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Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has over 800 miles of trail and more than 500,000 acres of land. The hikes range in difficulty from the easy to the challenging–for the young to the elderly.

The hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on some hikes can be 10 degrees cooler than when you left the lower elevation. Combine this with the fact that the Smokies are also the wettest place in the South, and you have the possibility for great discomfort in the event of a sudden storm. The higher elevations in the park can receive upwards of 90 inches of precipitation a year.

Don’t judge the complete day by the morning sky. In summer the days usually start out clear, but as the day heats up, clouds can build up, resulting in a heavy shower. Winter is a great time to be in the Smokies, but also represents the most challenging time as well. Frontal systems sweep through the region, with alternately cloudy and sunny days, though cloudy days are most frequent in winter. When traveling in the Smokies, it’s a good idea to carry clothes for all weather conditions.

Hikes in the Smokies on the National Park Service Website

Hikers Should Be Prepared For All Conditions

Footwear should be a major concern. Though tennis shoes may be generally appropriate for some day-hikes, boots should be worn on the uneven trails in the Park. They support the ankles from sprains and the foot from cuts and abrasions.

Stay on the designated trail. Most hikers get lost when they leave the path. If you get temporarily lost, try to retrace your steps until you cross the trail again. Then its just a matter of guessing which way you were headed when you left the trail. You will either continue the way you were headed or go back to your starting point–either way, no harm is done.

Always bring rain gear and a wool sweater. They don’t weigh much and might make the difference between being miserable or not in the event it rains. As mentioned earlier, the Smokies get approximately 90 inches of rain a year. This is good. Its what makes the Smokies such a wonderful place to be. Don’t start a hike if thunderstorms threaten–some of the most devastating damage ever to the Park has been from great storms in years past.

Cross streams carefully. Getting wet, even in summer, could lead to hypothermia, which leads ultimately to disorientation, poor decision making and, in extreme circumstances, death. Having said that, don’t let a fear of hypothermia, getting lost, or bears prevent you from the enjoyment to be had by trekking the trails of the Park.

There is no record of anyone ever being killed by a bear in the Smokies. When we questioned a Park Ranger about how to react to meeting a bear on the trail, he smilingly told us the most likely sighting of a bear will be its tail disappearing over a ridge. Most “incidents” occur when an ignorant visitor feeds or otherwise harasses a bear.

To avoid crowds, hike during the week; avoid holidays; go during the “off” season. Also, go in the morning before most folks are through eating breakfast; this is a good time to see wildlife and morning light is great for photography! You can also avoid crowds by using the outlying trailheads such as those found at the Cosby and Wears Valley entrances. I’m embarrassed to say we didn’t know these existed for our first 18 visits to the Smokies. But to our delight, we found new vistas, trails, and landscapes to discover for the first time.

Plan Your Hiking Trip With Care

With a little care and planning, your hiking trip to the Smokies can be much more rewarding and repay you with more great memories. You can enjoy not only the visual splendor of the Park, you can view it without counting out-of-state license plates, and you can get more fit in the bargain.

Hiking shoes and supplies.
A couple hiking in the Smoky Mountains.
Couple hiking in the Smoky Mountains.