FODOR'S GO LIST 2015
The top 25 places we think should be on every traveler's radar this year.More
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than 850 miles of hiking trails, about equally divided between the North Carolina and Tennessee sides. The trails range from short nature walks to long, strenuous hikes that gain several thousand feet in elevation.
Download a copy of the trail guide from the park's website or buy a hiking guide at park stores. You can also call the park's Backcountry Information office (865/436–1297) for information to help plan your backpacking or hiking trip.
Three Waterfalls Loop. For the effort of a 2.4-mi hike, this trail will reward you with three pretty waterfalls, Tom Branch, Indian Creek, and Juney Whank. Deep Creek also has a picnic area and campground. Tubing on Deep Creek is fun, too, although it is officially discouraged by the park. Biking also is allowed in this area. Deep Creek Rd., Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC, 28713. Trailhead at end of Deep Creek Rd., near Bryson City entrance to park. 865/436-1200 park information line. www.nps.gov/grsm. Campground closed Nov.–mid-Apr.
Hazel Creek and Bone Valley. This hike begins with a boat ride across Fontana Lake. After you've crossed the lake ($70 per person roundtrip for up to two persons from Fontana Resort Marina), your boat captain will give you directions on how to get from the Fontana docking point to the trailhead, depending on where you're dropped off, as changing lake levels can make the drop-off point vary from month to month. A half-mile on the Hazel Creek Trail (known on some park maps as Lakeshore Trail) will take you to the old lumber and mining town of Proctor, which was once a booming lumber town. At about 5.1 mi, bear right onto the Jenkins Ridge Trail, which will take you to the Bone Valley Trail. Bone Valley gets its name from the herd of cattle, moved here for summer pasture in 1888, which died in a spring snowstorm. If you want to keep going, you can check out Hall Cabin at mile 7.8, or turn around and make your way back. This is an easy hike (as hikes go in the Smokies), with an elevation gain of less than 500 feet. Most of the hike is on an old road and railroad bed. However, it is a long hike, 7.8 mi one-way and nearly 16 mi round-trip, not including the boat rides. Of course, you could always do a shorter section. The Hazel Creek trailhead begins near backcountry campsite 86., Hazel Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC. 828/498-2122 Fontana Marina reservations; 865/436-1200 park information line. www.nps.gov/grsm.
Be realistic about your physical condition and abilities.
Carry plenty of water and energy-rich foods, like GORP (good old raisins and peanuts), energy bars, and fruit.
Dress in layers and be prepared for temperature changes, especially snow in winter. Carry rain gear and expect rain at any time.
Be sure to allow plenty of time to complete your hike before dark. As a rule of thumb, when hiking in the Smokies you'll travel only about 1½ miles per hour, so a 10-mile hike will take almost seven hours.
Clingmans Dome Trail. If you've been driving too long and want some exercise along with unbeatable views of the Smokies and an ecological lesson, too, take the ½-mile (1-mile round-trip) trail from the Clingmans Dome parking lot to the observation tower at the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies. While paved, the trail is fairly steep, and at well over 6,000 feet elevation you'll probably be gasping for air. Many of the fir trees here are dead, killed by the alien invader, the balsam wooly adelgid, and by acid rain from power plants mostly in the Ohio Valley. There's a small visitor information station on the trail. In the parking lot, often full in-season, there are restrooms. Clingmans Dome Rd., Trail begins at Clingmans Dome parking lot, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC. 865/436–1200 park information line. www.nps.gov/grsm. Clingmans Dome Rd. is closed Dec.–Mar.
Flat Creek. This is one of the hidden gems among the park's trails. It's little known, but it's a delightful hike, especially in summer when this higher elevation means respite from stifling temperatures. The path stretches through a pretty woodland, with evergreens, birch, rhododendron, and wildflowers. The elevation gain is about 570 feet. The trail is only 2.6 mi if you use a two-car shuttle, one at the trailhead at mile 5.4 of Heintooga Ridge Road, and the other at the Heintooga picnic area; if you don't do a two-car shuttle, you'll have to walk 3.6 mi along Heintooga Ridge Road to your car, but even this is pleasant, with spruce and fir lining the road and little traffic. Flat Creek Trailhead, Heintooga Ridge Rd., MM 5.4, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC, 28719. 865/436-1200 park information line. www.nps.gov/grsm. Heintooga Ridge Rd. is closed in winter.
Kephart Prong. A 4-mi (round-trip) woodland trail wanders beside a stream to the remains of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Kephart Prong Trail, U.S. 441, off Newfound Gap Rd., Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC, 28719. Trailhead is 5 mi north of Smokemont Campground on U.S. 441 (Newfound Gap Rd.). 865/436-1200 park information line. www.nps.gov/grsm.
Little Cataloochee. No other hike in the Smokies offers a cultural and historic experience like this one. In the early 20th century Cataloochee Cove had the largest population of any place in the Smokies, around 1,200 people. Most of the original structures have been torn down or succumbed to the elements, but a few historic frame buildings remain, such as a log cabin near Davidson Gap at mi 2.6, an apple house at mi 3.3, and a church at mi 4, preserved by park staff. You'll see several of these, along with rock walls and other artifacts, on the Little Cataloochee Trail. The trail is 5.9 mi (one-way) including about 0.8 mi at the beginning on Pretty Hollow Gap Trail. It is best hiked with a two-car shuttle, with one vehicle at the Pretty Hollow Gap trailhead in Cataloochee Valley and the other at the Little Cataloochee trailhead at Old Highway 284 (Cove Creek Road). Including the time it takes to explore the historic buildings and cemeteries, you should allow at least six hours for this hike. The Pretty Hollow Gap trailhead is near Beech Grove School in the Cataloochee Valley. Little Cataloochee Trail, Cataloochee Valley, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC, 28785. 865/436-1200 park information line. www.nps.gov/grsm.
Smokemont Loop Trail. A 6.1-mi (round-trip) loop takes you by streams and, in spring and summer, lots of wildflowers, including trailing arbutus. The trail also passes a field with old chestnut trees killed by the chestnut blight decades ago and the old Bradley Cemetery. With access off Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) at Smokemont campground near Cherokee, this is an easy trail to get to. Smokemont Campground, U.S. 441, off Newfound Gap Rd., Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC, 28719z. Bradley Fork trailhead is at D section of Smokemont campground; follow Bradley Fork Trail to Smokemont Loop Trail. 865/436-1200 park information line. www.nps.gov/grsm.
Mt. Sterling. A 5.4-mi (round-trip) hike takes you to an old fire watchtower, which you can climb. The route is steep, with an elevation gain of almost 2,000 feet, so you should consider this a strenuous, difficult hike. Mt. Sterling, Cataloochee, (Old Hwy. 284), Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC, 28785. Trailhead on Cove Creek Rd. (Old Hwy. 284), midway between Cataloochee and Big Creek Campground. 865/436–1200 park information line.