Believe it or not, Great Smoky Mountains is the #1 most visited National Park in the United States, seeing over 11 million visitors each year. This number of visitors is a little intimidating, but once you hike just 100 yards down a trail, the crowds are exponentially less. With over 850 miles of hiking trails in the park, there are many options for where to take a hike. Trails range in difficulty from easy to strenuous, and also range in distance; but all bring you to remarkable destinations and awe-inspiring overlooks. You can read the Park Service’s
1. Charlies Bunion: This 8-mile roundtrip hike starts at Newfound Gap, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee, and travels east on the Appalachian Trail. You are rewarded with panoramic views of the North Carolina Smokies throughout the hike, as well as views of Mount LeConte and Myrtle Point. At four miles, you will reach a fork in the trail, make sure you stay left here to go to Charlies Bunion. Here, you are rewarded with a remarkable and expansive vista on the rocks of Charlies Bunion (named for Charlie Conner, who went hiking with one of the early park pioneers; he rested on the rocks and took off his shoe to expose a bunion that looked similar to the rock outcropping). When you are ready, simply turn around and head down the way you came up.
7. The Jump Off: Hikers will use the parking area at Newfound Gap, and begin east on the Appalachian Trail to this infamous rock outcropping. Along the way, you will be able to take in the beauty of Mount LeConte and Myrtle Point in the distance. At 3.2 miles, you will reach the Jump Off, and have remarkable views of Charlies Bunion, Mount Guyot and the Appalachian Trail ridge. On the way back to the trailhead, take a quick detour to Charlies Bunion—heading east at the marked junction.
2. Ramsey Cascades: Starting at the Ramsey Cascades Trailhead, this 8-mile, out-and-back trail takes you up 2,200 feet to the tallest waterfall in the park, at roughly 100 feet. Along the way, you will hike through the park’s largest intact old growth forest, which gives you firsthand experience of the Smokies unique biodiversity. According to the Eastern Native Trees Society, some of the largest trees in the park are along this trail. Also along the way you will pass many streams, waterfalls, rivers and pools—there is a little bit of everything on this trail. Once you reach Ramsey Cascades, you can sit on the rocks around the pool and enjoy the view. With the amount of elevation gain in the short amount of time, this trail is considered moderate to strenuous.
3. Chimney Tops: This short, but steep trail takes you from Newfound Gap to Chimney Tops, and is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the park. It is popular for a reason, as the views from the top are out-of-this-world, giving you a great vantage point on Mount LeConte and the Chimney Tops pinnacles. The newly renovated trail contains rock steps and raised structures, and hosts an observation point at the top. From the trailhead to the top, and back is 3.3 miles. It should be noted, however, that just because this trail is short and contains steps, it gains a lot of elevation in a very short amount of time—similar to the elevation gain of hiking a Colorado 14er.
4. Baskins Creek Falls: Starting at the Baskins Creek Trail Trailhead near Gatlinburg, the trail leads to one of the most underrated waterfalls in the park. There is a creek crossing one mile into the trail that does not have a bridge; trying to cross after a large rainstorm could become difficult. After the creek crossing, the trail is level and easy to follow to Baskins Creek Falls. This 3-mile roundtrip hike will take you to a 40-foot, two-tiered waterfall, which provides a great place for a snack and a foot soak.
5. Rainbow Falls: This 5.5-mile hike takes you on a steep uphill for the first mile, giving you a glimpse of LeConte Creek cascading beside the trail. Soon, the trail levels out as you travel through the LeConte Creek Valley. Rainbow Falls is named for the rainbow that is common as the afternoon sun shines through the mist of the waterfall. It is also said to be the tallest single-drop waterfall in the park. If you wish to extend your trek by 4.2 miles, you can continue on the trail to Mt. LeConte—the third tallest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
6. Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail: There are five trails to get to the top of Mount LeConte. Alum Cave Trail is the shortest, at 11 miles roundtrip. You will start at the trailhead along Newfound Gap Road, and follow Alum Creek for the fist mile before reaching Arch Rock. Alum Cave, which is actually a concave bluff, is a bit further and boasts rich history. Some parts of the trail are along a cliff face, with a sheer vertical drop on the side—handrails provide a sense of security on this thrilling section. Once you reach the top, you will see LeConte Lodge, but the best view comes from Cliff Top, a half of a mile past the lodge. Cliff Top gives you a spectacular and panoramic vantage point to the surrounding area; this is the best viewpoint, but if you want, you can continue to the summit, where you will be standing at 6,643 feet on the third tallest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once you have soaked in the view enough, head back down the trail to the trailhead.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park has a "Hike the Smokies" program for logging your hiking mileage. After 100 miles, 250 miles and 500 miles, you are awarded a pin and can add your name to the "Hike the Smokies" record book. There is a program for individuals, as well as families.