AT from Newfound Gap to Tennessee 32
- 31.4 miles
- Net elevation change = minus 3,000 feet (5,700-feet total climb; 8,700-feet total descent)
- What makes it hard: Hikers hardly get a moment’s break from climbing up or down, and there are enough exposed areas to be dangerous in a storm. Also, the trail doesn’t end back where it started, meaning that shuttle is needed.
- What makes it worth it: That high, lonesome feeling: once past Charlies Bunion, the trail provides great solitude. To meet some thru-hikers, try this section in mid-spring. At any season, it’s a treat to spend this many miles so high in elevation.
- For an extra challenge: Do it in one day, or keep going to Maine.
Mt. LeConte via Boulevard Trail and/or Bullhead
- 14.9 miles
- Net elevation change = minus 2,500 feet from Newfound Gap to Cherokee Orchard
- What makes it hard: The section of the AT leading to the Boulevard Trail has a floor of ankle-turning cobbles interspersed with slick, slanted outcroppings of slate bedrock. Once to Boulevard, the climbing is manageable, but the downhill on Bullhead is torture for bad knees.
- What makes it worth it: Mt. LeConte is one of the most popular climbs in the park, for good reason—it’s another world up there. This route offers great views, a long wildflower season, and a lot of interesting rock piles, from the giant cairn on top to the boulders and overhangs on the way down and the old farm fences at the very bottom.
- For an extra challenge: Do this hike in the opposite direction.
Rocky Top via Bote Mountain
- 15.8 miles
- Net elevation change = 0 (3,900-foot climb and descent from Laurel Creek Road)
- What makes it hard: There are four direct ways to reach Rocky Top starting from Laurel Creek Road, and this one is the hardest because it’s the longest and starts from the lowest elevation. Beyond the long climb, Bote Mountain Trail is tough because of its many loose rocks and its popularity with horseback riders.
- What makes it worth it: Next time the University of Tennessee’s football team plays and the band strikes up “Rocky Top”—never mind being a Vols fan, never mind that the song was actually written about Mt. LeConte—one has been there and can proudly proclaim it so.
- For an extra challenge: Climb another three-quarters of a mile or so past Rocky Top to Thunderhead Peak, which is the true mountaintop.
Mt. Sterling via Baxter Creek
- 17.1 miles
- Net elevation change = 0 (4,100-foot climb and descent from Big Creek hiker parking)
- What makes it hard: The ascent of Baxter Creek Trail is among the most difficult in the park, and this hike packs on the miles afterwards. By day’s end, legs will feel like they’re on autopilot as they cruise down the flat, graded Big Creek Trail.
- What makes it worth it: This hike offers some of most of the park’s varied forest types, from the shady coves to the exposed ridges, topped off with the fairytale spruce-fir forest. Mt. Sterling tower is just sketchy enough to be thrilling, especially on a breezy day, and you can see forever. Be sure to save time for a dip in Big Creek’s Midnight Hole, one of the coldest and cleanest swimming holes you’ll ever come across.
- For an extra challenge: Make this hike an overnight figure eight by taking the Pretty Hollow Gap Trail down into Cataloochee.
- 11.4 miles
- Net elevation change = 0 (3,000-foot climb and descent from Forge Creek Rd)
- What makes it hard: It’s a pretty steep climb, especially the last 0.7 mile, and just as steep on the way back down. The hardest part though can be your drive home. It’s only about five miles from the trailhead to the exit of the one-way Cades Cove Loop Road, but every time someone ahead sees a deer or bear, the line of cars idles for at least 20 minutes. It’s not uncommon for those five miles to take an hour or more.
- What makes it worth it: Big tulip and black cherry trees on the way up, and Gregory Bald. Flame azaleas of every hue from pale yellow and pink to deep orange and red bloom in early summer, and when they’re done the blueberries will be ripe.
- For an extra challenge: See those weird yellow growths on the azalea branches? They’re galls caused by the fungus Exobasidium vaccinii, and are edible. Eat one.
Hemphill Bald Loop
- 13.7 miles
- Net elevation change = 0 (Polls Gap = 5,130 feet, Hemphill Bald = 5,540 feet, Caldwell Fork = 3,360 feet)
- What makes it hard: Hikers reach their destination early on. After Hemphill Bald, there are still nine miles to hike, and there’s a downhill that loses 2,200 feet in elevation and dumps out in a buggy lowland. About 1,700 of those feet must be made back up.
- What makes it worth it: Solitude. Even on Memorial Day weekend there may be no humans on the trail and instead elk and lots of wildflowers. Enjoy relaxing on a stone picnic table to admire the widespread views from Hemphill Bald.
- For an extra challenge: Look closely for elk and wild hog hoofprints and try to discern the two. Both animals are found in the area.
Spence/Russell Field Loop
- 11.6 miles
- Net elevation change = 0 (3,800-foot climb and descent from Cades Cove Picnic Area)
- What makes it hard: Down on the Cades Cove valley floor, those soft blue mountains don’t look nearly as high as they do only halfway up them.
- What makes it worth it: Spence Field is a high-elevation bald perfect for an afternoon spent picking berries or napping in the warm grass. Visit the AT shelters and sign the guestbook and be sure to read what other hikers have to say about their trips.
- For an extra challenge: For each crossing of Anthony Creek, douse one’s head.