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Day hiking in Tennessee on the Appalachian Trail is a right of passage if you’re visiting the state, and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail (AT Trail) is one of the longest, continuous footpaths in the world. The trail winds more than 2,150 miles through 14 states. Few stretches are more remote or difficult than the section through the Great Smoky Mountains. Here the trail follows some of the highest ridges in the Appalachians, paralleling the Tennessee – North Carolina border for 70 miles.

vista view over Great Smoky Mountains from Springwater shelter - hiking in Tennessee

Appalachian Trail: Day hiking in Tennessee from Newfound Gap

There is a 6 mile trail (3 miles up, 3 miles return) from Newfound Gap parking lot, which takes you to the Icewater Spring Shelter, allowing you to experience the Appalachian Trail as a day hike visitor. You’ll also get an appreciation for the folks who do multi-day treks along the AP, when you glimpse their large packs and provisions often left at the shelter during the day.

North Carolina & Tennessee state line Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Appalachian Trail and Boulevard Trail from Newfound Gap parking lot - hiking in Tennessee

History of the trail

During the 1930s, hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corporation workers cut rock, felled trees, and built shelters – helping shape the path that extends like a narrow ribbon from Georgia to Maine. It was a major undertaking in the Depression Era, but one enjoyed by many each year.

Appalachian Trail history

Appalachian trail signage for Day hiking in Tennessee

You can start the Appalachian Trail day hike out of the Newfound Gap parking lot. Head up along Boulevard Trail, and follow the signs for Icewater Spring Shelter. There are several well signed trail alternatives along the Boulevard Trail, including Charlies Bunion, and Mt LeConte. Keep following the signs to Icewater Spring Shelter at every possible signed alternative to ensure you are actually remaining on the official Appalachian Trail.

Appalachian Trail signage

Boulevard Trail along the AT Trail out of Newfound Gap - hiking in Tennessee

Appalachian Trail sign to Icewater Spring Shelter

Icewater Spring Shelter

Once you arrive at the Icewater Spring Shelter, there is an expansive outlook over the Smokies, and you’ll get an appreciation for at least one of the shelters constructed along the trail back in the 1920’s. The structures, made from materials accessible on the trail, are rudimentary but functional, serving multi-day hikers as cover from wind and rain. The camp area also features pullies and ropes for hoisting food to keep away from bears and critters. The outhouse has been bolted shut, apparently full. No doubt an unwelcome site for some while hiking in Tennessee, AT users are encouraged to dispose of waste responsibly on their own with shovels.

Hiking in Tennessee - Springwater shelter along the Appalachian Trail

Spingwater shelter AT Trail, Tennessee

Spingwater shelter - packs and provisions for hiking in Tennessee on the Appalachian Trail

The day I visited it was evident that there would be several hikers returning to the shelter for the night, with the backpacks left inside for the day. Hikers are required to register for a permit to hike the Appalachian Trail, and the series of shelter huts is a way to record and track their progress, should anyone go missing, or miss an expected arrival point.

Appalachian Trail stats

Approximately 3 million people visit the AP each year, with about 3,000 attempting a thru-hike of the entire trail each year. About ¼ of those, or 750 actually complete the trail. The average time to hike the entire 2,190 mile trail is 5-7 months. Hiking in Tennessee, through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, marks the half-way point. Link here to learn more about the Appalachian Trail – maps, guides, what to expect, registering your hike and permits.

vista view over Great Smoky Mountains from Springwater shelter

Meeting Thru-hikers hiking in Tennessee

When I was there is April, I met a Dad, his son and nephew hiking in Tennessee, doing the trek together. They had started the Appalachian Trail is Georgia, and were on track to complete the entire trail in Maine, by the end of July. Totally self-sufficient, their packs were full of provisions to cook, camp out along the trail and survive the at times unrelenting conditions presented on the 2,150 mile journey.

3 men hiking in Tennessee

Ryan’s AT journey

Hiking in Tennessee, along the Appalachian Trail was personal for Ryan Bronaugh. A former military man and Iraq veteran, he was hiking with his son and nephew, carrying the backpack of a medical paratrooper friend, Travis L Brown who had taken his own life during the last year. That incident brought many things into focus for Ryan, including the value of time he could be spending with his son. Hauling a 5lb rock at the bottom of the pack, with his friends’ name carved into it, was an ever present reminder of the values that had been awakened in him, with the loss.

In conversation, Ryan noted, “We’re hiking for health, our friends, and to learn to let go of the pain, while holding onto our memories”. We promised to stay in touch by email, as the troupe progresses towards their goal in the state of Maine. I also promised to share their story in a blog post, in addition to an outside media story I will pitch.

At parting, as I headed back down the trail, leaving the boys to set up for the night, Ryan passed me a sheet with a few notes from our conversation, and his contact details. “In medias ras,” he had noted in Latin – “we meet half way”. It was not only about where we had met, on their AT journey, the phrase was also part of his email address. Indeed, hiking in Tennessee, was their midway point. It was one of those moments where the serendipity encountered while traveling gives you shivers. I can’t wait to share their story, and the continued evolving tale, with a broader audience!

Where to stay when day hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The town of Maryville is a great base “on the quiet side of the Smokies” for accessing the park. It’s less than an hours drive from the Townsend park entrance. Staying in Maryville spares you the traffic hassles, congestion, and expense of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, while offering a backdoor entrance into much of the parks beauty.

If a home away from home, offering 1 bedroom apartment style accommodation, with kitchen and living room facilities sound appealing, be sure to check out Luxbury Inn and Suites on the edge of town. And it’s extremely affordable, and with a full breakfast included in the price, it makes an excellent base for several days touring and hiking in the Smokies. Book through Expedia, or using the accommodations map below.

Link here for other related travel in Tennessee article:

Nashville Itinerary in 24 hours

Places to Visit in Tennessee

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