It’s very hard to narrow down a list of the best day hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains: There are so many outstanding choices amid 800-plus miles of trails in this most popular national park in the U.S.
The following seven treks, though, go a long way capturing between them a representative picture of the wonders of the Great Smokies. For our money, they’re definitely some of the park’s standout day hikes—and we’re presenting them in no particular order.
Rainbow Falls Trail to Mount LeConte
This ranks among the tougher day hikes on our roundup, but also one of the most spectacular, taking in as it does two truly superlative natural wonders of the Great Smokies and delivering a well-earned feeling of footsore satisfaction when you get back to the trailhead. Beginning at the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the Rainbow Falls Trail heads up LeConte Creek in a steady climb to 80-foot Rainbow Falls: the tallest single-drop waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The magnificent plunge earns its name from the rainbows that commonly form in its mist, particularly in the full sun of summertime.
Many hikers turn around at Rainbow Falls (which gives them a 5.4-mile round-trip outing), but those with the energy and adventurous spirit can give in to the lure of the Mount LeConte summit, another four or so miles beyond. At 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third-tallest peak in the Great Smokies and quite possibly the most topographically prominent mountain in the East, given its formidable rise above the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River lowlands only a few miles northwest of its pyramidal summit.
Climbing Mount LeConte via the Rainbow Falls Trail makes for a full-day, 13.8-mile adventure round-trip.
Chimney Tops Trail
You’ve got to work a bit on the Chimney Tops Trail as well, though it’s only 3.8 miles round-trip from the picnic area of the same name along the Newfound Gap Road. You’ll pound out some 1,487 feet of elevation gain to reach the turnaround overlook, but the view—one of the iconic ones in the Great Smokies—is definitely worth it.
The toothy double peaks of the Chimney Tops, an exposure of the Anakeesta Formation on a northerly spur of Sugarland Mountain, form an unmistakable profile above the West Prong of the Little Pigeon gorge; you’ll also enjoy a knockout look at Mount LeConte and its long flanking ridge called the Boulevard.
Abrams Falls is far from the tallest waterfall in the waterfall-rich Great Smokies, but it’s among the biggest in terms of sheer volume, and thus very much one of the whitewater showstoppers of the range. It’s a roughly 20-foot tumble of Abrams Creek, the biggest stream flowing entirely within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in the rugged country west of Cades Cove, which the creek drains.
The 5.2-mile round-trip hike to Abrams Falls is a moderate one with a fair amount of up-and-down slogging. Admire the cataract and its broad plunge pool, but practice caution here: The edging rocks can be slippery, and the power of the flow has caught unwary swimmers off guard.
The 11.3 miles out and back and better than 3,000 feet of elevation gain involved in reaching Gregory Bald via the Gregory Ridge Trail from Cades Cove makes this hike a similarly epic challenge as the Rainbow Falls approach to Mount LeConte. But it’s also similarly rewarding: the chance to experience one of the finest panoramas not only in the Great Smokies, but in all of the Southeast, and to experience the splendor and subtle mystery of one of the Southern Appalachians’ mountaintop balds.
Set at nearly 5,000 feet along the Smoky Mountain divide, Gregory Bald is an example of a grass bald, a high ridgetop or mountaintop meadow contrasting sharply with the heavy timber that cloaks many Southern Appalachian summits. The long-range views from here are incredible, including Clingmans Dome and Thunderhead Mountain along the Smoky Mountain spine, the faroff basins of Cades Cove and Fontana Lake, and such neighboring mountain ranges as the Yellow Creek Mountains and the Nantahalas.
There’s no more celebrated time to make the grueling but popular trek up to Gregory Bald than June, when the bald’s flame and hybrid azaleas are blazing away in unforgettable bloom.
Like the Chimney Tops—and like the Sawteeth not far east of it—the craggy bastion of Charlies Bunion is an outcrop of slaty Anakeesta rock, responsible for some of the most rugged bare-rock exposures in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s also one of the genuine blue-ribbon vantages in the national park: a spectacular landmark of the Appalachian Trail, some 72 miles of which cut through the high heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Now, we’ll admit the name’s a bit off-putting—Horace Kephart, well known for his early advocacy for the establishment of the national park, labeled the buttress for its resemblance to a bunion on his hiking partner Charlie Conner’s foot—but the spot’s awe-inspiring.
Day hikers can reach Charlies Bunion via the Newfound Gap Road, hiking the AT for an 8.1-mile out-and-back involving some 1,640 feet of elevation gain. It’s a strenuous effort, but well worth it: From “the Bunion,” you’ll have a killer prospect of the Smoky Mountain highlands, including Mount Kephart, Mount LeConte, and remote Mount Guyot to the east—at 6,621 feet, the second-highest peak in the Great Smokies, but vastly less trammeled than Clingmans Dome (partly because there’s no trail to the top).
Significantly easier to reach than Gregory Bald, Andrews Bald is another signature example of a Southern Appalachian grass bald: the highest bald in the park, in fact, situated at more than 5,900 feet in elevation along the spine of Forney Ridge south of the Smoky Mountain divide. The trail from Clingmans Dome to Andrews Bald was once rough going, but the Park Service made major improvements to the tread in the aughts and it’s now only a moderately challenging undertaking, suitable for families.
It’s 3.6 miles round-trip to Andrews Bald on the Forney Ridge Trail, taken from the Clingmans Dome parking lot. Breaking out of spruce-fir shadows to the wide-open of the bald is unforgettable, with quite the far-reaching viewshed to enjoy—and, in early summer, another showstopper display of flowering azaleas.
Before you head out for a day hike in the Smoky Mountains, be sure to check out our Hiker's Checklist!