The Best Backpacking Trails in North Carolina

With mountain scenery, abundant campsites and shelters, and well-maintained trails in locations like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pisgah National Forest, Linville Gorge Wilderness, and Shining Rock Wilderness, a backpacking trip in North Carolina rewards hikers with stunning vistas, verdant woods, picturesque waterfalls, and memorable sunrises and sunsets. Whether you are planning for a single night out or a multiday adventure, you will be treated to a memorable experience. And remember: wherever your adventures lead, be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles and leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.

Art Loeb Trail

  • Location: Brevard, NC, in the Pisgah National Forest and Shining Rock Wilderness
  • Length: 31.1 miles one-way point-to-point
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/difficult
  • Best For: Ridgeline hiking with panoramic views
  • Dogs: Leashed
  • Restrictions and Permits: No campfires in the Shining Rock Wilderness. Bear canisters are required, and group size is limited to 10 people in the wilderness area. For more information and current conditions, call the Pisgah Ranger District at 828-877-3265.

The Art Loeb Trail is one of the best-known and most iconic long-distance trails in North Carolina. Tackling the full length of this 30+ mile trail as a two- to three-night backpacking trip is one of the best ways to appreciate the beauty of this popular region. You can hike the trail in either direction. Come prepared for sections of rugged terrain and steep climbs.

The rewards are well worth the effort as the trail crosses several of the highest points in Pisgah National Forest including Black Balsam Knob (6,214 feet), Tennent Mountain (6,040 feet) and Pilot Mountain (5,072 feet). From these vantage points, the 360-degree views of the forested mountains and expansive sky are stunning. While the Art Loeb Trail can be hiked year-round, the spring and fall offer unique opportunities to enjoy wildflowers and autumn colors in season.

The trail passes through Pisgah National Forest on the southern end and enters into the Shining Rock Wilderness on the northern end. Wilderness restrictions apply, and more information about backcountry camping in the wilderness can be found here. Be aware that the section of trail in the Shining Rock Wilderness is not signed or blazed and is less well-traveled than some of the other portions of the Art Loeb Trail that are popular day hikes.

Water is normally available on the north and south ends of the route but the section north of Pilot Mountain follows a ridgeline where water is not readily accessible so be sure to fill up at the spring at Deep Gap Shelter before Black Balsam if heading north. Dispersed camping is available throughout the national forest and wilderness area.

Mount Le Conte Loop

  • Location: Bryson City, NC, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park 
  • Length: 16.0 miles round-trip loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/difficult
  • Best For: A one-night trip on a wooded loop with streams and waterfalls
  • Dogs: No dogs
  • Restrictions and Permits: Camping is only permitted at designated backcountry campsites and shelters. All campsites must be registered with the park. Backcountry rules and regulations can be found here.

This loop excursion through the Roaring Fork area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park culminates with an easy ascent to the summit of Mount Le Conte. At the start, you will pass scenic side streams until reaching Roaring Fork and Grotto Falls. The trail to Grotto Falls is often busy as this is a popular day hike, but once you are past the falls, you will enjoy a more secluded setting.

When hiking counterclockwise, you will enjoy a steady but overall gradual ascent to the summit of Mount Le Conte, the park’s third highest peak at an elevation of 6,593 feet. Here, you have the option to stay at the Le Conte Shelter for your overnight stay, or if you are looking for a bit more luxury, you can book a room at the LeConte Lodge. Be sure to make your reservation in advance as the lodge is a popular overnight option.

Your second day on the trails will include a pleasant and gradual descent back to the trailhead. Be sure to allot time for a stop-off at Rainbow Falls. This 80-foot cascade is especially beautiful in the early morning or late afternoon when you might spot the falls’ namesake rainbow in the mist. Use caution if hiking on the rocks around the falls, as they can be extremely slippery when wet.

The rest of the hike concludes on a pleasant trail following Le Conte Creek. Water is generally abundant along the route. In the spring, from early April to late May, you will enjoy a showy display of wildflowers including mountain laurel, rhododendron, azalea and many others. Black bears and white-tailed deer are common, as are a wide variety of birds. If hiking in the winter, note that the secondary roads at the park are sometimes closed due to snow, but if you can access the trails, you will enjoy the added bonus of otherworldly ice formations on the streams and waterfalls.

Spence Field Loop

  • Location: Robbinsville, NC, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park 
  • Length: 13.7 miles round-trip loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/difficult
  • Best For: A pleasant multiday trip incorporating a section of the Appalachian Trail
  • Dogs: No dogs
  • Restrictions and Permits: Camping is only permitted at designated backcountry campsites and shelters. All campsites must be registered with the park. Backcountry rules and regulations can be found here.

Hikers looking for a relaxing one- or two-night backpacking trip will enjoy the Spence Field Loop in Cades Cove. Crossing over the state line to start in Tennessee and hiking back to the North Carolina state line, you will enjoy a unique two-state journey on well-maintained trails. The easier trails, gentle inclines and several well-used campsite options make this loop an appealing route for those looking for shorter mileage days.

If hiking the loop clockwise, the trail starts with a gradual climb up to Spence Field, passing Backcountry Camp 9 about 3 miles into the hike. Continuing on the Bote Mountain Trail will bring you to grassy Spence Field, with expansive views of the Smoky Mountains stretching into both North Carolina and Tennessee. The Spence Field Shelter is a short hike south from Spence Field on the Eagle Creek Trail and offers your second overnight option.

Continuing on from Spence Field, you will hike along a scenic section of the Appalachian Trail. Enjoy the views and the well-used singletrack trail as it winds onward to the Russell Field Shelter. This shelter is your third overnight option with a shelter and a nearby camping area. Continuing down the Russell Field Trail, you will reach Backcountry Campsite 10, which offers another more secluded option if you’d rather not stay at the shelters.

Once past this campsite, it is an easy descent all the way back to the trailhead at Cades Cove. Water is available on the lower portions of the trail near the branches of Anthony Creek. The upper section of the hike along the Appalachian Trail does not have readily accessible water so plan accordingly.

Lemon Gap to Max Patch

  • Location: Marshall, NC, in Pisgah National Forest
  • Length: 10.6 miles out-and-back
  • Difficulty Rating: Difficult
  • Best For: A challenging route culminating in iconic views from Max Patch
  • Dogs: Leashed
  • Restrictions and Permits: Dispersed camping allowed in designated areas only.

This overnight trip is a rewarding expedition in the more rugged terrain of Pisgah National Forest. Experienced backpackers will enjoy the physical challenge and memorable scenery of the trip. The hike starts from the Lemon Gap Trailhead which is a less popular option than the often-crowded Max Gap Trailhead, and gives you a better chance of finding parking, although you will still want to arrive early.

From Lemon Gap, the hike starts with a steady climb on the Appalachian Trail toward Max Gap. You will be hiking in lush woods, and in the early spring, you will cross several small streams that run off into the Roaring Fork. In the summer, these streams may be dry so you will want to carry enough water when heading south from the Roaring Fork Shelter. The Roaring Fork Shelter, if it serves as your first night’s destination, has water and several tents sites nearby.

At about 4 miles, you will catch your first glimpse of Max Patch, and after a short and steep climb, you will reach this incredible bald. You won’t wonder why the area is so popular—the views from the large grassy hilltop of the bald are outstanding with the Unakas to the north, the Great Smoky Mountains to the south, and the Great Balsam and Black Mountains to the southeast.

From Max Patch, you can choose to either hike an out-and-back to the high point of Max Patch Mountain or hike the full loop around the bald on the Max Patch Short Loop. Either way, once you are done enjoying the view, head back down the Appalachian Trail to the trailhead. If you are looking for shorter mileage days, you can make this a two-night trip with an overnight at one of the dispersed sites at Max Patch or with a second stop at the Roaring Fork Shelter on the descent back to the Lemon Gap Trailhead.

Charlies Bunion via Kephart Loop

  • Location: Cherokee, NC, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park  
  • Length: 14.4 miles round-trip loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/difficult
  • Best For: A less-crowded route with a family-friendly option
  • Dogs: No dogs
  • Restrictions and Permits: Camping is permitted only at designated backcountry campsites and shelters. All campsites must be registered with the park. Backcountry rules and regulations can be found here.

This pleasant loop offers a glimpse into the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park while also climbing to one of the park’s more memorable viewpoints, Charlies Bunion. Starting on the Kephart Prong Trail, you will be treated to a gentle, wooded climb. Along the way, you will pass the remains of a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp from the early 1930s. Continue hiking to the Kephart Shelter, which is your first opportunity for an overnight stay. If you are looking for a first-time overnight or family-friendly backpacking trip, a one-night out-and-back to Kephart Shelter provides a 4-mile round-trip option on easy, well-maintained trails.

Continuing on from Kephart Prong on the Grassy Branch Trail, you will encounter a more challenging climb as you ascend from the Oconaluftee River valley. You may cross several small streams, and sections of the trail can be muddy if there has been a recent rain. Take a left onto the Dry Sluice Gap Trail and continue your climb up to the Appalachian Trail and Charlies Bunion.

The views from Charlies Bunion are some of the most rewarding in the park, and due to its location, it tends to be less busy than some of the other viewpoints in the Smokies. Continue on the Appalachian Trail, passing Masa Knob to the south. You will enjoy several unobstructed viewpoints from the ridgeline before descending to the Icewater Spring Shelter, your second option for an overnight stay.

From Icewater Spring Shelter, your next day starts with a short and gradual climb followed by a long downhill as a reward for all your previous efforts. Turn off the Appalachian Trail onto the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, a rough and, at times, rocky descent that passes through areas of second-growth forest. There are several small stream crossings along the way. The trail winds back to the east to reconnect to the Kephart Prong Trail, which you will follow south for an easy meander back to the trailhead.

Deep Creek to Clingmans Dome

  • Location: Bryson City, NC, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park 
  • Length: 49.5 miles round-trip loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Difficult
  • Best For: A four-day (or more) adventure on some of the lesser-known trails of Great Smoky Mountain National Park
  • Dogs: No dogs
  • Restrictions and Permits: Camping is only permitted at designated backcountry campsites and shelters. All campsites must be registered with the park. Backcountry rules and regulations can be found here.

This figure-eight loop is the quintessential Great Smoky Mountains backpacking excursion. While recommended for more experienced backpackers looking for a longer route, there are options to create shorter loops as well. This route hits all the highlights with numerous waterfalls, panoramic views of the Smokies from Clingmans Dome, historical landmarks, seasonal wildflowers and fall colors that you won’t want to miss.

The first day follows along Deep Creek on the Deep Creek Trail, highlighted by the cascades of Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls. Deep Creek Trail is a popular day hike, and in the summer, you may encounter tubers enjoying the cool waters of Deep Creek. The stream-side climb is very gradual, and before you know it, you will reach your first overnight site with a couple of backcountry campsites to choose from.

The next day, the climbing begins more earnestly up Pole Road Creek Trail. You may need to take some short rest stops, but if you can keep a good pace for the next 8 miles, you should reach Clingmans Dome around early afternoon—the highest point in the Smokies makes for a memorable lunch spot! Be sure to climb the observation tower to really soak up the views.

From Clingmans Dome, it’s a rocky and challenging descent on the Forney Creek Trail to reach the next batch of campsites around Forney Creek. Along the way, you can choose to add on the short out-and-back to Andrews Bald for additional views. Depending on which campsite you reserve, you will either end your day with a water crossing or start your morning with one. The challenge of the third day of hiking lies along the Springhouse Branch Trail, a grueling climb of nearly 2,000 feet over the course of 7 miles. At the end of Springhouse Branch, there is a campsite with picnic tables where you can take a well-earned break.

Continuing on the Nolan Creek Trail, you maintain a steady but much more gradual climb through a section of beautiful woods with three backcountry campsites to choose from. The final day starts with another climb to bring you back to the Noland Divide Trail. The highlight of your last day is Lonesome Pine Overlook, a gorgeous viewpoint that is lush with wildflowers in season. The final portion of the hike concludes with a gradual downhill leading back to the Deep Creek Trailhead.

Sam Knob Loop

  • Location: Brevard, NC, in Pisgah National Forest
  • Length: 9.8 miles round-trip loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Intermediate
  • Best For: A short loop with two overlooks and dispersed camping options
  • Dogs: Leashed
  • Restrictions and Permits: Dispersed camping allowed in designated areas only.

At just shy of 10 miles in length, this loop is an approachable distance for beginner and intermediate backpackers as well as those looking for a short one-night trip. The views from the top of Sam Knob are spectacular, and there are several picturesque waterfalls along the route.

Your hike begins on the Sam Knob Trail. If hiking the loop counterclockwise, you will tackle a brief climb up to Sam Knob; be sure to take the short side trail to climb all the way up to the top of the knob for the best views. After retracing your steps and returning to the loop, the trail descends steadily but very gradually, heading through scenic woods. The trail crosses a creek a few times before coming to a junction with the Flat Laurel Creek Trail. This section has several spots for dispersed camping, so keep your eyes open depending on how far you want to hike on this first day.

The Flat Laurel Creek Trail will eventually end at a trailhead and parking area, and you will join a road briefly before reconnecting with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. From this point, the rest of your hike is an uphill journey. About 1.5 miles into the trail, you have the option to hike to the top of Devil’s Courthouse, another recommended add-on for some bonus views. Once past this turn-off, the trail opens up as you pass through a meadow, providing a striking view toward Sam Knob and Little Sam Knob.

Linville Gorge Wilderness Loop

  • Location: Glen Alpine, NC, in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area
  • Length: 21.9 miles round-trip loop
  • Difficulty Rating: Difficult
  • Best For: A rugged and remote excursion into a beautiful wilderness area
  • Dogs: Leashed
  • Restrictions and Permits: A free camping permit is needed on weekends and holidays from May to October. Group size is limited to 10 people. More information on obtaining a permit can be found here.

Also known as the Grand South Loop, this long and challenging loop explores the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area on what is sure to be a memorable backcountry experience. The terrain around the gorge is steep and rugged, and you may find yourself doing some basic route-finding to stay on course.

Starting at the southernmost corner of the loop, head north on the Shortoff Mountain Trail. This section is particularly scenic and has several ideal camp spots. This trail is more clearly marked and well-used than some of the other trails in the area. The most coveted dispersed camping sites are located near Big Flat Rock Overlook and boast a stunning view over the gorge.

Continuing on from the overlook, you will climb the Table Rock Summit Trail to the Table Rock Summit where you can enjoy another panoramic view of the area. After this, continue north of the Little Table Rock Trail for a roughly 1,000-foot descent to the Spence Ridge Trail and the Linville River, which you will cross at this northernmost portion of the loop.

Next up is the Linville Gorge Trail, which follows along the western portion of the wilderness next to the Linville River passing beneath rugged cliffs and through hardwood forests spotted with boulders and cascades. Dispersed camping is available along this portion, although it may be a bit harder to find a site due to the more rugged nature of the terrain. Your close proximity to the river makes access to water easy. At the southern end of the loop, you will once again cross the Linville River and climb steeply back up to the trailhead parking area.