Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Beginner's Guide to Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Centennial Celebration's "Find Your Park" logo, encourages everyone to get involved in National or State Parks.

I was talking today with a long time volunteer with the Smokies who is helping organize the National Parks Centennial Celebration at our local level. We discussed what I had heard for many years, that a staggeringly high percentage of visitors never venture far from their vehicles while visiting this special place. Some never leave their car and see the Park only through their windshields. How sad!

In this year of the Centennial Celebration, a focus of the efforts and vision of Superintendent Cassius Cash is to reach out to the younger generations, the millennials and younger, as well as diverse populations to encourage them to experience the Park on a personal level. It is these individuals who will carry the torch into the future and help make sure the National and State Parks' futures are secure. It is vital that they become involved at a higher level than they currently are or the passion that protects these amazing places may dwindle. Those of us who love Great Smoky Mountains National Park (or any other park for that matter) need to carry the banner and begin the process of handing it off to the younger generations. I can think of no better way than to get folks out of their cars and onto the trails where they can experience the magic for themselves.

Honestly, to some visitors and even some local folks, hiking in the Smokies can be an intimidating prospect, but it certainly doesn't have to be. Three-fourths of the year, during tourist season, a newbie can find a wide, well-travelled trail and thrill to the gurgle of a creek, the roar of a waterfall, or the silence of the forest--an experience that will undoubtedly soothe even the most savage beast of our modern, stress-laden world--with a minimal amount of preparation.

So, for our visitors who might otherwise stay in their cars and never truly "see" the Park, let me make some recommendations on gear and also on some trails you will LOVE, some of which you may not hear of otherwise.

GEAR for a First Hike in the Smokies    

The single most important piece of equipment you need to have with you will cost you a whopping $1.00--a MAP. These dollar maps can be purchased at any Visitor Center and at some other locations in dispensers where you simply put a dollar in and get out a map. It can be ordered before your trip HERE. It's absolutely essential that you purchase one! It will make a great souvenir anyway and might keep you from becoming disoriented in the woods.

Shoes or boots--You do not have to have hiking boots or hiking shoes to do the trails I am listing here in this post. Some of them could possibly be enjoyed in less for short distances, but do yourself a favor and use tennis shoes or better. Enjoying the trail will be easier if your feet are protected by a solid shoe. Just remember, the Smokies are a temperate rainforest, so there will often be muddy sections on most any trail. Flip flops (or dare I say it because I've seen it--high heels) can be downright dangerous on a muddy, rocky, or root-strewn trail.

Water--Always carry water with you when you venture out for a hike. If you're planning on hiking more than a mile or two, especially in hot weather, carry at least a quart of water with you. It is not recommended that you drink the water in the streams and rivers, tempting as that might be, so be sure to carry some with you.

Food--It's always a good idea to have a little bit of food with you on any hike, even a short one like we are going to talk about in a minute. Stick a protein bar or a bag of nuts in your pocket to help fuel your body as you walk in our woods. The further you plan to hike, the more food you'll want to pack. Just please remember to pack the wrapper or any other trash back out with you to protect our wildlife and the experience of others who do not want to see trails littered with orange peels or food packaging. Food scraps left in the woods KILL our bears, so if you pack it in, please, pack it out!

Camera--I wouldn't send you into the Smokies without a way to capture the treasures you will find along its trails. You have no idea what awaits you! You WILL want to remember it, and since you cannot remove anything (no rocks, plants, leaves, sticks, nothing!), a camera provides you with a record of the special sights you will enjoy. Remember, "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints."

A Careful Eye on the Sun or your Watch--As a novice hiker, you do not want to be caught in the woods at nightfall, so please allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy your hike, yet complete it before the sun gets too low in the sky. These deep woods get dark more quickly than you might think (and when they get dark the temperatures drop surprisingly quickly), so unless you've packed flashlights or headlamps for everyone in your party, start early in the day. Allot yourself about one hour for each mile you will hike. This should allow ample time for taking in the sights, snapping lots of pictures, stopping to rest and snack, and still get you back to your car before sunset.

Realistically, for a short hike of only a few miles on the trails I list here, these are the essentials. Other items are a good idea: compass (if you know how to use one), a whistle, rain gear (vital if the weather is cool in fall or spring; potentially life-saving in winter) and a light backpack to contain it all. If after sampling some of these trails, you become hooked on hiking as many have, you will want to invest in more gear before venturing off the well-travelled trails or for longer hikes. But this will get you started. Take the time to get off the pavement and onto the trails below. You may never be the same!


The trails I list here are a delight for the beginning hiker. There is little to no risk of getting lost if you simply stay on the trail, and they offer sights and sounds uniquely engaging for those who take the time to enjoy a walk in the woods. They are well-travelled which will make even the most novice hiker feel safe knowing that others are not too far away in case anything unexpected does happen.


Little River Trail--near Elkmont--This is a wide, almost level trail that was once a road. It follows along Little River amid old vacation homes of the village of Elkmont. These homes, for the most part, are now condemned and should not be entered. It is nice to observe these old homes and think about what it must have been like to stay here. Some were occupied as late as 1992 due to leases that were negotiated before the Park took ownership of the land. To me, though, the biggest draw for this trail is the river itself. Numerous small cascades are worth stopping to see and photograph. There are many places along the trail where you can stop with a picnic lunch and let kids play in the river. I used to do it all the time when my own children were young. There are some huge boulders along the river which make excellent picnic tables. This trail goes on for over 6 miles, but a new hiker will enjoy a stroll up Little River for any distance that is comfortable and then can simply turn around and return to the car.

Meigs Creek Trail--trailhead is located at the Sinks--I recommend doing this trail in the summer because there are 18 water crossings on the entire length (3.5 miles one way) of the trail. I also recommend NOT doing it after heavy rains as the crossings may become dangerous. But on a warm summer day when rains have been minimal, in shoes you don't mind getting wet, this trail is a real joy! Most of the crossings occur after the first mile, but this section of forest is just lovely. I have seen bear, turkey, ruffed grouse and even a black racer snake along this trail. Upper Meigs Falls can be seen from the trail at about 1.75 miles and this is a good place for the novice hiker to turn around, after enjoying the falls, making your total hiking distance about 3.5 miles.

Middle Prong Trail--in Tremont--Another wide path which follows a river on a trail which once was a railroad bed. This trail has a little more elevation change than Little River, but also has a dramatic waterfall a little less than 3/4 of a mile out. There is a bench located at the falls for resting and reveling in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Park. You can hike further up Middle Prong if you wish, again turning around whenever you need to and simply return to your vehicle. Something you are sure to find on any of these in and out hikes is this: even though you've just walked up the trail, when you turn around and go back, it's like you're on a different trail. You will see things you didn't notice on your way up; perspective changes and so will the scenery.

CCC Camp Clock Tower and the men who worked there
Old Sugarlands Trail--right across from Sugarlands Visitor Center--This is a HISTORY hike! This delightful trail takes you through the heart of a once vibrant community of hard-working individuals who eeked out their livelihood by farming and raising livestock to support their families. Untold numbers of relics from their homeplaces remain in this area and many can be seen from the trail. Look for stone walls and remnants of chimneys. If you're here in the spring, know that daffodils mark some of the homesites to this day. There are a couple places where other trails (horse trails primarily) intersect with Old Sugarlands but the trail is well-marked. Just be sure to check the signage (and that MAP you're carrying) and make sure you remain on the main trail. One of my favorite historical sites in the Park can be found at about 1.5 miles. Where the trail takes a hard, dog-legged right turn, look up and into the woods. Depending on the season in which you make this trip, you will be able to see (sometimes very easily) the old clock tower that once marked the entrance to a CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) camp which was the working home to the men who built much of the infrastructure of our Park. There is also a stone circle which surrounded the flag pole and many other pieces of evidence of this earlier time in history. It is definitely worth a few minutes of your time!

Andrews Bald offers spectacular views of the NC side of the Smokies
Forney Ridge to Andrews Bald--off Clingman's Dome Parking Area--Of all the hikes listed here on the Tennessee side of the Smokies, this may have the biggest payoff with incredible views of the surrounding Smoky Mountains from an elevation of approximately 5800 ft. You can see equally inspiring views from the parking lot, but remember, my goal is to get you off the pavement and into the backcountry so you can REALLY experience this national treasure. Your sense of accomplishment after having hiked to these vistas will more than make up for the time you spend. The memories will remain with you always, so get onto Forney Ridge Trail and walk to Andrews Bald. The trail courses through forests and is often lined with wildflowers in the spring or with wild blackberries and wild blueberries in the summer, but at 1.8 miles from the trailhead, you step out onto Andrews Bald. The vistas here will take your breath away! Plan to spend some time or maybe pack a lunch. You will want to tarry, I promise! However, this hike is not as level as the trails mentioned in this post that were once roads or even railroads, so be prepared for some minor climbs. Do be careful at an intersection about one mile into your hike that you stay on Forney Ridge trail. Forney Creek Trail goes off to the right and down away from your destination. Andrews Bald is on Forney Ridge, so stay straight at that intersection.

Porter's Creek--in Greenbrier--If you come to the Park in April or early May, do NOT miss this trail! Porter's Creek is world-renowned among wildflower enthusiasts and offers a delightful array of tiny gems blooming along the path and into the woods. You will be blown away by the variety and delicate intricacies on display in the Spring. But this trail is also a gem other times of the year. Many homesites were located along this trail so you will see stone walls, remnants of chimneys, and a cemetery. The old Smoky Mountain Hiking Club Cabin is located along this trail at approximately a mile. Take some time to explore it. You will not want to leave! Then if you decide to go further, you can hike to Fern Branch Falls at approximately 1.7 miles by continuing to follow Porter's Creek Trail.

Hen Wallow Falls on Gabes Mountain Trail
Gabes Mountain Trail--in Cosby--If you visit the Cosby area, there is one short hike that rates high on my list for beginners--Gabes Mountain Trail, if you feel like you can do about 4.25 miles round trip. This trail is a bit of a climb up to Hen Wallow Falls, but my children have done it as have many others. Many of the hikes in the Cosby area have much more significant elevation gains, so this trail is easier than some of those, again with a big payoff. Hen Wallow Falls is definitely worth the trip. You will see a small sign that sends you off on a short side trail down to the base of the falls at 2.1 miles into your hike. There are large boulders at the bottom that make a perfect spot for a picnic lunch. Just be sure to pack out any trash (even "natural" trash like orange or banana peels). Enjoy!


Big Creek Trail--in Big Creek--This trail offers a little something for everyone--wildflowers in the spring, a delightful walk along a gorgeous river complete with numerous cascades, a chance to watch kayakers navigate chutes and eddies, large rock formations that echo the sounds of the river, intensifying the experience, and much more, all along another roadbed hike with little elevation change. There are two major destinations on this hike within the first two miles of trail. A popular swimming hole, Midnight Hole, is at the bottom of a chute of river between two massive boulders located at 1.4 miles from the trailhead. A little further up the trail, at 2.0 miles, Mouse Creek Falls plummets into Big Creek. Many a family photo have been taken from that spot!

Mt. Sterling Fire Tower
Mt. Sterling Trail to the Fire Tower--half way between Big Creek and Cataloochee on dirt road NC Hwy 264--Not only is this trail hard to get to, it is a short but STEEP climb of almost 2000 ft over 2.7 one-way miles. If you are in the physical condition to do it though, this is one of those places in the Park where you can get life-changing vistas, this time at the top of the Mt. Sterling Fire Tower (not for the faint of heart or if you have a fear of heights). For this hike, though, I would recommend a backpack with plenty of water and some extra food. Your body will need the support on this hike. I almost didn't include this hike here, but it is such a breathtaking experience (both literally and figuratively), I thought I would include it with the caveats I have mentioned. If you are unsure about your physical abilities, pick a different hike. This is definitely the most difficult hike in this list.

Bradley Fork--at Smokemont Campground--At the very back of the Smokemont Campground lies one of the most picturesque "easy" hikes in the Park, and most folks never see it. This is a long trail that eventually climbs high up toward the Appalachian Trail, but the beginning section is truly beautiful, and almost flat, as it follows the course of the Bradley Fork of the Oconaluftee River. Perhaps I love this trail so much because the Bradley Fork is also a nice trout stream, but I remember the first time I hiked it, it simply felt magical! I encourage you to meander along as far as you like and then turn around and head back to the campground. You can spend as little or as much time as you have available, and it will all be well spent.

Kephart Prong Shelter
Kephart Prong Trail--off of Newfound Gap Road above Smokemont Campground--An adventure through history awaits you if you take this 4-mile round trip through another old CCC Camp area and out to the Kephart Shelter, named for Horace Kephart, a man instrumental in the creation of this Park. Abundant historical remains can be found on either side of this trail including old chimneys, rock walls, an old fishery, and then of course, this wonderful shelter--another perfect spot for a picnic.

Deep Creek Trail--near Deep Creek Campground--This is a much beloved trail by those who visit the Deep Creek area of the Smokies, and for good reason. Another old roadbed trail, this trek will take you to Tom Branch Falls within the first quarter of a mile. Families love this hike because there are many spots along the trail to launch inner tubes for an easy float down the river back to the campground. I must admit my own personal memories of Deep Creek Trail are blurred by exhaustion because every time I've been on it, we've hiked long, arduous miles down from the Clingman's Dome area to get to it, but I had to include it here because so many folks hold such fond feelings for it. If you are in the Deep Creek area, by all means venture up this fine and easy trail and see for yourself.

Intentional Omissions--There are a few well-known trails that I have intentionally left off my list, primarily because they are the ones everyone knows about. Therefore, they are so highly travelled, I personally do not find them very enjoyable except during winter, and as such, I could not, in good conscience, include them among my favorites. If you don't mind the crowds, then by all means, consider Laurel Falls, Abrams Falls, and Chimney Tops. If crowds are not your thing, hopefully, you have found some other options here.

Since my goal in writing this post is to get you out of your car and into the woods, please feel free to ask questions in the comments below. I'll be happy to either get you an answer or direct you to someone who can. Happy Trails!

If you are someone who has hiked in the Smokies before, what trails would you have included that I left off? I'd love to hear your recommendations as well.


  1. Would you recommend any special gear this time of year if one were to go on the Old Sugarlands trail?

    1. Jessica, you should dress in layers depending on the severity of the weather. If you are going to hike in winter, you will need a backpack with supplies. I never go into the mountains in the winter without enough clothes in my pack to survive an overnight in case of an accident. In the winter I carry multiple layers, rain gear (top and pants), extra socks, food and water. I even carry a sleeping bag liner in my pack all winter. On a cold winter day, a broken ankle could be deadly if hypothermia sets in. You get really cold, really fast, if for some reason you are unable to keep moving. So be prepared for emergencies if you're going to do winter hiking. I LOVE winter hiking, so don't let me discourage you from giving it a try, but you MUST be prepared for the weather! Have fun!

  2. Hi Tami,

    I am planning a backpacking trip with my 8 (almost 9) year old daughter next month. It will be her first backpacking trip and my first in the Smokies. We're fully kitted out with the right gear, maps, GSMA Hiking Trails book, etc., but I wonder if you'd offer your opinion on my proposed itinerary. Day 1: Gregory Ridge Trail to BC campsite 12 (2 miles). Day 2: Gregory Ridge Trail to Gregory Bald Trail to BC campsite 13 (~4 miles). Day 3: long day all the way back to the Gregory Ridge trailhead. Based on our many training hikes, I think she's very capable of these distances, but I don't know if there are any special hazards or watch outs on that route. Thanks in advance for your opinion.

    1. Matt,
      I'm sorry it took me this long to see your comment! I apologize I didn't bet back with you sooner. I think your plan is very doable even with your young daughter. Gregory Ridge is a pretty good climb, but you're breaking it up, so I think she'll be fine. It's early enough in the year that yellow jackets that sometime bother folks at CS 12 shouldn't be a problem. I will warn you that I saw a timber rattler on that trail, but that was in late June. Just keep her behind you on the dry, south-facing slopes and keep your ears open for the easily identifiable sound they make. The timber rattlers don't want to bother you; really, they don't! They give you plenty of warning, so just be on the lookout for them and teach her not to approach. Some people want to check them out once they start their rattling, but I do NOT advise that. This is such an AMAZING hike!!! You will both love the views from Gregory's Bald, so I hope you have great weather. Enjoy every minute of your time up there. I've always wanted to stay at 13 to watch sunrise/sunset and it'll be a wonderful place for stargazing. You'll definitely be able to see the Milky Way if the clouds cooperate. I'm definitely jealous! Someday, I will make that happen too.

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