Best Hikes in Tennessee

Waterfalls, grassy balds and countless scenic overlooks await you in the Volunteer State.

The majestic Appalachian Mountains in the east and extensive river systems across the state make Tennessee an excellent playground for outdoor enthusiasts. With everything from short and easy day hikes for the family to rugged and strenuous backpacking trips for more adventurous hikers, the stunning trails around the state offer something for everyone. Plus, the variable topography, numerous rivers and plethora of waterfalls create remarkable scenery to enjoy while out exploring.  

Here are some of our favorite hikes in the Volunteer State. Of course, if you’re having trouble deciding where to go, are interested in learning more about the sights along the trail, or are looking for a group to hike with, consider joining REI guided day hikes and events near your area

Cub Creek Lake Trail 

  • Location: Wildersville, in Natchez Trace State Park, 113 miles northeast of Memphis 
  • Length: 5.5-mile loop 
  • Difficulty: Moderate 
  • Best for: A scenic and secluded hike around a lake, perfect for dogs and kids (if you don’t mind mud) 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

While hiking is commonly associated with middle and eastern Tennessee, Natchez Trace State Park is an excellent option for outdoor recreation in the western part of the state. The park is between Memphis and Nashville and offers a variety of activities such as camping, hiking, fishing, swimming and horseback riding. The park is rich in history, and numerous park events are held throughout the year, ranging from guided hikes to volunteer opportunities. 
 
The Cub Creek Lake Trail showcases the diverse ecosystems that exist throughout Natchez Trace State Park. Beginning at the Cub Creek Recreation Lodge, the hike loops around Cub Creek Lake—one of four lakes within the park. If you hike the trail clockwise, you start in the woods and eventually reach the spillway after 3.5 miles, where the trail turns into a gravel road. Look across the lake, and you’ll see the bridge hikers cross over near the end of the hike to get back to the starting point. Continue along the road and reenter the woods after about a quarter of a mile. Around 5 miles in, you will reach the Cub Lake Campground. Here you’ll also find the beach and boat rental area where you can hang out for a bit to swim or rent a canoe. The walk back to the Cub Creek Recreation Lodge from this spot is brief. This trail tends to stay muddy in some areas, so wear waterproof boots and pack a spare pair of dry socks. Also, don’t forget to pack bug spray if you venture out on this trail in the warmer months. 

Chickasaw Park Loops 

  • Location: Henderson, in Chickasaw State Park, 80 miles northeast of Memphis 
  • Length: 3.3-mile loop 
  • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate 
  • Best for: Family outings and easy strolls 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

Chickasaw State Park is a small park nestled in the heart of the Chickasaw State Forest. Despite its size, there is plenty to do, including camping, hiking, park events, boating and horseback riding (horse rentals available). Additionally, interpretive programs about some of the older park buildings’ histories are a fantastic way to learn more about the park, plus kids can enjoy the birding or school programs. And with its proximity to the state forest, there is even more hiking, biking or riding to explore nearby. 
 
At a little over 3 miles long, the Chickasaw Park Loops hike utilizes many of the trails in the park and is a good fit for hikers of all ages. From the main parking area off Cabin Lane, take the Forked Pine Trail and stay left at the fork. Then jump onto the well-worn Friends Trail that meanders through the woods and crosses several small streams. As the trail loops back toward the lake, take a left and briefly follow Lake Shore Loop to reach Owens Spring Trail. The Owens Spring Trail extends south of the lake and is a nice option to escape some of the crowds. Before you know it, you’ll be back at the Lake Shore Loop, which you can follow either direction. To follow the hike as mapped on Hiking Project, take a right to continue along the shoreline, and at the four-way junction, head onto the small connector that leads to the Forked Pine Trail. Enjoy the old-growth forest as you head back to the parking area. 

Snooper’s Rock Trail 

  • Location: Chattanooga, in Prentice Cooper State Forest 
  • Length: 6.2-mile round-trip out and back 
  • Difficulty: Moderate 
  • Best for: A fun day trip with incredible views 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

Right outside of Chattanooga, you’ll find Prentice Cooper State Forest. There are 35 miles of hiking trails within Prentice Cooper, making it the perfect spot for a day trip from the city. Other recreational activities within the park include rock climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding and camping. 
 
To follow Snooper’s Rock Trail, you’ll start at the Cumberland Trail parking lot and will need to cross the road to get to the trailhead. Shortly after starting the hike, you’ll pass through a narrow stairway between rocks called Stone Door. This will lead you to Indian Rockhouse, an impressive rock overhang—you’ll find numerous interesting rock formations along this route. Around 3 miles into the hike, you’ll arrive at an intersection. Go left to reach Snooper’s Rock overlook. There are a handful of small creek crossings along this trail, so waterproof boots will come in handy.  

One perk of doing this hike during wintertime is that you’ll have views of the Tennessee River along the way. If you do this hike in the warmer months, the dense forest blocks your view of the river throughout most of the hike. However, the scenery at the endpoint makes up for it: Prepare to take in what is undoubtedly one of the best views of the Tennessee River Gorge. Beware that there is another, shorter way to get to Snooper’s Rock, which means this spot can get crowded. Also check for park closures during hunting season. 

Fiery Gizzard 

  • Location: Tracy City, in Grundy Forest State Natural Area, 36 miles northwest of Chattanooga 
  • Length: 11.4-mile one-way hike 
  • Difficulty: Difficult 
  • Best for: A challenging hike worthwhile for the numerous falls along the way 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

This trail is a fantastic option for those looking for a long, rugged hike that rewards with stunning waterfall views. The trail passes through Foster Falls Recreation Area, Little Gizzard Creek Small Wild Area and Grundy Forest State Natural Area, all of which are part of the discontinuous South Cumberland State Park. The northern portion of the trail is in Grundy Forest and is a bit more heavily trafficked and developed than the middle and southern portions. Remember that the mileage listed is for a one-way, south-to-north hike. You can do this as an out-and-back, but it will be a challenge. Alternatively, you might consider overnighting at one of several backcountry campsites along the trail. If doing this as a one-way hike, be sure to drop a car at both ends or arrange for a ride back to the start. 
 
Starting in Foster Falls Recreation Area, you will get to start your hike off with a view of Foster Falls, a stunning 60-foot-tall waterfall. Head out on Fiery Gizzard Trail from the overlook (not the Climbers Loop Trail), cross the bridge and ascend the trail. As you wind along, you will cross numerous creeks that cascade to the ravine below. Bridges over these crossings keep you safe and your feet dry. Though the trail is heavily wooded, there are places along the way with openings to stunning views, especially in autumn when the leaves change colors. 
 
Around 2.5 miles in, you’ll descend steeply into the Laurel Branch drainage before climbing back out. This part of the trail can be strenuous, but after this segment it stays relatively level for the next 5 miles, winding through lush forest. Once you start to weave along the edge of another ravine, know that you are approaching a steep downhill. Just after passing Dog Hole Trail on your right, take a left onto Raven’s Point Overlook Trail for a quick side trip and a good view of the gorge. After returning to the main trail, take a left to follow the Fiery Gizzard Trail as it drops steeply to Big Fiery Gizzard Creek. Watch your footing and take it slow. The trail parallels the creek as it winds through the gorge, gradually climbing to reach Grundy Forest State Natural Area. You will pass several waterfalls as you wind through the ravine and past Chimney Rocks before reaching Grundy Forest Day Loop. Take a right onto the loop and follow this path the remaining 0.6 miles to the Grundy Forest parking lot, enjoying the old-growth forests and waterfalls as you finish the hike. 

Virgin Falls Lollipop Trail 

  • Location: Sparta, in Virgin Falls State Natural Area, 95 miles west of Knoxville 
  • Length: 8-mile round-trip lollipop loop 
  • Difficulty: Moderate/Difficult 
  • Best for: A pleasant though somewhat challenging hike to a waterfall 
  • Dogs: Leashed 

Virgin Falls State Natural Area is an excellent place to visit if you’re looking for a challenging hike with stunning scenery. Originally designated as a wilderness area in 1973, Virgin Falls State Natural Area is overseen by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. It sits adjacent to the Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness, which also offers numerous trails and recreation opportunities, making this spot great to visit if you’re looking for a more rugged outdoor experience. 
 
The Virgin Falls Lollipop Trail is considered a strenuous 8-mile round-trip hike. The narrow trails on this technical hike are worth the effort for the views along the way and the 110-foot-tall waterfall at its farthest point out. Start hiking at the Scott Gulf Road parking area by taking the Virgin Falls Trail. The trail begins by winding through the forest before meeting up with a small stream that runs alongside Big Laurel Creek. There is a cable crossing, and the trail follows the creek as it descends into the ravine. The trail gets narrow and sometimes veers away from the creek. Expect to cross boulder fields and gain elevation from the creek floor. You will pass the junction for a trail that leads to Martha’s Pretty Point, an overlook and camping area. (Though not technically part of this hike, it can make a nice detour.) After a couple of miles, you’ll pass by the bottom of Big Laurel Falls, which is a good option for camping if you’re doing this as an overnight trip. 
 
From the falls, the trail veers away from the creek and follows the edge of the ravine of the Caney Fork River, passing a few caves and small waterfalls as it winds above the river. At the junction of the Virgin Falls Loop Trail, take a left to travel clockwise. You can hike the loop in either direction, but clockwise there is a more direct route to Virgin Falls. The trail dips toward the river before turning away to climb back toward the falls. An underground stream that pours out of a cave over a 110-foot drop forms Virgin Falls. The waterfall disappears into another cave at the bottom.  

A unique waterfall and location, Virgin Falls is splendid for spending an adventurous night out. Continuing from the falls for about a half mile, you will reach a side trail for Sheep Cave before returning to the junction with Virgin Falls Trail. This route takes you back to the start of the hike. At 8 miles, given the narrow and rugged trail, it is worth planning on being out for most of the day and bringing plenty of water, food and layers. 

Abrams Falls Trail 

  • Location: Maryville, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 46 miles south of Knoxville 
  • Length: 5.2-mile round-trip out and back 
  • Difficulty: Moderate 
  • Best for: A fun and gorgeous hike to a popular waterfall 
  • Dogs: Not allowed 
     

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the gem of eastern Tennessee. Abundant opportunities exist to learn about the history of the area, view wildlife and hike. Cades Cove is a popular destination with plentiful wildlife, buildings from early 1800s European settlements, and rewarding hikes such as Abrams Falls. Swing by the Cades Cove Visitor Center to learn more about the area before heading out on the trail. Keep in mind this part of the park sees a lot of traffic, and the parking at the trailhead can fill up quickly. Aim to arrive before 9 a.m., if possible. 
 
Abrams Falls is one of the most popular hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The hike heads out on the Abrams Falls Trail from the Abrams Falls parking area. You follow this trail to the falls. Its trail parallels Abrams Creek initially, then gradually descends through the woods. The creek can be high in the springtime, and the blooming rhododendron bushes scattered about give the trail a magical feel. Due to its proximity to the creek, the path can get a little muddy. Don’t let that dissuade you from heading out on this hike—you will be good to go with a pair of waterproof boots. After about 2.5 miles, you will reach Abrams Falls, a 20-foot-tall waterfall that plunges into a large pool. Swimming in the pool below is a relaxing way to cool down on a hot day. The area around the falls is a great place to sit, relax, break for lunch and explore. Use caution when climbing or venturing near the waterfall as the rocks can be extremely slippery. When you’re ready, simply head back the way you came. 

Alum Cave—Cliff Top Out and Back 

  • Location: Gatlinburg, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 54 miles southeast of Knoxville 
  • Length: 10.7-mile round-trip out and back 
  • Difficulty: Moderate/Difficult 
  • Best for: Scoping out beautiful falls and stunning views 
  • Dogs: Not allowed 

Though more strenuous than the other recommended hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Alum Cave Trail is a fantastic out-and-back day hike. This 10.7-mile round-trip route is worth the effort, though numerous sights and viewpoints make it possible to adjust the distance if a shorter hike is preferred. Start from the Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead parking area or the overflow parking area off Newfound Gap Road. Head up the Alum Cave Trail, which immediately begins climbing (albeit along a gentle grade), paralleling Alum Cave Creek. As the trail turns away from the creek, the grade steepens and you’ll be headed toward the first gem on this hike: Arch Rock, a naturally formed hole in the bedrock through which you follow the trail using stairs and a cable railing. Continue ascending to your first great viewpoint, Inspiration Point. Shortly after, you will reach the second gem and the trail’s namesake, Alum Cave Bluffs. This bluff was mined for alum, saltpeter and Epsom salt during the Civil War and now forms an overhang (not really a cave) about 80 feet tall and about 500 feet long. The hike continues, but this is a good place to turn around if you’re looking for a shorter distance.  
 
Beyond the Alum Cave Bluff, you will skirt along the base of Peregrine Peak as you continue to ascend. You’ll follow a tree-cloaked ridgeline, though there are a few openings along the way where you can glimpse views of the surrounding mountains. As you reach the end of the Alum Cave Trail, take a right onto Rainbow Falls Trail past LeConte Lodge. After a short walk on Rainbow Falls Trail, take a right onto the Cliff Top Viewpoint Access trail to reach the summit of Cliff Top and some incredible views (weather permitting). After more than 5 miles of hiking and exploring sites along the trail, take a break at the top for some food and recharge before returning the way you came. 

Grassy Ridge Bald via The Appalachian Trail 

  • Location: Roan Mountain, in Pisgah and Cherokee national forests, 37 miles southeast of Johnson City 
  • Length: 4.7-mile round-trip out and back 
  • Difficulty: Moderate 
  • Best for: Unforgettable 360-degree mountain views  
  • Dogs: Leashed 

The Roan Highlands (not to be confused with Roan Mountain State Park) are situated along the North Carolina–Tennessee state line. This area is arguably one of the best destinations for panoramic mountain views in both states, boasting elevations of over 5,000 feet across the grassy balds. The fact that the Appalachian Trail traverses the balds is another unique feature of this area, where the Cherokee National Forest and Pisgah National Forest converge. 

Starting at the Carver’s Gap parking lot, cross the street and take the trail up toward Round Bald (the first grassy bald you’ll reach on this hike). You’ll arrive at Round Bald just over a half-mile after walking through a majestic spruce fir forest. The views only get better and better from this point onward. After hiking another three-quarters of a mile, you’ll arrive at Jane Bald. The farther you go along this hike, the more you’ll notice the crowds dissipate. Continue a half-mile and you’ll reach a junction. Take a right when you get to the fork where the Appalachian Trail splits off to the left and the trail to Grassy Ridge Bald to your right. You’ll arrive at Grassy Ridge Bald after another half-mile. This is an amazing spot to have a picnic and soak in the views. If you visit during the month of June, you’ll notice abundant rhododendron gardens and flame azaleas along your hike.  

While spring, summer and fall are all great times to visit, this hike is equally as beautiful during winter, especially after a recent snowfall. Consider Carver’s Gap to US 19E if you want to extend your hike into an overnight trip. This route will take you left at the fork to continue along the AT rather than taking the spur trail out to Grassy Ridge Bald. 

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