There are some tough climbs with great views. Prepare for unexpected weather and keep an eye out for bears. Check the AT Thru-Hikers Companion for more details on trail necessities.
This trail is for the serious hiker that wants to spend multiple days in the park experiencing some of the best it has to offer.
Beginning in the south at Fontana Dam, you begin with a steep climb up to the ridgeline that will check your fitness for the rest of the hike. But you are quickly rewarded with a break and a view at Shuckstack Fire Tower a little over 4 miles in. Climb the tower, one of four fire towers in the park, for spectacular views of Fontana Lake to the south.
Continue your ascent over the rest of your day to either Mollies Ridge Shelter (10.7 miles in), Russell Field Shelter (13.5 miles in), or Spence Field
Shelter (16.4 miles in). Don't be surprised to encounter a bear or two in this area, especially around Spence Field
—a real and beautiful field where I had my first talk with a bear who was pretty unhappy; I was attempting to use the same bush he was eating from to take care of business... Needless to say I found a different spot.
Leaving Spence Field
brings you to a sequence of vistas, the most famous and incredible of which is Rocky Top. On a clear day, the 360-degree view stretches on for miles. On a more typical Smoky Mountain morning covered in dense fog, you feel as though you have found a secret passage up into the clouds as you emerge from a tunnel of mountain laurel onto the bare and rocky peak. Following Rocky Top are many more balds, gaps, and other viewpoints worth taking a short break at to soak in the view.
Leaving the gaps and a string of well-built shelters brings you to perhaps the most iconic part of the trail as well as the highest point of the AT—Clingman's Dome. Pray for the typical mountain fog to clear as you climb the observation tower (along with the better-smelling visitors who parked a mile away) for spectacular views. Descend among the firs into a beautiful old growth forest before coming to Newfound Gap, the easiest place to hitchhike to Tennessean or Carolinian civilization.
The shorter northern half of the park offers two more must-sees—Charlie's Bunion, a spectacular rock outcropping, and Mt. Cammerer/Sharp Top Fire Tower, the only stone Western-style fire tower in the park (like a lighthouse on a mountain). The pattern of well-built shelters with comfortable wooden bunks continues throughout the trail. So does the flora, so keep your eyes peeled for trillium, violets, and irises. If you feel like extending your hike, cut down the mountain to the Big Creek Trail for Midnight Hole.
Black bears, salamanders; trillium, irises, azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel.