5 Awesome Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains to Do Year-Round

hikes in the smoky mountains

I recently spent five weeks in Tennessee, and whenever I wasn’t working, I was hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains. The area, home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has a ton of hiking options, from easy, paved trails to challenging, elevation-gaining treks.

While I’ve always enjoyed hiking, it’s become a lifeline during the pandemic as indoor activities are off limits. And the Smokies are a great place to visit for hiking these days, especially if you are planning to safely book an Airbnb during Covid (this place is adorable cabin central!).

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Are Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains Fun in Winter?

I visited during January and February, which is the low season for the Smokies. The fall season—when the foliage is in full swing—tends to be way more popular. Unfortunately, visiting during winter meant some of the most iconic hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were inaccessible. But on the upside, the trails were a lot less crowded than usual. So, consider these five hikes as suggestions you can do all year long!

One quick note: if you’re hiking in winter, make sure you’re prepared. You should always carry traction devices like Yaktrax to help you walk safely on ice and snow (they’re only $20!). Even if the beginning of the trail is ice-free, as you hike higher up, ice could appear.

Additionally, I recommend waterproof boots as there are many creek crossings on hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains. I saw many people without proper footwear slipping and sliding all over the trails or getting their sneakers soaked on a chilly day in the Smokies—don’t be that person! I wore my Oboz Women’s Sapphire Mid B-Dry waterproof hiking boots, which also offer much-needed ankle support for rougher trails.  

Alright, enough of the footwear lecture before I turn into your mom. Without further ado, here are five of my favorite year-round hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Spruce Flats Falls – 1.8 Miles, 413 ft Elevation Gain

This two-miler is perfect if you’re looking for a quick hike to stretch your legs (it should take about an hour, round trip). The hike is easy to follow, and it has a pretty awesome 30-ft waterfall at the end. The Smokies have a lot of waterfalls. It’s hard to find a hike without one. But this one is definitely one of the more picturesque, in my opinion.  

hikes in the great smoky mountains, hikes in the smokies, spruce flats falls

The trail has ample nearby parking, with high turnover in the lot. So, it’s a good one to hit up if you didn’t rise and shine at the crack of dawn. It’s also a good hike to tack on to the scenic drive around the nearby Cades Cove Loop Road, a popular area to view wildlife including deer, elk and black bears.

While the Spruce Flats Falls Trail is short, it does include a creek crossing and has some rocky sections. Those supportive, waterproof boots will certainly come in handy.

Access the trail map and directions via AllTrails.

Rainbow Falls – 5.5 Miles, 1,640 ft Elevation Gain

If you’re looking for a challenging cardio hike, Rainbow Falls is a great workout. At roughly 5.5 miles and more than 1,500 ft of elevation gain, it’s a steady uphill climb. It’s best to go after rain, as the falls will be most powerful.

Rainbow Falls

A significant chunk goes beside LeConte Creek and there are several nice spots to stop and have a snack watching the water flow. As you ascend in elevation you will also have some mountain views, albeit somewhat blocked by trees. But the crown jewel is at the end of this hike: the highest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies. It’s 80 feet!

Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls, Smoky Mountains

When it’s wet out in the winter be careful: half the trail was literally covered in ice. Many people without appropriate footwear were either forced to turn around after making it halfway up or hold onto rocks for support while making verrrrry slow and painful progress. This made the second half of the trail significantly less crowded than the first though. So it was to my benefit in the end!

Since this is a popular hike, the trailhead parking lot usually fills up early. However, there’s an overflow lot further down on Cherokee Road that may have extra space. I chose to leave from the trailhead in the overflow parking lot. It added two miles to my round trip, vs. walking down the road.

On a cold day, I was happy to photograph the falls and head home. But more ambitious hikers can also tack on another 4.2 miles to reach the summit of Mt. LeConte, the third highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Access the trail map and directions via AllTrails.

Rocky Top from Lead Cove Trailhead – 10.8 Miles, 3,159 Elevation Gain

This nearly 11-mile hike (my GPS clocked it at 10.8) is one of the toughest in the Smokies due to its challenging elevation gain (3,000+ feet!). My legs and hips felt like jelly for two full days after finishing it (maybe not one to kick off your vacation with!). However, it’s well worth it for an epic view.

hikes in the great smoky mountains, hikes in the smokies, rocky top

The trail starts from Laurel Creek Road and begins on the Lead Cove Trail, following a creek. Then, you’ll turn onto the Bote Mountain Trail for a challenging ascent, before reaching the Appalachian Trail. After a short stint on the AT, you’ll know you’ve reached Rocky Top when you emerge from the trees to 360-degree views.

Hikes with incredible views are far and few between in the Smokies. Many of them end up at waterfalls, or peak at a point where the view is obscured by trees. Rocky Top is an exception with amazing views of the mountains and landscape around you. It’s worth the climb!

In the winter, the snow can get pretty deep due to the elevation. If you’re a less experienced winter hiker, you might want to wait a day or two after a storm to go so that you don’t have to break trail yourself. And don’t forget to bring your Yaktrax and trekking poles!

Given the length of this hike, it’s also critical to pack extra water. I brought 2L in winter; in summer you probably want more. And make sure you stop for a snack every hour or two to maintain your energy.

I also highly recommend bringing some bandages for your feet. Mine got a couple pretty brutal blisters. I had to take three days off from wearing shoes, so this is no joke. Thankfully, my WFH situation meant this wasn’t a problem!

Access the trail map and directions via AllTrails.

Headrick Top Trail – 3 Miles, 885 ft Elevation Gain

This is another good cardio-centric hike, especially because it features a steady incline and then one, super tough near-vertical push toward the end. Talk about high intensity interval training!

Headrick Top Trail doesn’t offer the most spectacular views. But it made my list for being practically empty on a weekend day. That’s a rare find in the Smokies. Plus, it was closer to the Airbnb we stayed at in Sevierville than any of the trails in the park itself.

headricks top trail

The trailhead is accessed through a family resort and near a small golf course, and the trail does go by some private property. The beginning offers a pleasant and well-maintained walk along a small creek with a couple small waterfalls (like I said, hard to hike the Smokies without coming across a waterfall!) before turning into a steady ascent.

smoky mountains

The last three quarters of a mile are extremely steep, and can be very muddy in the winter, so maybe don’t wear your new white sneakers!

Access the trail map and directions via AllTrails.

Kephart Shelter via Kephart Prong Trail – 3.9 Miles, 833 ft Elevation Gain

This is a pretty easy hike on a well-maintained trail. But even those who can only make it for the first mile or so will find it enjoyable.

The scenic trail follows Kephart Prong, a very picturesque creek with beautiful clear water. There are a couple opportunities to cross the creek on man-made bridges.

smoky mountains
smoky mountains

History buffs will like this one. It features ruins from when Company 441 of the Civilian Conservation Corps was stationed there from 1933 to 1942. Evidence remaining of their time there includes a 20-foot high chimney and a few other stone structures. This Company was responsible for building 65 miles of trails in the early days of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was founded in 1934.

smoky mountains

NOTE: This trail begins from the North Carolina side of the park on Route 441. So, on some winter days, if you’re coming from Tennessee, it may be inaccessible if Newfound Gap is closed. That said, it’s a great one to tack on a scenic drive around the park on a nice sunny day!

Access the trail map and directions via AllTrails.

Other Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Since we were in the Smoky Mountains during the “off” season, as I mentioned, some of the best trails were inaccessible during some or all of our stay. So, this is a great list of hikes to consider if you’re traveling year-round. But, if you do happen to be there in summer/fall, I consulted a friend who grew up nearby and gave the following list of additional hikes to check out:

For real-time updates on road closures, make sure to check out the Smokies Roads Twitter account before you head out for a hike!

Interested in following along on my remote work adventures? Follow me on Instagram @theweekendjetsetter or like my page on Facebook.

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