Wish that I was on ol' Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
Rocky Top you'll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ol' Rocky Top
Rocky Top Tennessee,
Rocky Top Tennessee
Boudleaux and Felice Bryant
Yes, there really is a Rocky Top Tennessee, and it was this rocky outcrop on Thunderhead Mountain that was the inspiration for that oh so famous song.
Rocky Top, with an elevation of 5,441 feet is one of three summits on Thunderhead Mountain. There is second summit that is unnamed. The third and highest summit on the mountain at 5,527 feet is Thunderhead Mountain. It is the highest peak in the west end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the summit is located right on the Appalachian Trail (AT).
The summit of Thunderhead Mountain is a heath bald, so it is covered with rhododendron, which unfortunately obstructs the summit views. Heath balds and grass balds are common in GSMNP. While the summit of Thunderhead is a heath bald, a large area near the summit is a grass bald. This open area is Spence Field, which was named after James Spence, and is the largest grass bald in the park. However, it is not a natural grass bald. The area was cleared by cattle grazing back in the 1800s. Grass Balds and Heath Balds are common in GSMNP and more information about them can be found here
As with so many of the peaks in the Smokies, due to the large network of connecting trails, Thunderhead can be approached from a number of trailheads. This includes but is not limited to Clingmans Dome, Elkmont, Tremont and Fontana Dam. Depending on how many days you wish to spend in the backcountry, route options are numerous. Since the summit resides right on the AT, approaches are possible from the east or the west
The standard dayhike is a 14 mile round trip starting at Anthony Creek Trailhead in Cades Cove. This route includes approximately 4,000 feet of vertical gain, and takes you to the stunning vistas at Spence Field and then onto the AT, with wide open views from Rocky Top. As is so typical in the Smokies, Thunderhead’s summit views are obstructed by vegetation. The actual summit is a heath bald and is covered with rhododendrons.
The hike to Thunderhead begins on Anthony Creek Trail in Cades Cove. This portion of the hike is 3.5 miles long with approximately 1800 feet of vertical gain. The terrain of the trail is primarily forest and thick rhododendron. There are multiple stream crossings on footlogs and bridges. Due to close proximity to Cades Cove, Anthony Creek Trail can be busy. It is also a horse trail, so watch your footing – enough said!
Anthony Creek Trail
Near Spence Field
After 3.5 miles Anthony Creek Trail ends and meets up with Bote Mountain Trail. Follow Bote Mountain Trail for 1.7 miles to Spence Field, which is located on the AT. There is 1,100 feet of vertical gain on this 1.7 mile climb. The scenery will begin to change at this point on the hike as the views will start to open up more, although not completely. The views from Spence Field are spectacular and with the grassy fields, is an excellent area to stop for lunch or just to take a break and enjoy one of the best views in the Smokies.
From Spence Field it is approximately 1.5 miles to the actual summit of Thunderhead Mountain. Although the elevation difference between Spence Field and Thunderhead is only 600 vertical feet, you will gain much more elevation over the course of this strenuous 1.5 miles as you will have to ascend Rocky Top before continuing on to Thunderhead. There are also numerous undulations between Spence Field and Thunderhead.
The view from the actual summit of Thunderhead is partially obstructed. Fortunately Rocky Top offers a beautiful 360 view of the area. There is plenty of space here to stop for a break and to enjoy the summit views.
On the AT Near Thunderhead
As always in the Smokies, rain gear is a must.
If you plan to carry water purification equipment, water is available in Anthony Creek. Otherwise pack plenty of water as this is a long strenuous hike.
When to Hike
Thunderhead can climbed any time of year. Rhododendron bloom in late spring making this an excellent time to take this hike. Typically, peak fall foliage occurs in mid-October, which is always a wonderful time for hiking in the Smokies. Keep in mind though that Cades Cove is a very popular destination, so the hike to Thunderhead up Anthony Creek Trail will usually be busy.
The trailhead for Anthony Creek Trail is located at the back end of the picnic area in Cades Cove.
Cades Cove is typically reached via Townsend, TN or Gatlinburg, TN. From Townsend, follow E Lamar Alexander Parkway for approximately 3.5 miles to Laurel Creek Rd in GSMNP. Turn right on Laurel Creek Rd and go 7.6 miles to the turn towards Cades Cove campground. At the sign for the campground, turn left. You will need to make another left turn towards the picnic area. The Anthony Creek Trailhead is at the far end of the picnic area.
From Gatlinburg, take US441 south into GSMNP. Turn left after the Sugarlands Visitor Center, following the signs for Cades Cove. From Sugarlands it is approximately a 25 mile drive through GSMNP to the turn for the Cades Cove campground. At the sign for the campground, turn left. You will need to make another left turn towards the picnic area. The Anthony Creek Trailhead is at the far end of the picnic area.
Overnight parking is not allowed in Cades Cove picnic area parking lot. Parking is available nearby if needed for overnight trips.
No permits are required for dayhiking.
Backcountry permits are required for anyone staying overnight in the backcountry. See the link below regarding backcountry camping regulations.
There are no entrance fees for GSMNP.
Frontcountry camping near the Anthony Creek Trailhead is available in Cades Cove. There are also campgrounds in the Townsend area. Cades Cove Campground tends to be very busy so making reservations well ahead of time is highly recommended. See the link below for making reservations at recreation.gov.
The shelter at Spence Field is the only backcountry campsite available near Thunderhead Mountain. See the link below regarding backcountry camping regulations.
External LinksFrontcountry and Backcountry Camping in GSMNP
Make reservations for Cades Cove Campground at recreation.gov
Trailsillustrated Map for Cades Cove and Elkmont
Hiking Trails of the Smokies
is a must have for any avid Smokies hiker. This book contains trail descriptions, elevation profiles and usually some historical information on every maintained trail in GSMNP.