Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Knoxville, TN is the most visited national park in the U.S. Not sure if they’re counting people or bears, but either way, we were looking forward to exploring it on a beautiful fall weekend.
(And yes, we saw a bear on day one.)
GSMNP is a huge park with a beautiful rolling landscape and mountains that remind me of my summer exploring New England and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was such a treat to visit during 2020 when we were sick of being in the house – and we were able to do one of my favorite peaks I’ve ever hiked.
Alum Cave to Mount LeConte and Myrtle Point
Distance: 12.5 miles round trip
I knew this hike was a little out of my normal range, but I was determined to do it after reading the reviews and seeing photos of Myrtle Point. We woke up early – as in, you’re not even hungry and can’t form real sentences because it’s so early, early – because we read online that the parking lot fills up by 8 a.m. most days. It’s one of the most popular hikes in GSMNP, but also incredibly long to the peak. (Real hikers – don’t come for me. 11 miles round trip is long for this city slugger!)
The first few miles are a beautiful hike along a rolling river, relatively flat and scenic. About 2 miles in, you’ll come across the spot where most people turn around – Alum Cave. Keep going and you’ll come across so many cool bends, turns and lookout areas. There were a few steep points on this hike that weren’t easy, but a bulk of the trail is (surprisingly) relatively flat. The last stretch to Myrtle Point passes some cabins along the Appalachian Trail, where you just want to channel the inner Cheryl Strayed inside of you and promise yourself you’ll do that someday.
A few more bends and small rocky trail hills, and you approach an incredible 360 panoramic view of the Great Smokies. I think the finality of this hike was one of the most “worth it” feelings I’d ever felt. My hip flexors could barely lift near the top; my knees hurt from all the steps. But to feel totally surrounded by mountains and nature and on top of the world, it was incredible. And pulling out our sandwiches and snacks to take the view in for lunch was perhaps the perfect afternoon.
DO THIS HIKE! It’s long, hard and it takes some sacrifice (for me the biggest sacrifice was getting up at 6 a.m.) – but it’s very, very worth it. I think it’s a little too popular for bears to stick their necks out. If you’re not up for the challenge, I recommend driving to Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome. We also explored the outside of the park by driving through the Tail of the Dragon, which has 318 road curves in 11 miles – a motorcyclist’s paradise and a car-sick frequenter’s nightmare.