There’s something magical about the beautiful Smoky Mountains. With the twangy banjo sound of Appalachian-inspired music ringing out from the sound system in my RV, I was immediately transported as I drove into the multi-layered and almost indescribable greens of the mountain trees.
When people think of mountains in the United States, most everyone thinks about the great American west. But just because the Smoky Mountains don’t quite reach 14,000+ feet like some of the most major peaks in the U.S. doesn’t make the adventure any smaller.
Meet the Smokies
The Smoky Mountains are just one range in the larger Appalachian Mountain range spanning from central Alabama far north to the Canadian province of Newfoundland. Like the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian trail trundles up and down these beautiful mountains from northern Georgia all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Near the southern end of this mountain range, the Smoky Mountains rise covered in dense forest and wildflowers.
Often, it’s plain to see where the Smokies get their name. A gentle haze settles among the mountain tops and ridges almost blue-gray in color. It’s not just fog or mist (though there is plenty of mist and clouds) –– it’s actually a photochemical process that happens as the natural hydrocarbons produced by the forest react with ozone particles from the stratosphere.
You don’t have to fully understand how it works to appreciate the area’s gentle haze from any number of stunning pull outs or softly rounded peaks.
The 5 Best Smoky Mountain Hikes
You don’t have to hit the entire Appalachian Trail to experience the majesty of hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Here are five of the best Smoky Mountain day hikes for hikers and explorers of all levels to get a taste of what the area has to offer.
Do not be fooled by the length of this trail. While only one half mile long and fully paved, this trail is STEEP! Right on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, Clingman’s Dome is actually the highest peak in the Smoky Mountains at just under 6,650 feet. The drive takes you up most of the way as you wind through the wild green of the mountain forest.
It is a popular trail and with great reason. But be prepared for the parking lot to be full and to snag the first available spot you can find, especially when you start seeing cars parked along the sides of the road.
The trailhead is clearly marked (and you can follow the other people) from the parking lot. And if you’re tempted to start taking photos from the parking lot — you absolutely should. The views are outstanding even before you finish climbing the spiral structure leading to the grand outlook tower on top of the highest point.
Alum Cave Trail
The Alum Cave Trail is one of several trails that will eventually take you to Mount LeConte, but for a moderate 5-mile hike, you can take this trail to the Alum Cave Bluffs and then turn back. Sometimes steep and rocky and rooty trails make you slow down and take your time as you follow a bubbling stream most of the way.
A few stream crossings on beautiful log bridges are not too scary, even with only one rail to hold on to. You’ll know you’re about halfway there when you reach Arch Rock and climb through its damp walls on stone stairs etched right in.
Already the trail has been worth it, even though there are plenty of people also hiking it. But don’t turn back yet — Inspiration point is still to come. The view here is breathtaking as you emerge from the forest and onto the gorgeous lookout that is blooming with wildflowers in the right season. Push on further to make it finally to Alum Cave Bluffs which soar into the sky with rocky sand beneath. It is hands-down one of the best Smoky Mountain hikes.
Rainbow Falls Trail
You’ll only see the rainbow at the end of Rainbow Falls Trail on a sunny day, but go anyway because this 80-foot waterfall is not to be mist (get it?). This 5.5-mile round trip hike is also moderately rated due to a 1500-foot elevation gain and more rocky and rooted terrain. Sturdy shoes are a must.
This is the tallest waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park so come prepared to enjoy it. Many visitors bring a picnic lunch to enjoy with this beautiful backdrop. Make sure you also bring bear spray as black bears have been seen in this area frequently. And take the time to enjoy the entire hike to the falls as the foliage makes this one of the most scenic hikes in the park.
Charlies Bunion Trail
Charlies Bunion Trail is not for the faint of heart. This difficult trail is about 8 miles long and quite steep in certain sections. Even still, this trail is pretty popular in the park — not least because the initial segments follow a lovely section of the Appalachian Trail.
Just the opportunity to walk along a few miles of this trail was all the allure I needed to try it out. But the scenery and the deep quiet near the end of the hike made it one of my favorites of the trip.
On a clear day, the view earned from the rocky scramble to Charlies Bunion is one you will never forget. Even if the clouds don’t cooperate, being surrounded by peaks of the second and third highest mountains in the range emerging through the mist is still more than worth the difficult miles to get there.
Rainbow Falls is the tallest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies, but definitely not the only one. Ramsey Cascades has a 100-foot drop that cascades down these massive rocks. The 8-mile round trip trail is fairly strenuous as it climbs over 2,000 feet in elevation before the falls come into view. Like many trails in the Smoky Mountains, you follow swiftly moving streams and rivers for most of the trail until turning into an old hardwood forest.
While it looks tempting, you absolutely cannot climb on the rocks of these falls for your own safety. But take a peek into the small pool at the bottom of the falls for cute little salamanders you may mistake for rocks until you see them move around.
So now that you know the best Smoky Mountain hikes, it’s time to start planning your road trip!
Embrace Appalachia With The Best Smoky Mountain Hikes
One day in the Smokies is not enough to see it all. The best way to enjoy these mountains is to stay a while, camp, and try new sections each day. For those who want a little more than hiking in their vacation, The Smoky Mountains are close to the high energy, touristy town of Gatlinburg, TN and of course, Dolly Parton’s Dollywood amusement park.
Take in the beauty of the area from a campground within Smoky Mountain National Park or one of many RV parks that surround this part of Tennessee and North Carolina. With all the comforts of home, plan to stay a while and explore something for everyone with a home base on wheels. Get an RV rental from Cruise America and trust you’ll arrive safely and easily to some of the most striking mountains that the East has to offer.