I’ve Hiked Dozens of Trails in the Smoky Mountains, These 3 Are the Best

the ramp to clingmans dome

The hike to Clingman's dome is one of the most poipular in the Smoky Mountains (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

These are the 3 best hikes in the Smoky Mountains according to a local

When I was a teenager in the Smokies, I didn’t need a trail to go hiking. My uncles would find a pull-off in the park, point to the nearest peak and we’d race up to the top, picking our way through the brush and trees. They weren’t the highest mountains in the Smokies. But even in my best days, it was quite a workout. As I grew older and wiser, I found the Smokies were for more than competition. The paths cut through the forests offer peace and tranquility and a chance to connect with nature.

Different people want different things from a hike in the Smokies. Some want the experience. Each step of the journey is valuable, a chance to experience nature, to better themselves and to follow in the steps of generations before. For others, they want the highlights. They want the views. They want to see the waterfalls or the rhododendron fields. The hike is only the path to get to the result. And so, in this list, I’m going to try to thread the needle, factoring in accessibility, distance, the hike itself, general romance, and the payoff in natural beauty. Hardcore hikers will have a completely different list as will those who only want the views.

The best hikes in the Smoky Mountains are often those that are well-traveled like Indian Creek/Tom Branch Falls, Clingman’s Dome and Charie’s Bunion. Each of these hikes are considered to be moderate in difficulty, easy to access and offer great views.

toms branch falls in north carolina
Tom Branch Falls, near Bryson City, is 60 feet high (photo by Arlene Waller/shutterstock.com)

1. Indian Creek and Tom Branch Falls

Perfect for those seeking a big bang for a relatively small effort. It’s a 1.6-mile hike that begins just past the Deep Creek Campground outside of Bryson City, North Carolina. In the course of the 1-to-2-hour roundtrip hike, you’ll see the 60-foot High Tom Branch Falls as well as the cascade of the 25-foot Indian Creek Falls. Hikers will be treated to a variety of wildflowers in season. 

To access the trailhead, follow the signs to the national park through downtown Bryson City to Deep Creek Campground. Continue past the campground to the trailhead at the end of Deep Creek Road. Parking is available at the nearby visitor center and along Dan River.

The hike to Clingmans Dome
The half-mile hike to Clingmans Dome may be short and paved, but it’s also straight uphill (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

2. Clingman’s Dome

It’s the views man. At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the park and one of the highest in the Eastern United States. The hike itself isn’t much to speak of. It’s a steep walk up a paved path. It takes about an hour to hike up and back down. On a rare clear day, you can see for 100 miles. But air pollution usually limits that to about 20. The road to the dome is closed seasonally from early December to late March, but you can make the seven-mile hike from Newfound Gap Road in the off-season if you’re so inclined.

To access the trail, turn off Newfound Gap Road 0.1 mile south of Newfound Gap and follow the 7-mile-long Clingmans Dome Road to the large parking area at the end. You can also put Clingmans Dome in your GPS, but be sure to screenshot directions as cell signal isn’t always available in the mountains.

Warning: Do not attempt unless you are a serious hiker who is used to changing elevation. Remember the half-mile hike from the parking lot at the base of the Dome is considered moderate to difficult. Imagine how much worse an additional seven miles of climbing would be. 

Charlie’s Bunion is an 8-mile four-hour hike along the Appalachian Trail (photo by MST Photo/shutterstock.com)

3. Charlie’s Bunion

Have you hiked in the Smokies if you haven’t set foot on the Appalachian Trail? Well, yes. But you get the larger point. This hike is for people who want to enjoy the journey. With a trailhead at the Newfound Gap Parking lot, it’s 4 miles to Charlie’s Bunion. This is one of the more substantial hikes on our list. It comes in at about 8 miles and takes a little over 4 hours to hike. The stone outcrop which looks like a … well, bunion … stands watch over a beautiful view of the valley below, perfect for pictures that not just any tourist will have.

For instance, when viewing AT hikers’ pictures, they will frequently feature a shot of them on the Bunion. The elevation change is 1,600 feet and the trail is considered difficult or strenuous due to its 1,640 feet of elevation gain and steep drops. Be aware if you decide to hike past the Bunion, the trail continues to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. That’s a pretty good walk. 

Ultimately the Smokies are filled with trails with options for any level hiker. If you pick a route that you can physically handle and give yourself enough time, the hike is going to be rewarding. There are few things better for the soul than a nice walk through the woods. 

And as always, before heading out for any of the above-mentioned hikes, be sure to grab a parking pass.

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Disclosure: We have used and experienced all the products and activities recommended on The Smokies. We may receive compensation when you click on links to some products and experiences featured.