Updated: Dec 4, 2022
As of the writing of this article, I had spent about four days exploring the Smokey Mountain region and with the help of some internet searching and recommendations, I had four great mini-adventures. (Plus an extra bonus hike!) (Plus some honorable mentions. Geesh, maybe I should just rewrite this article.)
Day One- Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte. What kind of hiker would I be if I didn't do the number one hike on AllTrails in the Smokey Mountain National Park? And this trail does not disappoint. At around eleven and a half miles and an elevation change of around 3,000 feet, it's easy to see why this trail stands out above the rest. With it's stairwell through a mountain, one-handed foot bridges made of chunky logs, and itsy-bitsy paths that hug the mountain side so tight, the national park service has installed cable hand rails to ensure one doesn't go yodel-ay-hee-hoo-ing off the mountain's edge, this trail will have the mountaineer in you lassoing their opossum skin cap! (Picture from Mount LeConte above)
But one thing AllTrails won't highlight is that there is another vantage point towards the top of Mount LeConte that you don't want to miss...Mount Myrtle (as seen above). This heart pounding, adrenaline-spiking ridge walk (albeit it's only a few yards long) has you precariously perched between two mountain valleys that is hard to find anywhere else on the east-coast.
Day Two- Rainbow Falls Trail to Brushy Mountain. Here's another double-digit miler that is super aesthetically appealing and well-worth the time to get there. With a 12 foot waterfall and dramatic spurs gleaned from the top of Brushy Mountain, one achieves that sense of "I experienced the Smokies" from this booty-builder. I guess I should mention that parking in the Smokey National Park can be a bear (yes, 100% pun intended- this is Black Bear country)! So, assuming one is using a GPS, I definitely recommend that when you are within a reasonable distance to the trail head, to start considering parking the car. I'm in decent shape, so when I was about a mile and a half away from the trail head, I would be on the lookout for paved or gravel, relatively flat shoulders or parking spots to snag. It proved to be a sound strategy as I walked passed most of the traffic ahead of me as I made my way to the trail head. (Vantage point from Brushy Mountain pictured below)
Day Three- Ah, and one more tip before I forget. The Smokey Mountains are aptly named. The clouds hang low for a long time, thus severely impeding one's view well into the late morning hours. My suggestion. Aim to be arriving at the pinnacle of your hike no earlier than noon (really around 1:30 or 2pm is best). Working your timing backwards, and assuming one has an hour-long drive to get to the hike, this mid-to-late morning jaunt lends itself to enjoy the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway, which, for the most part, won't be shrouded in fog. (Picture below taken from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Can you spot the sun?)
Okay, Day Three for real this time- The Tallest Mountain east of the Mississippi- Mount Mitchell. Mount Mitchell, while not technically located in the Smokey Mountain National Park, made the list because, well, who doesn't want to be able to say they've climbed the tallest mountain east of the mighty Mississippi?? This five and half mile long hike to the top, ascends nearly 3,700 feet and rewards one's burning glutes with 360 degree views of lush mountainous greenlands. Feel like sightseeing but not itching to hike? Mount Mitchell has a parking lot that makes conquering the mountain a modern-day marvel. And just 30 minutes from Asheville, it's no wonder this mountain always makes the list of top things to do when visiting the area. Pro-tip, plan to hike this trail with a friend. Bears don't usually bother hikers, but you'll be thankful for a pal, when you're half way up the mountain and a leaf-ruffling squirrel sends your reeling. (Pictured below is Clingmans Dome, sorry, no pic of Mount Mitchell, too many tortsies to get a good pano.)
Day Four- Clingmans Dome to Andrews Bald- This is by-far the most popular spot in the park, but luckily, this hike is the shortest of all the aforementioned outings, even including a mile or so walk from where you decide to park the car. Yes, this place gets busy. But if you are using a GPS to navigate, you should be able to tell when the slow-down is coming and how far away you are from the trail-head, at which point you may decide to start scoping out a shoulder parking spot. Oh, and as this is a National Park, technically you are supposed to display your national park pass off your rear view mirror. Clingmans Dome is a spiraled concrete walkway into the heavens, laden with throngs of people. I'd say there is a less crowded time of day but then I'd be lying. This place is busy. But whether you decide to hike this at the beginning of your journey or at the end, just make sure to do it. It's got one of the best views in the entire park. The trail down to Andrew's bald makes for a challenging hike back to the trailhead but the bald is serene and expansive with great views which make for a very pleasant place to eat a snack. (Pic of lone bull elk spotted snacking in the park captured below)
And that's it! What's that? I told you there would be a fifth bonus hike? We'll that's just click-bait. Hehe, just kidding. Of course there is a bonus hike! As you may know already, we travel full-time and help others realize their full-time travel dreams too. If you want to know how we went from domestic life to roaming the country, pick up a copy of our how-to guide today. (Picture taken from Waterrock Knob below)
Which brings us to Fork Ridge trail, a lesser known spot, just 20 minutes from where we stayed in an awesome little town called Waynesville, NC. This Blue-Ridge Parkway hugging, 6 mile out and back trail, ends at Waterrock Knob overlook. Over the course of the two months we stayed in Waynesville, I had the pleasure of hiking this little ditty, several times. One thing that was peculiar about the Smokies was the persistent smell of dog doo-doo. I thought that perhaps it was just the trail I was hiking, as dogs are permitted on the Fork Ridge trail, but no. That smell was along every trail we hiked in the Smokies. Not sure if it is just plant decay, as we were there during peak leaf-peeping season. Regardless, the odor doesn't subtract too much from the hiking experience. (pictured below was taken from another overlook from the Blue Ridge Parkway)
If you live on the east-coast and have always wanted to have a big-mountain experience without traveling to Colorado, spend your next vacation exploring the Smokeys. It's worth a look!
Bonus Bonus tips! For a truly unique and classical experience, reserve a ticket to explore the Biltmore, the country's largest private residence, and if you have friends or family that get their kicks from high-speed thrill rides, check out Dollywood, an adventure park that consistently ranks among the country's top-ten amusement parks.
A couple of honorable mentions going out to Looking Glass Trail and Waterfall (waterfall pictured below) located in the Pisgah National Forest. This is a great 3 hour hike, culminating at the pinnacle with a huge orb shaped cliff to take in the mountain views. And no trip to western North Carolina would be complete without a hike up 500 steps to stand atop Chimney Rock. (Also pictured below)
And don't forget a dip in some awesome hot springs!! A short, one hour drive from Waynesville is Hot Springs, NC where you'll find the Hot Springs Resort and Spa. This rejuvenating respite is just what the doctor ordered (plus no stinky sulfur smell!) after traversing Lover's Leap hiking trail. Slide into Artisun Gallery and Café for a slice of their home made quiche and croissants and grab a cup of coffee to go along with one-of-a-kind gifts for your friends who may not have accompanied on this romantic get-away (as the hot springs are clothing optional).