7 Best Hikes in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

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If you’re looking for phenomenal hiking on the East Coast, look no further than Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is more than 522,000 acres of lush forest mixed with rugged mountain peaks, flowing streams, countless waterfalls and more than 700 miles of hiking trails.

Whether you’re a beginner hiker who’s seeking new trails or a trekker who’s trying to bag peaks and conquer hundreds of miles of trails, Smoky Mountain hiking will give you your fix. For me, the best hikes in Smoky Mountain National Park were those filled with water, old-school relics, tough terrain and even the namesake of the Smokies: smoke rising from the Smoky Mountain trails.

Hiking is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and these are the seven best trails inside the park!

1. Alum Cave Trail

One of the best Smoky Mountain hikes, and my favorite hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is the Alum Cave Trail. Although you can hike 10.5 miles to Mount LeCont, I was extremely satisfied cutting it short at the top of Alum Cave, which is a brisk 4.8 miles round trip. I was also headed to Cades Cove, so I’ll use that as an excuse.

Alum Cave Trail is a spectacular hike that follows a stream uphill, so you’re surrounded by a flowing stream with small waterfalls for the first 2 miles of the hike. It also features Arch Rock, a naturally formed arch (somewhat similar to those found in Arches National Park) that you walk through.

Keep hiking and you’ll reach Inspiration Point at about the 2-mile mark. It’s a spectacular panorama view, followed by a few more panoramic views directly below and above it on the trail. But the culmination is definitely the Alum Cave Bluffs, which isn’t really a cave but a massive rock carved into the mountain with beach-like sand at its base.

  • Length: 4.8 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,210 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trail Type: Out and back

2. Chimney Tops Trail

Chimney Tops Trail was a close second place. It’s a hard hike that’s uphill for about 2 miles of the 2.25 miles to the height of Chimney Tops, a bald lookout that features sweeping panorama views of both the North Carolina and Tennessee portions of the park.

The hike is incredible! Even though a forest fire shut down the last stretch of the trail, it’s still a fully formed trail and offers the best views. But the best part is the natural swimming pools at the base of the hike. I estimate they’re about 50 degrees, but they’ll cool you off and provide you with a natural ice bath at the end of the hike!

  • Length: 4.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,358 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trail Type: Out and back

3. Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is by far the most popular hiking trail because it’s the highest point of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The manmade structure sits at 6,643 feet above sea level, but it’s also a manmade structure with a completely paved path, so it’s not as much fun.

My advice is to visit Clingmans Dome, but to take the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. It’s right next to the paved path, but it’s a non-paved trail that takes you through some of the most incredible nature in the park. It’s also far less crowded (I only saw about six other people on the trail compared to a few hundred on the normal trail).

One of the coolest parts about the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail is that it takes you along a part of the Appalachian Trail. So, if you hike it, you can say you hiked part of the AT!

  • Length: 2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 400 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trail Type: Out and back

4. Grotto Falls Trail

For all you waterfall chasers, you’ll like Grotto Falls Trail. While the Smoky Mountains are filled with spectacular waterfalls all over the park, one of the best (and easiest to hike to) is Grotto Falls Trail, a relatively easy 2.6-mile hike.

It’s located directly off of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which is one of the best places to see black bears in the park, so you get a two-for-one experience with a hike and scenic drive. Grotto Falls gets extremely packed nearly every day, so I highly recommend hitting the trail as early as possible (both to see the falls without many people and to get a decent parking spot near the trailhead).

The peak of Grotto Falls features, you guessed it, waterfalls that run down the stream and form little grottos on their way. My recommendation is to get a good look at the main waterfall, which stands about 20 feet high, and then make your way carefully downstream to the lesser-packed falls.

  • Length: 2.6 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 534 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
  • Trail Type: Out and back

5. Little Cataloochee Trail

Little Cataloochee Trail is remote. It’s also a challenging hike with lots of ups and downs, so you don’t just go up and come back down. But let’s get back to its remoteness. I hiked it on a Saturday morning and I was the only hiker on the trail — although I did share the trail briefly with a black bear.

It was spectacular.

The Little Cataloochee Trailhead is located in the Cataloochee Valley, which is by far the most remote part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But the trail is much different than the rest inside the park because it weaves and winds down an old path that carried people to their remote log cabins, churches and graveyards.

Cataloochee was home to more than 1,200 people until the National Park Service bought everyone’s land in the early 1900s. The NPS then began tearing down all the structures on the land, leaving just a few in their trail because a smart person deemed some of the buildings too historic to demolish.

Those remaining buildings are located on the Little Cataloochee Trail. The most amazing part of the hike is that you can actually go inside most of these buildings and imagine what life would’ve been like had you lived there more than 100 years ago.

  • Length: 10.2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,345 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trail Type: Out and back

6. Laurel Falls Trail

Deanne from Scenic and Savvy: Hiking is one of the best ways to see Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of my favorite hikes – and one of the most popular in the park – is Laurel Falls Trail.

Located 3.5 miles from the Sugarland Visitor’s Center off of Little River Road, the trail is rated as moderately difficult with a steady incline the entire way. There is parking on both sides of the road, but it’s limited, so plan to get there early before it fills up.

This 2.6-mile round-trip hike winds through trees and along some steep drop offs on a paved, although very uneven, path. I stopped every so often to take in the beauty as the break in the trees provided the most picturesque panorama of the park.

While the hike itself is scenic, the real reward is the destination – Laurel Falls. The sparkling 80-foot waterfall mesmerized me with its upper and lower falls cascading over rocky walls. Big boulders surround the base of the falls creating a fun playground to climb on and around.

Embark on this beautiful hike early in the day or later in the evening to avoid crowds and peacefully soak in the stunning sights.

  • Length: 2.6 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 396 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trail Type: Out and back

7. Abrams Falls Trail

Nikki from Attractions of America: Abrams Falls Trail is a 5-mile back trail located in the Cades Cove area that includes breathtaking Abrams Falls and is appraised as a moderate difficulty hike. The trail is considered one of the famous hikes in the Smoky Mountains due to the picturesque falls at the end, a pool to take a refreshing dip, and fantastic flora and fauna in the area.

There are many species of plants and animals that can be found along this trail. During my trek, I spotted a black bear cub and a wild turkey, which are very active in this area. Be sure to look at the trees to spot the wildlife this trail has to offer.

The trail is a little strenuous, however, it’s worth putting the efforts because the scenic views at the falls are awe-inspiring. Though the falls are only 20-feet high, it pours a massive amount of water into the pool beneath the falls, which is 100 feet wide.

  • Length: 4.9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 629 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trail Type: Out and back

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