Centennial Challenge: Hike 100 Miles of Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains

Take every opportunity to step off the trail and explore the busy waters of Big Creek.
Take every opportunity to step off the trail and explore the busy waters of Big Creek. Logan Mahan
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Need a little more incentive to hit the trails of Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Check out the Centennial 100, a 100-mile hiking challenge to commemorate the National Park Service's centennial in 2016.

Here's how it works: The goal is to hike 100 miles of trails in the park, but the same section can be hiked numerous times, and you can go with groups or solo. You just have to record all your mileage in a log book (hikes must be completed by December 2016) and report it to park officials. If you make the full 100 miles, you'll get a snazzy commemorative pin—plus bragging rights, of course. 

For inspiration on getting started, be sure to check out our 10 Best Hikes in the Smokies to tackle the most popular hike on your way to 100 miles. And to add some variety to your venture, here are a few picks for lesser known, out-of-the-way, and underrated trails—all of which will help you hit the coveted centennial mark.

Mount Sterling Fire Tower

Those willing to climb the old fire tower atop Mount Sterling will be greeted with views of the Smokies and the Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests.
Those willing to climb the old fire tower atop Mount Sterling will be greeted with views of the Smokies and the Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests. Martin Lopatka

Distance:  5.4 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Highlights: Fire tower, views

Mt. Sterling is named for the lead on its northern peak that early prospectors mistook for silver. Sans that early disappointment, Sterling is a treasure that consistently exceeds expectations and ignites a primal sense of exploration. The tower atop the mountain might bring about a bit of vertigo, but if you can stand the steep climb, you'll enjoy some of the best views in the park, which stretch over the Smokies as well as the Cherokee and Pisgah national forests.

Maldron Bald Trail and Albright Grove Loop

Distance: 7 miles
Difficulty:  Moderate
Highlights:  Historic structures, virgin forests, flowers

A dark trail of Eastern hemlocks greet hikers at the beginning of this gentle hike along an old road bed. The trail eventually ascends to the Albright Loop, forming a delightful "lollipop" trail. Once home to the Marshall Justus farmstead and then later to the Civilian Conservation Corps, the area has seen a lot of human life, and culverts, cabins, and other signs of engineering and infrastructure add interest to the hike.

Mount LeConte via Bulls Head

Great Smoky Mountains Sunset Mt LeConte
Great Smoky Mountains Sunset Mt LeConte Michael Wifall

Distance: 14.4 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Strenuous
Highlights: Views, fewer crowds

Likely the most exposed access to Mount LeConte, this hike offers frequent views along the way, while most other trails to the popular summit are immersed in a thick canopy. This is a plus for Bulls Head, but may also make for a steamy hike in the summer months. Smaller crowds and a more gradual ascent draw hikers who want an alternative to Alum Caves.

Kephart Prong—Charlies Bunion Loop

Distance: 14.2 miles roundtrip
Difficulty:  Strenuous
Highlights:  Historic structures, views, Appalachian Trail

The Kephart Prong is an easy 2-mile hike through a young forest and the remnant of an old Civilian Conservation Corp camp. Continuing to the Sweet Heifer Creek Trail, you'll ascend for a difficult 3.7 miles but will be rewarded with Sweet Heifer Cascades and nice views of North Carolina near the end, before continuing onto the Appalachian Trail toward the Jumpoff, Icewater Spring Shelter, and Charlies Bunion. This route to Charlies Bunion will help avoid the crowds climbing up from Newfound Gap. After Charlies Bunion, descend down the Grassy Branch Trail back to the Kephart Prong and on to the trailhead. For those who don't want to tackle the full 14.4 miles in a day, this section could easily be made into a overnight trip by staying at either Icewater Spring or Kephart Shelter.

Deep Creek to Indian Creek Loop

The "hearts-a-bustin'-with love" (euonymus americanus) bust brilliantly in late summer an early fall along the loop
The "hearts-a-bustin'-with love" (euonymus americanus) bust brilliantly in late summer an early fall along the loop Cathie Bird

Distance: 4.4 miles
Difficulty:  Easy
Highlights:  Flowers, falls

This trail on the southern end of the park is a great early autumn hike, where you can see the "hearts-a-bustin' with love" (euonymus americanus) all along the trail. But stunning Indian Creek Falls makes the trail worth the drive any time of year.

Chestnut Top Trail

Distance: 8.6 miles
Difficulty:  Moderate to difficult
Highlights:  Diverse plant life, great intro to the park

Located just inside the park boundary near Townsend, the Chestnut Top trail is popular among trail runners but also offers a nice, easily accessible trail for those with a slower pace as well. More than 50 blossoming species greet visitors in April, making it a great hike to tackle in the spring. It's a pretty steep journey, with with more than 1,500 feet of elevation gain, and you'll have to hop briefly onto the road to make this a loop (Chestnut Top–Schoolhouse Gap–Bote Mountain—West Prong–Tremont Road–Laurel Creek Road) back to your starting place at the Townsend Wye parking lot.

Middle Prong/Indian Flats Falls

Distance: 8.3 miles
Difficulty:  Strenuous
Highlights:  Historic structures, some of the best waterfalls in the park

Just a little farther up the road from the Townsend Wye is the Institute at Tremont and the trailhead for Middle Prong. This is arguably the best waterfall trail in the park, passing by three great cascades and several smaller ones. There might be quite a few people near the trailhead exploring the abandoned Tremont community, but the crowds tend to thin out on Middle Prong as the trail becomes more difficult.

Clingmans Dome to Silers Bald

The view from Clingmans Dome is one of the best around. 
The view from Clingmans Dome is one of the best around.  Davey Nin

Distance: 10 miles
Difficulty:  Moderate
Highlights:  Bald, views

This is one of the only hikes on our list where you start high—at the highest point in the park actually—and descend, so be sure to climb Clingmans Dome tower and take in the panoramic views before continuing. The Dome is one of the most popular spots in the park, but only a fragment of these hordes leave the paved path for the hike down to Silers Bald. You'll follow the Appalachian Trail down a narrow, steep trail to the grassy slopes of Silers. Big views greet you here on clear days, and the grass is an inviting spot to rest up and prepare for the climb you'll have to make to return to Clingmans Dome.

Shuckstack Fire Tower via Appalachian Trail

Distance: 7 miles
Difficulty:  Strenuous
Highlights: Fontanta Dam, AT, fire tower, wildflowers

Another fire tower trip starts near Fontana Dam on the North Carolina/southern side of the Smokies and ascends steeply to Shuckstack. On a clear day, you can see Gregory Bald and Spence Field from the top of the tower as well as the curvy Fontana Lake.

Big Creek Trail to Mouse Creek Falls

Confluence waters cascading at Big Creek. 
Confluence waters cascading at Big Creek.  Logan Mahan

Distance: 4.3 roundtrip to Mouse Creek Falls (+ ~.8 for spurs to Rock House and Chimney)
Difficulty:  Moderate
Highlights:  Falls, swimming, historic structures, interesting rock formations

Out of the way of the main Townsend and Gatlinburg entry points, Big Creek on the east side of the Smokies is popular among Ashevillians, but is sometimes overlooked by Knoxvillians looking to hit the highlights. But the area is quintessentially Smokies, with a verdant canopy, a slick-rocked river, and hidden history for those who know where to look.

Hiking down to Mouse Creek Falls will bring explorers past Midnight Hole just off the mostly gentle trail, with an early spur trail bringing the adventurous up a steep hill to the unmarked Rock House. One can choose to turn back at the Mouse Creek multi-falls or continue on for a 13-plus mile loop to Mount Cammerer. You can also head 0.3 miles down nearby Baxter Creek Trail to find a spur to the Smokies' largest known chimney. Check out this video from The Day Hiker to learn more about the Big Creek area and how to find its hidden treasures.

Gregory Bald Via Twenty Mile and Wolf Ridge

Distance: 15.6
Difficulty:  Strenuous
Highlights: Bald, falls, wildflowers

This southside trail can actually be reached from the above Shuckstack route via Twenty Mile Trail, but if you choose to start at the trailhead and do the full loop, you'll be in for a long 15.6-mile loop around Twenty Mile, Long Hungry Ridge, the Gregory Bald Trail, and back down via Wolf Ridge Trail. Luckily there are several campsites scattered along the way, making this a great overnighter for those looking to put a sizeable dent in their 100-mile goal.

Did we miss your favorite underrated hike? Let us know in the comments.

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