When I was about five years old, my parents took my brother and me for a ride on the Sky Lift in Gatlinburg, Tenn. We paired up on the rickety benches of something I now realize was a modified ski lift. There were no seat belts or harnesses. Only a thin handrail and my Dad's arm wrapped around me kept me from slipping off the seat and free-falling into the Smoky Mountains.
For a five-year-old, the slow, jerking ascent 1,800 feet to the top of Crockett Mountain felt like the ultimate thrill-ride. After we disembarked at the summit, my brother and I fed quarters into binoculars for views of the gentle, hazy Smoky Mountains unfolding in every direction.
My parents were never very outdoorsy; nevertheless, with that one simple ride on a sky lift, they managed to instill a life-long love of the Appalachians in both my brother and myself.
Once I was old enough to explore on my own, I discovered a more hands-on (or should I say boots-on?) approach to the mountains: hiking. And, of all the places there are to hike in the world, the Smokies will always be one of my favorites. Whether you're interested in exploring local history, discovering waterfalls, scrambling up Chimney Tops for 360-degree views, enjoying a family picnic on the summit of some gentle slope or challenging yourself to rock climbing on one of the Smokies' many bluffs, there are always amazing adventures to be found in the ancient hills of the Smoky Mountains.
In this article we'll cover the most popular times to hike the Smokies, most interesting trail routes, hikes the whole family can enjoy and where to stay when you're visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park. First up, however, let's get you prepared for your trek. Find out what you need to know before you hike the Smokies next!
Smoky Mountains: Preparation for the Trek
Whether you're prepping for a shady stroll through the trees or a strenuous trek up to Mt. LeConte via the Rainbow Falls trail, the Smoky Mountains offer hiking adventures for all skill and fitness levels. Regardless of how experienced you are or what sort of hike you're planning, here are a few things you should know before hiking the Smokies:
- Gear: Unless you're planning a camping, cold weather or rock climbing excursion, a backpack full of essential day hiking gear like water, sunscreen, insect repellant, batteries, first aid kit, a flashlight, park map and a pair of sturdy boots is all you'll need to enjoy a day in the Smokies!
- Clothing: Dress in layers that can be easily added or removed. Great Smoky Mountains National Park also recommends that you bring a rain-resistant windbreaker, even if it looks like the day will be sunny.
- Safety in Numbers: As with all hiking, it is recommended that you hike with at least one companion and that you let a responsible person know where you are heading and what time you expect to return.
- Dogs: Inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, dogs are generally not allowed on trails. Leashed dogs are, however, allowed at campgrounds, picnic areas, along paved roads and on two short footpaths: the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail.
- Yellow Jackets: Yellow Jacket wasps are common in the Smokies. Yellow Jackets build their nests in the ground, so watch where you step. Yellow Jackets are aggressive when disturbed. Also, avoid wearing perfume or scented deodorants, and if you are allergic be sure to bring an epinephrine kit.
- Bears: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to an estimated 1,500 black bears. They are most active at dawn and dusk in spring and summer. Their behavior is unpredictable, so avoid them if at all possible. If you do see a bear, change direction and move away. If it follows you, act loudly and aggressively. Throw rocks or use a large stick as a deterrent if necessary. Don't run and don't turn away from a bear that is following you [source: NPS.Gov].
Now that you've prepped for your trek, it's time to think about when to take the trip. What are the most popular hiking seasons and destinations in the Smoky Mountains?
Smoky Mountains: Popular Hiking Season
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the single most visited of all the national parks. Approximately 9 million people visit the park each year [source: NPS.gov]. Whether you like to hike busy trails or prefer solitude, it's good to know what the peak seasons are so that you can plan accordingly.
Mid-summer (June 15-August 15) and October, when the leaves are changing color, are the two most popular hiking seasons in the Smokies. Weekends are busier than weekdays, and the narrow, winding roads through Great Smoky Mountains National Park often become congested, especially between 10am and 6pm on peak-season weekends.
There are reasons why any park's most popular sites are popular. Generally, popular sites offer the most convenient amenities, the best vistas and the most exciting flora and fauna. In the Smokies, Cades Cove Loop Road and Newfound Gap Road are the two busiest sections of the park. Expect trails in these areas -- especially the shorter mild-to-moderate ones -- to be heavily used year-round. The Abrams Falls trail in the Cades Cove area, for instance, hosts about 1,000 hikers per day in peak season [source: Doran].
If you're looking to avoid the crowds, you have several options. First, you could visit during the off-season. Or, you could hike early in the morning before the bulk of the traffic begins to arrive around 10am. Finally, you could explore one of the more off-the-beaten-path areas of the park, such as Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Cosby or Greenbriar Cove, among others. There are great vistas and amazing sites to be found in these lesser-known areas. For instance, the Brushy Mountain trail in the Greenbriar/Cosby area offers a strenuous 11.7-mile hike with the chance to explore the remains of a historic farmstead along the way [source: Doran].
Whether you decide to visit the Smokies during peak season or in the quieter off-season, you'll find great views and beautiful, native foliage. Not all hikes are created equal, however. Lucky for you, we've done the research for you.
Smoky Mountains: Main Routes
- Chimney Tops: This moderate-to-strenuous little 4-mile hike is well worth the scramble to the top, where you'll find 360-degree panoramic views that are among the best in the entire park.
- Alum Cave: Also great in the views department is the moderate 4.4 mile Alum Cave Trail. Though Alum Cave is really a hollowed out bluff as opposed to a cave, dripping water in summer and magnificent icicles in winter create the sensation of being in a cave. This trail also features Arch Rock, a unique rock formation geology-lovers will appreciate.
- Waterfalls: Enjoy waterfall views from several different Smoky Mountain hiking trails including Abrams, Chasteen Creek, Grotto, Henwallow, Juney Whank, Indian Creek, Laurel, Rainbow and Ramsay Cascades Trails.
- Old Settlers Trail: History buffs will love this fairly strenuous 8.8 mile hike. Old rock walls, cemeteries, chimneys, wagon traces, foundations and bits of dishware offer ample evidence of early settlement in this area of the Smokies.
- Easy Hikes: There are plenty of easy and fairly easy hikes in the Smokies. These range from the .4 mile Spruce-Fir trail to the 3-mile Baskins Creek Falls trail, where you'll find a great view of the 25-foot Baskins Creek Waterfalls.
- Difficult Hikes: HikingintheSmokys.com rates hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park using the Petzoldt energy-mile system. Any hikes rating more than a 10 are said to be strenuous. Very experienced hikers may want to try their hands at the six hiking trails in the Smokies that rate above a 20. These include four approaches to Mt. LeConte (via Trillium Gap, Bullhead, Boulevard Trail or Rainbow Falls), Mt. Sterling via Baxter Creek and Rocky Top/Thunderhead.
There are also lots of great hikes like the Cades Cove Nature Trail that the whole family can enjoy. We talk about hiking with kids next.
Smoky Mountains: Hiking for Kids
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an excellent place for families to enjoy the great outdoors together. Even young children will enjoy mild hikes to exciting waterfall destinations like Juney Whank, Toms Branch, Indian Creek and Laurel Falls. Older kids will love seeing history in action on slightly longer or more moderate hikes like the 7.4 mile Boogerman Loop. Besides the endless jokes a name like "Boogerman" affords, you'll also find amazing old-growth forests and the remnants of Robert "Boogerman" Palmer's estate.
In fact, any trek at all in the Smokies affords parents an opportunity to talk to kids about the amazing evolution of the Great Smoky Mountains. Kids will love learning that the Smokies belong to an ancient group of rocks called the Ocoee series. These rocks are so old that they contain no fossils: The rocks formed before most plants and animals even existed!
Kids will also be amazed to hear that the Smokies were once as steep and jagged as the Himalayas. They were formed more than 250 millions years ago, when the African and North American continents collided. Water has eroded them over time into the gentle, blue hills we see today [source: NPS.Gov]. Compare smooth river stones from streams to the angular, irregular rocks you'll find along trails to show kids how water erodes rocks over time.
In addition to self-guided family hikes, there are also lots of professional hiking and learning opportunities for kids in the Smokies. From "Sensational Salamanders" to "Animal Tracking and Nature Observation," Smoky Mountain Field School offers tons of interesting hikes, overnights and classes designed just for kids. In addition, kids aged 5-12 can explore the park with a ranger to earn their Junior Ranger badge [source: NPS.Gov].
Ready to hit the trail? There's one last thing we need to go over before you hop in the car.
Smoky Mountains: Fees, Lodging and Park Amenities
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has so many varied hiking opportunities that lots of people, especially out-of-towners, like to spend several days in the park in order to take advantage of several of them at once. If you're planning on making an extended trip to the Smokies, here's what you'll need to know:
Fees: Entrance to the park is free. However, there are fees for activities like camping, horseback rides, hayrides, carriage rides and pavilion rental.
- Camping: There are 10 different campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fees range from $14 per night at most sites to $23 per night for certain campsites at Elkmont. Backcountry camping is free, but permits are required.
- Pavilion Rental: Some picnic pavilions are first-come, first serve. Others should be reserved ahead of time. Pavilion Rental rates range from $10-$75. See http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/picnic.htm for details.
- Other activities: If you'd like to take a horse, hay, or carriage ride, visit http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/horseriding.htm for fees and other information.
Lodging: There are lots of great towns to explore and places to stay near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, only Le Conte Lodge on top of Mount Le Conte offers in-park lodging. Visit http://www.leconte-lodge.com/ or call 865.429.5704 for details.
Park Amenities: The Park offers a number of amenities, from bicycle rentals to ranger-guided walks and talks.
- Ranger-Guided Walks & Talks: During your stay at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoy complementary campfire programs, guided hikes and history demonstrations from June-October.
- Bicycle Rental: Bikes are prohibited on all hiking trails; however, you may rent bicycles from the Cades Cove store and ride them on most park roads that are open to vehicle traffic. Call 865.448.9034 for information.
- Campground Amenities: Campground restrooms feature cold running water and flush toilets. Individual campsites each have a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers or electric and water hookups in the park; however nearby RV parks do offer these amenities.
By now, you're armed with most of the information you'll need to get started hiking in the Smokies. If you'd like to know even more, you can download a comprehensive, free trip-planning guide from the National Park Service's Web site.
Like most of my memories of being five, my recollection of the trip I took on the Gatlinburg Sky Lift is as dreamy and soft as an Instagram photo. I remember being impossibly high. I remember clutching the cold handrail with my father's arm wrapped tightly around me, protecting me from falling. In an old photo, I am grinning from ear to ear and my father is pointing at something out ahead of us. Behind us lie the hazy, blue Smoky Mountains, which looked as comfortable and familiar as the Blue Ridge Mountains that surrounded my hometown.
When I hunted down the Gatlinburg Sky Lift Web site for this article, I was surprised to find that little has changed about the quaint old lift. The chair lifts are painted a bright yellow now. (I remember them being white, for some reason.) There are still no seatbelts or harnesses, though. In the site's photo gallery is a picture of a dad and his young son. The father has his arm wrapped just as tightly around his kid as my father's was around me. It made me smile to think that kids today are probably having the same introduction to the Smokies that I enjoyed so long ago.
- Doran, Jeff. "Abrams Falls." HikingintheSmokys.com. (May 25, 2012) http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/abrams.htm
- Doran, Jeff. "Brushy Mountain Trail." HikingintheSmokys.com. (May 25, 2012) http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/brushy_mountain_trail.htm
- National Park Service. "Avoiding the Crowds." (May 25, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/avoidcrowds.htm
- National Park Service. "Black Bears." (May 25, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/black-bears.htm
- National Park Service. "For Kids."(May 25, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grsm/forkids/index.htm
- National Park Service."Great Smoky Mountains." National Park Service Natural History Handbook Series No. 5. 1960. (May 25, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/natural/5/index.htm
- Ohranger.com. "History of Great Smoky."(May 25, 2012) http://www.ohranger.com/smoky-mountains/history-great-smoky