest. With all the water and shade available, this is a wonderful one to take on in the summer. There’s also a backcountry campsite (#93) on the Twentymile Trail section if you want to turn your day hike into an overnight trip—catch a fish for dinner and just relax for the night.
10. Mount LeConte via Trillium Gap and Rainbow Falls
Distance: 14 miles round trip
Highlights: Mount LeConte Lodge, waterfalls, views, llamas
You may remember Mount LeConte via Alum Caves in our first edition of hiking in the Smokies, but taking the Trillium Gap Trail and Rainfalls Trail for your Mount LeConte hike is a whole different experience. Going up Trillium, considered to be the easiest way to LeConte, means hiking through old hemlock forest, and seeing seeing an assortment of wildflowers. The best part is when the trail takes you under Grotto Falls—the only waterfall in the Smokies where you can actually walk behind the falls. Trillium trail is lush, green and enchanting, and you may even pass the "llama train" carrying supplies to the lodge.
If you’re staying at the lodge, grab a no bake cookie or two (you did just hike all the way up there, after all), and enjoy the views from the front porch of the dining hall. If you’re staying at the lodge for the night, go up to see the sunset from the Cliff Tops. Even if you are just going on a day hike, it’s worth a trip up to the Cliff Tops before heading back down the mountain. Take the Rainbow Falls Trail back down to catch the second waterfall on this trail.
Written by Kristi Parsons for RootsRated in partnership with BCBS of Tennessee and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.