​A Hiking Paradise: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the largest protected areas east of the Mississippi River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hikers paradise lying in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. Within the park boundaries, there about 900 miles of hiking paths, including the famous Appalachian Trail. We spent a week hiking on a variety of trails and visiting four places in or adjacent to the 522,000 acre park.

Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian Mountain chain, the park’s area was home to the Cherokee for thousands of years. They described the mist that hovers around the mountains as shaconage, meaning “blue, like smoke.” Sadly, the Cherokee were forcibly removed from the area by the U.S. Government in the 1830s, an incident known as the Trail of Tears.

Subsequent settlers cut trees for their homes and to build railroads. Worried about logging, citizens, including John D. Rockefeller Jr., worked with the government to assemble the park from private lands. The resulting park, established in 1934, has 187,000 acres (or about 36% of the total area) of estimated old growth forest. At the park’s creation, a grant from the Rockefeller family decreed that no visitor admission would be charged. With its proximity to large population centers and its free entry, it is no wonder that Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most popular national park, with 11,312,786 visitors in 2016. 

Even though we arrived at the park before the height of summer popularity, we knew that it would be crowded. So we structured our visit to include some of the more remote areas of the park. Our time began in the Cataloochee Valley, located in eastern North Carolina. To get to the valley and its campground, we drove on an eight mile windy road that was both paved and unpaved. We spent two nights camping there and hiked two trails, seeing very few people.

Driving on the unpaved road to Cataloochee Valley

The longer of our two hikes was the Boogerman Loop. We walked from our campsite to the Caldwell Fork Trail, hiking on it for eight tenths of a mile before beginning the 3.9 mile loop. The trail wound through the forest and had a few steep sections. Next to the trail grew several types of mushrooms. We encountered no one else as we hiked. 

Hiking along the Boogerman Loop
Mushrooms along the trail
Mushrooms along the trail

The loop ended back at the Caldwell Fork Trail, 1.8 miles from the trailhead. At that point we came across two guys who warned us of some difficult stream crossings ahead where no rail log bridges existed. While they weren’t as difficult as anything we did on the Pacific Crest Trail last year, we still had one crossing with water up to our knees. By the time we returned to the campground we had hiked a distance of 7.6 miles.

Rail log bridge at the beginning of the hike
Negotiating a river crossing

While at Cataloochee, we visited a few of the historic buildings preserved from the community of about 1,200 people, the largest in the park area. We also spent time in the valley’s meadows, searching for some of the elk that were reintroduced in 2001. In addition to seeing a few elk a short distance away, we saw a pileated woodpecker and numerous wild turkeys along the side of the road.

Historic church in Cataloochee Valley
Elk in the meadow
Pileated woodpecker

We entered Tennessee and spent a night at a hotel in the northern gateway city of Gatlinburg. It was a touristy but quaint place, with numerous restaurants, live music performances, and moonshine distilleries. We were pleased to see the city doing well after a devastating fire which took place in November 2016. Some structures were burned down in Gatlinburg, and about 2% (11,000 acres) burned inside the park. Fortunately, except for some scenic drive views and a closed trail, we saw little evidence of the fire. 

Gatlinburg, Tennessee downtown street

On our way back into the park the next day, we stopped to hike to Laurel Falls. The 2.6 mile round trip trail is one of the most popular in Great Smoky Mountains, and the trailhead parking lot was almost full when we arrived at 9:15 am on a Monday. As we hiked to the 80 foot waterfall, we saw numerous oak trees and were treated to the sight of blooming mountain laurel. The laurel is just one of the park’s 1,500 flowering plants. Great Smoky Mountains also boasts five types of forest and more tree species than Northern Europe. 

Blooming mountain laurel along the trail
Laurel Falls

We hiked to another waterfall in the afternoon after checking into the Cades Cove Campground. Cades Cove is one of the most popular areas of the park. Another former community, 130 families lived in the area in the mid 1800s. The Cades Cove Loop is a 11 mile, one-way road that features vast meadow views and historic structures. It is also one of the best places in the park to see wildlife. 

Cades Cove meadow
Cades Cove historic structures

As we drove towards the Abrams Falls trailhead, we slowed to a halt on the loop with many stopped cars in front of us. We had hit a “bear jam,” where all traffic comes to a halt when a bear is seen off the side of the road. In this case, it was a mother bear and her three cubs, hiding behind some dense bushes. It made pictures almost impossible, but it was exciting to see a bear. 

Caught in a bear jam

The five mile round trip trail to the 20-foot Abrams Falls is another popular hike, but we were able to get a parking spot at the trailhead without too much trouble. We hiked almost totally downhill to reach the waterfall, meaning that we had some steep uphill sections on our return trip. Even with the crowds, we enjoyed our time at the beautiful waterfall.

Abrams Falls

On longest hike in Great Smoky Mountains was to Gregory Bald (elevation 4,948 feet). We reached the trailhead the next morning by driving about halfway around the Cades Cove Loop and then turning down a dirt road. The 5.5 mile each way hiking distance was tough, as the elevation gain outbound was about 3,000 feet. At some points the trail seemed to be going straight up. It was a good indicator to us as to what kind of shape we were in, and we both found the hike to be one of the most challenging on our journey to date. 

Gregory Bald hike elevation profile
Darren on the Gregory Bald Trail

An Appalachian Mountain bald is a summit primarily covered by grass or shrubs. There was just one other person at the top of the bald, so we enjoyed the solitude and clear vistas that we had. On our way down, we ran into another hiker who told us that it is frequently foggy at the top, so we considered ourselves fortunate to have such a satisfying view during our hike. 

View from Gregory Bald

We were tired when we reached the trailhead and our car after the long hike, as we still needed to drive the last half of the Cades Cove Loop to reach our campsite. Almost immediately we hit another traffic jam and came to a standstill. Could it be another bear sighting? We were fortunate this time, as the bear was right next to the road, and we managed to get some decent photos as we inched by in our car. 

Bear seen by the side of Cades Cove Loop

Our final destination in the park was the southern Smokemont section, located back in North Carolina. On our way there, we stopped to hike to Alum Cave Bluffs, a 4.6 mile round trip. A highlight of the trail was Arch Rock, found 1.4 miles into the hike. After crossing a creek on a bridge, the trail passed under a large rock via a narrow series of steps. After Arch Rock, the trail continued to climb with many wooden steps right before arriving at our destination.  Not a cave, but a concave bluff about 80 feet high, the vantage point had nice views to the west of us. 

Walking under a bridge towards Arch Rock
Stairs under Arch Rock
Looking out from Alum Cave Bluffs

Back on the road, we drove through Newfound Gap, marking the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, and turned down a road to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet. From the parking lot we hiked up a .5 mile trail to the 50 foot observation tower. While the views were not as clear as Gregory Bald the previous day, we still could see numerous mountains to the east and west of us. 

Clingmans Dome observation tower
View from Clingmans Dome

We spent two nights at the southern park Smokemont Campground, taking time to visit the historic Mingus Mill. Built in 1886, the grist mill used a water-powered turbine instead of the standard water wheel to power the machinery of the building. 

Mingus Mill

Our last hike took us on the Appalachian Trail (AT). One of America’s 11 national scenic trails, the AT is the eastern counterpart to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), running 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. We hiked 4.4 miles each way from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion, a rocky knob viewpoint. 

Beginning our AT hike to Charlies Bunion
View from Charlies Bunion

The AT runs through Great Smoky Mountains National Park for about 70 miles, with most of the trail along the Tennessee – North Carolina border. As we hiked northbound along the border, we met several section hikers and thru hikers who were on their way to Maine. While talking to them, we began to compare and contrast the AT with our experiences hiking the PCT. One noticeable difference to us as we hiked was that the AT was rockier and steeper than the PCT.

Darren talking to two hikers at an AT shelter
Rocky and steep Appalachian Trail to Charlies Bunion

During our week in the park, we hiked 46.6 miles, or a little more than 5% of Great Smoky Mountains’ trails. We hiked to two waterfalls, a bald mountain summit, and on the famed Appalachian Trail. We also visited historic buildings, saw beautiful blooming plants and trees and even witnessed a bear close up. We found the park to be a hiking heaven and discussed returning someday to complete even more trails in the future. 

We plan to hike on the AT again when we visit our next national park, Shenandoah in Virginia.

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