America’s most visited national park is renowned for the beauty of its ancient mountains and diversity of plant and animal life. Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers ridges of forest and cool retreats tucked into the trees.
Mountain streams tumble into roaring falls, and meadows of wild flowers fill the hills. The Great Smoky Mountains are a hiker’s paradise of endless choices.
Choose a trail right for your skill level and enjoy endless views, old-growth forest and breathtaking waterfalls along the way. Here are 7 great options:
Andrews Bald trail is an ideal choice for beginners, with the payoff for this easy 3.6 mile roundtrip hike being a mountaintop view at a great picnic spot. At just 1.8 miles uphill to the open, grassy expanse of Clingman’s Dome from the nearby parking area, this hike is a spring and summer staple. In winter months Clingman’s Dome road is closed so the challenge becomes tougher: access is only via a 10 mile trek (one way) southbound on the Appalachian Trail. That route is far more difficult and not recommended for the novice.
For a moderate 4 mile roundtrip hike Porter’s Creek is a favorite, especially in spring and summer months when wildflowers along the path put on a spectacular show. The trail follows the banks of Porter’s Creek for several miles and leads trekkers past the old stone walls of a farmstead and cemetery dating back to the early part of the century. You’ll also get a glimpse of a cabin built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in the mid-1930’s as you walk through a carpet of flowering groundcovers on gentle slopes at a low elevation.
The moderate-to-strenuous Ramsey Cascades trail offers something special even before you take the first steps! Drive through towering trees to the trailhead to set out on this 8 mile adventure that starts at an old road bed that quickly curves into a rugged trail sheltered by some of the largest trees in the park: tulip trees, hemlocks, and black cherry. When you hit Ramsey Prong the babbling water follows beside the trail for most of the remaining climb. The last stretch is steep, ending at stunning 90-foot tall Ramsey Cascades, where hikers relax on a large stone ledge, relaxing and savoring the beauty of the waterfall.
Spruce Flat Falls
Even on busy weekends and holidays Spruce Flat Falls has fewer hikers on the trail then most other waterfall hikes in the Smokies. This easy 2 mile trek starts across from the Tremont Visitor’s Center on an unassuming road that blends into the uphill trail and rewards with a quiet experience and great waterfall view, especially awesome if you don’t have time to tackle a longer waterfall trail. Less-seasoned hikers should take care on the descent back into the valley and watch for protruding rocks and roots that sometimes make the path tricky. This hidden gem is a favorite short day hike for locals.
Popular trail access points from Cosby Campground and Big Creek offer hikers a peek at some history and a chance to meet Appalachian Trail thru-hikers along the way on this strenuous 12 mile roundtrip trek to Mount Cammerer. When you reach the summit of Mount Cammerer, take time to appreciate the 360 degree panoramic view of the rolling mountains and foothills and the inspiring beauty of the Southern Appalachians. The scenery is wonderful in spring and summer when vibrant greens color the landscape for endless miles, but when autumn paints its warm colors over these mountains the view from the top is simply breathtaking.
Charlies Bunion and The Jump Off
Hiking to these two ridge-line overlooks at Charlies Bunion and The Jump Off trail can be tackled together on a hike that’s roughly 9.5 miles roundtrip and of moderate difficulty. Set out from Newfound Gap into the high wilderness that’s traversed on the best maintained section of the Appalachian Trail in the park. A canopy of trees shades the trail. At 2.7 miles in, take the left junction to Boulevard Trail for a brief trek to the junction for Jump Off. It’s one mile further to the 1000-foot high vegetation covered cliff face on the side of Mount Kephart, offering a dazzling view of both Mount Guyot and your ultimate destination of Charlies Bunion.
Double back to find the Charlies Bunion spurhead and the trail curving along high rock walls to the overlook. Here you’re rewarded with killer views near the exposed rock face – a rarity in the Smokies that was caused when fire and flood damaged the area a hundred years ago. This two-for-one excursion is one of the parks best day hikes.
Get your trail map and get out and explore!