Surrounded by no fewer than three national forests to the south and east (plus the Great Smoky Mountains) Tennessee is a backpacker’s paradise, with a backcountry trip to suit every experience level. From the well-traveled trails of the most popular park in the nation to the lesser-known pathways of state parks and beyond, the home of country music seems to know what it’s singing about. After all, when it comes to natural spaces vast enough to explore for days on end, country is one thing the Volunteer State has in spades.
10. Big Ridge State Park
Difficulty: mild, moderate or challenging
North of Knoxville,Big Ridge State Park is far smaller than many of its counterparts, checking in at a mere 3,687 acres, so you might not think of this as a backpacking option right away. But it's 15 miles of trails ranging from beginner-friendly to genuinely challenging have three separate backcountry camping areas, as well as 50 year-round campsites, making it a great choice for a beginner backpacker. None of the trails here are overnight hikes, so you can mix and match any of its 12 options to customize a hike that suits your ability level. The most dramatic hike in Big Ridge is the rigorous Big Valley Trail, a 1.7-mile hike that includes a cemetery, an abundance of wildflowers in warmer months, and deep valley overlooks all throughout the year. Enjoy the shores of Norris Lake before heading back into the woods.
9. Frozen Head State Park
Difficulty: mild, moderate or challenging
The pristine beauty ofFrozen Head State Park is best experienced by camping overnight in any of the ten backcountry sites along its 50 miles of trails snaking through the park’s 24,000 mountainous acres. The 6.6-mile Chimney Top and 7-mile North Bird Mountain trails are the most rugged options within its borders, both presenting a solid challenge for even the most serious of backpackers. On the former, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the valleys beneath you if it’s a clear day, and on the latter, you’ll encounter more than a dozen switchbacks and over 1,600 feet of elevation gain and loss, with more a precarious outcropped ridge top to navigate your way across.
8. South Cumberland State Park: Raven’s Point Loop in Fiery Gizzard
Difficulty: moderate to challenging
With more than 90 miles of backpacking trails and a dozen campgrounds,South Cumberland State Park is a flora and fauna wonderland, and all just 50 miles from Chattanooga. For experienced backpackers, the strenuous 9-mile Big Creek Gulf and Rim offers staggering views of waterfalls and sinks, as well as a broad range of flora and deciduous forest birds. The 10-mile backcountry Raven’s Point Loop in the Fiery Gizzard Trail is a grab bag of eye-popping optics, including overlooks, waterfalls, sinks and springs. This trail leads hikers to some of the more remote sections of Fiery Gizzard. There are several shorter trails in the Fiery Gizzard area to add on, including the Sycamore Falls Loop—a moderate, 3-mile hike to the Sycamore Falls swimming hole. Even if it’s too cold to swim, the views of the falls are still worth the trip.
7. Cumberland Trail: Possum Creek Section
For a 10-mile hike that mixes things up, try to Possum Creek Section of Cumberland Trail, which alternates between steep, tough climbs, and serene flats. Using the Heiss Mountain trailhead, you’ll experience more than 1,000 feet in elevation gain over the first four miles alone, and be rewarded for it with two large waterfalls. Then, you’ll trek alongside a creek and through evergreen forests and hemlock groves. The word "green" doesn’t begin to cover it. Toward the end, there’s a bit of wading, but a campsite awaits just beyond that point where you can rest—and dry—your feet.
6. Appalachian Trail: Roan Overmountain Shelter
Difficulty: varies by section
Only one in four people who attempt anAppalachian Trail thru-hike actually make it from beginning to end, but even shorter, multi-day hikes across a piece of the 2,190-mile route are a worthwhile way to explore the country’s natural wonders. The trail offers more than 250 backcountry shelters along its path, each around eight miles from the next, as well as 100 campsites for backpackers. A particularly great section is the one with Overmountain Shelter at Roan Mountain, often referred to as "The Barn." Five miles north of Carver’s Gap, you’ll need to veer off the AT for a third of a mile to reach it, but it’s well worth the small detour for an overnight stay in the most unique (and, some say, luxurious) shelter on the entire trail. For a longer hike, start at the Highway 19E trailhead near Roan Mountain, TN. The shelter is 8.7 miles south from here, and includes a 2,000-foot climb, but you can also explore the balds on Hump Mountain and Little Hump Mountain from this route.
5. Fall Creek Falls: Cane Creek Overnight Trail
Difficulty: moderate or challenging
Both the state’s biggest and most frequently visited park,Fall Creek Falls spans 26,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, teeming with waterfalls, streams, and hardwood forest. Embark on the Cane Creek Overnight Trail, with three backcountry sites to accommodate hikers making the trek. Cane Creek comes in two flavors: a 13-mile moderate hike on its Upper Loop or a more rigorous 12-mile voyage around its Lower Loop. This one might not be suitable for younger kids, but bring along your four-legged buddy (just keep him on a leash!).
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Rainbow Falls/Mt. LeConte/Bullhead Trail Loop
Another fantastic backpacking excursion through theGreat Smoky Mountains can be found along the Rainbow Falls/Mt. LeConte/Bullhead Trail, a 14-mile trek with two high points both figurative and literal: a phenomenal view from the 6,593-foot summit of Mt. LeConte (the third highest peak in the Smokies) and the ability to look down over the highest waterfall the entire 800-square-mile park has to offer. Take the Rainbow Falls Trail up to Mt. LeConte, especially in the summer (it’s much cooler), and soak in the views on your way back down the Bullhead Trail. There is so much to see on this route, so take your time and stay overnight at the LeConte Lodge.
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Gabes Mountain/Maddron Bald/Snake Den Ridge Trail Loop
With 800 miles of hiking trails, 150 kinds of wildflowers, more than a dozen mountain peaks reaching well over 6,000 feet in elevation, and its designation as one of the world’s first UNESCO Heritage Sites, it’s no wonder theSmokies are the most visited national park in the U.S. every year. One of its backcountry loops, the Gabes Mountain/Maddron Bald/Snake Den Ridge Trail, offers 17 miles of backcountry hiking through old growth forests. This tough loop starts out with a steady climb, gaining 500 feet in the first mile and giving you a taste of what to expect on the rest of this hike. You’ll gain a little over 3,000 feet of elevation over the entire trip, with several strenuous climbs. There are two backcountry campsites along the way.
2. Cherokee National Forest: Iron Mountain Trail
In the protected swath of wilderness straddling the Tennessee/North Carolina border, camping is allowed almost anywhere in theCherokee National Forest where water, trails, parking, and rec areas are at least 100 feet away. That makes for plenty of options for intrepid explorers making their way through this 650,000-acre Southern Appalachian gem. For a tough, multi-day trek that’s long on solitude but short on boredom, challenge yourself to the 19-mile Iron Mountain Trail #54 in the Iron Mountain Zone of the forest. Starting at Osborne Farm, stop to fish in one of its creeks along the way, and sleep in the Backbone Rock Recreation Area. The panoramas in this neck of the woods are truly something to behold. For even more of a challenge, loop the Iron Mountain Trail with the Cross Mountain/Damascus section of the Appalachian Trail—it’ll put you at 50+ miles roundtrip.
1. John Muir Trail via Big South Fork National River and Rec Area
Protecting part of the Cumberland River and covering 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau,Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area can best be described in one word: lush. While it doesn’t have designated backcountry camping areas, overnight respite is allowed anywhere along the John Muir Trail, and repeat patronage of spots already used by past campers is encouraged.
In particular, the John Litton/John Muir Trail/Laurel Fork Creek route is a punishing 26.9-mile journey ripe with rewarding views from the canyon rim. Start at the visitor center and take the John Litton/Fall Branch Trail up to the John Muir Trail. Before you get to the JMT, there will be a path to your right that leads to Angel Falls. If you have the time, it’s definitely a worthwhile detour to see the water rushing through the 600-foot high gorge. Once at the John Muir Trail, expect about nine miles of switchbacks, then come down Laurel Fork Creek Trail. At one point, Laurel Fork turns into the West Entrance Trail to wrap back around to the visitor center.
Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.