The trail to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top, a knob that’s a sub-peak of the summit ridge, is a very popular overnight destination in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The mountain sits at 5,527 feet and dominates the western half of the park. The name Thunderhead was coined in the 19th century and likely refers to the unpredictable weather that strikes the higher elevations in the Smokys.
The geology of the peak consists of Precambrian sandstone that was thrust up when the African and North American plate collided 200 million years ago. Those millions of years have eroded the mountain down to size, but it still rises over 3,000 feet above the valley floor at the base of the north and south side of the ridge.
Backpacking Thunderhead and Rocky Top as a loop has grown quite popular due to the open summit bald with great views in all directions and flaming azaleas in June. Spence Field shelter, which sits just a few minutes walk from the Rocky Top viewpoints, stands as the best spot to stay the night.
The hike itself is fairly straightforward. It starts at the Cades Cove visitor center picnic area, though your car can’t be left overnight there; instead, it must be parked in the visitor center main lot. You won’t find any other sweeping vistas along the trail aside from the Thunderhead and Rocky Top summit ridge, but seeing sunset from the top will justify any hike it takes to get there.