Ranked as the most visited national park in the US, the Smokies took on over 11 million visitors in 2017 (stat from National Geographic). Almost every year the Smokies exceed previous attendance records and this trend is only continuing. This is often attributed to it being one of the most accessible parks on the East coast, due to its proximity to big cities, the options on how to view the park (trail, train, car, bikes, tubing), and the fact that it offers over 800 miles of hiking trails.
I have been able to visit the park multiple times, and have fallen in love with it for many different reasons.
My personal favorite way to get to know each park is backpacking. This creates an intimate and peaceful experience to embrace the park.
Maddron Bald Trailhead to Big Creek Campground
This route required the use of a shuttle system, which is a good tool to take advantage of while planning a trip. After parking at the Big Creek Campground we used A Walk in the Woods , which provided great service at an affordable rate.
Beginning at Maddron Bald Trailhead, we had ~4.2 miles until we would reach campground 34, where we had reserved our site.
Along the way we passed a historical building, the Baxter Cabin, which was built in 1889 by Willis Baxter as a wedding gift for his son. It is was a one room cabin made entirely from one giant chestnut tree.This section of the trail was in the dense growth of the forest and was filled with beautiful fall colors. We reached campground 34, which was well maintained, and discovered a beautiful creek running along side of it.
The next day our ~7 mile hikes towards campground 35 was filled with constant rain and moisture. This hike went along the Gabes Mountain Trail, crosses into Cosby Campground, and out through Lower Mount Cammerer trail.Along Gabes Mountain Trail we passed Hen Wallow Falls. This is a 90 ft. waterfall full of life and beauty, from the delicate mossy ecosystem to the salamanders who live there.After exploring the falls we continued down the trail, taking a lunch break at Cosby Campground. On our hike to Cosby we crossed beautiful rambling creeks and old bridges along this section.
Once leaving Crosby we crossed onto Lower Mount Cammerer trail which had some gorgeous views of the mountains and the fall foliage. This is the Suttin Ridge Overlook, and soon after this vista we reached campground 35.
The final morning of our trip we woke to the sound of more rainfall. This section includes a portion of the Appalachian trail that follows the border Tennessee and North Carolina. This last leg of the trail was ~7 miles and ended in Big Creek Campground, where we had left our vehicle.
Charlies Bunion and Mount Leconte Loop
We began at the Newfound Gap parking lot and headed up the trail towards Charlies Bunion and the Icewater Spring Shelter. This first day is only ~4 miles and has outstanding views that are well worth the climb.
It is important to note that this route is often rated strenuous and has a decent incline to it, which gives a great workout and also eliminates a majority of the crowds that you may find at other locations. About 1.7 miles into the hike there are gorgeous views of Mount LeConte and Myrtle Point, and the trail only gets better as it continues on.
After about 2.7 miles up the mountain there is a turn for Mount LeConte, but we continued past it to the Icewater Spring Shelter to set up for the night. The shelter is about 3 miles from the Newfound Gap parking lot.
We dropped our packs and headed towards Charlies Bunion, another 1.2 miles, which can be found by following the trail and taking a left at an obvious fork along the ridge. This trail leading up to Charlies Bunion is right along the mountains spine, making for beautiful views on both sides of the mountain.
Charlies Bunion is a gorgeous spot to rest after this strenuous hike and is a very intimate and secluded spot compared to the rest of the park. After exploring Charlies Bunion we headed back to the shelter for dinner and rest.
The next section was a 5.4 mile hike from Icewater Spring Shelter to Mount LeConte Shelter. This section of the trail is flatter than the previous days hike, and although it climbs a bit in elevation it isn’t much to worry about.
The summit of Mount LeConte is less than a 1/4 of a mile from the shelter area. This is a great spot to enjoy the sunset.
Mount LeConte is one of the more popular hikes, but with the majority of the tourists experiencing it as a day hike, it is easier to find some alone time in the evening or early morning. This is one of the most phenomenal views in the park (in my opinion), which is what brings many guests to both the lodge and shelter on this mountain.
After spending the night at the Mount LeConte shelter, it was time to head down off the mountain. This trail is the Alum Cave Trail and is 5.5 miles downhill. This section provides some adventure that is unique to this route.
Shortly after leaving the shelter and lodge area there is a set of ledges to traverse over. Cables have been installed to hold onto while hugging the cliff line; there are a few spots that have steep drop-offs, but nothing too dangerous. This trail also passes through the Alum Cave, which is actually an 80ft tall and 500ft wide bluff, which is an additional feature unique to this trail and adds a new element. The hike down has many other vistas and phenomenal views to enjoy.
Once we reached the parking lot for the Alum Cave Trail there were a few options to getting back to our car; walk the road, arrange a shuttle, or hitchhike. We were lucky and had met a gentlemen while on the trail who gave us the quick 5 minute ride back to our car down the road, but there are other options as well.
This is overall my favorite hike in the Smokies so far, and I hope you get the chance to fall in love with it just as I have. There are many more trails and activities to be done in these mountains and I can’t wait to explore more.
-The bear activity is heavy in the Great Smoky Mountains. Take all precautions necessary.
-Be prepared for rain; the mountains are unpredictable and relentless.
-If you only have a short period of time then take advantage of the shuttle systems, they are cheap and reliable.
-If attempting to obtain a permit for the backcountry then be sure to be prepared and on the NPS site as soon as they are open. It isn’t uncommon to see the permits filled up in the same day as they come available.