I interviewed a guy from East Tennessee once whose “thing” was mountain climbing. And still is, actually. In fact, I saw on social media where he was on some peak somewhere the other day.
Not a particularly rich guy, just a guy who loved the thrill of climbing up high in the tallest mountains in the world.
When we spoke, he’d just come home from a successful climb up Everest. But he’d done all the big ones across multiple continents of the world.
He tried to describe to me the pull, the attraction, of conquering the world’s tallest peaks. And I get it – at least to some degree. Specifically, the idea of standing on top of the world, a place where only a select few can ever reach.
But I’ve decided I like our mountains in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina. They are ancient and verdant but also welcoming with the exception of the occasional black bear.
Mt. Everest is 29,035 feet in elevation. People perish every year trying to reach it.
Clingmans Dome, on the other hand, is the highest peak in the Smokies at 6,643 feet. You can drive there in the afternoon, have a picnic with the family and drive back.
I’m not here to tell you one is better than the other. And of course, there is something to be said for that explorer’s spirit that drives people to test their own limits in a battle against nature.
Below you will find a list of the highest peaks in the Smoky Mountains, ranked by elevation.
1. Clingmans Dome (6,643 feet)
We’ve already established this is the highest mountain in the Smokies. But it is also the third-highest point East of the Mississippi. Only North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell and Mt. Craig rise higher.
The site is host to a scenic overlook designed in the 1950s. It’s accessible by a paved, but steep trail.
There are also several trails available from the Clingmans Dome parking area, including the hike on the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald. The 54-foot observation tower enhances those 360-degree mountain views from that height.
On a clear day, it has some of the best views in the United States, expanding over 100 miles. Unfortunately, air pollution often limits viewing distances to under 20 miles. Weather conditions can also frequently affect views at higher elevations.
Clingmans Dome Road closes through the winter months. However, you are allowed to hike in from Newfound Gap Road near the Rockefeller Memorial where FDR dedicated the park.
2. Mount Guyot (6,621 feet)
While Clingmans Dome is easily accessible for most of the year – all you really need is a car and the stamina to walk up one pretty steep incline, Mt. Guyot is a different kettle of fish entirely.
The second highest peak in the Great Smokies sits squarely on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Mt. Guyot was named for Swiss Geographer Arnold Henry Guyot.
Famed travel writer and librarian Horace Kephart viewed the mountain as part of dense wilderness.
“The most rugged and difficult part of the Smokies (and of the United States east of Colorado) is in the sawtooth mountains between Collins and Guyot, at the headwaters of the Okona Lufty River. I know but few men who have ever followed this part of the divide,” he once wrote.
Mt. Guyot was essentially isolated until the Great Depression. At that time, FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps cut a segment of the Appalachian Trail along the mountain’s western slope.
Today the Appalachian Trail and the Balsam Mountain Trail are the only maintained trails that access the mountain. It’s one of the multiple peaks in the U.S. named for Arnold Guyot.
3. Mount LeConte (6,593 feet)
When the push to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was underway, a tent camp was erected near the summit of Mt. LeConte to welcome visiting dignitaries from Washington.
On that site, Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer, began building what would become LeConte Lodge in 1926, predating the establishment of the park by about 8 years.
Today LeConte Lodge is a fairly hard-to-reach, fairly hard-to-book getaway. The lodge and peak are only accessible by one of six trails – Alum Cave Trail, Boulevard Trail, Bullhead Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, Brushy Mountain Trail and Trillium Gap Trail.
Supplies are brought to and from the lodge by pack animals, such as llamas. And bookings can be hard to come by depending on the time of year.
On pollution-free days, the lodge does offer breathtaking views of the high elevation of the third highest peak in the Smokies.
There are some overnight shelters available through the National Park Service. These require a backcountry pass and reservations.
It is possible to hike up to the peak and back out without spending the night. But keep in mind the trails can be fairly crowded and cover a significant rise in elevation. The trails range from 4.9 to 8.9 miles.
The Alum Cave trail may be the most popular, leading hikers on a 2.3-mile trek to the Alum Cave Bluffs. It’s a scenic landmark that is essentially a giant rock shelf that offers spectacular views of the mountains in Western North Carolina and an insight into the massive scale of rock that makes the mountains. From the Bluffs, it’s an additional 2.6 miles to the summit of Mount Le Conte.
Depending on which trail you take, you can also check out some of the mountains’ cooler waterfalls like the Ramsey Cascades or the Grotto Falls along the way.
4. Mount Buckley (6,580 feet)
Mt. Buckley is one of the sub-peaks on the Clingmans Dome ridge-crest.
It’s reachable from the summit of the Dome via the Appalachian Trail or from the Clingmans Dome parking lot on the bypass trail.
The loop is less than two miles and is a good trail for hikers of varying skill levels.
5. Mount Love (6,420 feet)
Another peak in the shadow of Clingmans Dome.
It’s heavily forested and doesn’t offer a lot of scenic views. It’s just to the northeast of the dome’s peak along the AT.
For avid hikers looking to collect the highest peaks in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, this one is fairly easily accessible from the top of Clingmans Dome. Also, it’s pretty cool to tell everyone you know that you’ve been to the summit of Mount Love.
Have you visited any of the highest peaks in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments!
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