Within a day’s drive of 2/3 of the U.S. population lies 520,000 acres of some of the oldest mountains in the world. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), the largest national park east of the Rocky Mountains, hosts 9-10 million visitors annually, making it the most visited park in the nation. This iconic park was founded in 1934, and is one of the few national parks to offer free admission year round.
Every year people flock to the GSMNP to camp, hike, ride horses, fly fish, gaze at waterfalls and wildflowers, search for wildlife, and enjoy other outdoor activities. In the spring, synchronized fireflies draw crowds, and in the fall countless visitors enjoy an annual explosion of fall leaf colors.
Planning a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Check out one of these must-do hiking trails.
1. Andrews Bald
Starting in the parking lot for Clingman’s Dome, this 3.5 mile roundtrip hike takes you to the highest bald in the park. Expect outstanding views and one of the most unique environments in the park.2. Chasteen Creek Cascades Hike
A family friendly hike, the Chasteen Creek Cascades hike is a 3.5-mile roundtrip hike that leads to a 30 foot waterfall. The trailhead is located in the back of the parking lot for the Smokemont Campground.
3. Kephart Prong Hike
This hike takes you through an old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) campground on its way to the Kephart Shelter. The hike is 4.2 miles roundtrip and the trail head is located on Newfound Gap Road, 7.3 miles north of the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center.
4. Rich Mountain Loop
On this rather strenuous 8.5-mile roundtrip hike you’ll get the chance to see amazing wildflowers and one of the oldest buildings in the park—a cabin that dates from the 1820’s. Just before reaching the one way section of the Cades Cove Loop trail, park in a large lot on the left and find the trailhead roughly 25 feet past the gate on the right side of the road.
5. Ramsey Cascades
This 8 mile round-trip hike takes you to Ramsey Cascades, the tallest falls in the park. Water falls roughly 100 feet over cascades and rocks, and salamanders can often be found here. Drive 6 miles east bound on 321 out of Gatlinburg, turn right into Greenbrier and drive 3.1 miles until the road forks, then turn left and drive 1.5 miles to the trailhead.6. Mount LeConte
One of the most iconic trails in the park, the hike to Mount Leconte is a strenuous 11 mile roundtrip hike. Known for its views of the park, LeConte also has a lodge where hikers can reserve rustic cabins. Drive 8.7 miles south on Newfound Gap Road from the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center to the parking lot on the left. Arrive early during peak seasons to find a parking spot.7. Metcalf Bottoms Trail
A great option for young kids, this easy, short hike takes you to an old log cabin school house. Turn onto Little River Rd from Sugarlands Visitor Center and drive 6 miles to the parking lot on the right.
8. Charlie’s Bunion
An 8.1 mile roundtrip hike, Charlie’s Bunion offers amazing panoramic views of the park and a large variety of wildflowers. The trailhead is located in the Newfound Gap parking lot.
9. Deep Creek Loop
Located just north of Bryson City, NC, this family friendly 4.6 mile roundtrip hike was one of the first trails built by the CCC. Follow Deep Creek up a well kept trail and enjoy the beautiful flora and fauna.10. Cove Mountain
One of only 4 fire towers left in the park, the Cove Mountain fire tower is reached by way of the Laurel Falls Trail. The tower is used an air quality monitoring station, so hikers are not permitted to climb it but the hike is pleasant. Drive 3.8 miles from Sugarland Visitors Center to the top of Fighting Creek Gap where the parking lot for Laurel Falls Trail will be on your right.
If you decide to check out the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year, be advised that dogs are only allowed to travel through the park on roads. If you have the family pooch with you make arrangements for them if you plan to hike.
Annabell Plush is the Operations Manager at Green River Adventures in Saluda, NC, the mother of an amazing dog named Pigeon, and an aspiring writer. She loves to garden, ride her mountain bike, kayak, and have dance parties. You can follow along for the ride at her blog.