Tennessee - Gatlinburg & Smoky Mountain National Park

Tennessee - Gatlinburg & Smoky Mountain National Park
Myrtle Point

In mid-September 2023 we joined up with Jordan's mom & stepdad and rented an epic log cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains! We drove almost 16 hours from Minnesota to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to experience southern comfort food, mountaintop hiking, and unique mini golf. We had multiple encounters with black bears and hiked 52 miles in 6 days.

Our favorite pit stop was at Oskar's Slider Bar in Louisville, Kentucky for some top-tier Nordic food! It gave us the Norway feels we've been missing since we visited in 2022.


Summary of Hikes:

Day 1: Charlie's Bunion via Appalachian Trail
Day 2: Mount Cammerer via Low Gap Trail
Day 3: Gatlinburg Trail
Day 4: Myrtle Point and Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail (Our favorite hike in GSMNP!)
Day 5: Rainbow Falls Trail
Day 6: Ramsey Cascades Trail (Our second favorite hike in GSMNP!)

Day 1: Hike the Appalachian Trail & Explore Downtown Gatlinburg

The first morning we woke up in Tennessee was rainy and pretty foggy, but we used it as an excuse to enjoy our coffee on the wraparound porch overlooking downtown Gatlinburg. By mid-morning we had rallied the troops and made our way to the trailhead for our first hike along the famous Appalachian Trail!

Appalachian Trail to Charlie's Bunion

Difficulty: Moderate. Distance: 8.0 miles. Elevation gain: 1,906 ft. Time: 3-4 hr 15 mins. Trailhead: Newfound Gap.

This out & back trail starts with a gradual climb for the first 2 miles and usually showcases stunning panoramic views of the North Carolina Smokies in the south... However, the fog obscured our views all the way up to Charlie's Bunion, a picturesque stone outcropping which flaunts some of the most incredible scenery in the smokies. This trail took us 3 hours 50 minutes to hike.


By the time we made it back to Newfound Gap, the fog had cleared a bit, giving us a taste of what we missed on Charlie's Bunion. Lucky for us, the rest of the week turned out to have gorgeous fall weather. Our only regret is that we were probably a few weeks ahead of the explosion of autumn colors through the Smoky Mountains.

Views from the parking area at Newfound Gap. 

Day 2: Hike Mt. Cammerer

Mount Cammerer via Low Gap Trail

Difficulty: Hard. Distance: 11.1 miles. (Our apps put us as 12.2mi from the parking lot) Elevation gain: 3,149 ft. Time: 6.5 - 7 hrs. Trailhead: Low Gap Trailhead.

The adventure starts at the Cosby Picnic Area and follows along Cosby Creek before turning to continue on the Low Gap Trail. There are 3 distinct sections of the trail, starting with a very steep section through hardwood forest along the Low Gap Trail before leveling out somewhat in the second section at the Appalachian Trail. The trail is enclosed by walls and canopies of rhododendrons which bloom spectacularly in the late spring & early summer.

The final section up the mountain is a series of ups and downs that lead to a short rock scramble up to the historic fire lookout tower on Mount Cammerer. This Western-style stone lookout tower provides 360-degree panoramic views over the Pigeon River Gorge and Sutton Ridge Overlook.

We reached the top with perfect timing as the fog had just lifted.

On the way back down we noticed a few more colorful species!

Day 3: Explore Gatlinburg & Dinner in Pigeon Forge

We had a lazy morning on our third day in Gatlinburg. We were greeted with a gorgeous sunrise view from our Airbnb, so we took our time getting ready for the rest of the day's adventures.


Outisde of our AirBnB on the mountain, we saw our first black bear!!


We decided to spend the day exploring the town of Gatlinburg. To start, we took the family dog, Punch on a leisurely stroll along the Gatlinburg Trail. (Since Punch is an all-black German shepherd, people would often mistake him for a black bear!)

Gatlinburg Trail
This flat, paved trail is 3.9 miles out & back and is one of only two trails in GSMNP that allows dogs. It runs from the Sugarland Visitors Center to the outskirts of downtown Gatlinburg, traveling along the Little Pigeon River.

Gatlinburg is jam-packed with unique experiences so we took a day to explore. After our walk with Punch, we grabbed brunch at Crockett's Breakfast Camp (delicious), checked out the Hollywood Star Cars Museum, did some wine tasting, and shopped the many unique shops on both Parkway and in the arts and crafts district.

In the evening we drove to Pigeon Forge for Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show. It's definitely a show geared towards children and families, but is well worth it for the amazing animals showcased! (Specifically, beautiful blue and scarlet macaws and a pair of playful sea lions!)

Day 4: Hike Alum Cave to Mt. LeConte

Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte & Myrtle Point

Difficulty: Hard. Distance: 11.8 miles. (Our apps put us as 12.5 mi from the trailhead, Myrtle Point included). Elevation gain: 3,061 ft. Time: 6.5 - 7 hrs. Trailhead: Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead.

Our favorite hike in the Great Smoky Mountains! Starting along the Alum Cave Stream and crossing over multiple bridges, a little over a mile into the hike you will see the magnificent Arch Rock. A set of rock stairs have been carved into the rock to create what feels like a magical secret entrance to the rest of the trail.

Some people will choose to stop at Alum Cave (which is certainly worth a stop in its own right). However, if you continue the gradual climb up to Cliff Tops and Myrtle Point on the summit of Mount LeConte, you will be rewarded with some of the best panoramic views in the park.


All in all, although the elevation gain is the same as Mount Cammerer, this felt like a much more gradual climb with more viewpoints on the way up. If you only have enough time for one hike while in GSMNP this is the one!

Day 5: Hike Rainbow Falls Trail

Rainbow Falls

Difficulty: Moderate. Distance: 5.1 miles. Elevation gain: 1,617 ft. Time: 3 hrs. Trailhead: Rainbow Falls Trailhead.

The first mile of this trail follows along LeConte Creek, crossing over 2 idyllic bridges at various points to reach Rainbow Falls. In the late spring and early summer, the trail is flooded with colorful blooms of rhododendrons, teaberry, and mountain pepper bush, or a lush, green mossy cover in the early autumn. On a sunny day, the mist from the falls creates a rainbow in the afternoons! We got lucky and were treated to 2 black bear sightings (and a scary-looking but nonvenomous northern black racer!). This trail took us 2 hours and 50 minutes including time spent marveling at the falls.

The Rainbow Falls Trail can also be continued up to the summit of Mount LeConte. The elevation gain is greater than via the Alum Cave Trail at 3959 ft., but showcases several cascades and multiple falls. Make it a loop by returning via the Bullhead Trail for a 14.8-mile loop.

Day 6: Hike Ramsey Cascades Trail and Golf in Gatlinburg

Ramsey Cascades Trail

Difficulty: Hard. Distance: 7.9 miles. Elevation gain: 2,185 ft. Time: 4.5 hrs. Trailhead: Ramsey Cascades Trailhead.

This hike follows along the Little Pigeon River and crosses over beautifully constructed bridges in multiple spots. Countless waterfalls and rapids hug the trail and give babbling brook vibes throughout the hike. The trail climbs gradually for 4 miles, hugging the cascades all the way up to the gorgeous pinnacle waterfall. This trail took us 4 and a half hours with time spent marveling at this great natural beauty. It was a perfect final morning in Tenessee!

We decided the consistent cascade views and waterfall up top earned this hike the spot of 2nd best of the smokies from our experiences (although it was close!).

After our hike, we packed up and went out for Hillbilly Mini Golf!


We also saw our final bears of the trip and drove right past them on the way out! (Photo credits to Jordan's mom, Sue). :)

All in all, we enjoyed living with the black bears and seeing them almost every day, discovering the best hikes of the Smokies and the unique wildlife of the area, and rekindling our love for mini-golf in the carnival downtown city of Gatlinburg!