What makes Knoxville so great? Aside from actually getting to experience all 4 seasons, we are also the gateway to the Smoky Mountains. The most visited National Park in the U.S.A. It’s not even a close race. In 2014 GSMNP boasted 10.1 million visitors, dwarfing the Grand Canyon in 2nd place with 4.7 million. But why? Because they’re amazing that’s why. Growing up in Knoxville will spoil you with a land of natural wonder less than an hour away. Suffice to say, we’ve done some hikes in our day. And we’re here to tell you all about them. Where to go, how to get there, what to expect, etc. So let’s kick this off with one of the most fabled hikes in the region. Rocky Top. The pictures are a culmination from three separate trips.The most popular (and shortest) routes are through Spence Field via the Lead Cove trailhead or the Anthony Creek trailhead. Historically, we always choose the Lead Cove trailhead because it’s slightly shorter by about half a mile. However, the advantage Anthony Creek holds is that you could dip your toes in the creek at the Cades Cove picnic area and enjoy a nice cookout.
Spence Field & Rocky Top via Lead Cove:
Total Distance to Spence Field & back = Approx 9.4 miles. I say approximately for Spence Field because while the “Field” technically does start near the junction, you’ll have to walk a couple hundred yards to get to the clearing where the views are.
Total Distance to Rocky Top & back = 11.8 Miles
Total Elevation Gain = 3,650 feet (aka up-up-and more up)
Difficulty for a casual hiker
Difficulty for an avid hiker
Even for people who are in pretty decent shape and hike regularly will find this trail a little unforgiving. My mother who has hiked all her life dubs this trail a “death march”. It is often rocky which makes for uneven footing. The steep elevation gain starts from the trailhead and rarely lets up. You’ll need plenty of water and protein packed snacks for this one. Always be sure to wear the right gear too – ankle protecting hiking boots with smartwool socks are our go to for protective footwear to ensure our feet can carry us all the way. While this trail may not be very forgiving, you’ll be hard pressed to find many hikes that offer a better reward.
Directions to Lead Cove/Finely Cane trailhead:
Heading West on Laurel Creek road from the Townsend “Y” junction, go approx 5.6 miles and the trailhead will be on your left. There is very limited parking here (on both sides of the road), so snag a spot early. Let the journey begin eh? Stick to the right for Lead Cove. Finely Cane heads the other direction and will also connect you with Bote Mountain. A great loop for a short day. The Lead Cove trail is well shaded, offering a mild and somewhat cool start to your hike. From the road, it’s 1.8 miles and about 1,300 feet up to the Bote Moutain junction. You may find yourself needing to rest for a minute. Once you reach Bote Mountain, there’s a good stretch of well-worn, rock free, level terrain. Enjoy it while you can. 1.2 miles of ridge walking on Bote Mountain will meet you up with the Anthony Creek junction. We’re going to continue straight on. From here, the trail changes quite a bit. You’ll notice much more rocky terrain, heavy rhododendron covering and the trail “sunken in” a few feet. Again, this portion of the trail is heavily shaded, which is a nice reprieve since your heart rate is up and you’re sweating profusely. But you’re almost there! It’s a mere 1.7 miles from the Anthony Creek junction to the Appalachian Trail, and just beyond that…. You’ll know you’ve reached Spence Field when you see it. Thick Mountain Oat grass that looks soft as a blanket, because it is. Go ahead. Lie down, no one will judge you. The clearing is somewhat spread out and on a clear day you can see Fontana Lake. Soak in the views because they are spectacular. Kara being stealthy and snapping me, snapping the picture below. Now comes the challenge. See that bald patch in the distance just below that first peak? That’s a clearing right before Rocky Top. Too many people turn back here. Don’t do that. You’ve come this far, what’s another mile of straight uphill? It will be worth it, I promise. Even if sometimes the hill in front of you looks like this:Don’t despair though, your reward awaits. Rocky Top is one of only a few spots in the entire park that offers panoramic views. From here, you can see Lake Fontana, Cades Cove, Townsend, Maryville, and perhaps Knoxville on a clear enough day. We always hike this in the fall when temps are cooler and the leaves are changing. Rocky Top is one of my favorite spots in the whole world because you can feel totally at peace up there. Even if there happens to be a crowd. That grassy clearing dead center in that picture above? Spence Field. Yep, you just came from there. Pat yourself on the back. Above picture courtesy of Erin @ Browniebites.net from our 2012 trip up top. Check out their blog on Rocky Top too!
So yeah, head back down. Hop in the car, go home, shower and congratulate yourself for making one of the toughest hikes around. You deserve a beer, some pizza, and some ice cream while soaking in a tub full of epsom salts. Right? Also worth mentioning, this is one of the BEST hikes you can do to take advantage of the fall foliage. It’s beautiful all year round, but the panoramic views offer up a canvas like no other.