The Smokies look gorgeous from the road—but you can only experience a small fraction of the park from the pavement. Hit the trails to taste the park’s true wilderness magic, from its lofty ridgelines to its quiet valleys. Visit backpacker.com/trips for many more dayhike and multiday options.
Length: 5 miles round-trip
Trailhead: Abrams Falls
This lovely ramble along Abrams Creek and through a forest of pine, oak, and rhododendron leads to one of the park’s most popular waterfalls, the wide, thundering Abrams Falls. From the trailhead in Cades Cove, you’ll trace small ridgelines to a clearing where you’ll spot the 20-foot-tall cascade roaring over a rocky cliff. Though it’s tempting to approach the falls, climbing on the slippery rocks and swimming are both very dangerous: Admire the falls safely from a distance.
Length: 8 miles round-trip
Trailhead: Newfound Gap
Get a taste of what it’s like to thru-hike the famous Appalachian Trail on this bite-sized chunk leading to an expansive panorama point. You’ll start high (5,046 feet at Newfound Gap) and stay high as the AT meanders northeast over a ridgeline with big views of the surrounding northeast peaks on both sides. Up here, the forest is dominated by high-elevation spruce and fir. Charlies Bunion itself is a rocky outcropping perfect for perching on to drink in the views of Mt. Kephardt, Mt. Guyot, and the many wrinkled valleys radiating out from the crest of the Appalachians.
Length: 4 miles round-trip
Trailhead: Chimney Tops
Does climbing 1,400 vertical in 2 miles sound like fun? If so, this is the hike for you: The steep, rocky trail to the top of the peak’s stony spire rewards your effort with dramatic vistas over Sugarlands Valley and Mt. Le Conte. From the trailhead, you’ll face three stream crossings before beginning the precipitous climb up the side of Sugarland Mountain. In just under 2 miles, you’ll reach the top of the first “chimney” at 4,800 feet. Chimney Tops is a very popular proving ground for hikers, so head out early to beat the summit crowds.
Deep Creek Loop
Length: 4.6 miles
Trailhead: Deep Creek
Wander through a verdant forest complete with several waterfalls and abundant spring wildflowers on this loop hike on the North Carolina side of the park. Start by strolling along Deep Creek, passing 80-foot Toms Branch Falls, before turning right on Indian Creek Trail. Take the short spur to see 45-foot Indian Creek Falls, then continue around the loop trail to climb up and over Sunkota Ridge. Rejoin the Deep Creek Trail and swing south to finish the loop. Extension option: Take the 1.2-mile (one-way) spur trail from here to Juney Whank Falls, an 80-foot waterfall, then go another .25 mile back to the trailhead.
Length: 11.1 miles round-trip
Trailhead: Low Gap
Hoofing it to the fire tower atop 4,928-foot Mt. Cammerer requires some strenuous climbing and fun rock scrambling—but once you’ve done it, you’ll be treated to excellent views over the Pigeon River Gorge. There are several ways to reach the top, but this is the shortest. From Low Gap, switchback your way about 2,000 feet up to join the Appalachian Trail, then follow that northeast to the Mt. Cammerer spur trail. Don’t miss the view from the deck of the fire tower, built by the CCC in the 1930s.
Mt. Le Conte
Length: 11 miles round-trip
Trailhead: Alum Cave
Tackle the park’s third-tallest summit (6,593 feet) via the scenic Alum Cave Trail for a chance to peek at a rock arch, step into a cave, and traverse a series of ledges with the help of metal cables. Start by climbing to Arch Rock, then continue past 80-foot-high Alum Cave Bluffs. Turn right on the Rainbow Falls Trail and continue on to the summit, where you’ll also find a beloved backcountry lodge with cabins, bunkhouses, and a dining room (reserve a night for next time at lecontelodge.com).