When my buddy Will “Red Beard” Wood asked me to come up with a route in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP)(also known as the Smokies) that would have epic views and be challenging. I knew just the route I wanted to make. Having hiked over 2,500 miles and all the trails at least twice in the past year and a half, some of which I’ve hiked too many to count. I guess you can say I’m very familiar with all the trails in the Smokies.
So I sat down with my notes and my maps and created a route that would be a great representation of what our Smokies are all about. The route takes you to some historical sights that predate the parks establishment along with some of the parks most popular waterfalls and views. The route also has some built in flexibility allowing the hiker to make it longer or shorter and a few bailout points if needed.
Once the route was set I talked it over with Will. He felt like the route was truly gonna be an epic hike that others would want to do as well. He suggested we name the route the “Plug-it In Circuit “. Naming the route after my trail name “Plug-it In” and calling it a “Circuit” as they call routes in other countries. Plus it’s kind of a play on words. But in the end I sincerely appreciate Will’s suggestion. It’s pretty cool having a Circuit named after me.
We began planning how we would document this circuit. Will has an incredible YouTube channel and planned to video the hole trip. This would give the potential hiked a visual of what the circuit will look like. He does an outstanding job capturing the trail and the emotions that a hiker feels when you are seeing everything for the first time. I decided to document the circuit in a detailed written account of the hike along with a few photos.
So, how tough is this route? Will and I attempted to do this hike a few weeks prier, but due to the high mileage (20 Miles) and the extreme elevation change (over 10,000’), we had to leave the trail due to Will injuring his leg. Weather was extremely bad then with heavy rain and remnants of a hurricane predicted to come through the area. If that wasn’t crazy enough, when we attempted it a second time. We had 2 other people attempt it with us. Both of those individuals had to quit on the first day due to various reasons. The combination of high miles paired with a large elevation change and unpredictable weather makes this hike a strong challenge to even the most seasoned of hiker.
Thing to know before you start….
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park is the United States. It does not require a entry fee to enter the park, but it does require you to purchase a backcountry permit if you plan to camp in the backcountry. You will want to reserve your backcountry permits early, but the system does not allow you to make your reservations no more than 30 days out. You can go to the Smokies Permit website HERE to see all rules and regarding permitting and purchase your backcountry permits. You call also call the Backcountry Office at 865-436-1297. If you have to reschedule your campsites then you will need to call the Backcountry Office to do so.
If you plan to stay at Cosby Campground then you’ll need to go to the Parks front country website HERE to reserve a campsite. Be aware that Cosby Campground as well as all the front country campgrounds are seasonal and most are closed during late fall to early spring.
The elevations in the park can range from 875’ to 6,643’ and the topography does affect the local weather. The temperatures can vary from 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit from the base of the mountains to the summits, and weather conditions equally vary at higher and lower elevations. Rainfall averages will also vary between the base and high elevations. Average rain totals range from 55” to 85”. So plan appropriately and prepare for the worse conditions. More info on the season weather information can be found HERE. You can check current weather forecasts for the park by phone at (865) 436-1200 extension 630.
GSMNP does not have any cellular towers located inside the park boundaries, but depending on your provider and location, you may receive some level of service in some areas.
As for the Plug-it In Circuit, I use AT&T and I did have service in a few locations. These are the particular locations that I know I had service;
•Top of Brush Mt
•Portions of Old Settlers Trail (between CS 33 and Maddron Bald Trail)
•Snake Den Ridge at Maddron Bald Trail intersection
•Appalachian Trail (between Low Gap and Mt Cammerer Trail)
•Mount Cammerer Tower
•Appalachian Trail near Mt Guyot
SEASONAL & WEATHER ROAD CLOSURES
GSMNP posts all temporary, seasonal and weather related closures HERE. These closures also include trails, roads and facilities. Bear warnings and trail cautions are also posted on this site.
GSMNP does offer a PDF file of their official trail map for the park. This will be very useful to have in the backcountry or when planning your trip. You can also pick up a paper map at any of the parks Visitor Centers.
DAY 1: (Trillium Gap Trail to Campsite 33 on the OST)
The official start and finish location of the Plug-it In Circuit is at the Trillium Gap / Rainbow Falls Trailhead. This is located on Cherokee Orchard Rd inside GSMNP just outside of Gatlinburg,TN. This road is open all year long, but is subject to temporary closure due to winter weather. There is a parking lot near the trailheads where you can leave your vehicle. This is typically a safe location as the Park Rangers patrol it regularly.
When you leave the parking lot, you’ll take a short 40 yard approach trail to your official starting location. Trillium Gap Trail will start out with very little elevation change for the first mile or so. Keep your eyes open and on the lookout for black bears, eastern wild turkeys and whitetail deer. You will typically see bears either on the ground foraging for berries and grubs or hanging out in the tops of the many oak and popular trees in the area. Black Bears are typically nonaggressive, but you should never approach them and give them plenty of space. You will also probably see a few Eastern Wild Turkey in this area too. They usually will travel in flocks from 3 up to 30 or more, depending on the season. Whitetail Deer are also very common in this area. They love to feed on the low vegetation along the trails edge. You can see more of the parks wildlife rules and regulations HERE.
As you continue along Trillium Gap Trail, you’ll notice that a road travels along in the same direction just to your left. This is Roaring Fork Road. It is a seasonal road and is usually closed between November and March. This is a very touristy traveled road and section of trail. During Spring through Fall, this trail can get very congested so be patient. This congestion will end just after Grotto Falls.
Around mile 3.5 miles into your hike. You’ll come to your first major point of interest, Grotto Falls. It’s the only waterfalls in the park the the trail actually goes underneath and behind the 25’ waterfalls. This area will more than likely be full of tourist and day hikers. Grotto Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the park. But once you pass this location you will see less people.
Once you’re past Grotto Falls, you’ll notice the trail gets more narrow and more steep. The trail will continue to climb another 1.75 miles up to the junction with Brushy Mt Trail. This is Trillium Gap, 5.25 miles into your hike. Here Trillium Gap Trail turns right and travels own up the the LeConte Lodge on Mt LeConte, Brushy Mt will turn left to an overlook and the official end to the trail and also goes straight ahead rom the junction and down the other side of the mountain.
At the Junction, make a left on Brushy Mt and go .4 miles up to the end of the trail. On your way up, you’ll go through one of the best Rhododendron tunnels in the park and It will open up to expose a unique view of LeConte along with the western facing ridge of the Smokies. There is also a USGS Benchmark here. During the summer this area has a lot of wild blueberries growing along this trail.
Once your return back to the Trillium/Brushy junction, you’ll take a left onto Brushy and go down the mountain. There is a spring or two to get fresh water right on the trail about 100 yards from the junction. After this location you won’t have water available till you’re near the bottom of Brushy Mt Trail. Brushy Mt Trail is 4.9 miles long and connects to Porters Creek Trail.
When you’re at the Brushy / Porters Creek junction, you’ll notice a trail that goes back up on the left. This will lead you to the old Messer Cabin and barn. The park service restored these structures and maintains them. Once again you’ll notice more people. This area can get a little congested with day hikers and tourists. But if you turn left onto Porters Creek from Brushy Mt it will take you out to the Porters Creek Trailhead about 1 mile. There will be a gate across the trail that also serves as a service road for the park. This will be your first opportunity at a “bailout point”. You can get a hitch into town or arrange for someone to pick you up.
Here is where you start your first short road walk. Follow the gravel road roughly .8 miles to a bridge. This is Greenbrier Cove. It’s another “bailout point” if you choose to use it. If not, turn right and cross the first bridge. About .1 miles you will cross a second bridge, the Old Settlers Trailhead (OST) is to your left in the parking after the bridge. Take this trail. You will cross several small streams and the trail will seem more like a roller coaster than anything. You will also start to see a few stone walls and stone chimneys that were built by some of the first settlers in this area. These walls predate the GSMNP. From the Trailhead you will travel roughly 6 miles to your first campsite on this Circuit. Campsite 33 will be on both sides of the trail. The sight on the left has 3 spots for tents, the sight on the right is up the trail a few yards with many tent spots nestled in a hemlock forest. This campsite also has bear cables. You can hang your food from these cables at night. There is a dependable stream here for drinking water. Campsite 33 is definitely one of my favorite campsites in the whole Park.
•Day 1 Total Mileage: 18.4
•Circuit Total Mileage: 18.4
•Bailout Points: Porters Creek Trailhead or Greenbrier Cove.
Day 2: (Campsite 33 to Campsite 29)
From campsite 33 you’ll continue northeast on Old Settlers. You will cross many small streams and do a steady 1000’ climb. After the climb it will be more like a roller coaster with many small ups and downs. But in this section of the OST, you see more stone walls and chimneys along with a few cemeteries. This area was one of the more populated areas of the OST.
Roughly 9 miles from campsite 33, you’ll come to the Maddron Bald / Gabe’s Mt / OST trail junction. You will have a few options here. If you need a bailout point, then you can turn left at the junction on the Maddron Bald Trail and walk roughly 1 mile to the Trailhead. There will be a gate across the trail that also serves as the service road. There are several residents in the area as well as you are just a short walk from the main highway.
If you want to shorten your hike just a bit, then you can continue straight at the trail junction onto Gabe’s Mountain Trail. This will bring you out in Cosby Campground. You can also use this location at a bailout point or continue on to Low Gap Trail to proceed with your hike.
If you want to proceed with the original circuit, then make a right at the trail junction onto Maddron Bald Trail. The trail will start out wide with not much elevation change. This section of trail also serves as a service road for the park service. After about a mile or so the trail narrows and you begin to see large tulip poplars and hemlocks. This area is known for these large trees. You may see more day hikers in this area because of that. You’ll also come across the only log footbridge on this trail. It’s very large, but blends in with the environment quite well.
Once you cross this footbridge, you will hike roughly 50 yards and come to the Albright Grove Loop junction. I would highly recommend taking the loop. It only adds .4 miles to your hike and takes you through some of the largest tulip populars in the park. Albright Loop Trail will bring you back on to Maddron Bald Trail .3 miles up the trail. Once your back on Maddron Bald Trail, you will have a few small stream crossings before you get to campsite 29. It is located roughly 4 miles from the OST/ Maddron Bald trail junction. This will be your second campsite on this circuit. I did have cellular service at this campsite. I use AT&T for my provider.
Campsite 29 has 5 good tent spots, 2 sets of bear cables for hanging your food at night and a good flowing stream for drinking water. I would highly recommend treating your water here. There was evidence of people using the bathroom within 50 feet of the stream above the campsite.
•Day 2 Total Mileage: 13
•Circuit Total Mileage: 31.4
•Bailout Points: Maddron Bald Trailhead
Day 3: (Campsite 29 to Cosby Knob Shelter)
Today will be the day of many options. You’ll have the option to make the circuit longer or shorter as well as the option to bailout if you so desire. You’ll start your morning out with a 1.5 mile climb. During this climb you’ll go through a very impressive rhododendron tunnel as well as a very nice ridge walk. There will even be a clearing to give you a view of the main ridge line of Mount Guyot.
Once you’ve made it to the Snake Den Ridge / Maddron Bald junction, you have an option to shorten the circuit. By turning right onto Snake Den Ridge, you’ll hike .7 miles up the mountain to connect with the Appalachian Trail (AT). Doing this will cut 17.4 miles off your circuit. This will also eliminate Mount Cammerer and Cosby Knob Shelter from your itinerary. Otherwise turn left at the Snake Den Ridge / Maddron Bald junction and head down the mountain 4.6 miles to Cosby Campground.
On your way down the mountain, about half way, you’ll come to a stream. This is a great location to get drinking water. The next spot for water will be about .5 miles from the campground. There will be a very large log footbridge at this stream. Shortly after crossing the footbridge, you will come to Cosby Horse Trail/Snake Den Ridge junction. You can take the Cosby Horse Trail if you choose to bypass the campground. Or you can continue on to the campground via Snake Den Ridge.
Once you’re at the campground you will make a right onto the road. If you have any trash, there should be dumpsters here to do so. Also there will be a restroom to your left (behind the dumpster) if you need to us it.
Important for I know about Cosby Campground. This is a seasonal campground. It is usually closed from Oct 31 Thru April 1st. But there is a “Hiker Parking Lot” on the other side of the campground. It is open year round unless the park service closes the roads due to winter weather.
Another set of options are available to you here in the campground. You have a bailout point here if you need it and if you choose you want to make the circuit longer, you can take Lower Mount Cammerer Trail which will take you to the AT just north of Mount Cammerer. Once on the AT head south 2.3 miles to Mount Cammerer Trail and you will rejoin the original circuit. This will add 10 miles to your circuit. Otherwise take Low Gap Trail from the campground 2.5 miles to the junction with the AT.
Low Gap is very steep, but is the most direct route to the AT from the campground. Expect to see day hikes on this trail as they make their way to and from Mount Cammerer. There is a stream to get drinking water near the bottom and 3/4 of the way up trail. Once you’ve made it to the Low Gap/AT junction you have another set of options .
You can turn left onto the AT and go 2.1 miles to Mount Cammerer Trail. There you will find a USGS Benchmark. Continue onto Mount Cammerer Trail .6 miles to the tower. This location is one of the most popular spots in the park. With its unique history and its incredible 360 views, it’s no wonder everyone wants to hike to this place. It is the only stone lookout tower in the park. Built in the mid 1930s it once served as a fire tower. From here you can see I-40, Max Patch, Mount Sterling Fire Tower, Foothills Parkway, Newport, Dandridge and Cosby Tennessee. There is also a USGS Benchmark here as well.
Once done at Mount Cammerer, you will back track south on the AT till you get to Low Gap once again. From here you will continue .8 miles to Cosby Shelter, your 3rd campsite of the circuit. If you chose to bypass Cammerer, then you could simply take a right onto the AT from Low Gap and go .8 miles to the Cosby Knob Shelter. On your way to the shelter is a great spring to get fresh drinking water. It’s roughly .5 miles south of Low Gap Trail on the AT.
•Day 3 Total Mileage: 15
•Circuit Total Mileage: 46.4
•Bailout Points: Cosby Campground
Day 4: (Cosby Knob Shelter to Pecks Corner Shelter)
Today you will be hiking south bound on the AT from Cosby Knob Shelter. This will be mostly an uphill climb nearly all the way to Mount Guyot. But you’ll come to the Snake Den Ridge/AT junction 3.9 miles into your day. This is your last chance to bailout till you get to the Boulevard Trail, roughly 16.7 miles away. Choose to continue 1.9 miles you’ll reach Mount Guyot. There is a spring right on trail that you can get fresh drinking water from. Mount Guyot is the 2nd tallest mountain in the GSMNP standing at 6,621’ above sea level. Continue on the circuit 1.8 miles you’ll get to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. This is a great place to take break. You can get fresh drinking water or use the privy here.
Once your break is over, you will continue south on the AT, here you will go near the summit 6,417’ Mount Chapman and actually go over the summit of 6,003’ Mount Sequoyah. On this section of the AT you will be crossing the Tennessee / North Carolina border back and forth many times. As you head south, views of the Tennessee Valley will be to your right and the North Carolina mountains will be to your left.
I have to say that there’s not a trail with more incredible views in the Smokies than the Appalachian Trail. Especially the section between Newfound Gap and Davenport Gap. This 32 mile stretch of the AT has one epic view after another. And the fact that you’re up around 6,000’ above sea level for a good part of the time makes it even better. It’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the Smokies.
Around 5.3 miles from Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, to come to Hugh’s Ridge Trail. This is the trail that Pecks Corner Shelter is on. You will hike .4 miles down the trail to the shelter. This shelter has a water source and a privy.
•Day 4 Total Mileage: 13.5
•Circuit Total Mileage: 59.9
•Bailout Points: Snake Den Ridge to Cosby Campground, Low Gap to Cosby Campground
Day 5: (Pecks Corner Shelter to Rainbow Falls Trailhead)
This was our last day on trail and we got a early start. We planned to push the final 20.1 miles out and get back to our vehicles. But you will have more options for this circuit a little later into the hike.
The only thing bad about Pecks Corner Shelter is you have to hike back up the mountain .4 miles to the AT, but once you’re there your legs should be nice and warmed up. Once back to the AT you’ll turn left and continue south bound. In this section of trail, you will be mostly ridge walking as you continue to follow the main ridge line of the Smokies. As before this is also the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. There will be the typical ups and downs as with most ridge walks, but with this one you’ll have opportunities for some beautiful views.
Your best opportunity for views will be at Laurel Top and Bradly View. Those two locations are hands down some of the best views in the park, giving you a breathtaking view of both North Carolina and Tennessee. You can expect the winds to be pretty fierce as the wind blows against the steep mountain side. Also on the Tennessee side you can start getting a pretty good look at Mount LeConte.
Before you know it you’ve made it to the side trail to Charlie’s Bunion. This is another must see location here in the GSMNP. The trail to Charlie’s Bunion is narrow and drops hundreds of feet to the left as it opens up to an incredible view down into the Tennessee Valley. The rugged rocky exposed ridge reveals an impressive rock face that is known as Charlie’s Bunion. Expect to see lots of day hikers and tourists here. It’s one of the most visited spots in the park. And from here you have a clear view of Mount LeConte, which is where you’ll be going next. You can take the trail on around the edge of the mountain at Charlie’s Bunion. This will bring you back out to the AT.
Continue south on the AT about another mile. You will get to a piped spring just before you get to Ice Water Shelter. This is a great water source. You will want to get fresh drinking water here. There won’t be another water source till you get on the Boulevard Trail.
Once you’ve made it to the Boulevard/ AT junction, take the right onto the Boulevard Trail. Your next point of interest is just 40 yards ahead. You’ll see the Jump Off trail sign to your right. Take this trail which is steep and washed out. This is not an official trail, but it will take you .4 mile to a breathtaking view that gives you a unique perspective of Charlie’s Bunion and the main ridge line through the park. At the Jump Off, the bluff drops hundreds of feet so watch your step..
Back on the Boulevard Trail you will continue on 5.4 miles to Mount LeConte. This will take you along several ridge walks and will eventually skirt you along the northeastern edge of the mountain. When you come to a huge slide area known as the “Scar”, you are less than a mile from the top of Mount LeConte.
Once near the top, you come to the junction of Myrtle Point and Boulevard. Myrtle Point is hands down the best location to witness a sunrise on Mount LeConte. It is just a short .2 miles off the Boulevard Trail. Don’t expect to be there alone though. Between Lodge guests, Shelter campers and Day hikers, this spot gets a little crowded at times. Back on the Boulevard, about 40 yards ahead is the summit of Mount LeConte. You’ll know it by the huge pile of rocks that people have piled on top of one another.
Now the rest of your hike is all down hill. You only have 7 miles back to the Trailhead / the official end of the circuit from here. Just 40 yards down the trail you have another view point called Apolo Point. This will give you a clear view of Newfound Gap and the side of Myrtle Point. As you continue another 50 yards you get to LeConte Shelter. This is gonna be another opportunity for you to stay here for the night. Just make sure you have your backcountry permit for this location if you choose to do so. This shelter does not have a fireplace. Fires are not allowed at this shelter. It does have a privy and bear cables.
Continuing on another .2 miles you come to the LeConte Lodge. You will begin to see more people than you have in a week. This is the most popular destination in the GSMNP. The LeConte Lodge is for guest only, but you can purchase coffee, Hot Chocolate, Cookies, etc.. You can also sign the guest registry in the office and get warm by the stove. Hikers are welcome to hang out there. There is also a water spicket near the office as well as a privy. Something to keep in mind though, the Lodge closes between Nov 1st and April 1st. Also the weather can get well below 0 degrees on Mount LeConte in the winter so plan accordingly.
Before you leave LeConte you have one last must see destination. There is a trail directly across from the Lodge. This will take you .1 mile up to the Cliff Tops. This is hands down the best view in the entire park, especially when it comes to a sunset. Cliff Tops is known as the best place to go watch a sunset here in the GSMNP. But you better prepare yourself cause there will be plenty of people there with you.
The Boulevard Trail/Alum Cave/Rainbow Falls trails junction near the Lodge. Take Rainbow Falls Trail. It is 6.5 miles from that junction to the Trailhead, the official finish of the Plug-it In Circuit. On your way down the mountain you will once again run into more people as you get closer to Rainbow Falls. It’s a pretty popular destination with day hikers and tourists. It’s a beautiful cascading waterfall nestled in the side of the mountain. But just a few more miles and you are finished. After traversing a few small stream crossings and seemingly a few hundred steps, you’ve made it to the finish of the Plug-it In Circuit. Congratulations!
•Day 5 Total Mileage: 20.1
•Circuit Total Mileage: 80
•Bailout Points: Appalachian Trail to Newfound Gap
The Plug-it In Circuit is designed as a 5 day/4 night 79.2 mile circuit covering some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s best views and most popular areas. With day 1 and day 5 being 20 mile days, this Circuit will test you physically and mentally. But with built in bailout points and options to lengthen or shorten the circuit. It can be adjusted to fit most backpackers varying skill levels.
See you on the trail!!