Somewhere along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, you can find rising tall the Great Smoky Mountains. The range is also part of the Appalachian Mountains, which are one of the oldest mountains in the world. The Smoky Mountains attract visitors from all over the world as the home of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Established in 1934, the nature preserve is the most popular national park in the United States with more than 11 million visitors annually. What is more, the park is the largest protected area in the eastern part of the United States of America, covering approximately 520.000 acres / 816 square miles / 2.115 square kilometres.
The entire area has so much to offer from beautiful scenic drives, thrilling theme parks, to various indoor activities. A weekend getaway for some hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains should certainly be on your travel list. The national park has more than 800 miles / 1.287 km of hiking trails.
This was my first experience of mountain trips outside of Europe and I was not fully sure what to expect. We did not plan much, however, our weekend getaway at the Smoky Mountains exceeded my expectations. As we had to drive for approximately 8 hours from Northern Florida to North Carolina, we ended up with only two full days to enjoy hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains. We were both absolutely impressed, taking back with us hundreds of photos, thousands of smiles, and endless memories from our fantastic hiking trip.
Keep reading for ideas on how to plan a great trip hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The first day of hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains was filled with as much as possible. We started with a scenic drive along part of the Blue Ridge Parkway with a pit stop at Soco Falls.
Soco Falls is one of the only double waterfalls in the area. It is easily accessible, as it is sitting just on the side of the road. The beginning of the trail starts from the metal guardrail next to the small pull over, where you can park your car. The path takes less than 5 minutes and leads you down to a wooden observation deck. If you want to see both waterfalls, you need to continue down the trail to the base of the Soco Waterfalls. This part is slightly steeper and can get a bit slippery and muddy, fortunately, there are ropes to help you balance while going over some of the rocks.
Once you reach the bottom of the path, you will find yourself below the waterfalls. The views of the 50 ft / 15 meters tall twin falls are absolutely stunning and well worth the additional walk down the steep path. We were lucky to be at the Soco Waterfalls so early in the morning that we barely saw any other people. The fog in between the trees, combined with the stunning morning light made the waterfalls look magical and mysterious. The quiet forest and the morning light was a perfect start to our day hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most popular scenic drives in the United States. Starting from the Soco Gap, we headed south for approximately 8 miles/ 13 km to its beginning at the Smoky Mountains National Park. The road meanders for approximately 470 miles / 760 kilometres through North Carolina and Virginia offering stunning views of the Appalachian Mountains.
Various overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway invite visitors to take a pit stop and enjoy the picturesque mountain views. Each of the overlooks is easy to pull in so you can appreciate the views and what nature has to offer.
Deep Creek Trail
We chose the Deep Creek Trail for our main hike of the day. It was one of the first hiking paths to be constructed once the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in the 1930s. Even nowadays, the Deep Creek Trail is a preferred hike for many tourists and can get fairly busy especially on weekends.
The hike starts as a relatively wide and flat path, which only after a short walk will take you to the first of the three waterfalls on the Deep Creek Trail. Tom Branch Falls is approximately 80 ft / 25 m. The path continues for another half of a mile (just under a kilometre) and reaches the second waterfall – the Indian Creek Falls. You need to take a short spur down to be able to admire the 25 ft/ 8m tall fall from its base.
There are various hiking options here. We decided to go back to the Deep Creek Trail and take the path to the right, as we also wanted to see the third waterfall. There is a small wooden bridge, which marks the beginning of the Horse Trail. I was extremely happy with this choice, as the path became a bit more narrow and steep. There were almost no other people except us and it felt like we are going on a little adventure of our own.
The peace and quiet of the mountains combined with the nature sounds, the tall green trees guarding the narrow path on each side, the colourful carpet of fallen leaves and the sun rays shining through the tree crowns, made this part of the hike extra delightful.
After following the path for another 2 miles / 3 km, we reached the Juney Whank Falls, which are around 90 ft / 27 m. You will be standing on a small wooden bridge that goes over the waterfall. It seems so close that if you reach, you will be able to touch the falling water. After enjoying the last waterfall from the Deep Creek Trail for a few more minutes, we continued up the stairs to go back to the hiking path. After less than half a mile we ended up at the very beginning of the trail. The entire trail loop was approximately 2.5 miles / 3.5 kilometres.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, reaching 6.643 ft / 2.025 m. The peak is not only quite interesting in its nature but it also offers absolutely breathtaking views along the Smoky Mountains. It is situated on a state-line ridge and half of it is located in North Carolina, while the other half is in Tennessee.
I was quite surprised how easily accessible the highest peak is. The 7 miles / 11 km Clingmans Dome Road, would take you to a large parking lot only 300 ft / 90 m below the summit. Then a paved trail from the parking lot takes you to the top, where an observation tower offers 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains. I would say the half-mile walk up to the top is relatively easy for experienced hikers, but it might be a bit challenging for others with its steep incline. There are numerous benches along the way if you need to catch your breath or just want to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
On top of the summit, you will find the 45 ft/ 14 m tall concrete Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. A 375 ft /114 m long spiral ramp, would take you to the top of the platform. From there you can enjoy a 360-degree panorama of the stunning Smoky Mountains. It is said that on clear days the view expands to 100 miles / 160 km.
We planned to be at the Clingmans Dome around sunset. It was a cloudy chilly evening. The mountain summits were standing tall greeting the sunset. The dark dramatic clouds were covering the sky and the sun was sitting on the horizon. As the sun was slipping away, the colours kept changing, gifting us another breathtaking scenery. The photos taken into the sun were a lot more dramatic with varying shades of gold and orange.
The views were absolutely stunning and we were able to admire the last minutes of the sunset. The chilly autumn air combined with the golden colours of the sun was a perfect ending to the day. The Great Smokies did not disappoint with breathtaking mountain views. And I can assure you the steep half-mile trail up to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower was totally worth it.
Note: Even though the Clingmans Dome and its observation tower are open year-round, the Clingmans Dome Road closes between December 1 and March 31, as well as, when weather conditions require.
Mt Le Conte (Via Alum Cave)
On the second day of our weekend getaway to the Great Smoky Mountains, we decided that we will hike up the third highest peak – Mount Le Conte. Various paths can take you to the 6,593 ft / 2,010 m high summit, but we chose the trail via Alum Cave. It can take between 7- 9 hours for the 11 miles / 18 km hike. You also need to be well prepared for the elevation gain of 2,800 ft / 850 m and a few relatively steep parts of the trail.
It takes approximately 30 minutes from Gatlinburg to reach the beginning of the trail via the US-441. A small sign and a wooden bridge mark the start of the Alum Cave Trail. The entire trail is approximately 11 miles / 18 km round trip, however, most of the visitors only hike up half-way to the Alum Cave Bluffs.
The first part of the trail is relatively easy with just a gradual climb. You will be hiking through the forest, as the Alum Cave Creek follows the path. Before you know it, you will be 1.4 miles / 2.2 km into the hike, reaching Arch Rock. You will need to cross the wooden bridge and climb up the staircase to pass under the naturally formed rock formation.
You will need to continue hiking for another 1 mile /1.6 km before you reach what is known to be the most popular part of the trail – Alum Cave. This part of the trail remains fairly light especially if you are an experienced hiker. Visitors will be rewarded with breathtaking mountain views at the first inspiration point. Even if it is just a few steps under the Alum Cave Bluff, it is certainly worth the pit stop. Stop for a minute to appreciate nature and the Smoky Mountains.
As you keep hiking up, the path will change to long stairs covered with orange clay. Do not give up as yet and take a deep breath. This is the last part before you reach the Alum Cave Bluff. At an elevation of 4.950 ft/ 1.510 meters, this massive shallow cave serves as a great break spot. As this is the turnaround point for many hikers, the Alum Cave can get fairly busy. We stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the scenic views and prepare for the next part of the trail.
You would need to hike for another 2.7 miles / 4.3 km to get to Mount Le Conte. Most of the trail is quite narrow and steep, gaining more than 1.400 ft /427 meters of elevation. We enjoyed this part of the hike much more, though, as it was extremely peaceful. The higher you go, the more exposed the trail becomes. There are numerous overlooks along this part of the trail, which reveal scenic mountain views through the tree branches. Halfway along the path to the top, the Smokey Mountains gifted us with its namesake. We became enveloped by the mist as it surrounded us and covered the trees mystically. As we broke through the cloud layer we could just see the tops peeking out at us. It felt like a fairytale!
As you start getting to the top and close to Le Conte Lodge, the trail levels off. You enter an evergreen forest, with a few different path options here. There were numerous trail signs, and we were unsure which way to go. After following a few people’s advice, we took the path to the Cliff Tops. It was just another 0.2 miles/ 320 meters before reaching the end. The fog was so dense, that there was no visibility at all. Just after that, I realized that Cliff Tops is supposed to be the location with the best views. Well, I guess not on the day when we were visiting. It started getting extremely windy and we went back to the lodge.
We got some necessary break, before heading back down. The path back down seemed much easier than I expected. Even though we really took our time both on the way up and on the way down, I feel like I managed to appreciate and enjoy the way back much more.
Note: Just after we came back, I researched Mount Le Conte. It turned out that the mountain has four subpeaks: High Top (6.593 ft/ 2.010 m), Cliff Tops (6.555 ft/ 1.998 m), West Point (6.344 ft/ 1.934 m) and Myrtle Point (6.200 ft/ 1.890 m). So only then I realized that we did not actually climb the highest part of Mount Le Conte. Note taken, next time do the research beforehand.
The entire day, hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains and getting to reach Mount Le Conte, was extremely nice. We got to enjoy spectacular mountain views while having a very peaceful time away from crowded touristy areas. This is one of my favourite hikes and I strongly recommend if you are hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.
When to Go
I am sure that the Great Smoky Mountains are stunning any time of the year. We visited in October, though, and had a fantastic time. It seems that the summer is said to the best time to go hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, July being the busiest month. The Smoky Mountains are also known to be one of the best destinations for fall foliage. People from all over the world visit the mountains around end-October mid-November to enjoy the beautiful changing shades of red, orange and yellow. I presume that we visited a bit too early in October (10 – 13) as the predominant colour was still green. I believe that the views of the Smoky Mountains would be stunning in any season.
Where to Stay
Most visitors stay in Gatlinburg, Tennessee while we were on the other side of the mountains – staying in Cherokee, North Carolina. We were extremely happy with this choice, as we did not have to deal with the touristy side of Gatlinburg and had a very pleasant and neat experience on the quieter side.
We stayed at the Great Smokies Inn. The location could have not been any better. It was reasonably priced and extremely clean. The staff gave us some great suggestions for hiking in the Smoky Mountains.
While enjoying your trip to the Smoky Mountains, these are the places that you should certainly visit to get food:
Lulu’s on Main
On our first day of hiking in the Smoky Mountains, we found this super cool place to have lunch at. Lulu’s on Main is located in the town of Sylva, which is around 16 miles / 26 km from Cherokee. The atmosphere was lovely with some interesting decor. It was good, sunny day and we got a table on the large balcony at the back. I had a Greek Salad with some chicken and it was absolutely delicious. Strongly recommend Lulu’s on Main if you are visiting the Great Smoky Mountains.
Peter’s Pancakes and Waffles
If you decide to stay in Cherokee when visiting the Smoky Mountains, you should certainly get breakfast at Peter’s Pancakes and Waffles. The menu is fantastic with quite a variety of options. I had the waffles – the portion was huge and super tasty. Strongly recommend the place, just keep in mind that it can get very busy in the morning, so you may not be seated immediately. We went on our last day in Cherokee just before the long drive back to Florida. We were there at around 07:30 AM when there were just a few other occupied tables.
Some other tips when planning to go hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains:
Elks in Cherokee
The Smoky Mountains is one of the best places where you can see elks. The National Park is home to more than 200 elks. There is a chance that you can see them almost any afternoon year-round. Mid-September to late October is elk’s breeding season, though, and it is very common to see grazing herds of elks around the fields of the Smoky Mountains National Park. The area by the Oconaluftee Visitors Center is the most popular place for elk spotting.
Cherokee Indian Fair
We were extremely lucky as last year we managed to visit the Cherokee Indian Fair while in the Smoky Mountains. This year the fair takes place between 6-10 October 2020. The fair aims to present the authentic Cherokee culture and traditions through music, dances and food. Make sure that you try the traditional Indian taco with frybread – it is absolutely delicious. There are also various carnival rides and games for kids. Part of the festival is also the pig races – kids running after a pig and trying to catch it, literally. And on top of that, the kid who got the pig would take it home! This is a delight that cannot be found outside of rural America!
Have you been hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains? Did you enjoy it? What was your favourite hike? Feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below.