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Backpacking in the Smokies: An Insider’s Guide

As the nation’s most visited national park, the Smokies sometimes get the reputation of being crowded. And if you’ve ever endured the claustrophobia of the Newfound Gap Overlook or been bumper-to-bumper behind a truck bed full of tank-topped tourists on the Cades Cove Loop, then the accusation might seem to have some merit. But luckily, a huge portion of the crowds that that come to the Smokies gather in these small pockets, leaving much of the park’s 814 square miles of rivers, waterfalls, balds, and valleys sparsely trafficked. There are, in fact, huge swaths of the Smokies where you can hike and not see another soul. You just have to dig a little deeper, know where to look, and be willing to spend a few nights under the stars.

Day hikers looking to tackle Mount LeConte in a few hours typically opt for the the quick, steep hike via Alum Cave and often encounter packs of trail chasers with the same idea. But if you have a couple of free days to delve into the backcountry, then you’ll have more options for your visit to one of the park’s most beloved mountains.

Charlies Bunion
View from Charlies Bunion Brian Stansberry

Your first option is a 16-mile loop hike that starts at Rainbow Falls and heads up to LeConte’s summit. Once on top hike back down the Bullhead Trail and stay in the LeConte shelter (not to be confused with LeConte Ledge, which is often booked months or even a year in advance). Your second option is to set out on a misty morning from Newfound Gap and beat the crowds northbound on the Appalachian Trail. From here, you can take a left down the Boulevard Trail for a less trafficked route up Mount LeConte. This route also has the added bonus of seeing the stunning views from the Jump Off. Hikers coming from this end of the mountain can also stay at the LeConte Shelter, or double back, stay at the Icewater Spring Shelter, and eat lunch at Charlies Bunion the next day.

If Mount LeConte is not your goal, but climbing the tallest towers and exploring the deepest valleys is, then start your trip at the Big Creek Campground. From here, you can head to the lookout towers on Mount Cammerer and the less-frequented Mount Sterling. These towers, that once served as the first line of defense against forest fires, are now one of the best ways for hikers to get panoramic views in an area where peaks don’t go above treeline.

There are also the makings of a couple great overnights in the Rocky Top/Cades Cove area as well. If you want to see some out-of-the-way waterfalls, consider tackling the “U.” This hike starts at the Middle Prong Trail (at the end of Upper Tremont Road) and passes by Indian Flat Falls and Lynn Camp Prong Falls on the way to its intersection with the Appalachian Trail. Continue back via the Bote Mountain and West Prong trails.

Indian Flat Falls
The Middle Cascade of Indian Flat Falls Ron Jones

You can also start out west at the Gregory Bald Trail which offers overlooks aplenty. You will get amazing views from Gregory Bald and Spence Field just before descending Anthony Creek Trail to the Cades Cove campground. Both the U and the Gregory Bald Trail hikes can easily incorporate Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain if you are hoping to check these popular Smokies peaks off your list.

If you’re looking for something longer than a weekend trip, you can attempt to hike the entire 72 miles of the Smoky Mountains section of the Appalachian Trail, which travels past Clingmans Dome, Rocky Top/Thunderhead, Charlies Bunion, and several other essential Smoky Mountains destinations. The Benton-McKaye Trail and Mountains-to-Sea Trail are also great longer hikes through the park, and can give you access to the more remote southern end of the park. These one-way hikes can be a little tricky to plan, but even if you don’t have two cars, don’t worry—the park’s shuttle service can help you do one-way overnighters without the parking logistics.

If you want to see some of the most popular destinations without the overwhelming crowds, hike during the winter off-season, when the mountainous horizon is often powdered with snow and the tour buses are long gone. In winter, when Clingmans Dome Road is closed, a trip to the spiral-ramped observation tower requires a long hike (or snowshoe) southbound on the AT, deterring those used to accessing the highest point in the park via a short, paved incline. This is a great opportunity for you if you have a strong resolve to trek through the snow from Newfound Gap to see a deserted Clingmans Dome and nearby Andrew’s Bald.

Remember that you must acquire permits, reserve your campsites and shelters in advance, and pay a small fee. For full information about backcountry camping in the Smokies, visit the national parks service website or talk to a park ranger at the Sugarlands Visitors Center.

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