Gaining over 4,000 feet in elevation it is considered as one of the Top 5 most difficult day hikes in the Smokies. Read along as our trail reviewer, Up N' Adam Adventures, takes us along for the hike!
Drive into the Park from Townsend and at the "Y" Turn Right onto Laurel Creek Road towards Cades Cove. Drive 5.6 miles along Laurel Creek Road, you will see a pull off for parking on both sides of the Road. There is enough parking for maybe 6 to 12 cars. The Lead Cove Trail will be on your left.
The Hike to Rocky top and Thunderhead is a steep, gut punch right from the start and is that way thru most of the hike. Gaining over 4,000 feet in elevation it is considered as one of the Top 5 most difficult day hikes in the Smokies. So be prepared for some Thigh Burning, Lung hurting, Heart Racing, "OMG I'm about to die" level of awesomeness. If this sound like your cup of tea, then the rewards for the effort are well worth it. Rocky Top and Thunderhead offer some of the most amazing views and scenery you will find in the Park. The view at Spence Field is just as incredible too. While your body maybe screaming; your mind, spirit, and soul will thank you! If you're ready, lace up those boots, strap on your backpack, then let's get started! This is "THUNDERHEAD" with Up N' Adam Adventures.
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We begin our journey on the Lead Cove Trail, which was given its name from the Lead Ore that was mined here. Dr. Randolf Shields (Resident of Cades Cove) recalls one or more loads being taking out during the Civil War. However, it is unknown where the lead ore bed is exactly located.
The Lead Cove Trail is 1.8-mile long section gaining 1120 feet or 622ft/mile. What was once a field of crops, primarily corn, is now a forest of Mixed Hardwoods, Hemlocks and Tulip Trees. The remnants of the Gibson Tipton Homestead can be found roughly a 1/2 mile in if you look close enough on your left. Looking for it is as good excuse as any to stop and catch your breath. At .4 miles, you will come to the first of 5- water crossing and the only one of any significance. When water flow is average or a little above average this water crossing is an easy rock hop. However, if water flow is unusually high after significant rains, it may require getting your feet wet but it is never really dangerous to cross. We like to carry a couple garbage bags to wrap around our feet at minor water crossings to prevent our feet from getting wet. It's not the most attractive thing you will see, but nobody likes wet feet. All the other water crossings are just a trickle and you may not even notice them.
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At 1.8 miles in you will arrive at the Bote Mountain Trail Junction where you will take a right. This section of our journey gains 1170 feet in 2.9 miles. Bote Mountain Trail was once a road used in the 1860s to 1870s by James Spence to take his cattle and sheep up and down his farm on Spence Field. In the winter, views of Thunderhead are visible on your left in the lower part of this section.
At mile 3, you will arrive at the Anthony Creek Trail junction. Continue Straight on Bote Mountain toward the AT. Just under .3 miles from the Anthony Creek Junction, you will arrive at what appears to be a turn around. This is exactly what it is, a turn around. However, it's not a hiker's turn around so don't getting any ideas. Up until the late 1960s, visitors could drive to this point making it a much shorter hike to Spence Field. By this point your probably wishing that was still the case. Do not forget to snag a picture of the Island Tree (yes we just made that name up. Its our thang!). Continue past this turn around for another mile or so, you will walk thru a sunken part of the Trail that looks like a trough. The continuous herding of cattle and sheep created this trough, combined with some erosion, washed the soil beneath all the way to the bedrock. Once thru the Troughing, be on the look out in Mid to Late Summer for Yellow Cone Flower, White Snake Root, and Bee Balm as they will be lining the Trail At Mile 4.5, you will arrive at an official water source used by the guest at the Spence field shelter. This is a good spot to refill if need be.
Always remember to treat your water before consumption. The waterways in the Smokies can contain nasty parasites that will not make your visit fun, especially if you didn't bring enough toilet paper. After filling up with some of that fresh cold mountain goodness, continue on for another .2 mile past the water source and it will be time to replace your hiking boots with dancing shoes because you have finally arrived at the Appalachian Trail Junction where you will take a left.
Up until now, your hike has been rigorous and relentless with very few rewards along the way. You may be ready to throw in the towel and die right here in this spot. However, all of that is about to change. The fruits of your labor will start to pay off soon. You have officially arrived at Spence Field. Named after James Spence who built a cabin in this area, Spence Field is not a natural bald, but rather a man-made clearing used for the cattle and sheep grazing. It is chalked full of history. It is the last known site of a cougar attack in the Smokies and a small boy went missing from this area in the 50s leaving behind little trace of his where abouts. Today much of the field is overgrown, but there are still some amazing views to see in this area. If you are here in June, you may see one of the most amazing displays of mountain laurel found in the park. At just about .2 miles from the Bote Mountain Junction, you will walk thru the Keyhole. The keyhole is a narrow tunnel created by rhododendrons. However, if you walk around the right side of the keyhole you will find spectacular views of the North Carolina side of the Smokes. We recommend walking thru the keyhole and then turn right and walk back thru the field taking in the views and then walking thru the keyhole again.
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Just after passing thru the keyhole, you will get your first view of your destination: Thunderhead! From here, you will get a temporary break from the steep terrain you have experienced so far. You will get to enjoy a brief down hill section. Don't get too complacent; the final 1/3 mile push to Rocky Top is the steepest you will experience the entire hike. You think you've been sucking wind so far; this takes that to a completely different level. You will ascend almost 500 feet in that short 1/3 mile distance.
At about 100 feet, before you arrive at Rocky top, is another grassy field with some amazing views looking west. This spot is where you will want to stretch out your blanket (you did bring a blanket right) and enjoy a lunch and a nap. The field is softer than grandma's feather bed so falling asleep is likely. In addition, if you aren't afraid of a little night hiking this spot offers one of the best Sunset locations in the Park. Finally, after 5.7 miles of hiking, you will arrive at Good Ole Rocky Top. Most likely named after all the rocks (LOL!). This is the premier location along your hike offering 180° views of North Carolina side of the Smokies. You can even look down the path you just came and see Spence Field and a little bit of Cades Cove. Moreover, despite rumors, the UT Fight Song was not named after this peak. That don't stop some, however, from dawning their Volunteer Orange Colors in early September and making this hike to celebrate the start of football season. For most, Rocky Top is the final destination of this hike since it has the best views of the route and there is no shame in stopping here. Nevertheless, for some they choose to continue to the summit of Thunderhead.
After you continue past Rocky Top, you will walk in and out of forest and fields. Pay attention in this area during summer as the trail gets overgrown and difficult to follow at times. Just before you arrive at the Thunderhead summit, there is another grassy field that provides the best views of Cades Cove. Now, after 6.3 strenuous miles, you will arrive at the summit of Thunderhead Mountain. For your efforts you will be rewarded with a stunning view of a.....Small Rock! But not just any Rock. This rock has a USGS marker on it. Now you are learning why most turn around after Rocky top. You see Thunderhead is considered a healthy bald which means it is full of 8 ft tall Rhododendrons obscuring all possible views. That right don't expect to see 360° views from Thunderhead unless you just happen to be 10 feet tall. For the most part, summiting Thunderhead provides a sense of accomplishment because at 5,527 feet, it is the tallest peak on the Western Side of the Smokies. If you make it here then make sure you get your pic with the marker and congratulations, as you just completed one of the top 5 most challenging day hikes in the Smokies. That is of course if you make it back.
“Hiking Trails of the Smokies” Gaia App for Mileage and Elevations.