Charlie’s Bunion via Kephart Prong Hike :: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Hiking in the Smokies has always been special to me, whether it was the short hikes I did as a child visiting for almost every Spring Break or the backpacking trips that helped me gain confidence in the outdoors.

But, oftentimes, I’m hiking alone and, for whatever reason, this brings me so much more anxiety when I’m in the Smokies. I think there’s a lot of reasons I’m more anxious here (bears, no cell service, etc.) but I don’t let it stop me from experiencing a place that means so much to me.

This hike to Charlie’s Bunion was no different. I was straight up scared, but I wouldn’t admit it to myself. It was a combination of little sleep the night before, an early wake up call and the fact that I had to make the drive back to Nashville that same day.

Panoramic view of the Smoky mountains in the fall
The view from Charlie’s Bunion

I wanted to see this highlight of the park, but, of course, I didn’t want to do the typical route. It just wasn’t a “long” enough hike and I wanted to challenge. So, I took an alternate route via Kephart Prong, Grassy Branch, Dry Sluice Gap, the AT, then back down the Sweat Heifer Trail connecting back to Kephart Prong. It was a bit ambitious for a day hike (about 15 miles), but that’s what I do! It would also make a fantastic overnight backpack. There’s 2 shelters along the way – Kephart (2 miles from trailhead) and Icewater Spring (7 miles from trailhead) – that are great places to camp. Just make sure you get a permit!

I drove to the Kephart Prong trailhead in the dark, the sun rising just as I stepped out of my car on the trailhead and the rushing creek greeted me, providing some solace. The first part of the trail follows the Kephart Prong and it’s the perfect picture of a Smoky Mountain stream complete with log footbridges crossing the creek as the trail gently zig-zagged over it. It was a beautiful walk in the early morning as I made sure to keep my eyes up around every corner, to be sure that I didn’t startle any wildlife. My initial anxiety calmed a bit and I decided to have a snack just before the Kephart shelter.

Let’s just say that snack was not the best idea. A few minutes later, my anxious belly was churning as I began a steady climb on the Grassy Branch Trail. Soon, I began to feel nauseous and light headed. I stopped, put my hands on my knees and tried to take deep breaths. But, that only partially helped and that snack came right back up. I plopped down right in the middle of the trail and had to evaluate if I was going to continue on. After a few cautious sips of water and sitting with my head between my legs for a few minutes, I decided to truck along. I kept evaluating each step I took to make sure that I felt ok.

I don’t remember a small portion of the Grassy Branch trail because all I was focused on was putting one foot in front of the other. I climbed steadily and passed rhododendron groves and colorful trees and parts of the trail that look like deep ruts through the trees. I always find it interesting that many of the trails in the Smokies are not blazed at all. But, they are so well worn that you don’t worry if you aren’t on the trail.

Over the course of Grassy Branch and Dry Sluice Gap, you gain about 3,000 feet of elevation. I’m sure my legs notices it but I was so focused on not feeling sick, that the elevation gains flew right by.

I didn’t see a single soul until I turned onto the AT. It’s always equally thrilling and scary to not see someone when you feel so remote. Most of the portion on this section of the AT is flat. So, it’s a nice break from the climb you just conquered.

Now, the actual Charlie’s Bunion is not the classic “tourist” Charlie’s Bunion. I’ll leave it to you to find the “real” one. There’s a little narrow path that branches off the AT and takes you to the geographic Bunion. (Plus, I was the only one there. I was most definitely NOT the only on at the other one!) While it is a cliche place in the Smokies, it is definitely a beautiful view. I went almost at the peak of fall color, so I was rewarded with a rainbow of fall colors.

After departing from the Bunion, I headed southbound on the AT headed for the Sweat Heifer turn-off. Not long after, a nice gentleman asked if I could take a picture of him next to a wayfinding sign to send his wife. He was hiking a long section of the AT and we got to hike together for a few miles. While I’ve never seriously considered thru-hiking, it felt like I got a little ‘trail magic’ in getting to have a hiking partner. It also greatly calmed my nerves even more. I was ready to attack the back half of the hike. (Plus, I managed to get a few calories in my body, so I was feeling a bit stronger.)

The Sweat Heifer Trail was a diamond in the rough. I really enjoyed this hike back down the mountains. There were great views peeking through the tree, little stream cascades and everything just felt like a Smoky Mountain Trail. I really haven’t heard much about the trail, but I do highly recommend it if you’re ever in this part of the park.

As I met up with the Kephart Prong Trail again, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for these mountains, this hike, and my body for carrying me 15+ miles in under 7 hours while feeling ill, not to mention the total 3,600+ feet of elevation gain. While this was an ambitious route, even feeling at my best, I do feel like it’s doable as a day hike. Just be prepared to be real sore the next day!

I can’t recommend this alternate route to Charlie’s Bunion enough. You get to explore lesser known Smoky Mountain trails and feel very proud of yourself for hiking up a mountain to get there.

Distance from Nashville: 4.25 hours

Trailhead: Kephart Prong Trailhead on US-441 (Newfound Gap Rd)

Trails: Balloon loop formed by Kephart Prong, Grassy Branch, Dry Sluice Branch, Appalachian Trail and Sweat Heifer Trails

Link to trail map: GSMNP Map (Note that this is the map of the whole park. I suggest using GAIA GPS on this, and any, hike!)

Length of hike: about 15 miles

Type of hike: Balloon loop

Camping: Kephart Shelter (2 miles from Kephart trailhead) and Icewater Spring Shelter (7.5 miles from Kephart Trailhead). Either is a great place to stay if you are doing an overnight of this route.

Overview: Climb to the stunning views from Charlie’s Bunion on a lesser known route following Smoky Mountain streams, log footbridges and lush, magical flora.

Savage Day Long Loop :: Savage Gulf State Natural Area

Back again to my favorite spot in middle-east(?) Tennessee.

The Savage Gulf Day Loop is a popular 5 mile day hike, which I was going to happily do, until I found out I could make it into a 10 mile loop. So, of course, I took the long route. But, of course, you can do the 5 miler and still complete a great hike.


One of the suspension bridges

I connected the Savage Gulf Day Loop to part of the North Plateau and Mountain Oak trails which then connected to the North Rim back to the Savage Gulf Loop. It’s kind of a wonky loop, but it works.


Overlook on the North Plateau trail

There is a big different between a hard 10 miles and an easy 10 miles. It can be the difference of an 8 hour hike and a 4 hour hike. This was an easy 10 miles and only took me about 3 1/2 hours. But, the payoff is great compared to the difficulty of the hike. The Savage Gulf map says that the North Rim trail has the most overlooks of any trail in Savage Gulf. There’s also a few suspension bridges and forest wandering.


If you are looking for a little more of challenge, but don’t want to kill yourself with a very difficult hike, try this longer loop from the Savage Gulf Station.


Distance from Nashville: 1 hour 45 minutes

Trailhead: Savage Gulf Ranger Station off of TN-399

Trail: Lollipop loop formed by Savage Day Loop, North Plateau, Mountain Oak, North Rim, Savage Day Loop (route in red)

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Link to trail map: Savage Gulf State Natural Area (this loop on far right of map)

Length of trail: 5 or 10 miles, allow 2-3 or 4-5 hours

Overview: Easier, flat 5 or 10 mile hike with overlooks of the Gulf, suspension bridges, and a few waterfalls; great moderate hike.

Honey Creek Loop :: Big South Fork National Recreation Area

When I read review of a hike and it says “only recommended for very experienced hikers”, it immediately jumps to the top of my list.

Big South Fork is almost 3 hours from Nashville, so I put it off for quite a while. Also, I couldn’t find a great map for it because the loop created by other trails, which proved to be confusing . The map that the national park service has is dismal. Cool, thanks National Park Service.

This trail is no joke. Many parts of it are just creek beds and huge rocks. You find your way by searching for white blazes, then finding a way to get to that white blaze. It’s pretty amazing.


I took this photo standing in the middle of the trail, which is not really a trail at all

The trail isn’t very well marked which proves to be a bit of a challenge when you feel like you are hiking in circles. Particularly around the Indian Rock Loop and the Honey Creek Overlook. Just be prepared to really pay attention to your surroundings because the above map doesn’t really help too much. If you have a GPS, I would bring it, just as an extra precaution.


Ladder to Honey Creek Overlook, be sure to come back down these to rejoin the loop trail at the bottom

There are a few waterfalls and crazy cool cave like structures filled with stacked rocks and sketchy ladders.


Indian Rock House

So, if you can get past the difficulties, and are up for it, please hike this trail. It’s awesome.

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Honey Creek Overlook

Distance from Nashville: 2hr 45min

Trailhead: Off of Burnt Millford Road in Oneida, TN

Trail: Honey Creek Loop (see my route below)

Link to trail map: Honey Creek Loop Trail Map

Length of trail: Just under 6 miles, allow about 6 hours to be safe because it’s pretty slow going at times.

Overview: Very difficult and technical with great payoffs: waterfalls, overlook, boulders, streams, caves.

Montgomery Bell Trail :: Montgomery Bell State Park

Montgomery Bell State Park isn’t necessarily known for its hiking, but for some reason there’s a 10.5 mile “overnight trail”. So, I decided I would try to hike it as fast as possible, of course.

You can also do half of the loop and there are a few other hikes in the park if you aren’t feeling quite up to the 10+ miles. There are shelters if you want to stay overnight (free overnight permit required).



The trail is almost completely flat, which makes doing the entire trail all at once not nearly as bad as it sounds. You will follow a little river, walk through hickory forests and see a replica of a really old church and cabin. You may even see some deer!


Distance from Nashville: 45 min

Getting to the trailhead: Start near the Montgomery Bell Park Office/Visitor Center

Trail: Montgomery Bell Trail (route in orange below)

Link to trail map: Montgomery Bell State Park Trail Map

Length of trail: 10.5 miles, allow anywhere from 3-6 hours depending on pace

Brief Overview: Long, flat, and easy loop trail with streams, forests and shelters for overnight trips.

Fiery Gizzard + Dog Hole Loop :: South Cumberland State Park

The true, full Fiery Gizzard is best done point to point for maximum enjoyment (see my in depth review of the full trail here), but you can also do a portion of it as a day hike if you don’t want to backpack or don’t have 2 cars to park at each trailhead. I think that either way is a great way to experience one of the best trails in the country. I mean it is considered on of the top 25 trails in the nation after all because of it’s great diversity in terrain.

Fiery Gizzard has a weird name, but a not weird beauty. It’s been one of my favorite and most challenging hikes, and not because of elevation gain (which there is some), but because a lot of the time, your path is just rocks and boulders. (If you do the entire trail, there is some relief from the boulder walkin’.) Each step is precarious, and must be taken with care. So, it can be slow going at times, but it makes it interesting’ the kind of interesting I like.

You’ll find small waterfalls, beautiful overlooks, especially at Raven Point (Don’t skip the view from here!), and riverside hiking in this 9 miler. It’s a great way to see some of the best of the Fiery Gizzard Trail if you can’t make the 13 mile point-to-point trail work for you.

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It’s a truly spectacular hike. Go in late October for best results.

Distance from Nashville: 1 hr 30 min

Trailhead: Grundy Forest Trailhead WARNING: It looks like you are driving into a sketch neighborhood thing/someones house, but you aren’t, just keep going until you see signs for the trailhead. It will take you to the Grundy Forest/Tracy City side, which is where you want to be for the day hike.

Loop: Grundy Forest trailhead to join the Grundy Forest Day Loop. Follow signs for Fiery Gizzard. You’ll take the Fiery Gizzard trail to Raven Point. Then, from the Raven Point campsite, you’ll take the Dog Hole trail back out until it joins the day loop again. (See my route in black below)

Link to trail map: Fiery Gizzard Trail Map

Length of hike: 9 miles, allow at least 6 hours

Brief overview: A beautiful and diverse trail showcasing the finest middle/east Tennessee has to offer.  You’ll find small waterfalls, beautiful overlooks, especially at Raven Point, and riverside hiking in this 9 miler. Bring your sturdy boots and strong ankles.