Tennessee is blessed with great variance in geography. Toward the western part of the state, the land is mostly flat. It steadily rises as I-40 moves eastward, progressing into the Appalachian Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fortunately, for Tennesseans, this means a great deal of variety in terms of hiking trails. From Chimney Tops to the Stone Door Trail, residents of Tennessee can choose between strenuous hikes to the peaks of mountains to quiet strolls that families with kids can complete. Here is a list of the 15 best hiking trails in Tennessee.
The Ramsey Cascades Trail runs about 7.7 miles round-trip. There is about 2,200 feet of elevation change and many report having to stop and rest throughout the trek. The slope steepens significantly in the last mile before the cascades, but the view of the waterfall is gorgeous and picture-worthy, which makes this a very rewarding hike.
The Honey Creek Loop Trail is located in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and ranks as its topmost ranked trail. It is difficult—boulder scrambles and nebulous trail blazes—but the scenery more than makes up for it. There are numerous waterfalls, shallow caves, and overlook areas that make this trail worth remembering.
There are legends as to how the Fiery Gizzard Trail got its name—Davy Crockett burning his tongue on a gizzard is one—but regardless of origin, the trail is regarded by some as one of the best hiking trails in the country. It runs from Tracy City to Foster Falls and features spectacular rock formations, multiple waterfalls, rock gorges, and even panoramic overviews.
The Greeter Falls is a short hike—just 1.6 miles round-trip—and the elevation change is a little above 450 feet, making this a moderate hike, more on the side of easy than hard. The falls themselves are gorgeous—very clear water and at the right time of year nice to dip some feet in at the bottom. The amphitheater is a mixture of sandstone on top of limestone.
The Fall Creek Falls State Park is the largest and most visited state park, with over 26,000 acres. The Fall Creek Trail is a loop of 2.2 miles with about 1,000 feet in elevation change. The falls themselves are picturesque, while the trail itself features elevations shifts that can be navigated by stone steps—either man-made or by nature itself.
The Cherokee name for Chimney Tops means “forked antler” and referring to the appearance of the two highest points of the mountain. Although only four miles in distance round-trip, the trail contains over 1,400 feet in elevation change. With an access point southeast of the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the trail features a river and a gorgeous view from the top.
The Virgin Falls Trail is 8.3 miles out-and-back. With over 1,600 feet in elevation changes, this trail is on the more difficult side of moderate. The trail is scenic—streams, caves, falls—but the trail itself has some roots and rocks. The view from the falls is gorgeous and there’s opportunity to see varied wildlife.
The Stillhouse Hollow Falls Trail is very short—a one mile loop. But it’s not particularly easy, with around 240 feet in elevation change during that time. Hikers will be able to see the Stillhouse Hollow Falls, which is a 90-acre state natural area, which features waterfalls, seeps, and flat shale-bottom streams.
The Buggytop Trail (also known as the Sewanee Natural Bridge Trail) is 4.3 miles with a moderate elevation change of nearly 1,200 feet. It’s out and back and the destination makes it a little different than the rest of this list—a cave. The cave can be explored with some standard equipment and the rock walls are magnificent.
The Stone Door Trail is 1.6 miles out and back and has around 250 feet in elevation change. It is in the South Cumberland State Park, same as the Fiery Gizzard Trail. While that trail is considered strenuous, the Stone Door Trail is an easy hike with little elevation change compared to others. The views from the overlooks make it memorable.
The Old Stone Fort Loop is a three-mile loop with very little elevation change. It is a stand-out on this list for a special interactivity feature. The loop is part nature hike/part history tour as waterfalls, swimming holes, wildlife, and historical features are blended together. The “Old Stone Fort” refers to a 2,000-year-old Native American structure.
The Cades Cove Loop Road is a road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and while it may be easier to drive down the 10.1-mile loop, walking on foot allows for closer encounters with the plentiful wildlife in the valley. The wildlife includes white-tailed deer, ground hog, turkey, and even racoons.
The Tri-State Peak Trail is 2.3 miles out and back within the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. It’s a gravel path and gets a little steep at the end, but hikers who reach the destination get the rare opportunity of standing where three states are meeting. In this case, they are Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.
The Rainbow Falls Trail is 5.5 miles round-trip and has nearly 1,700 feet in elevation change, which is almost all incline. It is both rocky and steep, making it a tough hike, but the prize at the end is the Rainbow Falls—the highest single-drop waterfall in the Smoky Mountains. The name comes from the rainbows formed in the mist from the falls on sunny afternoons.
Burgess Falls Trail is located near the Falling Water River, which used to generate hydroelectric power for Cookeville between 1928-1944. It is 1.6 miles round trip, with over 400 feet in elevation change. It is an easy hiking trail but has an enormous pay-off: A gorgeous waterfall at the end, with two overlooks and one trail to the bottom.