The Top 5 Must-Visit Hiking Trails in the Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains is an expansive and glorious 522,427-acre national park. Nestled between the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, the section of the southern Appalachian Mountains offers incredible hikes with breathtaking views. The Great Smoky Mountains remains one of the most visited national parks in the country. If you’re eager to see some of the highest peaks in the Eastern United States, check out this list of the top 5 must-visit hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains.
About the Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains are world-renowned. This national park offers diverse plant and animal life, ancient mountainscapes, and remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. Dubbed the “Smokies” by locals, the area’s topography is unrivaled. The name is derived from the ever-present fog that lingers on the mountains. Considered one of America’s oldest mountain ranges, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1926. You can find nearly 80 historic buildings, beautiful displays of wildflowers, and all sorts of wildlife.
The national park permits hiking and camping. While there is no required entry fee, if you plan to be at the park longer than 15 minutes, you will need to obtain a parking pass. If you’re planning to stay overnight, reservations and permits are required for any multi-day backpacking excursions. The Smokies have more than 150 trails, which total approximately 1,000 miles. Additionally, 71 of these trails are also part of the Appalachian Trail, a famous route that runs the length of the Appalachians from Maine to Georgia.
The Historic Smokies
The Smokies are a historic wonder within the national park system because, unlike many national parks, there is no entry fee. This is, in part, due to the land being inhabited by Cherokee Indians, and later, by European settlers, whose cabins and farms can still be seen in parts of the park. The state-funded roads were transferred to the federal government, and as a result, the charter of the park prohibited fees from ever being charged. Because of these historic human habitats, the charter, which was established in the 1930s, banned fees permanently.
With these things in mind, let’s dive into the 5 must-visit hiking trails.
5. Chimney Tops
With 3.5 miles at an elevation of 1,400 ft, Chimney Tops Trail is a fan-favorite. Although this trail is rather steep, the views at the top make the exertion worth it! Begin at the Chimney Picnic Area off Newfound Gap Road near the Chimney Tops parking area. The trail starts out relatively flat, but it quickly gains elevation. Within the first mile, you will see small waterfalls, and eventually, the trail’s ascent will become a bit more challenging. However, once you make it to the top, the incredible views of the Smoky Mountains, including Mount LeConte and Sugarland Mountain will make the trek worth it.
Be reminded that part of the trail has been closed since 2016. The peaks of Chimney Tops were heavily damaged by the wildfires, and the upper portion of the trail is unsafe for visitors. You’ll be able to see where the trail has been gated off to prevent hikers from going further. However, the views from the constructed observation deck are an excellent substitution.
Experience Level: Expert (Steep and strenuous trail)
4. Alum Cave Bluffs
For 2.5 miles one way, you can reach Alum Cave Bluffs. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can continue on past the bluffs for another five miles, reaching just below the summit of Mount LeConte. Many people turn around here, but if you want to continue on, you’ll be rewarded with However, if you’re just interested in visiting Alum Cave Bluffs, the trail is five miles total and the elevation change is approximately 1,200 feet.
The trail starts near Alum Cave Creek, where you’ll cross a log bridge and then venture through an old hardwood forest. The best part of the trail is hiking through the tunnel of Arch Rock. As you continue up Peregrine Peak, you’ll finally reach Inspiration Point, which is a great place to view the valleys and mountains surrounding you.
Experience Level: Expert
3. Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls boasts moderate levels of difficulty, and if you can tolerate a little bit of a challenge, this hiking trail will be perfect for you. On your hike, you’ll encounter a lovely waterfall all while being ensconced in a lush Tennessee forest. The first mile of the trails follows LeConte Creek, and if you continue on and cross a couple of footbridges, you will eventually find the falls, which are named for the rainbows seen in their misting waterfall. Rainbow Falls is approximately five miles long, and the elevation is nearly 1,700 feet.
Experience Level: Moderate
2. Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, which makes it the most visited spot in the entire national park. At 6,643 feet, Clingman Dome is the highest point in Tennessee and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi. At the summit of Clingmans Dome, you will encounter an observation tower that offers 360° views. Willing visitors can also trek up the steep half-mile walk to the top of the tower if they so choose.
Without the limitations of air pollution, visitors can see up to 100 miles away. However, with air pollution, the viewing distance is generally around 20 miles. Because Clingmans Dome is so high, the temperatures are often 10-20℉ cooler than the lowlands. As a result of this temperature change, the climate of Clingmans Dome is actually considered a coniferous rainforest. In short, dress appropriately for this amazing hike! This hike takes approximately 43 minutes to complete and it runs 1.3 miles up and back.
Experience Level: Moderate
1. Charlies Bunion
This eight-mile round trip is part of the Appalachian Trail and offers some of the best views in the Great Smoky Mountains. You might even be tempted to trek the entire Appalachian Trail after you experience the hike to Charlies Bunion. The ending point, famously known as Charlies Bunion, indeed takes on the shape of a bunion. The offshoot from the mountainside is circular and jagged, yet leads to an exhilarating view of the peaks and valleys of the Smokies.
At nearly 1,600 feet, Charlies Bunion is one of the most visited spots in the national park. This hike takes about four hours to complete, and it is best to visit April through October.
Experience Level: Moderate
Before you go, be sure to prepare accordingly for your hiking adventures.
Grab a Map: Download a copy of the park’s trail map, or pick up a printed version from the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
Pack Bear Spray: The national park is home to diverse wildlife, bears included. Bear pepper spray is permitted, as long as it is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. If you must use the spray, vacate the area immediately.
What to Wear: Depending on the season, you’ll want to layer accordingly. In the summer, wear light layers, and in the winter, wear warmer layers and perhaps add a puffy jacket as your outermost layer. During the colder months, bring gloves and a warm hat. No matter the season, wear comfortable, durable hiking boots and lather your face with sunscreen.
Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains are a sight to behold, and any of the 150 trails would offer spectacular views. If you’re not interested in camping, nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have cabins and accommodations for those wanting to be near the mountains—but have a cozy bed after a day of strenuous hiking and exertion. Plan your visit to one of these top five mist-visit hiking trails this fall!
Summary of the 5 Must-Visit Hiking Trails in the Great Smoky Mountains
|Rank||Hiking Trail||Trail Length||Elevation|
|1||Charlies Bunion||8 miles||1,600 feet|
|2||Clingmans Dome||1.3 miles||6,643 feet|
|3||Rainbow Falls||5 miles||1,700 feet|
|4||Alum Cave Bluffs||5 miles||1,200 feet|
|5||Chimney Tops||3.5 miles||1,400 feet|