Great Smoky Mountains NP: Must-See Day Hikes on the AT
Commonly voted a favorite spot along the Appalachian Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is a hiker’s dream. The trail through the park takes hikers to the highest point on the AT, traverses moss covered forests, and allows more than ample opportunities to see wildlife. Covering 71.2 miles of mostly remote areas, the trail hits on some of the park’s classic day hikes, while also saving a few treats for those brave enough to conquer the backcountry.
Being the most visited national park in the country, you can expect crowds, especially during the peak summer months. Don’t let this deter you though – after just a small amount of hiking in GSMNP, you will understand why hikers come from far and wide to experience the unique landscapes and hidden nooks of the park.
Since there are only a few roads that traverse the park, and even fewer that intersect the trail in this area, day hikes along the AT in The Smokies are often long, but extremely rewarding. With fall quickly transforming the southern landscapes with beautiful shades of yellow and orange, now is the time to wake up with the sun, hit the trailhead early, and explore the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
1. Charlie’s Bunion
Total Distance: 7.8 miles
About The Hike: Being regularly included as one of the best hikes in the park, the trail to Charlie’s Bunion is often crowded. However, once reaching the bare rock face that makes up “the bunion”, it is easy to see why. The overlook offers panoramic views of pine covered mountains and valleys below. Climbing to the edge of the rock is a sure way to experience vertigo, an adrenaline rush, and get an awesome picture to show off on Instagram.
The Details: Start your hike at the parking lot of Newfound Gap. Hike northbound on the Appalachian Trail for 3.9 miles, passing multiple view points and the Icewater Spring Shelter along the way. The .1 mile side trail to Charlie’s Bunion will be on your left. When finished taking pictures and soaking in the beautiful Smoky Mountain views, retrace your steps another 3.9 miles back to Newfound Gap.
2. Shuckstack Fire Tower
Total Distance: 7 miles
About the Hike: Being one of the lesser known hikes in the park, climbing up to Shuckstack is a great way to avoid the crowds in the peak of summer. As one of the last remaining fire towers in the Smokies, Shuckstack is old and somewhat rickety, however it’s worth facing your fear of heights for this view! The top of the tower offers a fantastic 360 degree vantage point for Lake Fontana, Nantahala National Forest, and a large portion of GSMNP.
The Details: Start your hike at the trailhead at mile 167.1, which is just past a picnic area at Fontana Dam (coordinates N35.460648, W83.811111), and follow the AT northbound up the mountain for 3.4 miles. Then, follow a blue blazed side trail .1 mile to the tower. After climbing the tower and taking in the views, retrace your steps back down to your car.
3. Clingman’s Dome
Total Distance: 7.4 miles
About the Hike: Most people spend an afternoon checking out Clingman’s Dome by driving to the top of the mountain, and walking .5 miles on a paved path up to the tower. For those of you who want to do a little more to earn that view, and get to check out some of the beautiful Smoky Mountain trails, this hike is for you: Being the highest point both in the park and on the Appalachian Trail, as well as the 3rd highest peak east of the Mississippi, Clingman’s Dome is the most visited place within GSMNP. Standing at 6612 feet tall, crowds of people flock to the mountain’s observation tower each day to take in the seemingly endless views. Don’t let the massive crowds stop you though – the view from the look out tower is a must see in the park. The forest surrounding the peak is covered with mossy pine trees and looks exactly like a painting from a fairy tale book, making this hike scenic from beginning to end.
The Details: Park in the small lot at the Fork Ridge trail head along Clingman’s Dome Road (coordinates N35.590706 W83.469597). Then, hike 3.7 miles up to the top of the tower. Soak in the views, snap a few pictures, and retrace your steps 3.7 miles back down the mountain and to your car.
4. Mt. Cammerer
Total Distance: 11.4 miles
About the Hike: Located on the southeastern border of the park, the climb to Mt. Cammerer can be challenging, but definitely worth it. Gaining about 2500 feet over 5.1 miles, the trail follows a constant uphill, followed by a small rock scramble to get to a restored fire tower at the top of the mountain. Views from the tower are fantastic and stretch on for miles. The unique and historic “tower” makes a perfect spot to stop for lunch and take cover from the afternoon sun, or the pop up afternoon thunderstorm.
The Details: Parking at Davenport Gap, follow the AT southbound for 5.1 miles up the mountain until you reach the trail intersection for Mt. Cammerer. Then, follow the blue blazed trail .6 miles over the rock scramble until you reach the tower. When finished, retrace your steps by following the blue blazed trail, and hiking back down the mountain on the AT.
5. Siler’s Bald
Total Distance: 9.4 miles
About the Hike: Being one of the multiple “bald” mountains within GSMNP, Siler’s Bald is a must see. The summit of the mountain is considered a bald, meaning that a meadow of tall grasses and low bushes are the only things growing, leaving way for panoramic views in multiple directions. If you time it correctly, you will be able to see thousands of wildflowers growing throughout the meadow. After finishing your hike back from the bald, climb up the Clingman’s Dome observation tower. Pack some snacks and stick around for sunset to see one of the best views in the park!
The Details: Starting at the Clingman’s Dome parking lot, walk .5 miles up the paved path until you reach the trail intersection for the AT immediately before the observation tower. Then, follow the AT southbound downhill for 4.2 miles, passing multiple viewpoints and the Double Spring Gap Shelter along the way. Once taking a break in the meadow and enjoying the bald, retrace your steps 4.2 miles uphill and then .5 miles down the paved path back to your car.
Did I miss your favorite hike along the AT in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Let me know where I forgot in the comments below!
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