If you live in the eastern US, you probably know about the Smoky Mountains already. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the US, and its forested peaks are within driving distance from a huge number of cities.
I’ve visited a few times. When I started planning a solo road trip this fall, my first thought was “been there, done that.” After a bit of research, though, I realized I had only seen a tiny part of the Smokies.
So, even if you’ve visited before, I’m here to tell you that most of the park‘s mountain vistas and cascading streams are still waiting for you to explore. And you should explore them. (If you’ve never been, that’s cool too. Don’t leave!) I’ll share what I did on my trip, but I’m also going to throw in some extra information to help with YOUR trip to the Smokies.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Over 800 miles of trails, including a large section of the Appalachian Trail. You can climb long and mountainous trails, go for an easy walk to a waterfall, or anything in between.
There’s a main road through the middle called Newfound Gap Road, which connects two visitor centers: Sugarlands (TN side) and Oconaluftee (NC side). That’s only part of the story, though. Many of the trails are accessed through other entrances that circle the entire park. With no entrance fee, day hikers can drive in anywhere and start hiking.
Confused? That’s ok! The upshot of all this is that, wherever you stay in the Smokies, some great trails will be really close by and others will be an hour or more by car. It’s important to choose your home base wisely.
How to Use the Map: The map above shows all the places I mention in this guide. Click the button in the top left corner to open the menu, where you can see a list of locations. You can also click the layers to show or hide certain features.
Where to stay
First things first: I’m not a camper. My idea of a hiking trip involves going back to a nice clean room and showering. If you wanna go camping, there are amazing places for it in the Smokies. Maybe start with the camping page on the park website.
For a non-camping home base, I looked at these options:
Gatlinburg– Mountain town of your dreams or kitschy nightmare? Gatlinburg is the definition of touristy, with everything from mini golf to moonshine distilleries lining the main road. It’s also the perfect location to access some of the best hikes in the Smokies. You’re less than 30 minutes from waterfalls in the Roaring Fork area and mountain hikes along Newfound Gap Road and near Mt. LeConte. And if you’re looking for other activities beyond hiking, the list in Gatlinburg is very long.
Cherokee– Across the mountains from Gatlinburg is Cherokee, part of the Qualla Boundary tribal area. It’s touristy too, with plenty of souvenir shops and a giant casino, although there are some cultural sights for those interested in the history of the Cherokee Indians. It’s convenient for hikes along Newfound Gap Road and close to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the open-air farm museum there. Cherokee is also less than 30 minutes from great waterfall hikes in the Deep Creek area.
Bryson City— If you’re looking for that charming, small-town vibe, you’ll find it in Bryson City. The town has a handful of shops and restaurants, a couple of breweries, and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Bryson City is just minutes from the trailheads at Deep Creek and Lakeview Drive. It’s about 30 minutes to drive to the central Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee.
Townsend– Townsend has branded itself as “the peaceful side of the Smokies.” With only a few stores and restaurants scattered across its green foothills, Townsend definitely feels farther away from civilization than other places. It’s close to Cades Cove, a valley area known for wildlife viewing and the historic buildings of early settlers. The central Sugarlands Visitor Center is about 40 minutes away.
I went with Bryson City for this trip. As a solo traveler, it was nice to be in a small town with a few cool places to check out, while staying away from the uber-touristy stuff in Gatlinburg. (Most of the attractions weren’t an option due to the pandemic anyway!) I did have a bit of driving to get to hikes in the center of the park, but that’s the tradeoff.
Where to hike
With hundreds of miles of trails winding through the park, it’s hard to decide where to go in the Smokies. I looked for trails that take less than a full day to complete. Why? Because I went there solo, and I get bored and cranky after a few hours of hiking. Of course, your mileage may vary, both literally and figuratively.
Here are some trails I like, roughly organized by area. All mileage is round trip. (I used info from Hiking in the Smokys for help here–check them out!) I suggest planning a mix of different types of hikes. I did a waterfall hike in the Deep Creek area one day and opted for a mountain top hike to Andrews Bald on another. Note that some areas are like Clingman’s Dome Road are not accessible during the winter.
Clingmans Dome/Newfound Gap area
The center of the park! If you want to hike atop the highest peaks, this is your ticket. It’s midway between Gatlinburg and Cherokee.
- Clingman’s Dome – a steep 0.5 mile climb to the top of the Smokies. It’s more paved walkway than actual trail, but the views from the observation tower are hard to beat. Cross your fingers for a clear day (or check the weather report, that might work too). Get there early to avoid the crowds.
- Andrews Bald – from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot, take a 3.5 mile trail to a picturesque grassy meadow. (In the Appalachians, these mountaintop meadows are called “balds.”) The hilly trail winds down through beautiful pine forests and a bit of rocky terrain. The trail is officially called the Forney Ridge Trail, but you’ll see signs for Andrews Bald too. It makes a perfect spot to have lunch!
- Alum Cave – from the trailhead on Newfound Gap Road, this trail ascends past Arch Rock and up to the peaks. At the end you reach Alum Cave, a towering recess in the cliffside. It’s 4.4 mi. roundtrip with over 1000 ft. of elevation gain, so be prepared for a workout. I planned to do this hike but ran out of time, so it’s at the top of my list for next time!
Deep Creek/Lakeview Drive area
Go for the waterfalls! These hikes are only a few minutes from Bryson City, or 20-30 minutes from Cherokee. In the summer you can also go tubing. ( I was there in fall. Sad face. But not sad face because it was still beautiful.)
- Deep Creek Loop – Here’s the pitch: three waterfalls on one hike: Tom Branch Falls, Indian Creek Falls, and Juney Whank Falls. Plus there’s a long stretch of trail along a cascading stream. From the Deep Creek trailhead, this 4.6 mile loop takes you around a combination of connected trails, so be sure to double check your map. There are a few moderate hills.
- Indian Creek Falls – If that sounds too far, you can hike out and back to Indian Creek Falls with a 1.9 mile round trip. You’ll pass Tom Branch Falls too!
- Road to Nowhere – a unique trail that takes you through a long, abandoned tunnel. Ooo spooky! From the Lakeshore Trail trailhead, the hike is a 3.2 mile loop through the tunnel and around the Goldmine Loop, which goes along a stream and past Fontana Lake.
Roaring Fork/Mt LeConte area
This area close to Gatlinburg has a scenic overlooks, easy trails, and historic buildings. It’s a perfect introduction to the Smokies.
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – a 5.5 mile driving loop. If you’re not up for a long hike, start here! You’ll find plenty of beautiful places to stop and explore. Hikes to rotto Falls (2.6 mi) and Rainbow Falls (5.4 mi) start from this road.
- Grotto Falls – an easy trail takes you across mountain streams and up to an impressive waterfall that you can walk behind.
Cades Cove/Elkmont area
Cades Cove is a valley famous for its wildlife, and you can often spot wildlife from the loop road. If you’re looking for waterfalls on the Tennessee side, check out this area. It’s close to Townsend and Gatlinburg.
- Abrams Falls – from the west end of Cades Cove, you can hike fairly easy 5.2 miles to a wide, powerful waterfall. Fun fact, when I hiked this trail, I saw two bears!
- Laurel Falls – it’s only a 2.3 mile round trip up to this unique waterfall. The upper and lower sections of the 80 ft. falls are divided by a walkway that lets you get up close. Just watch you step on the slippery rocks.
Hiking tips and resources
I’m not an expert (obviously), but I really enjoy hiking! I have a few tips to plan a beginner-level hiking trip to the Smokies.
- Plan your time – Great Smoky Mountains National Park is really spread out, so make the best use of your time by deciding on what area(s) to explore before you head out for the day. I suggest getting a printed map or at least downloading one to a smartphone, since most of the park lacks cell phone service. Figure out where the nearest visitor center is in case you’d like to stop in. Also, be aware of things like sunset time so you can get back to your car before it’s dark!
- Know your energy level – How far do you wanna hike? If you have no reference, start small and go from there. Always check the elevation gain of a trail. Just because you can survive a long, steep hike doesn’t mean it will be fun!
- Dress in layers – What to wear depends on the weather, your location in the park, and how hard you’re working in terms of physical activity. The best solution is to wear multiple layers, even better if you can fit outer layers into a backpack. On my trip I started one day with 40 F, but the afternoon almost reached 70 F! A packable rain shell is a great idea too.
- Bring supplies – This may seem obvious, but always bring water and snacks. You might also want some gear for emergencies like a knife, fire source, and first aid kit. REI has a comprehensive checklist if you want to gear up. Also, due to COVID-19, wear a mask and bring some hand sanitizer (duh).
- If you are hiking solo, stick to well known trails and let someone know where you are planning to go. If an emergency happens, you’ll be much more likely to get help.
- National Parks Hiking Safety Guide: https://www.nps.gov/articles/hiking-safety.htm
- The 10 Essentials of Hiking: https://americanhiking.org/resources/10essentials/
- Hiking 101: https://bearfoottheory.com/hiking-101-tips-for-beginners/