The Great Smoky Mountains, rising up along the Tennessee/North Carolina border, are home to some of the highest peaks in the Volunteer State. And because the area they cover is so vast and diverse, there are just as many places to find a challenge as there are to find relaxation. We’ve found nine strenuous hikes that cover the more difficult side of the Smokies, with quad-busting climbs, breathtaking views from fire towers, scenic waterfalls, and even a little history here and there. But the best part of all? The sense of accomplishment (and the soreness) that lasts for days after you conquer any of these treks.
1. Appalachian Trail—Great Smoky Mountains National Park section
Distance: 72 miles
Needless to say, the sheer distance alone could put the Great Smoky National Park section of the Appalachian Trail at the top of any hardest hikes list. But it’s not just the distance that makes this a tough option—the route is strewn with rocks to traverse and has plenty of grueling uphill and downhill climbs. In fact, this section of the AT passes over the highest mountains on the entire 2,190-mile route from Georgia to Maine.
Of course the entire trail is much longer, but if you want to undertake the Great Smoky Mountain section of the AT, you’ve got more than 70 miles of serious hiking ahead of you. Keep you eyes peeled for the two-by-six inch blaze markings that dot the trail and plan for about a one week of hiking, which is how long it takes most experienced hikers to complete this epic adventure.
2. Rocky Top on Thunderhead Mountain
Distance: 13.9 miles
This beauty of this trail is not only that it’s a fun challenge to navigate—with more than 3,600 feet of elevation gain throughout, the hike up Thunderhead Mountain is a beast. Beginning in the idyllic Cades Cove Picnic Area at the Anthony Creek trailhead, follow Abrams Creek and long stretches of rhododendron (if you’re hiking in mid-June when they’re in full bloom) up to Spence Field, one of the most beautiful spots on the Appalachian Trail. It’s the perfect place to take a break and soak in the views of the North Carolina side of the Smokies.
From here, you can turn around for a 10.3-mile hike, or make the last push to the Rocky Top summit. On a clear day, you’ll see Cades Cove, Fontana Lake, and the surrounding mountains, stretching on as far as the eye can see. The second and third summits are just a bit farther, but the best views are from Rocky Top, so most hikers head back down after enjoying the view.
3. Mt. Sterling via Baxter Creek
Distance: 12.2 miles
There are a few trails that go up to Mt. Sterling, but by taking the Baxter Creek route, you’ll rise a whopping 4,200 feet over six miles. The trail is well-maintained and pretty even throughout, but it’s still far from easy. As you walk through the old growth forest, look for a a stone chimney, all that’s left of an old lodge. When you get to the 60-foot fire tower, (carefully) take the stairs up, and you’ll get some of the best panoramic views around of the wildflower-laden mountain landscapes in the distance.
4. Gregory Bald via Gregory Ridge Trail
Distance: 11.3 miles
If you’ve got a penchant for impressive natural color, you’ll love this tough hike to Gregory Bald. Each summer spectacular flame azaleas burst into full bloom and their colors are exactly what you’d imagine them to be: popping pinks and searing yellows standing out against a backdrop of green, with some splashes of red and white mixed in, too. While the flowers are delightful, the trail itself demanding, rising an average of 535 feet each mile for a total of 3,020 feet of elevation gain throughout.
5. Mt. Cammerer
Distance: 11.1 miles
Eventually topping out at 5,054 feet, scaling Mt. Cammerer is a challenge for those who like a little history with their strenuous hiking. While gaining about 550 feet per mile, you’ll get a good view from the summit, but the best views are from the stone fire tower at the top. The tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s using hand-cut stone, and the workers lugged these heavy slabs of rock (weighing in at about 600 pounds each!) up to the summit from the quarry about 100 yards below.
6. Ramsey Cascades
Distance: 8 miles
The trail to Ramsey Cascades is a tough one. But for many, the reward of seeing the tallest waterfall in the Smokies make it worth the trip. Tucked away in the beautiful Greenbrier area of the mountains, some of the oldest trees in the park will line your path up to the cascades at 4,269 feet. The final mile is the most difficult—it’s rocky and steep—but when you feel the spray of 100 feet of water rushing over the mossy boulders, you’ll forget all about it. This one will remind you why you love to hike in the first place.
Note: This trail is temporarily closed due to storm damage.
7. Balsam High Top
Distance: 7.6 miles
The hike to Balsam High Top is the least trafficked of the bunch, so those seeking solitude and silence will be supremely happy here among the tall trees. The constant climb up the Benton MacKaye Trail has more than 600 feet of elevation gain per mile, so get ready to work your glutes. The best way to access this trail is from Cherokee, North Carolina along Big Cove Road. There are no views from the summit, so the main draw for this one is the solitude through the hardwood and evergreen forestland.
8. Shuckstack Fire Tower
Distance: 7.2 miles
Also nestled into the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains, the hike to Shuckstack Fire Tower is the shortest on our list, but don’t let the distance fool you—you’ll gain a little more than 2,000 feet in elevation throughout. You’ll also have stellar views of the Smokies and see colorful wildflowers along the way (if you make it in the spring and summer). Park at the Fontana Dam, the highest dam east of the Rockies, and follow the Appalachian Trail north into the mountains until you see the tower in the distance.
If you want to turn this into a three-day backpacking trip, there’s also a 32-mile loop option to the Shuckstack Fire Tower. This route has about 20 creek crossings and is one of the best ways to find solitude (and wildlife) in the popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.