Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

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Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top


  • Many stream crossings on the climb up to Thunderhead Mountain.- Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top
  • Gaining elevation reveals the snow cover.- Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top
  • Entering a winter wonderland en route to Thunderhead Mountain.- Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top
  • Snow shadow effect due to the angle of the sun.- Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top
  • Sun sinking in the sky over Great Smoky Mountains National Park.- Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top
  • Rocky Top makes a great spot to have dinner.- Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top
  • Sun dipping lower over the ridge.- Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top
  • Final sunset from Thunderhead Mountain.- Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top
  • Small rapids along the trail.- Thunderhead Mountain + Rocky Top
Overview + Weather
Great views. Good shelter. Well maintained. Accessible.
Smoky Mountains, TN
Pets allowed: 
Net Elevation Gain: 
3,639.00 ft (1,109.17 m)
Parking Pass: 
Not Required
Preferable Season(s):
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
Suitable for:
Hiking, Horseback
Total Distance: 
17.00 mi (27.36 km)
Trail type: 
Trailhead Elevation: 
1,900.00 ft (579.12 m)
Current Local Weather:
Hike Description

Hike Description

Pro Contributor

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.

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Field Guide

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Location + Directions

Nearby Camping + Lodging

(6 within a 30 mile radius)

Nearby Adventures

(34 within a 30 mile radius)

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