The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
While Nashville has plenty of wonderful hikes, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is on another level. The park is only a four-hour drive from Nashville and, along with all state parks in Tennessee, it is completely free. It is also the most visited National Park in the United States, with over ten million visitors every year. Not only that, but the park is open throughout the whole year, making it a unique experience whether you go during Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall. Protip: the park does not have great cell phone reception so plan your hike ahead of time and load the area on your google maps. If you forget, don’t worry! Townsend and Gatlinburg are both about 30 minutes from most places in the park, with great amenities and cell-phone signal. Below is our list of must-do day hikes at the Smokies, as well as some tips on camping and touring the area. Enjoy!
Mount LeConte is a fantastic peak that provides majestic views of the Smoky Mountains range. The Alum Cave Trail is a classic route to the top. Geologic formations really set this trail apart from some of the other mountain hikes. The panoramic view from the top is do die for, but be warned…it can be very windy. Make sure you bring sunglasses and a wind-resistant jacket. A lodge with picnic tables is located shortly before the summit. It is a perfect place to eat and relax before battling the wind up top. The elevation gain is just over 2700 feet on this 11-mile round trip hike. It is challenging but very achievable in a day.
Gregory Bald (via the Gregory Ridge Trail) is an 11.3-mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 3020 feet. The grade of the path continually increases, so pace yourself on this one. This is another difficult climb that rewards those willing to stick it out. The climb takes you right to the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. At the top, ranges in both states are laid out in front of you. A great backcountry campsite with a fast flowing stream that makes gathering water for dinner easy work is only 2 miles in from the parking lot. Once again, the top of the mountain can be windy, so if you are hoping to have a warm meal when you get to the peak, you’ll want a wind resistance stove (think Jetboil or MSR WindBurner). This hike is mostly in the woods, but the woods are quite varied, which keeps the hike interesting. Spring is a great time to go as the mountain is covered in wildflowers for the last 20 percent of the hike. So much so, it looks like a dusting of snow. Beautiful! Gregory Bald could be done in a day or stretched to two if the campsite is used.
“Rocky top you’ll always be, home sweet home to me! Wooooo!” Rocky Top is a landmark in the park and a Tennessee Vols’s anthem. This 13.9-mile there-and-back hike is generally considered challenging but extremely rewarding. The trail starts in the Anthony Creek Trailhead, which is in the picnic area of Cades Cove Campground. The trail begins with a gain of almost 4,000 feet the first five to six miles until you reach the Appalachian Trail at Spence Field. The elevation climb slows down from here and you begin to pass beautiful meadows and views of the park on both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides. After a few miles, you’ll reach two rocky peaks: Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain. While the location itself may be unremarkable, the views are breathtaking. If you’re alone, go ahead and sing Rocky Top at the top of your lungs.
This there-and-back hike begins at the Newfound Gap parking area. Although strenuous, the views during this 8.1 mile hike are amazing, regardless of what season you chose. You will see a wide variety of wildflowers and even Mount LeConte at a distance. This trail also has the added bonus of being on the Appalachian Trail, so if you’re hiking in April or May it is likely you will see “through-hikers” making their way north. In fact, 75 percent of the way into the hike up, there is Icewater Spring Shelter, one of the three-walled shelters build for through-hikers. At the top of the hike, you may check your feet for any bunions. The hike down is a nice downhill. On your way out, grab your car and drive to Clingman’s Dome from the parking lot. This is a nice viewpoint of the middle of the park, but watch out for the crowds!
The large fire of 2016 that burned part of Gatlinburg is believed to have begun at the top of Chimneys Trail. This intense, short there-and-back 3.3 mile hike is a crowd favorite. The trail was reopened in 2017 after a year of reconstruction due to severe fire damage. However, the views at the top, after climbing 800 feet are definitely worth it. From the new observation point you can see the top of the Chimneys as well as Mount LaConte. Since this is a relatively short hike, it provides a great opportunity to watch the afternoon sunset over the mountains. If you’re hiking in to see the sunset, make sure to bring a headlamp!
If you haven’t yet been to the Smokies, it is worth your time. It is a wonderful resource to have such an expansive National Park close to town. When you hike, be respectful of nature and leave it better than you found it: pick up trash, don’t play music, and don’t feed wildlife. If you feel moved to donate to the park, Friends of the Smokies is a wonderful organization.
In case you missed Cam and Joe’s last piece about hikes even closer to the city, click here.
Pictures from: http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/