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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Trip List by 7_14_142014

6,000 feet up

4 Dec 2007  longtime Smokies visitor and mountain climber
4.5 of 5 bubbles based on 8 votes

The climax of the eons-old Appalachian mountain chain, the Smokies are known for their breathtaking views. Winter shows the best visibility, but every season is a good time for a sky-high hike. Here are my five favorites.

  • Explore locations featured in this Trip List: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Category: Best of
  • Traveler type: Active/Outdoors, Never been before, Repeat visitors
  • Appeals to: Families with teenagers, Large groups, Budget travellers , Active/adventure
  • Seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
  • 1. 6,643 ft, to be exact
    Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

    While it is the highest summit in the park and second-highest east of the Mississippi (losing to North Carolina's Mt. Mitchell by 45 feet), Clingman's Dome is also the most visited. To avoid the hundreds if not thousands of daily visitors, drive up in the early morning before nine or ten o'clock. The steep half-mile trail is a trek for the novice, but the panoramic vista afforded from the top is well worth the effort. Clingman's Dome Road is closed in the winter, making the great visibility of the cold only available to those willing to make the 7.7 mile hike to the top. The last decade the balsam firs, which were very dominant on Clingman’s Dome, were hit hard by invasive insects. Today, thousands of white toothpicks scattered across the mountain top accompany the views from the observation tower, a living testament to the threat the wooly algid poses to the Smokies’ hemlocks.

  • 2. What? Trees?
    Balsam Mountain Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

    A visitor making the long trip to remote Balsam Mountain expecting clear, sweeping views of the surrounding area will be more or less disappointed. However, after the fifteen plus overlooks from the Blue Ridge Highway, your itch for panoramas should be cured. As soon as the road crosses the boundary line of the park, the tree-cuts disappear and trees block the would-be vistas. What makes Balsam special is its extreme peacefulness and simple feeling of high elevation. The campground is the highest in the park; during a walk along the short nature trail from the campground you encounter a totally different scene than you are used to. While not breathtaking, a trip here with a walk from Polls Gap is a special, solitary experience. A trip down Heigntooga Bottoms Road (also known as Balsam Mountain Road) back to Cherokee (with a stop at Mingo Falls) will give you a more intimate, woodland understanding than Blue Ridge Highway.

  • 3. Horseshoe Mountain
    Charlies Bunion, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

    If you haven’t heard of it, don’t be surprised; most people who see it don’t know its name, either. Around the low peak is the Smokies ridgeline, easily twice its height. From there hikers on Charlie’s Bunion and the Jumpoff experience the most breathtaking views in the park. The latter is possibly the most breathtaking view in the park—one misstep and you’re falling a good thousand feet at least. This isn’t a mountain top; it’s a cliff (something not seen too often in the Smokies). Charlie’s Bunion is a good bit lower down, but is an actual outcropping of rock form the side of the ridge. Sitting on it’s end, the vistas fill your whole field of vision. The trail to the views leaves from Newfound Gap and requires nine miles of effort for the roundtrip.

  • 4. Alpine Summit

    Mt. Cammerer, located in the northeastern corner of the park near Cosby, is neither the highest nor the most accessible climb in the park, but offers a new experience for mountain-top addicts. The trail to the top starts off wonderfully, passing mountain streams and passing through shaded forest. The trail steepens part way up to a tough climb until the exhausted hiker reaches Low Gap. From there on you’ll enjoy a more comfortable elevation gain, with glimpses of views the whole way. Slowly, trees give way to shrubbery, strangely like summits in the West. While the mountain may not be even close to the highest in the park, this “tree line” simulation gives the illusion of a rocky mountain peak in the middle of the Smoky Mountains (if you can push the deciduous trees out of mind). The fire tower itself is my favorite anywhere, composed of slate rock built by the CCC. The sheltered indoor area (with windows in every direction, of course) offers a nice break from the cold on a windy day.

  • 5. Mount LeConte
    Mount LeConte, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

    While Mt. LeConte takes third place for height, I still consider it the most singular mountain in the park. While the other highest mountains all form the ridge of the Smokies, Mt. LeConte rises distinctly by itself. The area at the top is large enough that it can take a good walk to go from one overlook to another, but each of these offer amazing views of the inner park, including Clingman's Dome, as well as over Gatlinburg and the "flatlands". The trails up (Boulevard, Alum Cave, Rainbow Falls, or Trillium Gap) aren't easy, but the lodge at the top allows hikers to break up the climb over two days. Many people agree that a view is much better enjoyed when earned after a hard climb instead of a long drive, and Mt. LeConte is certainly worth all the effort.