Trail Running in the Smokies: An Insider’s Guide
What qualities do you look for in a great trail run? Diverse terrain and elevation to keep you on your toes? Trails that challenge your navigation, problem-solving, and grit? How about adaptability—trails that allow you to lengthen your route if you’re in a particularly kick-ass mood? Well, the Great Smoky Mountains can offer you all this and more.
If you’re looking for the fastest, most convenient way to get a run in out in the mountains, your first stop should be on the Chestnut Top Trail. Located on the Townsend edge of the park, the Chestnut Top trail is a great introduction to Great Smoky National Park trail running. With a diversity of wildlife and more than 50 different blossoming species that put on quite a show come April, you don’t want to miss it.
To start, park in what is often a very crowded lot next to the Townsend Wye swimming hole. It has its fair share of babies, dogs, and “auto-tourists,” but don’t let this fool you into thinking this is an easy trail—you’ll be gaining nearly 1500 feet of elevation over the 8.6-mile round trip. You can also turn this route into a loop by turning left onto the Schoolhouse Gap Trail, continuing onto the Bote Mountain Trail, taking a left on the West Prong and taking Tremont Road (left) and Laurel Creek Road (right) back to the parking lot.
When you’re ready to head deeper into the park, drive up Newfound Gap Road to Clingmans Dome. The northbound trek from the Clingmans Dome parking along the Appalachian Trail to Newfound Gap is a popular one with runners. If you want to add some mileage, you can take the Boulevard Trail to Mount LeConte or continue on to Charlies Bunion. If you opt for the former, you’ll also have the option to test your knees’ resilience on a descent down the Rainbow Falls Trail or the Bullhead Trail—assuming you have a second car you can move to those parking lots.
The Old Settlers Trail offers a gentler route with less dramatic elevation changes, and you won’t be weaving around quite as many hikers. But you’ll still need to stay alert due to several stream crossing that can prove challenging during high water. But that’s just part of the fun, right? This trail is 34 miles out-and-back, but you can always work your way up to the full length or have a friend pick you up at the other end.
Also in this area is the Ramsey Cascades Trail, which starts on a level old road bed, but soon veers off into a steeper segment of trail with plenty roots, rocks, water, and other technical aspects. But don’t worry, your scrapes and soggy feet will be rewarded with beautiful Ramsey Cascades cheering you to the finish line—actually, it’s just the halfway point (this one’s an out-and-back too).
On the south side of the park, gravel lovers can take on the Deep Creek Trail. Plenty of runners regularly hit this trail because of its ease and versatility. You can create a flat, easy one-mile run out past Tom Branch Falls and back, or tack on a couple more miles and a little more difficulty by continuing on up to the steeper sections of the trail. There’s also great swimming in this part of the park, if you’re looking to cool off in the warmer months.
And what about running the entire Smoky Mountains section of the Appalachian Trail? The unofficial, unsanctioned Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (nicknamed SCAR, likely an acronym and a warning!) dares runners to cover the 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that passess through the Smokies in just 24 hours.That’s over 18,000 feet of elevation gain, entirely self supported, with only one potential bailout spot at Newfound Gap. If you feel up to it, we’ll be right there with you (in spirit)!
Important Note: Always remember that the Smokies are wild, and many sections are completely secluded from roadways and any form of civilization. While you might be able to set out at a pretty quick pace into the backcountry, it might take a ranger or a rescue team considerably longer to get to you.
That’s why you always need to be prepared. This means checking weather conditions beforehand (and being prepared for them to change on a dime), knowing the route you’ll be traveling, carrying a map or gps device (no cell signal in the Smokies, sorry), and allowing enough daylight to complete your entire run. In the colder months, there are even more concerns, including the threat of exposure, disorienting hypothermia, and black ice on the trail.
No matter the weather, season, or trail, you should run with a friend. It will make your run safer, more fun, and will probably improve your PR.