Rocky Top (Mountain) and Hike

Rocky Top (Mountain) and Hike

Immortalized in a song by the same name, Rocky Top is a well known summit within the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.  Presenting amazing views of the surrounding wild landscape, it’s no wonder why the University of Tennessee adopted ‘Rocky Top’ as its fight song. 

Accessible from historic Cades Cove, this region of the state has remained rural and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors in search of the quintessential Tennessee mountain experience each year. The view is spectacular, but the hike is challenging.

The Peak

The first peak along Thunderhead Mountain, the hike up to Rocky Top is challenging but well worth it.  From Cades Cove, the round trip hike is nearly 14 miles with the trail ascending over 3600 feet.  Rocky Top itself sits at an elevation of just under 5500 feet.  The most direct path to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top is to follow the Anthony Creek Trail from Cades Cove until its junction with the Bote Mountain Trail.  Take a right at the junction and continue along the path towards the Appalachian Trail.  Take a left at the Appalachian Trail to reach Rocky Top.

Once at the summit, hikers will be greeted with panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains.  Looking southward, a clear day will reveal the North Carolina side of the National Park along with the beautiful Fontana Lake.  It is safe to say that the view from this perspective has remained relatively unchanged since the Cades Cove area was first settle over 150 years ago.  Facing north, expect great views of Cades Cove from above, as well as Townsend, Maryville and even Knoxville in the distance.

Rocky Top, the iconic summit in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, has been immortalized in song and stands as a testament to the rugged beauty of the region. With breathtaking views of the untamed wilderness, it’s no wonder that the University of Tennessee proudly adopted ‘Rocky Top’ as its fight song. Located within the historic Cades Cove area, this rural haven continues to draw countless visitors seeking an authentic Tennessee mountain experience.

The Ascent

The journey to Rocky Top, perched along Thunderhead Mountain, is both challenging and immensely rewarding. Starting from Cades Cove, this round trip hike spans nearly 14 miles, with the trail ascending over 3600 feet in elevation. Rocky Top itself stands proudly at an elevation of just under 5500 feet. The most direct route to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top is to follow the Anthony Creek Trail from Cades Cove until it intersects with the Bote Mountain Trail. At this junction, take a right and continue along the path that leads to the Appalachian Trail. Make a left turn onto the Appalachian Trail, and you’ll be on your way to Rocky Top.

Upon reaching the summit, hikers are greeted with panoramic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains. To the south, admire North Carolina’s park side and the scenic Fontana Lake when the day is clear. It’s safe to say that the view from this vantage point has remained virtually unchanged since the settlement of the Cades Cove area over 150 years ago. To the north, enjoy stunning views of Cades Cove, Townsend, Maryville, and distant Knoxville city lights from this vantage point.

While the ideal time to embark on the Rocky Top hike is somewhat subjective, summer is generally favored by many. During this season, the summit not only offers unparalleled views of distant peaks and mountains but is also adorned with an abundance of pink and white flowers that grace both the summit and the trail. Much like the song suggests, the scenery up at ‘good ole Rocky Top’ evokes memories of a simpler time.

Take Time to Prepare

As you prepare for your adventure to Rocky Top, here are some additional tips and information to make the most of your journey:

1. Prepare for the Hike:

  • Ensure you have proper hiking gear, including sturdy footwear, a comfortable backpack, and layered clothing suitable for changing weather conditions.
  • Carry essentials such as water, snacks, a first aid kit, a map, and a compass. It’s essential to stay hydrated and nourished during the hike.

2. Trail Difficulty:

  • Be aware that the hike to Rocky Top is challenging, covering a significant distance and elevation gain.
  • We recommend it for experienced hikers or those in excellent physical shape.

3. Timing Your Hike:

  • Plan your hike carefully and consider starting early in the day to make the most of daylight hours.
  • Before your hike, examine local weather conditions and be ready for potential weather changes during your ascent.

4. Preserve the Environment:

  • Follow Leave No Trace principles by staying on designated trails, disposing of trash properly, and respecting wildlife and vegetation.

5. Safety First:

  • Always inform someone of your hiking plans and estimated return time.
  • Be cautious of wildlife encounters and maintain a safe distance. Carry bear spray if available.

6. Trail Closures:

  • Keep in mind that trail closures can occur, especially during winter, due to snow and icy conditions. Check with park authorities for the latest trail updates.

Embarking on the Rocky Top hike offers not only the chance to witness awe-inspiring vistas but also a profound connection to the timeless beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Exploring the rugged terrain, you’ll grasp why ‘Rocky Top’ is an ode to this enduringly alluring region, beyond the song.

Technical Information for the Hike

Hike Name:Rocky Top via Thunderhead Mountain
Trail Type:Out-and-back
Distance:Approximately 14 miles (round trip)
Elevation Gain:Approximately 3,600 feet
Elevation:Rocky Top summit: ~5,500 feet
Duration:8-10 hours (round trip)
Best Time:Summer to early fall

Trail Description:

  • Overview: The hike to Rocky Top via Thunderhead Mountain is a challenging out-and-back trail of about 14 miles, round trip. The hike is renowned for its stunning views and rugged terrain.
  • Trailhead: The trail begins in Cades Cove and follows the Anthony Creek Trail to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top.
  • Terrain: The trail offers a mix of well-maintained paths and rocky sections. Expect steep ascents and descents, particularly in the latter part of the hike.
  • Highlights:
    • Scenic Views: The summit of Rocky Top offers panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains, Cades Cove, and distant towns.
    • Flora and Fauna: Enjoy the sight of pink and white wildflowers during the summer months, along with potential wildlife encounters.

Embarking on the Rocky Top hike is a challenging adventure that rewards hikers with stunning views and a deep connection to the rugged beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Carefully plan your hike, take essential precautions, and prepare to personally experience Rocky Top’s timeless allure.