Rocky Top/Thunderhead Mountain - Hiking

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Hiking to Rocky Top is a challenging hike, but one that has wonderful views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Written by

Cinnamon Janzer


14.0 miles

Destination Distance From Downtown

91.2 miles


4 of 5 diamonds

This hike clocks in at just under 14 miles round trip and gains about 3,660 feet throughout.

Time To Complete

6 hours


All Seasons

The rhododendrons bloom in June, making the hike spectacularly beautiful during this time of year. Fall is also a wonderful time to go leaf peeping.

Dog Friendly


Fees Permits


Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few national parks in the United States with no entrance fee.



The Cades Cove area of the larger Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a popular spot worth visiting, but by taking on this tough hike, you’ll be able to get away from the crowds. Start with a drive around the scenic Cades Cove Loop, and then get out of the car for a day-long adventure up to the summit of Thunderhead Mountain. About halfway up, you’ll catch glimpses of the views ahead through the lush trees that surround the trail.

What Makes It Great

Hiking to Rocky Top is a strenuous hike that isn’t for the faint of heart, but is perfectly suited for anyone looking to test their boundaries while taking in the supreme beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The hike begins at the popular Cades Cove picnic area, but as soon as you set out on the trail at the Anthony Creek Trailhead on the far side, you’ll leave the tourists behind. It’s not an easy route to navigate, but if you follow these directions, you’re sure to find your way through the blooming rhododendron and the litany of trails that split off along the way.

And like most good things, this challenge comes with a reward that few get to experience. Just after turning onto the Appalachian Trail section of the hike, you’ll have amazing views of the North Carolina side of the park, but keep going for blooming mountain laurel, wide open meadows, and Spence Field (named after a man who built a cabin in the area in the early 1800s). Continue on to Rocky Top, one of the summits on Thunderhead and the place that inspired the official Tennessee State song.

The last push to Rocky Top is fairly steep, but once you get to the bald area, you’ll have some of best views in the entire Smokies. It’s only about a third of a mile more to get to the true, 5,527-foot summit of Thunderhead Mountain, but the view is mostly obstructed by shrubs.

Who is Going to Love It

Those who are looking to push their hiking boundaries will enjoy the challenge that comes with hiking to Rocky Top. This isn’t for the casual hiker, but if you want to take your time, the park is open 24/7 and the road required to access the trail is open to foot and bike traffic at all hours as well.

Lastly, hikers who are in it for the views won’t be disappointed with the scenery along this route, especially if you’re a sucker for things like standing in one state while gazing upon another.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

There is only one driving entrance to the Cades Cove Loop, even though some maps may make it look like there are more—be sure to enter from Laurel Creek Road. After driving for about 7.5 miles along Laurel Creek Road turn into the Cades Cove Campground on the left. From there the picnic area is to the left, where the trailhead begins.

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Rocky Top / Thunderhead Mountain

Cades Cove Campground 10042 Campground Dr
Gatlinburg, TN, 37882
35.605439, -83.771459

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