This 50-mile hike begins at Alum Cave trailhead off Newfound Gap Road and concludes with a 20-mile shuttle back to your car. Shortly after the start, ascend slippery stone steps though Arch Rock, a large black chunk of slate weathered into a natural arch. Next, pass a heath bald to traverse a steep slope beneath 4,950-foot Alum Cave Bluff. At mile 4.8, top out on Mt. Le Conte (6,593 feet), the third-highest peak in the park and home to the plank-board sided LeConte Lodge. Overnight here ($110/pp) or camp a few strides later at Le Conte Shelter.
The next day, hike above 5,500 feet on the Boulevard Trail to the Appalachian Trail. Swing northeast, and trek 1.1 miles to a spur trail up the treeless 5,565-foot knob of Charlies Bunion. Look out into a collage of forest-green ridgelines and rounded mountains. Continue on the AT, linking a ribbon of ridgetops. In 3.4 miles, cross Laurel Top for more views. Go 2.6 more miles and turn right onto Hughes Ridge Trail to descend to Pecks Corner Shelter.
An easy day three straddles the TN/NC border, crosses Mts. Sequoyah and Chapman, and ends at the recently renovated Tricorner Knob Shelter.
The next morning, follow the AT 6.1 miles and turn left onto Snake Den Ridge Trail. In 0.7 mile, turn left onto the Maddron Bald Trail. Ahead are long-stretch views from the crown of Maddron Bald (5,212 ft.). Descend 600 feet and pitch a tent at Campsite 29 near the sloping banks of Otter Creek.
The trail continues west under the giant maples, beeches, and tulip trees in Albright Grove; see trunks with a 20-foot girth. Turn left onto Old Settlers Trail, passing stone walls marking old land boundaries. Around lunchtime, detour north to the Tyson McCarter barn, built in 1876 (its shingled roof and log walls remain intact). Stay on Old Settlers Trail and pass several derelict chimney stacks. Campsite 33–your final night’s stay–marks the homesite of Perry Ramsey, who lived in the park until 1930. The last day climbs over Copeland Divide and ends 6.4 miles later at Greenbrier Cove.
WHEN TO GO: April and May are best for wildflower blooms, while fall, with its brilliantly colored leaves, is drier.
PERMITS: Free backcountry camping permits are required. Backpackers must stay at designated shelters or campsites. Book early to get the best spots.
VACATION PLANNER: For travel information in and around the park, visit nps.gov/grsm or great.smoky.mountains.national-park.com.
-Mapped by Marcus Woolf, author of Afoot & Afield Atlanta