Segment 1A: Peak to Peak
Clingmans Dome to Waterrock Knob: Great Smoky Mountains Route
- Alternate Route: Segment 1B: River Valley
Distance: 68.9 miles (50.3 trail, 9.1 unpaved road, 9.5 paved road)
Requires full backpack. The trails are well maintained, are well marked, and use frequent switchbacks.
- Check Trail Updates before starting your hike.
By Danny Bernstein
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) straddles Tennessee and North Carolina. Newfound Gap Road (US 441), which travels north from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, forms the backbone of the park and climbs to over 5,000 feet at Newfound Gap.
If national parks have specialties, the Smokies is known as a hiker’s park. The scenery is diverse: mountain views, old-growth trees, waterfalls, streams, and more shades of green than a paint chart. Mile for mile, you’ll find hiking in the park easier than in the neighboring national forests. Even though there are no blazes on Smokies trails, they are so well marked at every intersection that you can follow them with confidence. (Still, stop at GSMNP Visitor Center and pick up a Great Smoky Mountains Trail Map for $1.00. Note that this alternate route differs from the MST depicted on the map.)
The Smokies may be the most visited national park in the country but only the roads and parking lots are congested. With over 800 miles of trails, even popular trails are not very busy. The Smokies, in a temperate rain forest, have a great variety of wildflowers, from the first bloodroot in March to the last asters in October. But hikers will also see the richness of the community life that was here before the area became a national park in 1934.
The MST starts at the observation tower on top of Clingmans Dome in GSMNP, on “top of old Smoky” at the state boundary. This 68.9-mile section goes deep in the woods, crosses US 441, climbs up to an isolated mountain, and comes out to the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). The trails in the Smokies are well maintained and well marked. Hikers will appreciate that they’re in a national park.
Many maps, including the GSMNP and National Geographic map #229, show a different route for the MST than the one detailed in this guide. The “ultimate” route for the MST is under discussion, and this route and the alternate “River Valley Route” are ways that you can use to complete Segment 1 of the MST now. The old route veers off this route at the intersection of Newton Bald Trail and Mingus Creek Trail. To follow the current route, stay on Newton Bald Trail.
This route is approximately 20 miles longer than the River Valley Route, with more elevation change and fewer opportunities for resupply, but also more off-road mileage. Overall elevation gain on this segment is estimated at 14,518 feet and elevation loss at 14,974 feet.
- The observation tower on Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet
- Walking along Deep Creek, with its cascades and rock falls
- Campsite #57, Horace Kephart’s last camp, and the historic millstone put up in his memory
- Lufty Baptist Church, a small church established in 1836 and reconstructed in 1912
- Chasteen Creek Falls
- Masonic marker on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Segment 1A Eastbound Elevation Profile