Guide to Hiking Smoky Mountains National Park

women hiking in great smoky mountains
Explorer Chicks in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the United States most visited of all 63 National Parks, with over 12 million people gracing the grounds a year. With the Smoky Mountains covering both Tennessee and North Carolina, it’s extremely accessible and family friendly.

The 8 Best Hikes in Smoky Mountains National Park

hiking smoky mountains

While the high visitation may sound like a deterrent for a visit because of crowds, with over 800 miles of trails, it’s still very possible to find your own piece of southern paradise. To take the guesswork out of planning, here is a list of some of the best day hikes in the Smoky Mountains.

1. The Best Easy Trail: Laurel Falls Trail

laurel falls trail

Elevation gain: 314’

Distance: 2.6 mile

Difficulty level: easy

Trailhead starting point: Little River Road

One of two paved trails, the Laurel Falls Trail is one of the most popular trails in the park. It’s a unique Great Smoky Mountains hiking experience because while National Park Service says the hike is considered moderate, many say it’s an easy beginner hike. However, it has a big payoff in the end worthy of moderate hiking!

The out and back trail provides for some beautiful views of Great Smoky Mountains along the route which leads you to the 80-foot Laurel Falls waterfall. The trail and waterfall are named after the mountain laurel shrub that grows all throughout the National Park, paying homage to the beautiful surroundings you’ll see hiking the Smoky Mountains.

2. The Best Family Hike: Gatlinburg Trail

gatlinburg trail sign
(Photo credit: Creative Commons)

Elevation gain: 235’

Distance: 1.9-mile (one way)

Difficulty level: easy

Trailhead starting point: Sugarlands Visitors Center

This is a paved walking trail so it’s perfect for an easy walk through the park. While this isn’t the most strenuous Smoky Mountains hiking, the benefit of the Gatlinburg Trail is that it is one of the only paths that allows both bikes and dogs, so it truly is a family trail. You have stunning river side views along with some of the old foundations of settler’s homes.

3. The Best Waterfall Hike: Rainbow Falls Trail

rainbow falls trail

Elevation gain: 1,685’

Distance: 5.4-mile roundtrip

Difficulty level: moderate

Trailhead starting point: Cherokee Orchard Rd 

Rainbow Falls trail is the perfect waterfall hike: challenging with a dramatic finish. The 80-foot waterfall is the tallest single-drop waterfall in the park, which provides a rewarding view at the end. With a rapid elevation gain in the beginning, this moderate hike provides for a steady climb and amazing views.

There are great picnic sites along the first two thirds of the trail, so if the uphill trek is too strenuous there are plenty of nice places for a break. The trail itself used to be more of a rough footpath, but around 2017 the park made improvements for hiker safety. If you arrive at the falls in the afternoon, you may be lucky enough to see a rainbow that forms in the misty water. In the winter, the ice formations around the falls are impressive.

Join other adventurous ladies on this trail with our glamping weekend in the Smokies!

4. The Best Challenging Hike: Mt. Sterling via Baxter Creek

baxter creek trail
(Photo credit: Brian Stansberry/Creative Commons)

Elevation gain: 4,200’

Distance: 6.1 miles (one way)

Difficulty level: strenuous

Trailhead starting point: Big Creek Campground

While the mileage may not seem all that impressive, the steep elevation gain and almost direct ascent is what makes this one of the toughest of all the Smoky Mountain hiking treks. If you can beat the difficult route, then you’ll be rewarded with one of the most striking views of the Smokies from Mount Sterling.

5. The Best Trail to Avoid Crowds: Porters Creek Trail

porters creek trail hiking
(Photo credit: Brian Stansberry/Creative Commons)

Elevation gain: 1512’

Distance: 7 miles

Difficulty level: moderate

Trailhead starting point: Porters Creek trailhead

This is the quiet trail you’ve been searching for. It has everything a park lover is looking for: a bit of difficulty mixed with lovely scenery and historic sites along the way. Even the drive to the trailhead is known for lush forest views. With remnants of old farmsteads, footbridges and waterfalls, this hike is sure to please any park goer, no matter the skill level.  

If you’re looking to explore less visited Smoky Mountain hiking trails like Porters Creek, consider using the Wears Valley entrance as opposed to the Gatlinburg entrance. This will help to avoid the busier Smoky Mountain hiking points.

6. The Best Long-Distance Hike: Appalachian Trail

woman hiking along the appalachian trail

Elevation gain: 1640’

Distance: 8.1 mile

Difficulty level: moderate

Trailhead starting point: Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion

The Appalachian Trail is one of the iconic trails of North America, but you don’t have to do the entire thing to get a taste of it. Out of the over 2,000 miles of trail, there is an 8-mile section to Charlies Bunion that is one of the longer hikes of the Great Smoky Mountains. 

At the stone overlook, you’ll have views of Mount Kephart, Mount Guyot and Mount LeConte. This section of the trail basically begins at the Tennessee and North Carolina state line and with a steady few miles climb uphill at the beginning; you know you’ll be able to enjoy a great view at the top. If you plan this hike in the spring or early summer, there are beautiful wildflowers that bloom all throughout the trail.

great smoky mountains cta

Other Must-Do Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains

Aside from the above best-of classics, these are two other hikes that will blow your socks off in Smoky Mountains National Park.

7. Mt Cammerer trail

explorer chicks at mt cammerer summit
Explorer Chicks at Mt Cammerer summit.

Elevation gain: 3169’

Distance: 11 miles

Difficulty Level: Strenuous

Trailhead starting point: Lower Mount Cammerer Trailhead or Cosby Campground

The Mt Cammerer trail is a must-do hike that provides a view from the summit that makes the 11-mile hike worth every step. Once at the top, you can stand on the fire tower that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC, a precursor to the NPS) back in the 1930s providing a bird’s eye view of Pigeon River Gorge. On a clear day, this can be the best view in the whole park.

8. Alum Cave Trail to Mt Leconte

alum cave and mt leconte

Elevation gain: 2896’

Distance: 11 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate to strenuous

Trailhead starting point: Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead Parking

Another can’t miss Smoky Mountain hiking trail is the Alum Cave Trail to Mt Leconte. Mount LeConte is another great summit hike, with some magnificent views. 

While you can access the summit via Boulevard or Rainbow Falls, the Alum Cave Trail offers a unique rest stop within the cave itself that overlooks the valley below. This is a good turnaround spot for a shorter hike but moving through the rest of the trail there are some fantastic rocky cliffs and boulders. Alum Cave Trail is stunning all year round, with wildflowers in the springtime, rhododendron in early summer, and autumn glory in the fall. 

What You Need for Hiking Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must do for all adventure enthusiasts. With some of the oldest mountain ranges on earth and over 2,000 miles of streams running throughout the region, it’s a hiker and backpacker’s paradise.

However, don’t forget to pack appropriately when in the backcountry! Pack a bag with all the hiking essentials: 

  • First Aid Kit
  • Bug Repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Water
  • Camera
  • Sense of Adventure!

Want other gear recommendations? Check out our full guide on gear we use!

Meet the Writer

Abbie Synan

Abbie Synan is a freelance writer who focuses on sustainability initiatives within the tourism industry. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she has been traveling full time since 2013, hopping the globe, visiting over 95 countries while exploring ways to be a more mindful global citizen. She is the sustainable travel expert for Wanderful, an international travel community, as well as the content co-lead for Impact Travel Alliance, a global organization educating and inspiring travelers.

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