Sweet, earthy, musky, yet oddly refreshing… The smells of the Great Smoky Mountains hit me first. Lacing up my Altras in the Elkmont Campground, I get lost in the aromas before taking in the beauty of the lush, sun-dappled trees. But by the time I’m ripping along the contours of Cucumber Gap, all my senses are engaged. The rich scents pair with a cacophony of birdsong and waterfalls, every shade of green imaginable, and the salty taste of sweat that’s inextricable from summer in the southeast.
From Townsend, Tennessee, it’s a simple hop, skip, and jump before you are running in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Known locally as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies,” Townsend has access to over 800 miles of trails. Though the Smokies get plenty of well-deserved credit from avid hikers, those same heart-pumping climbs, winding river paths, and single-track rollercoasters offer a mouth-watering paradise to any trail runner.
The Great Smoky Mountains are consistently the most visited national park in the county, in part due to the lack of entrance fee, drivability, and proximity to tourist hubs like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. But the appeal reaches far beyond convenience.
The park boundaries encompass some of the most fascinating ecosystems in the world. The Smokies have the highest levels of biodiversity of all our national parks due to their geologic history and temperate rainforest climate. During the last ice age, glaciers pushed flora and fauna into this ancient mountain range. When they receded, the northern-adapted plants and animals retreated to the higher elevations of the Smokies, while more heat-tolerant species populated the valleys and lower slopes.
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Preserved public lands like the Smokies offer unparalleled outdoor access. But it’s important to note that the preservation of landscapes and this reverence for wildness grows from whitewashed, patriarchal roots and ignores – if not obscures – Indigenous communities and cultures. Both the city of Townsend and Great Smoky Mountains National Park are on the ancestral lands of the Cherokee people who called the area Shaconage – “the land of blue smoke.” However, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Cherokee were forcibly removed from these mountains through a series of coerced treaties and traumatic genocide that plagues our country’s indigenous history.
I grew up in this area, and when I’m running these trails, I often find myself contemplating my inseparable bond to landscapes. I firmly believe that humans and nature are one and the same, despite our tendency to dichotomize the two. But this concept is far from novel. The Cherokee saying nigada gusdi didadadvhni translates to “we are all related,” implying the intrinsic connection of all living beings. Trail running helps me truly live this sentiment. Floating along dirt paths, I am just as natural as the Acadian flycatchers and red-cheeked salamanders hiding among the tree branches and rocks. Let these trails invite you to feel the same.
Plan Your Visit
SIGHTS / Within the national park, explore Cades Cove for a taste of history and possible wildlife viewings. The park closes the loop to cars on Wednesdays, and you can rent bikes at the visitor’s center. For some Appalachian culture, head to Rocky Branch Mountain Music (in an old schoolhouse) for their donation-based, Friday night jam. For running fuel and any other outdoor gear, Little River Trading Company just outside of town has all the essentials.
HYDRATION / Start the morning with a coffee from the Dancing Bean. For a post-run brew, the Abbey at the Heartland Chapel is a gastropub featuring all local taps and a peaceful patio and deck right on the Little River.
CARBS / One of the first businesses on your way out of the park, Burger Master is a local favorite for burgers and ice cream. If you’re already at the Abbey for a brew, fuel up on their flat-bread pizzas, and if you check out the music at Rocky Branch, stop by Becky’s Grill and Grocery for some good homemade southern desserts.
Every season in the Smokies has something to offer: wildflowers in the spring, enchanting greenery in the summer, breathtaking colors in the fall, and expansive views in the winter. No matter when you visit, a quick dip in the river is the perfect cap to any trail run – even a polar plunge in January!
Cucumber Gap Loop / A Smoky Mountain Classic
Cucumber Gap takes you right into the heart of the Smokies and makes a great intro to the park’s trails. Start the run exploring the tiny ghost town of Elkmont. Jake’s Creek Trail begins a gradual climb up an old gravel road for a steady warm-up. After about a half-mile, take the Cucumber Gap single-track trail that cuts left. Weave up and over the gap through a few small stream crossings until it connects with the Little River Trail. Open it up on the downhill as the Little River takes you back toward the Elkmont Campground.
- Trailhead: Jake’s Creek
- Distance: ~5.5 miles
- Time from Townsend: 30 mins
- Perks: River access, waterfalls, historic buildings
Chestnut Top Loop / Not to Miss
Unless you have a generous friend willing to coordinate a trailhead drop-off, the first couple of miles of the Chestnut Top loop are on the road. But pounding out a bit of pavement is worth it! From the intersection at the Wye, head right on Laurel Creek Road and take the first left up Tremont Road to West Prong Trailhead. West Prong meanders up and down to a backcountry campsite. From here, take the scenic log bridge over the river, then start the climb to the intersection with Bote Mountain Trail, which rewards you with a gradual downhill until crossing over Laurel Creek Road. A quick jog left will drop you at the Schoolhouse Gap trailhead. After a bit of enjoyable riverside running, start the climb up to the ridgetop junction. Take a right onto the Chestnut Top Trail and savor the rolling ridge before the steep descent back to the Wye.
- Trailhead: Townsend Wye
- Distance: ~12.0 miles
- Time from Townsend: 6 mins
- Perks: River access, mountain views
Little Greenbrier Gap / Easy Does It
Though the Little Greenbrier trail starts with a mile-long climb from the trailhead, the grade stays manageable and quickly tops out for a flat, enjoyable ridge romp. A right turn onto the Little Greenbrier Gap Trail speeds down a roomy logging road past the old schoolhouse to Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area. Return to the trailhead with a quick one-mile jog back on Wear Cove Gap Road.
- Trailhead: Little Greenbrier Trailhead
- Distance: ~5.0 miles
- Time from Townsend: 15 mins
- Perks: Speedy trails, historic buildings
Rich Mountain Loop / Best for Vertical
If you’re feeling up for some sustained climbing, the Rich Mountain Loop takes on some elevation. Start from the entrance to Cades Cove. Run the loop clockwise, so you can warm up your quads on the first, flat(ish) mile. Then the real climb begins. After reaching the ridge, take a right at the junction with the Indian Grave Gap Trail. The trail tops out on Rich Mountain before skirting the ridge to start the descent. Take another right at the intersection with Crooked Arm Ridge Trail, and stay attentive for the steep, technical downhill. Crooked Arm links back up with Rich Mountain Trail for the final fraction of a mile to the trailhead.
- Trailhead: Rich Mountain Loop Trailhead
- Distance: ~8.5 miles
- Time from Townsend: 20 mins
- Perks: Creek crossings, wildlife, mountain views
Barkley Fall Classic – Can we even talk about trail running in East Tennessee without mentioning Barkley? The Fall Classic is a 50K in the Brushy Mountains east of the Smokies, with plenty of elevation gain to give any trail junkie a taste of the Barkley Marathons. In the spirit of Barkley, the course map changes every year and isn’t revealed until the night before.
The Cades Cove Loop Lope – Unfortunately, there are no trail races in the Smokies. The Cades Cover Loop Lope is the only official footrace in the national park, and though it’s paved, it gets a shoutout. The proceeds from the full ten-mile loop and the 5K support the park through the Friends of the Smokies.