Guides

The Best Hiking in Tennessee

by Joe ColemanJun 21, 2022

Home to the most popular national park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee is a surprisingly underrated outdoor state. While often reduced to just Nashville, hiking in Tennessee is a secret that hides in plain sight. If you know what to look for, you’ll be treated to some incredible views, especially if you’re there in the fall. Should the crowds at Great Smoky be too much, The Volunteer State is home to a handful of state parks and national forests where you can seek refuge!

Tips for Hiking in Tennessee

Look Out for Bears

While the likelihood you’ll see a bear is low, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is black bear country. It’s important to know what to do if you run into a black bear on your hike. Again, while it’s unlikely, make sure you know how to stay calm and keep your distance if you do happen to cross paths with one.

Hike with Friends

Especially if you’re a newer hiker, don’t venture into the Tennessee wilderness alone. The Smokies are breathtakingly beautiful, but they can also be dangerous if not properly respected. If you’re a long-time adventurer who knows the value of respecting the mountains you’re in, you can probably get away with going solo, should you choose. Tennessee hiking is also just more fun with friends anyway, though, so win-win.

Carry a Headlamp

This is more of a concern if you’re on a longer hike than a shorter day hike. Darkness can set in much quicker than you expect in the mountains, and you don’t want to be caught without a light source. If you plan to keep your hikes short and easy, this isn’t a big deal. However, if you want to push yourself and explore the beauty of the hiking trails in Tennessee, make sure you have a light source with you.

Best Hiking in Tennessee

With the Smoky Mountains running through Eastern Tennessee, many travelers forget about the rest of the state. While not always considered a particularly outdoorsy state, there’s more to this destination than meets the eye!

Mossy Ridge Trail – Percy Warner Park

If you want to hop off the plane and onto the hiking trail, head to Percy Warner Park. Just southwest of Nashville, this local park holds one of the most enjoyable hikes in the entire state. If you came with a pup in tow, you’ll be happy to hear that Percy Warner Park is dog-friendly!

For nature lovers of all stripes, the Mossy Ridge Trail is a must-visit. Popular with birders, hikers, and trail runners alike, this hike offers a bit of everything with proximity to Music City. Open year-round, you can enjoy this park during summer or wait until the leaves change during the fall. Whenever you go, this trail has plenty of ups and downs to keep things interesting!

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Length: 5.3 miles

Elevation Gain: 948 feet

Route Type: Loop

Time Required: 2.5 hours

Where to Camp: Piney RV Resort

Radnor Lake: Ganier Ridge and South Cove Trail – Radnor Lake State Park

The view of Radnor Lake surrounded by trees while hiking in Tennessee.

If you enjoyed Mossy Ridge, head east to Radnor Lake State Park! Also located near Nashville, either or both of these trails will be perfect for a day hike excursion before returning to the city for dinner. Do expect company on this popular trail—though, all of them will be on two legs since the park isn’t pet-friendly.

As you might guess by the name, this loop trail traverses the state park’s namesake, Radnor Lake, for nearly the entirety of the hike. The second mile moves away from the lake and through the trees, but you’ll end up lakeside again quickly and finish the trail on the water’s edge.

Length: 5.4 miles

Elevation Gain: 784 feet

Route Type: Loop

Time Required: 2.5 hours

Where to Camp: Campers RV Park

Virgin Falls Trail – Virgin Falls State Natural Area

The view on Virgin Falls Trail, a popular hike in Tennessee.

Three waterfalls, two caves, and a cable crossing, oh my! This is one of the most engaging and picturesque hikes in all of Tennessee. While beautiful, this hike is no joke. You’ll definitely earn your views if you undertake this hike, so if that sounds like something you’d like, there are few places better to be in the state.

You’ll be around other like-minded adventurers during peak season here, so plan to be there early if you want to get ahead of any crowds. If you’ve got a four-legged adventure pal, bring them along—dogs are allowed on leash in this state natural area.

Length: 8.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,381 feet

Route Type: Out and Back

Time Required: 4 hours

Where to Camp: Spacious Skies Belle Ridge Campground

Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A wooden footbridge over a creek in the woods on Alum Cave trail, a popular way to go hiking in Tennessee.

Want to earn your post-hike meal? Alum Cave is the trail to hike if you want free reign to intake guilt-free calories. Probably the toughest trail on this list, it’s also likely the most rewarding for seasoned hikers.

If you thought you couldn’t get up in elevation in Tennessee, you’d be sorely mistaken. While you start out around 3,900 feet, you’ll end up nearly doubling that with a peak at 6,600 feet! If you want to seek out the best views in the Smoky Mountains, hiking to Mount LeConte is a surefire way to feel on top of the world.

Length: 11 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,061 feet

Route Type: Out and Back

Time Required: 6.5 hours

Where to Camp: Sun Outdoors Pigeon Forge

Buzzard Roost via Stone Mountain Trail – Cherokee National Forest

If you want to push yourself but you don’t have the better part of a day to commit to Mount LeConte, Buzzard Roost takes less than half the time. While much shorter, this trail will still earn you bragging rights once you’ve finished. Look out for the trailhead, as hikers sometimes have some trouble spotting it. It’s a bit under 100 feet to the right (facing away from the Pigeon River) of the parking area.

The big draw of this trail is the overlook once you hit Buzzard Roost at the halfway point, with beautiful views of the surrounding area. The air isn’t nearly as thin here. Though you gain about 1,400 feet, Buzzard Roost is only 2,600 feet in elevation. Trekking poles and good shoes are recommended as the beginning of this trail is narrow and a bit tricky.

Length: 3 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,404 feet

Route Type: Out and Back

Time Required: 2.5 hours

Where to Camp: Arrow Creek Campground

Rainbow Falls Trail – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Rainbow Falls trail. Water trickles over the lichen-covered rocks and trees have fallen over into the creek.

The term “hidden gem” is relative when you’re in the most visited national park in the country. However, if you’re looking for some solace in this popular park, hitting the trail early at Rainbow Falls is the way to go. This trail gets a “moderate” difficult rating but should be doable for most. You’ll get a reasonably gradual incline on the way out, which leads to a gradual descent on the way back from the falls.

You can visit Rainbow Falls nine months out of the year; winter isn’t the best time to hike this trail. This gives you plenty of time should you want to take a fall hike here or visit during the off-season. Hikers often report seeing bears, so be aware if hiking during bear activity seasons.

Length: 5.1 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,617 feet

Route Type: Out and Back

Time Required: 3.5 hours

Where to Camp: Smoky Hollow Outdoor Resort

Sure, you could stick to just Great Smoky Mountains National Park when hiking in Tennessee. Ideally, though, you want to take your time going through the state and enjoying the often-overlooked western half and the hikes it offers. That being said, if you’re short on time or trying to chase the beautiful fall colors, the national parks and forests of Eastern Tennessee will still be a breathtaking experience!

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Joe Coleman is a freelance travel and outdoor writer based in East Texas. His love for the outdoors started when living near Olympic National Park and has stayed with him ever since. Taking a respite from social media, you can reach him exclusively at joecolemanfreelance@gmail.com.

Photo credit in order of appearance: Adobe Stock – JBStudios, Flavia, Alisha, Jamie & Judy Wild/Danita Delimont, Billy McDonald.