As with most mountains, the terrain starts to feel different when you’re nearing the top. With LeConte, it feels cooler and a bit quieter as your feet pad along pine needle beds instead of rocks and roots. LeConte is the terminus of 6 trails, so make sure you know what trail you are trying to find once you get up there. The actual highest point of LeConte is past the lodge along the Boulevard Trail.
We stopped at the lodge, checked in and made ourselves some lunch before heading out to explore the trails of the top; there’s a couple different spots to explore.
First, we made our way past LeConte Lodge along the Boulevard Trail to the summit of High Point, which is denoted by a rock pyramid. There isn’t a view from the actual point – it’s hidden in trees – but there’s a few spots along the way that will make your jaw drop. This summit is about .4 miles from the lodge. You’ll also pass the LeConte shelter, where you can stay the night if you don’t have a reservation at the lodge (a backcountry permit and reservation is still required in advance.)
There’s also Cliff Tops, which is a great place to watch the sunset if you are staying the night, either at the lodge or in the shelter. I think it’s one of the best views in the Smokies, but I may say that about every view because it’s all just so beautiful. This trail is about .3 miles from the lodge; you’ll see signs for Cliff Tops. There’s almost nothing in this world that makes me happier than those rolling blanket-like blue views of the Appalachian Mountains.
I was so focused on getting the the Lodge as our destination, I completely forgot about what else was going to meet me at the top. If you make the trek, don’t forget to add on a few more tenths of a mile, even if you aren’t staying the night.
As night fell, and we were sitting in rocking chairs on the porch of our cabin, the lights of Gatlinburg started illuminating. It was such a strange feeling to feel so remote, yet also see the light-filled town below. I don’t think it “ruined” it, but rather, was just unexpected.
LeConte Lodge itself feels like a little village where everyone seems to just ‘get it’. You do have to climb a mountain to get there, so that automatically weeds out folks who may be, well, those annoying people who don’t know how to act in wild and sacred spaces. (You know who I’m talking about: those people at some campsites who blast their music, car lights and bang on their guitar loudly until all hours of the night. Not quite the experience many people want to have outdoors…) I think LeConte may be a yearly trip for us; it was absolute bliss.
Distance from Nashville: 4 hours
Trailhead: Any trailhead for any trail that gets you up Mt. LeConte
Trail: Cliff Tops and High Point of LeConte summit
As a child, our family “accidentally” hiked to Rainbow Falls. We parked at the wrong trailhead thinking we were doing an easy hike to Grotto Falls and ended up doing a strenuous 5 mile hike – and my family was not really a ‘strenuous hike’ family. I am pretty sure it scarred my sisters’ view of hiking for the rest of their lives. But, I hadn’t been back to hike this trail since that day over 15 year ago. So, I figured, why not hike this trail on the way back down from LeConte.
Rainbow Falls is a relatively popular and, like I mentioned, difficult trial. The trail has a total elevation gain of almost 4,000 feet, meaning we lost almost 4,000 feet of elevation over about 7.5 miles.
Most people hike an out-and-back from the trailhead up to Rainbow Falls (about 2.5 miles one way and 1,500 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead), making the trail from LeConte to the falls very quiet and serene. The entire trail gains almost 4,000 feet of elevation. (Yes, the knees on the downhill were rough!) This trail was heavily affected by the fires a few year back. Not too far from the top of LeConte, you’ll see a huge area of burned trees and shrubbery, looking eerily post-apocalyptic. Around that same area, you’ll also see beautiful vistas and even Gatlinburg down below.
As the trail winds down the mountain, you’ll cross LeConte Creek a few times before you come across Rainbow Falls, which is the highest free-falling waterfall in the park. I hear that it’s much more impressive when you go after a big rain, but it wasn’t much more than a trickle when we visited. The last part of the trail is the busiest (and the dirtiest: pack out what you pack in folks!) because its a popular day hike. And while I love waterfalls, my favorite parts of the trail were closer to the top and the smaller cascades along LeConte Creek.
Many people consider this a must-do trail in the Smokies. And while I believe any time spent outdoors is great, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Rainbow Falls as one of my top hikes in the Smokies. But again, catch this fall after a good rain and it may just make all the difference!
Practice Leave No Trace. Pack out E V E R Y T H I N G. Pick up trash. Follow signs about staying on the trail. This trail was decimated. I had filled up my entire 15L dry sack full of trash and I couldn’t get everything. Also, so much toilet paper, like seriously, how was there that much TP. These Smoky Mountain trails are getting so heavily loved, so let’s love them back. Hold yourself and others accountable while on trail.
Distance from Nashville: 4 hours
Trailhead: Rainbow Falls Trailhead, 2 parking lots – A & B – along Cherokee Orchard Road
There’s five trails (Brushy Mountain is the unofficial, shall we say, ‘6th Man’) up to the summit of Mt LeConte, which is the 3rd highest peak in GSMNP at 6,593 ft. One of the most popular routes is Alum Cave both because of its beauty and its shortness relative to the other trails. You’ll still gain around 2,600-2,800 ft (depending on your GPS) in about 6 miles. But, there’s plenty to see along the way to distract you from the climb.
You’ll first follow the stunning Alum Cave Creek. This part of the trail stays relatively flat before the arduous climb begins. We began around 8:30 in the morning and there was still some morning light magic.
Then, you’ll begin a steeper climb that first leads you to Arch Rock then to Alum Cave Bluff. Both a stunning rock formations that would make a great out-and-back if you didn’t want to summit LeConte. After the bluff, it’s just a climb up the mountain. When you stop at Alum Cave Bluffs, make sure to look over the trail before you climb to the bluff overhang. Many people have spotted bears down in that valley.
Along the way, you’ll, of course, cross log footbridges, pass through rhododendron-lined trails, and see a few rolling views characteristic of the Appalachian Mountains. Once you get closer to the summit, you’ll notice more fir and cedar trees and feel a slight change in terrain. Even though this isn’t a super high altitude compared to out west, I love that near the summit, the trail did feel different.
One thing that surprised me about this trail was that it was quite a bit more rocky than some other trails in the Smokies. (It’s not South Cumberland boulder-y, but just more than I expected.)
Overall, this trail truly lived up to the hype. It has almost everything you could want from a trail (except a waterfall) It is a relatively strenuous hike because of the steepness, but not undoable. Be sure to plan ahead and prepare and know your own limits!
This trail is very popular and the trailhead parking fills up quickly. So, get there early to make sure you get a spot. (We parked our car at another trailhead for the hike down and had my parents shuttle us to the Alum Cave trailhead.) Even at 8:30, the parking was very full.
One last thing I’ll mention, we picked up a moderate amount of trash (and MY GOD we saw SO MUCH toilet paper – please, please, please pack out or bury TP) along the way. It is so easy to not throw trash on the ground, so just don’t do it. The Smokies are suffering hard from increased visitation and hiker uninterested in following any LNT principles. Be a good example out there!
Distance from Nashville: 4 hours
Trailhead: Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead on US-441 (Newfound Gap Road)
Trail: Out and back (or up to LeConte and stay the night)
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.
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.
Chimney Tops is one of the most popular trails in the Smoky Mountains because of its relatively short length and amazing payoff. Plus, the trailhead is very easy to access since it is right off of the main road through the park (Newfound Gap Road/US 441).
You get to experience a lot of what the GSMNP has to offer in a 4 mile out-and-back hike with creek crossings, elevation gain, woods walkin’, and great sweeping views (if it isn’t foggy or shall I say ‘smoky’?).
If you can handle a steep elevation gain (1400 ft in 2 miles), I highly recommend this trail. It may be a great hike if you are a beginner hiker that wants to begin to challenge yourself. Just take it slow up the incline. I also recommend hiking poles for any level of hiker because the downhill on the way back out is a killer on the knees.
Because of the trail’s popularity, I suggest getting there early in the day or going in the off season (like I did) so the trail isn’t completely packed.
Distance from Nashville: 3 hours 45 minutes
Trailhead: Chimney Tops Trailhead, about 7 miles south of Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road
Trail: Chimney Tops Trail (see route in orange below)
I decided to have one last “hike hurrah” before I start grad school up for the semester so I drove to my parent’s (new) house near the Cosby entrance to the National Park to summit a (small) mountain.
My Dad decided he was also up for the challenge so I didn’t hike this one alone. It was also a lesson is slowing down when I hike and actually taking the time to take everything in. I usually am a little time constrained in the winter trying to fight the daylight hours after having to drive 3-4 or more hours roundtrip. Plus, he was, like, really excited to be in my hiking blog (which I am pretty sure he’s like one of 3 people who actually read it but WHATEVER).
Mt. Cammerer just barely misses the 5,000 ft mark at 4,928 ft. So, by no means sky high, but it was a decently challenging and fun hike with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
Starting at the Cosby Campground, you take the (mostly switchback-y and uphill) Low Gap Trail until it intersects the Appalachian Trail. You then follow the AT to the Mt. Cammerer Trail which takes you to the lookout/fire tower summit. After reading reviews, I admit, I was a little intimidated thinking it was going to be a ridiculously hard hike. It was no walk in the park, but, honestly, I think Fiery Gizzard and some of the South Cumberland Trails are more difficult. (Maybe it’s because over half of those trails are rocks and boulders and you literally cannot go faster than 1 mph.)
Switchbacks on switchbacks
That being said, it was a great trail. Hiking in the winter means that you can see the mountains surrounding you through the bare trees, which is one of the many reasons I love it. There was a small stream crossing right at the beginning but the rest of the way is an easy-to-follow path up the mountain (just follow signs to Mt. Cammerer). At the top, you are greeted by a no-longer-in-use fire tower and 360 degree views of the Smokies. Some say these are some of the best views in the park and although I haven’t hiked every trail, the views were pretty stunning.
Summit of Mt Cammerer & Fire Tower
Dad made it!
The expanse that is the Great Smoky Mountains
Distance from Nashville: 3.5 hours
Trailhead: Cosby Campground (great place to stay the night the night before the hike)
Trail: Low Gap Trail to (part of the) Appalachian Trail to the Mt Cammerer Summit Trail, then back down the way you came (see below in brown)