What do you most want to see at Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Here are some of our favorites to explore in the park. It’s always a good idea to check the park website or talk to a ranger at a visitor center to find out if the trail you want to hike is open or closed because of trail maintenance, wildlife sightings or weather-related damage.
1. I want to work for my view
Silers Bald – challenging and long trail
Getting to Silers Bald, a 5,607-foot-high peak, is a fantastic 10-mile out-and-back ridgeline hike that begins at Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. After you hike .5-miles to the top of Clingmans Dome from the parking area, you will head west, passing through beech, fir and spruce trees while catching views of Mount Buckley, which reaches 6,575 feet.
When you hit the 4.5-mile point, the trail narrows in what is referred to as “The Narrows.” Within a half-mile, you will find yourself on top of Silers Bald with excellent views of Fontana Lake.
2. Cascading waterfalls
Ramsey Cascades – strenuous
An 8-mile strenuous roundtrip hike, the sight of Ramsey Cascades makes every mile and bit of elevation gain worth it. The awe-inspiring waterfalls are the tallest in the park and an incredible sight to see. As you hike the last two miles to the falls, you’ll pass by large tuliptrees, silverbells, tallow birches and an old-growth cover hardwood forest. Bears have been seen in this area, so review the park’s guidelines on what to do if you encounter a bear.
To get to the trailhead, go through the Greenbrier entrance and follow the signs 4.7 miles to the trailhead. Fatalities have occurred in the park when visitors have tried to climb on rocks near the waterfalls. Watch your children carefully and do not attempt to climb on or up the rocks.
Laurel Falls – moderate
A paved trail leads to the popular 85-foot Laurel Falls. Named after the incredible mountain laurel, an evergreen shrub, that follows the trail. This moderate, 2.6-mile trail is great for families. The trail actually bisects the upper and lower section of the falls, so be sure to look up and down to see the falls.
Slippery conditions exist when the trails get wet, making it important to carefully navigate the trail’s steep drop-offs. Because of this, park rangers recommend supervising children at all times along the trail. Never attempt to climb the rocks on these or other falls in the park.
While the trail is paved, the pavement is rough and uneven, making the conditions difficult for wheelchairs and strollers. Bears have been seen in this area, so review the park’s guidelines on what to do if you encounter a bear.
From the Sugarlands Visitor Center, point your wheels toward Cades Cove on Little River Road. In 3.5 miles you will reach the trailhead. Because this is such a popular trail, aim to arrive early in the morning to beat the crowds and get a parking spot.
3. 360-degree views
Clingmans Dome – central location
Savor the views from the highest point along the Appalachian Trail ⎯ 6,643 feet ⎯ when you reach the top of Clingmans Dome. The best part is it’s only a 1-mile hike roundtrip to catch views from what also is Tennessee’s highest point.
Once there, you can see into seven states when there is no pollution haze in the sky. If you still feel like you have energy to burn, take the Forney Ridge Trail from the Clingmans Dome parking area to Andrews Bald, a 3.6-mile roundtrip hike. Andrews Bald is the highest in the Smokies. To access the trailheads, park at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, which can be accessed from Newfound Gap.
Look Rock Observation Tower – southwest edge of park
Visitors have been hiking up to Look Rock to see its spectacular views since the 1800s. Located just outside the park on Foothills Parkway West, Look Rock is a fantastic place to see for miles and miles from a natural rock ledge overlook. Head across the street to take a trail to Look Rock Observation Tower. The hard-surfaced trail is a 2-mile roundtrip from the campground picnic area or 1-mile roundtrip from the parking lot at the overlook.
4. Cultural history
Kephart Prong Trail – 1900s
Wander back in time and uncover the past along the 4-mile roundtrip Kephart Prong Trail.
For years before the park was founded, this area was heavily logged. Today, it has recovered, but there is much to discover in this wooded area, including remnants of the old logging railway. From 1933-42, the Civilian Conservation Corps camped in this area. If you look closely, you’ll find the stone hearth and stone drinking fountain the campers used. A little more than .5 miles in, you’ll see two concrete tanks, relics from the fish hatchery built in 1936.
After two miles, four log-bridge crossings and potential salamander sightings along the stream, you will see the shelter where you can turn around and make your way back to the parking area.
To get to the trailhead, drive 8.8 miles south of Newfound Gap on Hwy. 441 or 5 miles north of Smokemont.
Porters Creek – 1700s
Discover an old cabin, springhouse and other evidence of a small, vibrant community that once existed here, beginning in the late 1700s. This 2-mile roundtrip to Porters Flat and back cuts through a cove hardwood forest, which is home to incredible wildflowers in the spring.
To get to the trailhead, go to Greenbrier Cove, 6 miles east of Gatlinburg.
Need a map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Great Smoky at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, geologic history and much more printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.