Hiking to Thunderhead Mountain (Rocky Top) in the Smokies

July 24, 2023

Is hiking to the top of a mountain on your bucket list? If so, hiking to Thunderhead Mountain should be your goal– the views are unmatched and well worth the effort it takes to get there! It’s considered a strenuous hike, so it’s not necessarily beginner friendly. Keep reading to find out what you need to know about this day hike in the Smoky Mountains:

Round Trip Length 13.9 Miles
Elevation Gain 3,665 Feet
Trail Highlights panoramic views


To begin your hike to Thunderhead Mountain, you’ll need to start at the Anthony Creek Trail, which begins at the far end of the Cades Cove Picnic Area. To get to Cades Cove from Gatlinburg, enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via the Parkway and turn right after the Sugarlands Visitors Center on Little River Road. Drive for about 25 miles, and the road dead ends into Cades Cove, and the picnic area is just past the entrance. It’s a great place to begin and end a day hike since there are restrooms and places to park.

Trail Description

view from rocky top at thunderhead mountainStarting on the Anthony Creek Trail, you’ll walk along Abrams Creek, where you’ll be able to enjoy the rushing sounds of the stream and keep on the lookout for wildlife. After about 3.5 miles, the Anthony Creek Trail dead ends, and you’ll turn right onto the Bote Mountain Trail. This section of the trail is covered with rhododendron, making it a nice shaded portion of the hike. Just past the 5-mile mark, you’ll reach the Appalachian Trail and turn left onto this iconic trail. This is also a special grassy bald area called Spence Field, named after James Spence, who cleared the area and built a cabin there around 1830. You’ll definitely want to stop and take in the incredible views from Spence Field–  a breathtaking snapshot of the North Carolina side of the Smokies! Less than 1.5 miles from the junction of the Bote Mountain Trail and the Appalachian Trail is Rocky Top. (yes, it’s believed to be the inspiration for the famous song lyric of UT’s fight song.) It is a fairly steep climb– about 550 feet–to reach the top, but as a result, you’ll be able to enjoy what is arguably one of the best views in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On clear days, Fontana Lake, Cades Cove, Townsend, and Maryville are visible from Rocky Top; some would say they could even see all the way to Knoxville!

Insider Tips

What else should you know about this Smoky Mountain hike? Don’t miss these top tips:

  • Don’t forget to get a parking tag for your vehicle before starting your hike!
  • Take a small picnic with you to enjoy once you arrive at Spence Field. You may want a short break before the last stretch to the peak!
  • There are technically 3 summits on Thunderhead Mountain, with Rocky Top being the first and most impressive. 
  • Hiking this trail in late spring or early summer is the best for seeing rhododendron and mountain laurel. 

Like this hike to Thunderhead Mountain, read more about several more hiking trails near Cades Cove you should add to your Smoky Mountain bucket list!