A First Timers Guide to the Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountains view
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Smoky Mountain overview

There’s no question as to why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country. The park continually hosts over 10 million visitors per year. The park boasts a wide variety of trails, ranging from car trails, to ADA accessible trails, to easy trails, all the way up Mt. LeConte on one of the most strenuous trails. This park is the epitome of ‘there is a trail for everyone.’

The Smokies 522,427 acres straddles the North Carolina – Tennessee border, with entrances and a close proximity to major tourist destinations like Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Asheville, Cherokee, and Knoxville.

Along with being just a short drive away from these popular destinations, the Smokies is home to about 70 miles of the famous Appalachian Trail, is a part of the larger Appalachian Mountains, North Carolinas Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

All of the Smokies land and facts may seem overwhelming at first, so read along to find the best spots to hit and the hikes that fit into your perfect vacation.

This guide focuses on the western side of the Smokies, but don’t be alarmed if you’re lodging on the eastern side, take a scenic drive through the mountains through the park to get to any of these trails and hikes.

Explore the motor trails and scenic routes through the Smoky Mountains

If you’re looking for views while staying cozy in your car, you have multiple driving options. Each auto trail allows you to feel like one with nature while never getting out of your car. Pack some snacks and turn your day into a road trip day.

Newfound Gap Road

The first option is to take a scenic drive right through the park. US Route 441 (Newfound Gap Road) cuts right through the Great Smoky Mountains, with scenic viewpoints around every bend. Be sure to take a stop at the Newfound Gap overlook, with stunning views overlooking the mountain, Appalachian Trail signs, the plaque and memorial dedicated to the park, and the border of North Carolina and Tennessee all in one parking lot!

Cades Cove

Take a road trip through time and see what the Smokies was all about before it was a National Park. Cades Cove is an 11 mile loop, with trails branching off of the drive for people willing and able to take hikes throughout the day. Grab an auto tour pamphlet (with donation) at the orientation shelter, and take a look at the communities left behind in the mountains to help form the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’re up for a moderate, five mile round-trip hike, check out Abrams Falls! Be sure to arrive early at Cades Cove, as this is a favorite among travelers and gets crowded fast!

Roaring Fork Motor Trail

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail takes off right from downtown Gatlinburg – an easy drive for anyone staying in the lively city – and offers up six miles of falls to explore, trails to walk, and views to see. This trail will take you through historic structures and beautiful wild flowers. Along the motor trail is the trailhead for Grotto Falls, a moderate three mile hike, but a favorite among visitors.

Go for a nature walk in the Smoky Mountains

Want to explore the wonders of the Smokies without lacing up your hiking boots? Take a walk through nature, look for wildlife, and learn a little bit of the history of the area.

Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail

The Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail is less than a mile loop through the forest and and vegetation of the Smokies.

This trail loops right to the Chimney Tops Picnic Area, a perfect pair for the day. Do some birth watching on the trail, then whip out a picnic and enjoy the views from the picnic area and the company of your fellow nature lovers.

Spruce-Fir Self Guiding Nature Trail

Along the Clingmans Dome Access Road (only open April-November) lies the Spruce-Fir Self Guiding Nature Trail.

The trail is an easy quarter of a mile hike that showcases the forestry, plant life, and wildlife one can find in the Smokies!

Noah “Bud” Ogle Self-Guiding Trail

Walk through history on the Noah “Bud” Ogle Self-Guiding Trail. This trail is only 0.7 miles, a perfect walk for any age and goes right past the house of Noah “Bud” Ogle, a descendant of the original Ogles – the founding family of Gatlinburg, TN.

Along with the history of this trail, one can enjoy the nature of the Smokies on this looped trail.

Hike through the Smoky Mountains

The mention of the Appalachian trail may seem intimidating, but the Smokies has trails ranging from the beginner to the most experienced hikers.

Clingmans Dome

Drive up the mountain or hike along the Appalachian Trail to the peak of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – and the Appalachian Trail – standing tall at 6,643 feet, with an observation at the summit to get stunning, panoramic views of the Smokies.

The observation is above the clouds, which can hinder the views, so be sure to find a sunny and clear day to optimize your views.

The easiest and most popular way of getting to Clingmans Dome, is by taking Newfound Gap Road to Clingmans Dome Road. The road will drop you at a parking lot only half a mile from the peak. The trail is only a half mile (one way) and is paved, but be aware of how steep this trail is – you do need to climb 332 feet in only half a mile. This is also the parking lot for other trails including Andrews Bald, Forney Creek Trail, and the Mountains- to-Sea Trail.

Hikes to Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome Road is only open from April through November, so plan accordingly. If you come during the winter months and still have an itch to reach Clingmans Dome, or looking for an adventurous twist to your Clingmans Dome exploration, you can follow one of the below, popular trails to the top!

  • Hiking the Appalachian Trail from Fontana Dam for 31.7 mile one way hike
  • Newfound Gap to Clingmans Dome Trail for 17.4 mile round trip, out and back hike
  • Take the Forney Ridge Trail to Clingmans Dome for a 4.5 mile round trip, out and back hike
  • Similar in name, the Forney Creek Trail to Clingmans Dome is a 23 mile, round trip, out and back hike
  • Avoid the crowds and hike the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail for a 1 mile round trip, out and back hike
Clingmans Dome Smoky Mountains
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Andrews Bald

Another notable hike starting from the Clingmans Dome parking lot is Andrews Bald. Also, another hike to do on a rare, clear day in the Smokies.

Andrews Bald is a 3.6 mile, moderate, out and back hike.

Since the hike is to a bald – a mountain summit or near summit that lacks the expected tall trees of a forest – you just walk along the path without too much of an elevation gain and loss.

This trail crosses with other trails including the Forney Creek Trail, so be sure to watch for trail markers, trail signs, and grab a trail map from information to ensure you’re staying on the correct path.

Andrews Bald Smoky Mountains
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Charlies Bunion

Hike the prominent Appalachian Trail without dedicating an entire day to one trail by heading to Charlies Bunion.

The Charlies Bunion Trail follows the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap for 4.3 miles, for a total of 8.6 miles round trip. The trail is moderate, with an elevation gain of almost 2,000 feet – which is in the middle of the hike so you will need to go back up this mountain trail on the way back.

There is no trailhead for Charlies Bunion, therefore, makes it tricky to spot. Be sure to get all the information to the trail beforehand. To get to Charlies Bunion from Newfound Gap, you must follow the trailhead at the northern part of the parking lot that is just for the Appalachian Trail, with mileage counters to the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, the Boulevard Trail, and all the way up to Maine, 1972 miles away.

Start following the trail and when you get 1.7 miles in, you’ll spot another marker. This is where the trail splits between the Appalachian Trail and the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail. Continue on the Appalachian Trail and follow signs to the Icewater Spring Shelter. Once close to the shelter, you will finally start seeing trail markers for Charlies Bunion, 1.3 miles away.

There are not many views along the way to the lookout. Once you make it to Charlies Bunion, your walk through the woods will be well worth it. There is a rock to climb out on to get 360 degree views of the Smoky Mountains and valleys. But you can climb up even higher to get even more views. Get the extra views from the “penthouse” as one hiker called it, by going just past the Charlies Bunion sign then look for the tiny trail on your left. The trail gets tight but it is only a short way up to the top!

Charlies Bunion view Smoky Mountains Appalachian Trail
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Mt. Le Conte

Standing tall at 6,593 feet, the third tallest mountain in the Smokies and the tallest mountain completely in Tennessee, sits Mt. Le Conte. With accolades like that, Mt. Le Conte has become a favorite among seasoned hikers visiting the Great Smoky Mountains.

At the summit, you will find the LeConte lodge, a lodge open from spring to fall. Be sure to book your room early as they are quick to fill up. The lodge is perfect for hikers that want to take their time hiking up, spending sunset and sunrise at the mountain top, then strolling back down the mountain the next day.

There are multiple trails up to the summit of Mt. Le Conte.

When you hit the true summit of Mt. Le Conte, you may be disappointed to see that you see nothing but a stack of rocks. But don’t be alarmed, you’ve already made it this far, hike out just half a mile to Myrtle Point for some of the most stunning views of the Smokies!

Take a snack and enjoy it at Myrtle Point with your fellow hikers and revel in the fact that you just climbed an entire mountain!

You can also hike up to the Cliff Tops for even more views.

Hikes to Mt. Le Conte Summit

The following marked and moderately to heavily trafficked trails will lead you to the summit of Mt. Le Conte but check seasonal availability.

  • Alum Cave Trail – 10.6 miles roundtrip to summit
    • Includes stop at Alum Bluffs 2.3 miles in
  • Rainbow Falls Trail – 13 miles roundtrip to summit
    • Includes stop at Rainbow Falls 2.7 miles in
  • Bullhead Trail – 14.8 miles roundtrip to summit
    • Can combine with Rainbow Falls Trail
  • Trillium Gap Trail – 14.9 miles roundtrip to summit
    • Grotto Falls 1.5 miles in
    • Follow the llamas to the LeConte Lodge MWF March-November
  • Boulevard Trail – 18 miles roundtrip to summit
    • Starts on the Appalachian Trail

Pro tip: Check AllTrails in the days leading up to this hike to check on the trail conditions as there can be may ridges and steep drop offs on the trails!

Go chasing Smoky Mountain waterfalls

TLC will have to forgive me here when I say you should definitely go chasing waterfalls.

Pro Tip: Chase the waterfalls in the spring and summer if you want to see rushing falls.

Rainbow Falls

Mentioned earlier, Rainbow Falls is one the most popular falls in the park. Standing tall at 75 feet, this falls draws in crowds year round.

Hike straight to the waterfall – 5.4 miles roundtrip – for a waterfall full day, or go the extra mile – or eight – and hike to the top of Mt. Le Conte!

The trail to Rainbow Falls is rated as moderate, but beware of the 4,300 foot elevation gain, take it slow and be sure to bring water so you can make it to the water.

Grotto Falls

A favorite in the park, Grotto Falls, is the only water fall in the entire National Park that one can stand behind. Which makes it a favorite for pictures and a great place to cool down on hot summer days.

The trail is only 3 miles round trip and can be found along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. Use this trail as a nice pit stop on your 6 mile long car journey. While on this short trail, you will go through a 3,720 foot elevation gain, making this trail a bit more difficult. Be sure to come prepared and ready for behind-the-water shots!

The Sinks

Take a dip in the summer at The Sinks, a roadside waterfall and watering hole right near Gatlinburg.

The Sinks is the perfect waterfall for anyone, whether confined to your car, traveling with the elderly or children, or just want to cool off, The Sinks is the perfect spot for you.

The falls may be on the smaller side – 15 feet – but a must for summer time visitors.

Ramsey Cascades

At 100 feet, Ramsey Cascades is the tallest waterfall in the park. But may also be the hardest to navigate to.

The trail to Ramsey Cascades is a strenuous 8 mile roundtrip hike through boulders.

Come prepared for a day engulfing hike, but revel in the views of the tallest waterfall in the Smokies.

The Western Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountain Sunrise
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The Great Smoky Mountains are a must see for any mountain hiking, travel lover. The hikes, waterfalls, trails, and views are endless in The Smokies. Once you arrive in the mountains you will lose sense of life outside of the mountains. Every time you look out your window or just over your shoulder you will be greeted by the sight of rolling mountains as far as the eye can see. When you get high enough, you may be able to see one of the bustling cities that made the valley their home, surrounded on all sides by the mountains, hiding them away from others.

There is something different about the Smokies, it could be waking up to the “smoke” filled valleys, which is just the fog claiming it’s land, the magnificent sunsets that you are sure to see, the sense that you are alone with other mountain lovers nestled into your own mountain world, or maybe it’s just the elevation change. Whatever it is, you must go to experience it.

Now go, because the Smoky Mountains are calling.

**Disclaimer: I did not visit each trail/site listed on this post. Some I wanted to visit but did not have time and some were talked about by other visitors and locals I met on my trip.**

Stay tuned for more to do in Gatlinburg and Asheville!

Follow along on social for even more pictures!

View from Andrews Bald in the Smoky Mountains
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