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Big Creek 1

4 Epic Overnight Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains

Visit high mountain peaks, beautiful waterfalls, and camp in the remote backcountry of the Great Smoky Mountains on one of these four epic overnight loops.

Hiking Difficult, Severe

Also in Tennessee, United States of America

Big Creek 1
Big Creek 1 Photo: Chris M. Morris


Glance at a map of the Smokies, and you’ll notice a seemingly-endless amount of trail along the NC/TN state line. Though it holds the title of America’s most-visited National Park, there are plenty of backcountry opportunities to escape the crowds and camp in one of the park’s numerous shelters, backcountry sites, or even at the Mount LeConte Lodge! If you’re looking for a 2- or 3-day backpacking trip, local guide company White Dot Adventures suggests these four epic overnight loops to some of the best views and waterfalls the park has to offer.

Topping the list, the Smokies High Peaks Loop is one of most epic overnight endeavors you will find in the southeast. As mapped, this version of the loop is ~31 miles, but it can be shortened by starting at Alum Cave or at Newfound Gap. The circuit is best split into three days, with your first night at the Kephart Prong Shelter just two miles from the trailhead. Some of the highlights include Charlie’s Bunion, Newfound Gap, Alum Cave, Mount LeConte, and the infamous Boulevard Trail. Expect a full day on the trail, carry a printed map, and have a backup should you need to cut the loop short. Bring a credit card along, too--there is a lodge and campground atop Mount LeConte that offers both drinks and snacks.

Located just a few miles off Interstate 40, the Mount Sterling Loop is a local favorite and must-do even for locals. The loop is anything but easy, challenging your legs with a stout 4,000’+ of climbing in just 16.5 miles! Along the way, “watch the forest change as you ascend, from tall mixed hardwoods like oak and poplar to stunted trees and an abundance of conifer,” writes adventure travel writer Jesse Weber. As you approach the highest elevations, dark stands of spruce and fir will begin to appear – an ecosystem typical of New England and Canada. The best part of this loop? One of the best campsites is below the historic fire tower located at the top of Sterling! “The campsite here, #38, makes an excellent but possibly chilly place to spend the night,” Jesse notes.

For anyone staying near Gatlinburg, particularly the Elkmont Campground, this 25-mile circuit will take you into some of the most remote reaches of the park. With over 200 developed campsites, Elkmont is listed as the busiest campground in the Smokies, but there are plenty of backcountry sites along this route plus a developed shelter on the AT near Silers Bald. While this mapped route is plenty rewarding, there are numerous intersecting trails and campsites just off the beaten path – and if your legs are up for it, head north on the Appalachian Trail and pay a visit to the observation platform at Clingmans Dome!

Planning a visit to Deep Creek? This 18-mile circuit offers epic views, waterfalls, plus unique rocks and trees along the trail! It could be completed as a long day hike, but it is an excellent overnight hike, as long as you reserve a campsite first. Contact the NPS at (865) 436-1200 for the most up-to-date information about backcountry camping, campground status, and road conditions.

Disclaimer: Though we all love our trail dogs, they are not allowed on most trails within the GSMNP. A detailed description of their pet policy can be viewed here.

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