Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Backpacking tral in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Backpacking tral in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Ben Sumner)

One of the best ways to enjoy the Smokies is by backpacking. Walking from low to high, overnight hikers can enjoy much the same flora and fauna variation as a backpacker hiking the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. There are in excess of 100 designated backcountry campsites and shelters scattered throughout the trail system. The Appalachian Trail is the master path of the park, extending 68 miles over the state line ridge that divides Tennessee and North Carolina. The AT offers stone camping shelters, spectacular scenery, and no solitude. Backpackers are better advised to use the AT as a connector path and camp at backcountry sites along the other 800 miles of trails. There are two types of backcountry sites, rationed and non-rationed. Simply put, rationed sites will be busy. If you prefer solitude, choose from any of the non-rationed campsites.

Overall, campsite usage is busiest on summer weekends, then drops off in September, followed by a short uptick during October, fall leaf season. Winter backpacking is viable here, but the temperature varies wildly—it can be 60 degrees one day, followed by bitter cold and snow. Check the weather forecast before heading out. The Smokies average 60 inches of the white stuff per year at 5,000 feet. Spring break can be hopping, but wildflower season is a good time to visit, especially May, before summer crowds hit.

Here are five of our favorite backpacking trips in the park:

Cades Cove
Twentymile Overnight Loop
This is a hike that combines the best that the high and low country have to offer. Start at out-of-the-way Twentymile Ranger Station and hike up the Twentymile Trail to Twentymile Cascades. Keep up Twentymile Creek to Upper Flats streamside camp, set in a rich cove. The next day make an arduous climb onto Long Hungry Ridge. Head up past Rye Patch to Gregory Bald. Enjoy the majesty from the top of the Southern Appalachians most famed bald, with its staggering views and flower displays. Camp at nearby Sheep Pen Gap, a high country grassy flat shaded by yellow birch that lies between Gregory Bald and Parson Bald. Leave the grassy balds and complete the loop via the steep Wolf Ridge Trail.

Little River Overnight Loop
This trip offers creekside and ridgeline camping with a fair amount of climbing in between. Follow the Little River deep into the heart of the Smokies. The Little River is a living photo op, with boulders and cascades framed in a lush cove hardwood forest. Anglers like to cast for trout in its crystalline waters. Camp in the shadow of Clingmans Dome at Three Forks, where an open glade forms the centerpiece of the camp. Backtrack just a bit then make the climb on an old railroad grade out of the valley via Rough Creek. Ramble along Sugarland Mountain to camp in a boulder field at the Medicine Branch Bluff campsite, where there is solitude aplenty.

Maddron Bald Overnight Loop
This two-night trip is one of, if not the best, backpacking loops in the entire park! First, hike along the lower reaches of Gabes Mountain, passing Henwallow Falls, and enter virgin woodland to camp at Sugar Cove, a campsite known in the past for bear encounters. Then head up the Maddron Bald Trail, to Albright Grove, which contains some of the park's largest old-growth timber. Camp along resonant high country Otter Creek near Maddron Bald, which sports awe-inspiring views both above and below. This is a rationed and often busy campsite. On the return trip down the rugged Snake Den Trail, a few more vistas open up on some smaller heath balds. This excursion exemplifies the Smoky Mountains at their finest, but others will be enjoying the trip, too.

Fontana Lake Area
Fontana Lake Overnight Loop
This trip requires a shuttle over Fontana Lake from Fontana Marina. However, if you like a combination of mountains and lakes, this moderate hike is for you and any younger or inexperienced backpackers you may wish to bring along. Start your trip on a boat that takes you on the pleasure ride from Fontana Marina to Hazel Creek. Hike up a modest grade on the Lakeshore Trail through a valley steeped in settler and logging history to camp at Sugar Fork, one of the Smokies best campsites. Then, cross over Jenkins Trail Ridge to the Eagle Creek watershed and camp right where Eagle Creek spills into Fontana Lake, to simultaneously enjoy a tumbling stream and a mountain-rimmed lake. On the way back, pass more human history, still on the Lakeshore Trail, to intersect the Appalachian Trail, and walk over Fontana Dam to Fontana Marina. There are other campsites spread out along this route that make for possible variations in the plan.

Big Creek Overnight Loop
Start this trip at Big Creek Ranger Station, a remote yet accessible departure point for a trip along Big Creek, and into the high country. Follow an old road on a gentle grade to Walnut Bottoms. Camp at this popular area where several streams come together, providing ample fishing waters to those so inclined. Then climb the rough Swallow Fork Trail to the high country on Mount Sterling Ridge. Some pleasant ridge walking through spruce-fir forest leads to Mount Sterling and your second night's destination at the highest unsheltered backcountry campsite in the park at 5,800 feet. Pass through old-growth forest on your descent along the very steep Baxter Creek Trail back to Big Creek and the loop's end. Both campsites along this route are rationed.



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