Terrain By State: Tennessee
South of Damascus, Virginia, the Appalachian Trail follows segments of mountain ranges in the Cherokee National Forest, ascending to the high country of the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, and the highest mountains along the Trail—several above six thousand feet.
Here lie the Roan Highlands, noted for their rhododendron gardens and the panoramic views of the open grassy “balds” such as Hump Mountain. The A.T. continues southward along the state line and through the Pisgah National Forest.
Like the White Mountains of New Hampshire, hikers on the high ridges and balds of the southern Appalachians can encounter dangerous weather conditions. Lightning is a particular danger in summer. Sudden snow storms are common, as late as April and May and as early as October or November, and can strand hikers.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with more than 70 miles of crestline Trail, features the highest elevations of the entire footpath, well above six thousand feet. Clingman's Dome is the highest point on the entire A.T., where the Trail reaches an elevation of 6,625 feet near the summit. The Trail through the Smokies also has the most rainfall and snowfall on the A.T. in the South, and many hikers are caught off-guard by the snow and cold temperatures at high elevations. If you are staying overnight in the Smokies you will need to purchase a permit in advance; unless you are thru-hiking (defined by the park as starting your hike more than 50 miles outside the park and ending your hike 50 miles beyond) you need reservations at the shelters. More information about the special regulations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be found on our Permits page.
Note: This page describes the A.T. from the Virginia/Tennessee state line south through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Part of the Trail in this section closely follows or is on the Tennessee/North Carolina border.
Difficulty Ratings for A.T. Sections
Because the A.T. spans a great variety of terrain, ranging from relatively flat and easy, to extremely difficult, the following scale was created as a general guide:
1 = Flat and smooth
2 = Flat terrain but uneven treadway, or slight elevation change
3 = Moderate elevation change, but well graded trail, or flat trail with very rough treadway
4 = Strenuous climbs, but of moderate duration, or short but steep climbs
5 = Lengthy graded climbs, alternating with easier sections
6 = Extended climbs that may last hours or shorter climbs with difficult footing
7 = Includes rock scrambling that is relatively easy and of short duration
8 = Includes rock scrambling that is somewhat challenging
9 = Rock scrambling that is difficult and extended
10 = Use of hands required for extended periods of climbing, footing precarious, and leaping may be required — not recommended for those with fear of heights and not in good physical condition. Shorter hikers may be at a disadvantage