The good people who run Great Smoky Mountains National Park are voracious counters. They’ve inventoried 150 species of wildflowers, 50 different ferns, 330 mosses and liverworts, and 100 native trees. They’ve also tabulated 800 miles of hiking trails on 520,409 acres, as well as 16 peaks exceeding 6,000 feet. That adds up to a hiker’s version of heaven.
While no single trail can showcase all of that natural wonder, a 17-mile loop in the park’s northeast corner-combining the Gabes Mountain, Maddron Bald, and Snake Den Ridge Trails-does a pretty fair job. Along the route are waterfalls, cool, moss-lined streams, old-growth tulip poplars, and the pinnacle, 5,200-foot Maddron Bald. The 3,000-foot ascent may leave you wet with sweat, but the views from this heath bald will set your heart soaring.
Cosby Campground is a convenient nexus for hikers, with trails heading off in all directions: to berry thickets atop Maddron Bald, through a kaleidoscope of wildflowers on Gabes Mountain, along spruce- and fir-lined paths up Snake Den Ridge, and to stunning views at the White Rocks outcrop atop Mt. Cammerer.
Make enough left turns and you’ll always end up back at Cosby-it just depends on how far you want to go. For extended backcountry trips to Cammerer Ridge and Sunup Bald, access the Appalachian Trail via Low Gap or Snake Den Ridge Trails, and keep heading northeast.
Attractions like Henwallow Falls (2 miles from Cosby), combined with the annual spring bloom and autumn color, mean you’ll encounter lots of dayhikers in the early going. But hike far and high enough and the busy trails revert to quiet foot paths, the contour lines get closer, and the trees get bigger. To a backpacker, that’s what really counts.