National Park Hiking Guide: The Great Smoky Mountains

Hey hey! Happy Travel Tuesday! You guys I’m in SUCH a good mood today because it’s raining! Weird right? But rain is much better than snow in my book, so I’ll take the rain and the slightly warmer temps over a blizzard any day. Maybe that little groundhog was wrong and Spring is actually just around the corner?

Wishful thinking… I know. The weatherman said it’s going to be back down to 20 degrees by the end of the week. Rolling my eyes over here.

Ugh. So let’s talk about about other things that make us happy… like wide open spaces, rolling mountains for as far as you can see, and picture perfect hiking.

I’m back today with my second post on The Great Smoky Mountains! If you missed the first (a city guide) click here! With my other travel posts, I’ve added itineraries for each day. Which I promise you, I will do! But I’m going about this one a little bit differently. You’ll get my suggested itinerary at the end of the travel series. Because this national park is so big, and has so many visitors a year, I decided to break it up into two posts… one on my favorite hikes, and one on everything else.

Why? Because I have a TON of tips that will make your life SO MUCH EASIER to beat out crowds and find what fits you and your traveling partner(s) the best. So let’s get moving on my favorite hikes in the Smokies!

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There are two things that I love about hiking in the Smoky Mountains. The first, is that there is such a variety of trails that  whether you’re on your very first hike or your millionth, there is a trail for you. The second, you don’t have a crazy altitude adjustment to get used to. So going on a hike your first day there isn’t an issue.

Personally, I believe that hiking is the best way to see the beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Usually, the best views are the the ones that you work the hardest to find, and in the Smoky Mountains, this could not be more true.

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Chimney Tops 

Know Before You Go Before you set off on your grand hiking adventure, be sure you have prepared yourself. It’s important to note, that hiking in the Smoky Mountains is different than hiking in other places around the world. Because of where it is located, the weather changes frequently, and different seasons bring different challenges to different trails. So you should always be prepared.

  • Wear Layers, no matter the season. While it may be 90 degrees in downtown Gatlinburg, it could be cool and rainy up on top of a summit. Always dress in layers! It’s easier to take of a jacket and throw it in your bag, than it is to hike while shivering!
  • Bring Water. And Snacks. Hiking can be tough, especially if you’re a beginner. There is no shame in stopping for a snack break. Pack granola bars, sandwiches and other high protein snacks. Trust me. Your belly will thank you!
  • Wear the right shoes. No one should be trying to hike up a mountain in flip flops. Wear sturdy shoes that will support your feet as you trek miles across through the forests.
  • Take a backpack. Things you should always have with you? Water, food, a jacket, bear spray, first aid kit, and a GPS locating device if you are hiking solo.
  • Don’t forget your camera. Less serious than the others, but just as important! You guys will LOVE the scenery and won’t want to be without a camera to capture the magical memories you are about to make.

Now, let’s talk about hikes!

Best Hikes for Beginners

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Laurel Falls

First up, the hikes for all of you that want to start off easy. One of the greatest things about The Smoky Mountains is that there are SO MANY trails for inexperienced hikers. However, don’t take “short” to mean easy. (Lookin’ at you, Chimney Tops.) My favorite hikes for beginners?

  • Laurel Falls Trail I LOVE Laurel Falls Trail. Not only is this hike pretty easy, but it’s really beautiful too. And, you can usually see bears in this area! Don’t worry though, this hike is so popular that you shouldn’t ever find yourself alone, face to face with a momma bear. When I say this hike is popular… I mean it. Plan to get there early (parking doesn’t last) and know that you’re going to be sharing the trail with a lot of other people. While this trail is easy, the the path is clear, it is pretty much up hill the entire hike. Another note? Watch your little ones VERY carefully on this trail. You don’t want them to fall off the side of the trail, because it is a loooooong way down. Of all the hikes in this beginners section, it is the most difficult. However, I really believe most people could handle this one, and the reward at the end is truly amazing. Difficulty: Moderate (according to the NPS, but if you don’t mind the uphill climb, I really think most people could do this one!) Trail Length: 2.6 miles round trip 
  • Gatlinburg Trail I would consider this more of a “walk” than a hike. This is the only trail in the national park where you can bring your furry friends along with you. You’ll find pretty river views and remnants of old homesteads as we wander this trail. It begins right outside the Sugarlands Visitors Center and takes you right to the outskirts of Gatlinburg. Difficulty: Easy. Trail Length: 1.9 miles one way
  • Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail If you scroll through reviews on this hike, you’ll see three words used over and over again. Short, Easy and Safe. This one is paved, and anyone can enjoy it. It winds along the river, and you’ll find plenty of benches to sit and relax at along the way. It is also a giant loop, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. This is a great first hike for beginners. Difficulty: Easy. Trail Length: 0.5 mile loop 

Best Hikes for The Pros

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  • Any trail that takes you to Mount LaConte You want the best hikes and views in the park? Pick a trail, any trail that will lead you to Mount LaConte. You have FIVE, yup thats right, FIVE different ways you can reach the summit of Mount LaConte.
    • The first way to get there, is via the Alum Cave Trail. This is hands down the most classic route. You’ll be challenged with different geological features, but rewarded with stunning panoramic views. Difficulty: Strenuous. Trail Length: 11 miles round trip 
    • The next is via the Boulevard Trail. This is the trickster of the trails. People automatically assume this is the easiest way to reach the summit of Mount LeConte because it begins at the highest elevation. But that simply isn’t true. This hike is HARD. I’ve never done it, and honestly probably never will. You’re looking at a 15 mile hike to round trip. And if you ask me, it’s silly to take the longer way when the views at Alum Cave are just as beautiful. Difficulty: Strenuous. Trail Length: 15.6 miles round trip 
    • I’m going to combine the next two ways to Mount LaConte. Why? Because they start in the same place… the Rainbow Falls/Bullhead trail share a parking area. Taking the Rainbow Falls route, you’ll get to see the waterfalls, but the Bullhead route will give you better views. That being said? This trail is HOT HOT HOT. (I hope you sang that too. HAHA) There isn’t a whole lot of shade, but, the lack of trees means panoramic views. This is the prettiest way to reach the summit in the autumn. Difficulty via Bullhead: Strenuous. Trail Length: 14.4 miles round trip. Difficulty via Rainbow Falls: Strenuous. Trail Length: 13.8 miles round trip
    • And last, but not least, is via the Trillium Gap Trail. By choosing this route, you will get to hike one of the most popular short hikes in the park… to Grotto Falls. This part will be super easy. It’s after Grotto Falls that the trail begins to make the climb upwards. This is also the way to go if you’re looking to see a lot of wild flowers. Difficulty: Strenuous. Trail Length: 15.4 miles round trip 

Best Hikes for Families

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Trev and I thought this sign was SO FUNNY. It pointed to a trail leading to some sort of nature exhibit, but from this angle it looked like it was pointing to the trees. HAHA
  • Porter’s Creek Trail Forests and wildflowers. What more could you want? Porter’s Creek Trail winds through the beautiful Smoky Mountain forests, while boasting lots of wildflowers and historical buildings. I wouldn’t recommend hiking the entire trail if you have little ones, but heading the first mile in (to Porter’s Flat) will give your babies a great first hiking experience. Difficulty: Moderate. Trail Length: 2 miles round trip if you stop at Porter’s Flat
  • Andrew’s Bald If you want your little ones to see insane views of the Smokies without taking an insane hike, take them to Andrew’s Bald. This is a trail that may be better suited for older kids, because it is a bit rocky. Your kids will love to know that they started this hike in Tennessee and end up in North Carolina. Yup, this one technically crosses the state line. It is only 1.7 miles out to the “bald”. Difficulty: Moderate. Trail Length: 3.5 miles round trip  

Best Hikes for The Views

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Trev at Charlies Bunion
  • Charlies Bunion Charlies Bunion is my favorite hike in the Smoky Mountains. Maybe it’s because Trev proposed on this hike… but I promise you, you won’t be disappointed if you choose this one. Don’t let the gross name fool you, this view is INSANE, and the hike is relatively easy. This hike is really popular. So it’s another one you’ll want to get up early to see. This hike probably won’t take you as long as you think either. Yeah, 8 miles sounds a bit daunting, but the way down is super easy. Difficulty: Strenuous. Trail Length: 8.1 miles round trip  

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    I said yes! Shout out to the girl that took photos for us! They turned out better than we could have hoped.
  • Chimney Tops HA I can hear Trev yelling at me already for this one. Okay. Let me be frank. Chimney Tops sucks. It’s hard. It’s the worst. It’s everything you could hate in a hike and more. BUT the view at the end is supposedly STUNNING. Notice I say supposedly? The day we hiked it was rainy (not smart) and when we FINALLY reached the top, it was so foggy you couldn’t see barely anything. Y’all. THIS HIKE IS ALL STAIRS. It’s literally straight up and it’s awful if you’re not expecting it. So don’t listen to all of those people telling you that it’s “not that bad”. It is. But if you do it, chances are it will be worth it in the end. (Unless you make a dumb decision like we did and hike it in the rain. It wasn’t safe, and we weren’t rewarded in the end.) Difficulty: Moderate (according to all hiking trail sites… strenuous according to me!). Trail Length: 3.8 miles round trip 
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I just had to share this one. One of MANY breaks we took on Chimney Tops trail hahaha

  • Clingman’s Dome I struggled with where to put this one! To me, Clingman’s Dome is not a hike. It’s more for sightseeing. However, it is the best view you can get in the park, and you have to walk up a pretty steep incline to get to it. So while I’ll talk about it in more detail next week, know that to see the views from the Dome, you’ll need a decent pair of walking shoes.

 

Best Short Trail

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The Alum Cave Trail was closed while we were there. So here’s a picture of a bear instead!
  • Alum Cave Trail Don’t have a whole lot of time in the Smoky Mountains? I know SO many people that just pass through as a place to get out and stretch on their way to their final destination. My family and I have done it before, and I know plenty of others do too. While I don’t recommend this (you should spend a week here!) I know a lot of people will ask “But if I don’t have a whole lot of time and want to do just one hike, which should I do?” I’m going to point you to the Alum Cave Trail. Ringing it at only 4 miles round trip, this gentle grade hike can be done pretty quickly. The reason it’s one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies? Not only is the “cave” unique, but the views are pretty great too!

And with over 800 miles of hiking trails, this list doesn’t even begin to cover it! For more information, check out Visit My Smokies and The National Park Service.

Tomorrow, I’m back with my favorite guest blogger. He’s here on a Wedding Wednesday to offer some insight on planning a proposal. The post will be filled with our memories of our proposal on Charlies Bunion in the Smoky Mountains. So, even if you aren’t planning on proposing, or being proposed to, you should be sure to check back tomorrow!

I hope you all have a very happy Tuesday!

Xx.
Savannah

PS… How many of you were in Boston today for the Pats parade? If you were…. I’m so freakin jealous of you!

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