20170906-Smoky Mountains-Clingmans Dome

Across Great Smoky Mountains National Park, miles of interconnected trails meander through lush, green valleys, hug the banks of moss-laden, rocky creeks, and climb through thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron to the blue-tinged mountain peaks.

You could spend weeks backpacking through this rich landscape, but a weekend trip will also allow you to experience the best of the Smokies. To help you plan your visit, we’ve highlighted three backpacking loops that give you the Appalachian Trail, streamside and ridgeline campsites, killer views, and enough distance and elevation to satisfy your inner weekend warrior.

Big Creek Loop

Combining the best of frontcountry and backcountry camping, the Big Creek area on the northeastern tip of the park off I-40 offers something for every level of hiker. Tackle a 21.5-mile loop over big peaks or lower your mileage and elevation with a night at one of the sweetest creekside campsites in the park. Either way, you’ll hike the AT through some of the most scenic terrain in the Smokies.

You will be in constant awe of the beauty on Big Creek Loop.
You will be in constant awe of the beauty on Big Creek Loop.


Roll into Big Creek Friday night to enjoy campground amenities like restrooms, dinner at a picnic table, and campsites with fire rings. You’ll be up early on Saturday to climb the Chestnut Branch Trail 2 miles to the Appalachian Trail. One of the shortest AT access points, the trail passes the remains of homesteads that pre-date the national park.

Turn south on the AT and continue climbing 3.3 miles to the 0.6-mile Mt. Cammerer fire tower spur trail. At 4,928 feet, the tower overlooks the Pigeon River Gorge to the north and Mt. Sterling to the south. From the fire tower, it’s a moderate descent 2.1 miles to the Low Gap Trail. Take Low Gap 2.5 miles to campsite #37 at the Big Creek Trail junction. Right on the banks of Big Creek, you’d be hard pressed to find a more spacious backcountry site in the park.

On Sunday, you can go big or go home, as they say. Going big means a hike up the Swallow Falls Trail 4 miles to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. It’s another 1.4 miles and more climbing to an elevation of 5,842 feet on Mt. Sterling. Climb Sterling’s 60-foot steel fire tower for panoramic views of Cataloochee Valley, the Black Mountains, and the Southern Appalachians. Now, the downhill endurance test begins, with a 4,000-foot elevation loss over 6 miles on the Baxter Creek Trail. If you opt to go home, you can sleep in, savor your coffee by the campfire, and still have plenty of time to hike the moderate, 5-mile descent along Big Creek back to the campground, passing two stunning waterfalls and plenty of swimming holes along the way.

Big Creek loop ends with a 4,000-foot elevation loss over 6 miles on the Baxter Creek Trail.
Big Creek loop ends with a 4,000-foot elevation loss over 6 miles on the Baxter Creek Trail.


Big Creek Campground is open from April through October and makes a great base camp for groups by serving a wide variety of abilities and interests. On your way home, make sure you leave enough time to refuel at Carver’s Apple Orchard in Cosby, Tenn. At Carver’s you can shop for fresh produce at the farmers market, nab awesome treats at an old-time candy shop, and feast at a homestyle restaurant, where the apple fritters are not to be missed.

Twentymile Loop

In the southwest corner of the Smokies you’ll find a lesser-used trailhead that leads to the AT and one of the most scenic balds in the park. From this trailhead, you’ll log 17.6 miles on the way to Gregory Bald, sleeping one night on the AT and camping the other night on the bald.

Start off Friday afternoon at the Twentymile Ranger Station off Highway 28 near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. A non-technical climb takes you 4.5 miles to meet the AT at Sassafras Gap. Campsite #113, at Birch Spring Gap, is less than 1 mile north of the trail junction. If time allows late Friday or early Saturday morning, head south on the AT for 360-degree views at sunset or sunrise from the top of Shuckstack Fire Tower. The historic lookout isn’t regularly maintained, so watch your step on the 200-foot climb to the top.

In the southwest corner of the Smokies you’ll find the lesser-used Twentymile Loop trailhead.
In the southwest corner of the Smokies you’ll find the lesser-used Twentymile Loop trailhead.

Chris M Morris

You’ll resume your northward journey on the AT, traveling 2 miles over Doe Knob to the next trail junction. Next, take Gregory Bald Trail west a little more than 3 miles to campsite #13 on the bald. Known for spectacular flame azalea blooms each year in mid to late June, the grassy high-elevation meadow offers stunning views of Cades Cove, Fontana Lake, and Clingmans Dome.

On Sunday, make the final 6.3-mile descent to the trailhead on the wide, non-technical Wolf Ridge Trail. Refuel at Fontana Village, just over 6 miles down Highway 28, before heading home. Burgers and brews will hit the spot at Wildwood Grill, while the Mountainview Restaurant highlights seasonal produce, along with fresh, local rainbow trout.

Deep Creek Loop

Along Deep Creek loop you’ll pass Indian Creek Falls.
Along Deep Creek loop you’ll pass Indian Creek Falls.

Alan Cressler

Enjoy the streams and waterfalls of the Deep Creek area in the south-central region of the Smokies on this 28.2-mile loop. You’ll also spend a night in an AT shelter and exit on one of the longest continuously descending trails in the Smokies.

You’ve barely left the Deep Creek Ranger Station before you come across Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls. Once you pass these Instagram-worthy stops, it’s a slight uphill grade for 4 miles along the moderately rocky Deep Creek Trail to campsites 54-59. Claim a site for Friday evening (all but one are non-reservable) to enjoy the refreshing waters of Deep Creek and thickly wooded campsites.

Creek crossings and easy bushwacking are on the agenda Saturday, as you hike another 4 miles to the Fork Ridge Trail. Fork Ridge ascends 5 miles to Clingmans Dome Road and the AT. A short hike north takes you to the Mount Collins shelter, where you’ll spend the night in a high-elevation spruce-fir forest and dramatically cooler, drier conditions. Enjoy the shelter amenities, like cozy bunks and a fireplace inside.

Hike down from Clingmans Dome Road to start your final 11.4-mile descent.
Hike down from Clingmans Dome Road to start your final 11.4-mile descent.

Kevin Stewart Photography

The pre-dawn hike south to Clingmans Dome is highly recommended for 360 degrees of sunrise from the highest point in the Smokies. Hike 2 miles down Clingmans Dome Road to the Noland Divide Trailhead to start your final 11.4-mile descent. The trail slopes gently for the first 5 miles before making a steeper drop into Deep Creek, but there are few roots and rocks to slow you down. Make sure you stop to enjoy the views at Lonesome Pine Overlook along the way.

After logging all those miles, nothing’s going to taste more satisfying than a meal and craft beer at The Warehouse at Nantahala Brewing Co. Wrap up your Smokies adventure on the outdoor patio in downtown Bryson City with specialties like the slow-cooked brisket noodle bowl, apple bourbon pork chops, or Bryson City Brown Ale chicken along with a flagship or seasonal draft.


Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated in partnership with OrthoCarolina.

Featured image provided by Kevin Stewart Photography

High above the High Country.

Autumn has reached its peak here in Asheville, and we have the traffic to prove it. Our small city has been jam-packed with leaf-peepers, weekend-warriors, festival-goers, and tourists in search of pumpkin ale from Wicked Weed and mountain vistas from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Yes, fall is a truly spectacular time to live in the Blue Ridge…but you can also find yourself waiting a long time for a table on a Friday night.

For locals, this season of bright leaves and brisk days might be the best time to hit the road and explore some of the remarkable outdoor destinations that can be found just an hour or two outside of Asheville.

So gas up the car and switch up the scene: tackle a new hike, explore an unfamiliar wilderness, or get lost in a boulder field full of brand new problems. It’s tourist season after all, so why not be a tourist for the weekend? Don’t worry—we’ll give you the insider’s guide. Here are four weekend escapes near Asheville that are definitely worth the trip.

1. The Nantahala Gorge

Nantahala National Forest in autumn.
Nantahala National Forest in autumn.

Dzmitry (Dima) Parul

The Nantahala Gorge  lies only 1.5 hours west of Asheville. Nantahala means “Land of the Noonday Sun” in Cherokee. The river runs through a chasm so steep and narrow that, in some areas, sunlight will only reach the forest floor at high noon. The gorge itself is wild and rugged, studded with waterfalls and sheer cliffs. If you are looking to disappear into the wilderness for the weekend, this is your destination.

For a hiking adventure, Whiteside Mountain is a landmark of the Nantahala National Forest. The mountain is banded by staggering 750-foot cliffs, making for a dramatic and dizzying summit experience. A two-mile loop trail will take you to the rocky outcrop at the top, where, on a clear day, you can see all the way to the Piedmont.

Mountain bikers should head directly to the smooth, soaring trails at Tsali. Two separate looping courses of single track (open to bikers on alternating days throughout the week) are etched into the shores of Lake Fontana in a series of tight turns and wide arcs, providing some of the fastest and certainly the most fun riding in the entire state.

A mid-November ride at Tsali
A mid-November ride at Tsali

Jeff Bartlett

Any trip to the gorge would be remiss without a stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center . In the fall, after the summer fervor has died down, the NOC is just a cool place to relax and hang out. There’s a riverside restaurant, a gear shop, and always a handful of southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers swapping stories around the outside fireplace. The NOC hosts all sorts of outdoor events, classes, and workshops, guided rafting trips, zip-lining, river races, and more, so make sure and check out their schedule before you swing by.

In the evening, check out the Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City for a Little Tennessee Logger or a Chocolate Cherry Covered Stout. The taproom is complete with a stage, and on the weekends the brewery often boasts the best live music anywhere in the Smoky Mountains. When you’re ready to turn in, book one of the coveted yurts at the Nantahala Yurt Village, and enjoy the true meaning of the word “glamping.”

2. Boone, North Carolina

Sitting high above the High Country.
Sitting high above the High Country.

Caleb Forbes

If you were to look up the term “bustling mountain town” in the dictionary, you’d probably find a picture of Boone, North Carolina. Home of the Appalachian State University Mountaineers, Boone is chock-full of cafes, breweries, and farm-to-table restaurants, many of which sit side-by-side on a cozy, old-fashioned Main Street (called King Street). The town is named after the famous American explorer and pioneer Daniel Boone, and fittingly, there is a wealth of outdoor adventure to be found in its vicinity. The drive from Asheville is just under two hours.

When you’re ready to hit the trail, head in the direction of Julian Price Memorial Park, a gorgeous swath of wooded land nestled at the foot of Grandfather Mountain, directly off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Seven different trails wind through the forest and bend around a small lake, cutting across meadows and through streams. The 5-mile Boone Fork Loop Trail is the most challenging and the most popular hike inside the park.

The rugged, rocky slopes of Grandfather Mountain make for another hiking adventure that you won’t want to miss. The Grandfather Trail, also known as the “Chutes and Ladders” trail because of the network of walkways, stairs, and ropes that lead through boulder fields and across exposed rock faces, provides a rigorous full-body workout culminating in an unparalleled view from the 5,946-foot summit. Visitors to Grandfather Mountain also can enjoy more moderate trails, a nature museum, animal habitats, and the iconic mile-high swinging bridge.

Experienced whitewater kayakers can entertain themselves ad nauseam on the nonstop boofs of the Watauga River, the local Class IV/V run. Spectators might enjoy taking the trail down to Stateline Falls to watch the boaters drop over the waterfall, which sits just on the cusp of the North Carolina/Tennessee Border.

Pondering the next move at the Grandmother Boulders.
Pondering the next move at the Grandmother Boulders.

Melina Coogan

For climbers, the fun can be found at Grandmother Mountain. More than 400 established routes are scattered across twenty distinct areas on the mountainside in this beloved bouldering mecca- some quiet and secluded, others, like the Mighty Mouse boulder, are always hopping.

Round out your day in the High Country with a stop at Lost Province Brewing Company downtown. You’ll find live music in the evenings, wood-fired pizza, craft beer, and just about anything else you could desire after an active autumn day. There are plenty of campgrounds at Grandfather Mountain, Julian Price Park, and along the parkway. If you really want to live it up, spend the night in a rented cabin or teepee at Blue Bear Mountain Camp. 

3. Johnson City, Tennessee

The bustling taproom at Yee-Haw Brewing Company.
The bustling taproom at Yee-Haw Brewing Company.

Courtesy of Yee-Haw Brewing Company.

Johnson City, Tennessee  has experienced some recent revitalization, with new restaurants and breweries inhabiting the historic train stations, the completion of the Tweetsie Trail Greenway, and an upswing in community initiatives such as downtown music concerts and First Friday events. Most people recognize the city from the ubiquitously played bluegrass hit Wagon Wheel , but what you may not realize is that Johnson City is a notable outdoor destination in its own right. Check it out for a day or two—it’s only an hour away from Asheville.

Since it’s such a short drive, why not throw your bike and your boat on top of the car and plan for a multi-sport adventure? Check out the trail offerings at Warrior’s Path in nearby Kingsport: eight miles of sweet, looping single track. Whitewater enthusiasts can spend the day bouncing down the class III rapids of the Nolichucky River, which slices through one of the deepest canyons on the East Coast. With the exception of the notorious Class IV Quarter Mile rapid, which is easily walkable, the “Noli” is a safe and friendly river for newer paddlers looking to transition to something a bit more juicy and technical.

Just 25 miles from downtown Johnson City, the Roan Highlands of Tennessee offer some of the best views along the entire Appalachian Trail
Just 25 miles from downtown Johnson City, the Roan Highlands of Tennessee offer some of the best views along the entire Appalachian Trail

Dallas Krentzel

Some of the most phenomenally beautiful hikes in the Southeast can be found at Roan Mountain State Park . The hollows, ridges and grassy balds of Roan Mountain are spectacular in any season, but never more so then when they are decked in their autumn finery. Explore the Doe River, which winds through the 2,000-acre park, or hike up to the Raven Rock overlook.

When your day of adventure is winding down, grab a beer at the YeeHaw Brewery Company, located in the refurbished Tweetsie Railroad Depot. For dinner, Holy Taco Cantina is where you’ll find the locals on a Friday night. Rest your head at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel right off the Appalachian Trail, or treat yourself to a stay at the Carnegie Hotel and Spa in downtown Johnson City.

4. Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina

Rainbow Falls in Jones Gap State Park.
Rainbow Falls in Jones Gap State Park.

Scott Oves

It’s possible that you’ve driven by the welcome sign to  Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina  on your way up to Greenville and hardly gave it a second thought. Maybe you were confused as to whether the sign indicated a town, or perhaps just an elaborate highway rest stop. As it turns out, the sleepy, unassuming hamlet of Travelers Rest—or TR as the locals call it—has everything you need for an adventurous weekend getaway, including strong coffee in the morning, good beer in the evening, and ample opportunity to play outside in between.

Located at the foot of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, TR is poised between a number of South Carolina’s most wild and scenic state parks, including Table Rock, Jones Gap, Caesar’s Head, and Paris Mountain. That’s right—one tiny town, four beautiful state parks.

Begin your day at the lovely, light-filled Tandem Creperie and Coffee for a breakfast crepe as you consider your options. Favorite local excursions, which usually include Rainbow Falls in Jones Gap State Park. A 2.5-mile hike (one way) on the Rainbow Falls Trail leads to the base of this stunning, 90 foot cascade. Autumn foliage only adds to the finery of this aptly named veil of water whispering against brightly colored rock.

If you’re in the mood for some mountain views, hike to the top of Table Rock Mountain. The Table Rock Trail entails a steady ascent for 3.6 miles (one way), leading to the crown of the imposing granite dome. At the summit, the thrill of height and exposure combines with heavenly views in all directions for a spectacular Upcountry experience.

When the light fades, make the short jaunt back to town and hole up at the Swamp Rabbit Brewery. Enjoy a pint of Black Plague, a robust, dark lager that’s a perfect match for the invigorating autumn weather. When you’re ready for dinner, head out back for some food-truck fair, or make your way over to Sidewall Pizza for a thin-crust pie and some homemade ice cream.

Spend the night at a rented cabin, car-camping site, or backcountry camping site, all of which are available throughout the local state parks. For something luxe and truly out of the ordinary, book a night at Hotel Domestique, a boutique hotel created by bikers that caters specifically to adventure enthusiasts such as yourself.


Written by Melina Coogan for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Caleb Forbes

Near the trailhead for Mt. LeConte
Dog Friendly: No
Topo Map: Mt. LeConte Hiking Map
Seasonality: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter
Distance: 11.0 miles
Time To Complete: 1.5 days
While summiting LeConte can be done as a day hike, an overnighter is here is exceptionally memorable.

Mt. Le Conte is one of the most iconic mountains in Great Smoky National Park. Not only is it the third highest point in the park, but it’s also the highest peak that is completely within the state of Tennessee, and from base to summit, it’s the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. While these elevation accolades are certainly impressive, they don’t quite tell Le Conte’s entire story.

What Makes It Great

What really makes this mountain so special is its geological formations, biological variations, and historical fascinations. The mountain’s slopes are covered in ancient shale and sandstone as well as sweetly smelling spruce-fir forests. From the top, you’ll be treated to some of the most scenic views imaginable, and you’ll also come across LeConte Lodge, which is a series of cabins that were built in the 1920’s and which can only be accessed by trail. As for what trail?… Well, you’ve got options.

There are five routes, which lead to the summit of Mt. Le Conte. The two most popular of these are the Alum Cave Trail and the Boulevard Trail.

The Alum Cave Trail is the shortest, steepest, and most scenic route to the summit. From the trailhead to the top is 5.5 miles, so if you decide against staying the night at the lodge, you’re looking at an 11-mile roundtrip with quite a bit of elevation gain (about 2700 feet). Along the way, you’ll encounter a number of notable landmarks. At 1.3 miles in, you’ll come to Arch Rock, which is basically what the name implies: an arched rock. After passing through this naturally air conditioned, cave-like section, you’ll pass Inspiration Point, which has some nice views, and then at 2.2 miles in, you’ll reach Alum Cave Bluff, which is an 80-foot sight to behold. From here, the second half of your hike is the steepest. You’ll enter the Fraser Fir zone around 6,000 feet and then the trail will eventually (and at this point, gratefully) flatten out near the summit.

If you’re looking for a longer, less populated route, the Boulevard Trail is another great option. From the Newfound Gap parking lot, it’s 8 miles to the summit and 16 miles roundtrip. Though the 3,000 feet in elevation gain is stretched out over a longer distance than something like the Alum Cave Trail, it’s still 3,000 feet of climbing. Your legs will burn and your lungs will feel it. That being said, it’s a long, steady, gradual climb with views aplenty, so you’ll quickly find your rhythm. Along the way, you’ll pass junctions for Charlie’s Bunion and the Jump Off– both worth seeing if you’ve got the time and stamina. If not, continuing on for a straight shot to Mt. Le Conte will certainly suffice.

Whichever route you choose, you’ll certainly enjoy your day (or two) on top of Mt. Le Conte.

Who is Going to Love It

Anyone! This is one of the most iconic areas in the park, and anyone who feels up to the hike should take on this mountain. Hardcore hikers will enjoy this hike just as much as the weekend vacationers looking for a challenge, and photographers should check out the views at sunset or sunrise (bring plenty of warm clothes!). The difficulty is more than what is found in some other areas, but anyone can make it to the summit without too much trouble. If you time it right you may be hiking alongside the occasional morning mule train taking supplies up to the lodge!

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

Because of the varied routes for this trail, your parking depends on where you’re wanting to start out.

For the Alum Cave route, the trailhead can be found if you follow the road towards Clingman’s Dome. All parking areas are well marked.

As with all of the park, camping areas require permits that you may get from any Visitor Center.


Written by Matt Guenther for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Jim R Rogers