Backpacking in NC: 3 best North Carolina backpacking trips near Asheville

Backcountry camping in North Carolina gives you the opportunity to wake up to these views.

Wake up on a mountaintop and watch the sunrise with a 360-degree view. Set up camp beside a roaring river and hike to epic waterfalls. Climb some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi — and have them all to yourself. Backpacking in NC is an unforgettable experience.

The area around Asheville has countless backpacking possibilities. Some are as short as a mile of hiking; others will whip you into shape real fast. As a Western North Carolina local, I’m lucky to be able to sample many of the region’s top multiday hikes. The three hikes in this post are my favorites for experienced trekkers. Let’s dive in!

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.

Additional note: I spend every weekend on the trails, so I’ll keep adding to and updating this post as I discover great backpacking routes.

Backpacking in NC: Frequently Asked Questions

Asheville backpacking trails are great for newbies and experienced adventurers alike.
Getting ready to go backpacking in Asheville NC

Backpacking trips in NC are incredibly beautiful. But it can also be quite dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. The mountains here are serious — more serious than you might realize exists east of the Rockies. And even though there are a lot more people here than in, say, Utah, some of these trails take you very far from the nearest road on routes where you might only see one or two others all day. So to help make sure you stay safe on the trails, let’s start with a little bit of Backpacking WNC 101.

When is the best time to go on overnight hikes near Asheville?

One of the biggest challenges of planning the perfect backpacking trip in North Carolina is navigating the weather. While Asheville looks far south on the map, our mountaintops have climates more akin to New England than Atlanta.

Unless you’re an experienced backcountry camper, I’d recommend planning your first overnight hiking trip in North Carolina from late June to early September. During this range, you’ll have warm (60-70) degree days and cool (40-50 degree) nights up high.

Starting as early as October and running as late as May, you may encounter snow above 5,000 feet. Even if it’s not that extreme, mornings are usually in the high 30’s (or the teens in January and February) and it only warms up to about 50 during the day. You’d need a four-season sleeping bag for all these trails. You can manage at lower elevations, like on the Foothills Trail, with a 3-season sleeping bag from April-October.

In addition to temperature, you also need to factor rain into your trip planning. Popup thunderstorms hit the mountains almost every afternoon from May-September. If you go on a trip more than two days long, you’re basically guaranteed to get wet. It’s also very dangerous to be on an exposed ridge in a storm, so make note of protected campsites before setting out.

Is there even a chance of staying dry the whole time?

Nope. Don’t even hope for it. You’ll only be disappointed. It’s super green in southern Appalachia, but that’s because it rains a lot.

How difficult are the trails in the Blue Ridge Mountains?

The trails listed in this guide range from moderate to very strenuous. You’ll need to be capable of hiking at least eight miles a day with a full pack on. Typical elevation gain ranges from 2,000 feet to over 4,000 feet a day.

Additionally, while the Appalachian Trail and Mountains to Sea Trail are well-maintained and well-marked, most other trails through the region are neither. You may encounter severe erosion to the point of having to navigate “steps” that are over-waist-high. When they’re not steep, these trails tend to be narrow and heavily covered with brush on both sides.

None of the trails I’m covering in this guide require a river crossing of more than a few inches deep. All of them require short stretches where you’ll need to use your hands to pull yourself up rock faces.

I’d highly recommend training on easier trails with a backpack for a few weeks before attempting to take on backpacking trails in NC for real. For one, backpacking is always more enjoyable when you’re in great shape. But it’ll also give you a sense of how much distance and elevation you can handle on a day-hike. And you’ll build up all those little balancing muscles that are so important when you encounter trickier terrain.

If you’d rather stick with easier day hikes, that’s okay! Check out my post on easy hikes near Asheville for a few ideas.

What about bears?

We can’t talk about hiking safety in the Blue Ridge Mountains without talking about bears. Seeing one on a trail is a real treat. Having one steal your dinner…not so much.

On most trails in North Carolina, you’ll need to use a bear canister to store your food. These containers are heavy and awkward to carry, but they’re the only foolproof solution to bears stealing your food. They’re also required in Shining Rock Wilderness. They fit about 2.5 days of food for two people/five days of food for one person. For more on how to use bear canisters, click here.

Fortunately, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, all the campsites have bear cables. You can hang your entire pack or just your food bag — it takes two minutes and keeps all your stuff safe. Just make sure anything you hang on the cables is waterproof!

Bears are less of a concern while you’re hiking. They tend to be really scared of people, so if they hear you coming they’ll scamper away. The biggest risk is if you surprise one. If it looks like it might charge, make as much noise as possible while backing away slowly. It’ll probably turn around and bolt.

What should you use for navigation?

Your best bet for navigating NC backpacking trails is to bring both a GPS and a paper map/compass. This will allow you to mostly rely on your electronics, but you’ll have a fallback just in case.

The best GPS app to use when backpacking near Asheville NC is the AllTrails app. You download a map before you head out, and it’ll show where you are in relation to the trail even when you’re offline. This was my primary navigation source for all the backpacking routes in this post.

For a backup paper map in the Smokies, the National Geographic one does the trick. Your best bet for backpacking trips in Pisgah National Forest and Shining Rock Wilderness is to pick up one of the locally made maps at Black Dome Mountain Sports in Asheville.

Remember, a paper map and compass are only good if you know how to use them. Take a basic navigation course online or at your local REI before heading into the backcountry.

Now that you have a general sense of what to expect, let’s dive into the three best North Carolina backpacking trails!

Art Loeb Trail: Davidson River to Daniel Boone Boyscout Camp

The Art Loeb is one of the best 3 day hikes in North Carolina
The Art Loeb is the most famous — and the best — Asheville backpacking trail.

The Art Loeb Trail is easily one of the best hiking trails near Asheville. This 31-mile point-to-point trek runs through Pisgah National Forest and Shining Rock Wilderness, through the green tunnel and along WNC’s most beautiful ridge, across four 6,000-foot peaks.

You can hike the Art Loeb in either direction. I highly recommend going south-north if you’re a fit and experienced backpacker. This allows you to save the best views for the end, but it involves about 2,000 feet of extra elevation gain and two very steep climbs. Most people hike north-south.

As famous as the Art Loeb is, it’s also very remote. Aside from a short section near the Blue Ridge Parkway, I saw a total of four groups in three days on the trail. And that was on a beautiful three-day weekend in June!

The basics:

  • Length: 31 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 8,000+ feet if hiking south to north
  • Difficulty: Very difficult
  • Number of days: I did it in 2.5, but the middle day was rough. 3.5 days would be better.
  • Route: Point to point
  • Blazes: White-blazed through Pisgah, with signs at all intersections. Once you reach Shining Rock, the trail is not blazed or signed.
  • Highlights: Camping on Black Balsam Knob. Walking along the ridge through Shining Rock Wilderness.
  • Lowlights: The climb up to Black Balsam is ridiculous. The stretch from Davidson River to Pilot Mountain is monotonous.
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The Route

The trail starts from Davidson River Campground near Brevard. Your first day involves climbing through the green tunnel. Mountain laurels surround you as you traverse a couple of small (3,000-ish foot) peaks. After about eight miles and 2,000 feet of climbing, you’ll reach the base of Cedar Knob.

Start early on Day 2, because this day is brutal. You’ll climb almost immediately after leaving camp — it’s a gradual (read: relentless) slog up to the base of Pilot Mountain, where the real fun begins. The mile climb up Pilot is one of the most challenging parts of the hike, but you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views at the top.

Descend to Deep Gap, then begin the climb to the Parkway. This starts gradual and then gets extremely, brutally steep right at the end. Hands and knees required. You’ll finally reach Black Balsam Knob and its epic sunset/sunrise viewpoints after 12 miles/5,000 feet of elevation gain.

Day 3 begins along the ridge, where you’ll cross Tennent Mountain, Grassy Cove Top, Flower Knob, and Shining Rock summits within four miles. Then, you’ll cross a rocky ridge (some scrambling required) to just below the summit of Cold Mountain. The final 3.5 miles descend the Cold Mountain Trail to Camp Daniel Boone for a total of 10+ miles/nominal elevation gain.

Where to camp

There are five viable areas to camp along the Art Loeb Trail. The one can’t-miss campsite is at the top of Black Balsam Knob. Choose among the others depending on how many days you’ll be on the trail, what scenery you like, access to water, and concerns about bears.

The first good camping area is right below Cedar Knob. There are about 15 established backcountry sites over the course of a mile. I like the ones on the left side of the trail about 1/4 mile after you pass the turnoff to summit Cedar Knob. This stretch of sites ends at Butter Gap Shelter.

The second possibility is at Deep Gap Shelter. This is a good option for folks covering the trail over four days. You’ll reach it between Black Balsam Knob and Pilot Mountain, which allows you to avoid two very difficult ascents in the same day if traveling northbound. Most campsites are in the immediate vicinity of the shelter.

Third, you should 100% camp somewhere between Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain. Black Balsam is more crowded but less exposed. Despite the number of people up here, the area is huge so it’s pretty easy to find a secluded spot. I prefer the western side of the trail facing Middle Prong Wilderness. (You have a better chance of clear sunsets than clear sunrises.)

Your fourth option is to camp somewhere between Ivestor Gap and Shining Rock. There are a ton of absolutely gorgeous campsites through here, but they come with two issues: first, the bears around here are quite aggressive. But more importantly, if you’re hiking south-north, these sites are only a few miles past Black Balsam. It’s not really worth the extra night on-trail just to camp here.

Water sources

One of the biggest challenges with backpacking the Art Loeb is there is almost no water along the trail. You only have a few options, and several of them kind of suck:

  • About four miles in, a Forest Service road leads to a stream less than a tenth of a mile off-trail.
  • Below Cedar Knob, a small stream runs to your left 100 feet off-trail. It’s more of a swamp in some places.
  • Butter Gap Shelter has a good piped water source. Fill up as much as possible here.
  • Deep Gap Shelter has your last water source for ten miles, but it sucks. It’s very sediment-y and it’s too shallow. I spent half an hour here and still only got 2 liters out of it.
  • If you’re desperate, you can hike a mile off-trail at Black Balsam Knob for water. When you reach the beginning of the Black Balsam Trail, take a left and walk to the parking lot. Head to the far end (by the restrooms), and on your left parallel to the road you’ll be able to make out a faint trail — the Laurel Creek Trail. Follow this for about .2 miles and you’ll hear the water source slightly off-trail.
  • After you summit Flower Knob, you’ll descend into a pine forest. Keep an eye out on your right for a sign saying “Big East Fork” and a side trail. About a tenth of a mile afterwards, you’ll hear a small stream — it’s not visible from the trail but it’s only a few steps off. There’s a good piped source here.
  • You’ll cross half a dozen small streams heading down Cold Mountain.

Remember to always treat your water!

Parking and transportation

The Art Loeb is a point-to-point trail, so you’ll need to either shuttle yourself with two cars or use a commercial shuttle company. I used Pura Vida Adventures and had a good experience. The two trailheads are about a 90-minute drive apart, mainly because Route 276 is slow going.

Parking at Davidson River Campground is excellent. Turn into the campground and take the first small driveway on your left. There’s room for about 50 cars, trash cans, and maps of the area. If you ask really nicely you can even use the restroom at the campground.

Camp Daniel Boone’s parking leaves a bit more to be desired. Drive all the way through the camp and you’ll come to the trailhead on the left side right before the end of the road. You’ll have to parallel park along the river, and there’s only space for about 10 cars. There are no trash cans or restrooms.

Both parking areas are safe to leave a car for a few days.

Sam Knob Loop

Sunrise from Sam Knob while backpacking in NC.
Backpacking loops in North Carolina are rare — most trails are point-to-point. The Sam Knob Loop is the best loop hike around.

Sam Knob is the answer to Black Balsam Knob’s crowds. This 6,000-footer is only half a mile away from its more famous cousin. It offers equally epic panoramas. But you have a good chance of getting the summit completely to yourself.

This beautiful route for weekend backpacking in NC is a good warm-up trip if you’re prepping for the Art Loeb. It shares many of the same characteristics, but the scenery is more varied. Plus it involves a lot less elevation gain.

You have a number of options to approach this loop, depending on how you want to split up the days. Parking at Devil’s Courthouse gives you about 5 miles each day. Park at Flat Laurel Creek if you want to do all your climbing on the first day. Park at Black Balsam Knob if you got a very late start or want a very short hike on Day 2.

This trail passes a couple of popular areas, but for the most part you’ll be the only person around. The basics:

  • Length: The Internet says 10 miles, but I recorded more like 12
  • Elevation Gain: 2,000 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Number of days: Two days/one night.
  • Route: Loop
  • Blazes: The Mountains to Sea Trail is white blazed. Flat Laurel Creek is (poorly) blue-blazed. Bring navigation just to be safe, but all intersections are marked.
  • Highlights: Sunrise and sunset from Sam Knob. Waterfalls along Flat Laurel Creek.
  • Lowlights: I was super unimpressed with Devil’s Courthouse, but many people disagree.

The Route

I did this trail starting at Devil’s Courthouse and heading clockwise, so that’s how I’ll cover it here.

Start out by mid-afternoon on Day 1 and climb up to Devil’s Courthouse from the parking area. It’s very steep, but it’s less than half a mile of climbing. Take a few photos from the viewing platform before doubling back to where the pavement starts — continue straight to pick up the Mountains to Sea Trail and turn left.

The first two miles descend along a stream to Route 215. After it rains, prepare for extremely wet and muddy conditions. Next, you have a short road walk (turn right) along 215 — you can see Sam Knob in front of you along the way. Take a right onto Flat Laurel Creek Trail and immediately pass two small but atmospheric waterfalls before beginning a 4-mile climb.

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About halfway, you’ll pass a much bigger, beautiful waterfall — Wildcat Falls. Then you’ll come to a few good views to your left through the trees. Next you’ll reach a rushing river — you’ll hear it along the left side of the trail. There are a few small waterfalls that you can access via the social trails. Finally, you’ll pick up the Sam Knob Trail at the ankle-deep river crossing and climb to the summit a mile away. The summit has two peaks — most people camp on the northern one, but the views are just as good from the southern one (it’s just a bit tricky to find the trail).

On Day 2, wake up early to watch the sunrise and then climb down the way you came to the intersection with the Ivestor Gap Trail in the meadow. Follow this trail to the Black Balsam parking area, then continue to the back corner of the parking lot to pick up the Flat Laurel Creek trail running parallel to the road. This trail is flat and scenic for the first mile. It intersects the Little Sam Knob trail, which climbs steadily until you reach the Mountains to Sea Trail. It’s only about .3 miles from here back to Devil’s Courthouse and your car.

Where to camp

The obvious place to camp on this trail is on the summit of Sam Knob. Take your pick among a dozen or so established campsites on the grassy bald. It’s very, very windy and wet up here at night — even when the sky is clear. Definitely bring your tent stakes for this one.

If the weather is unsafe to camp on the bald, or if you prefer water access at your campsites, choose one of the gorgeous sites along the river right before the stream crossing instead. You could still hike up to Sam Knob for sunset/sunrise (it’s about 1.2 miles).

There are also a few campsites along Little Sam Knob trail. They don’t have views, but they do have water access and they’re much more protected than the other options. These are more “campsites of last resort” than places to aim for.

Water sources

Good news — water is plentiful along this loop! You could get away with carrying only two liters if you want to. Here are the best options:

  • Mile 2 on the descent from Devil’s Courthouse — right beside the trail
  • Pretty much all along Flat Laurel Creek Trail on the way up to Sam Knob
  • You’ll cross the river right before ascending Sam Knob. This is the best place for a final refill for cooking water.
  • The Flat Laurel Creek trail on the other side of Sam Knob has ample water sources.
  • Little Sam Knob crosses a small stream a few times, including once where you have to rock-hop. This is a good point to fill up on your hike out.

Basically you’re never more than a mile from water on the entire trail.

Parking and transportation

Part of the reason I recommend doing this loop from Devil’s Courthouse is that it always has ample parking. It also has a trash can.

You could park at Black Balsam Knob, but that would leave you with one day of hiking only one mile and you’d have to compete with the tourist crowds for parking spaces.

The final option is to park at one of the pull-offs on Route 215. Flat Laurel Creek Trail has a parking area, but it should really not be attempted in anything other than a pickup truck (you need about 6″ of clearance). The other pull-offs are easier to navigate but only have space for 1-3 cars. You’ll see lots of people parallel parked on 215, but I wouldn’t recommend leaving your car on the road like that overnight.

The Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Appalachian Trail is one of the best North Carolina hiking and camping destinations.
Yes, you’ll get nice views on the AT through the Smokies. But the real highlight is the beautiful, remote pine forests.

This is the mother of all North Carolina backpacking trips. 70+ miles along America’s most iconic trail, running along the ridge of some of the highest mountains in the East. It takes a full week of long days. But it’s so, completely worth it for the unique opportunity to visit the park’s most isolated sections.

The Smoky Mountains are the most biodiverse national park in the U.S. You’ll see tons of endangered species (look out for the salamander!) along with near-guaranteed bear sightings and even wild boars!

The AT is also a more social backpacking option than the others on this list. You’ll stay at designated shelters along the way, where you’ll meet like-minded backpackers from all over the country and swap hiking stories around a campfire. While it’s not great for total isolation, you’ll appreciate the encouragement a few days in when you’re tempted to quit!

The basics:

  • Length: 72 miles
  • Elevation Gain: I logged just over 18,000 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Number of days: 6-7
  • Route: Point-to-point
  • Blazes: Good white blazes the whole way — it’s impossible to get lost.
  • Highlights: The Sawteeth, Shuckstack Fire Tower, Charlie’s Bunion, camping at Icewater Springs, and so many bears! Plus, no need for bear canisters and piped water sources at every shelter.
  • Lowlights: Crowds at Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap detract from the two best views. Carrying 7 days of food is rough. Campsites are less-than-ideally spaced.

The Route

Most people hike from south to north (just like the thru hikers). This has the huge advantage of a more gradual ascent. Your exact route will depend on your campsite reservations, so I’ll detail my route here — but yours may differ slightly.

I started from Fontana and hiked up to Mollie’s Ridge on Day 1. This included a short side trail to the epic view at Shuckstack Fire Tower. It’s all uphill for about ten miles, but it’s fairly gradual. I started at 1 pm and ended around 7:30. If you can get your shuttle driver to drop you off at the trailhead rather than the dam, that’ll save you a mile.

On Day 2 I covered Mollie’s Ridge to Derrick Knob. The first stretch of this section is easy and flat, with lots of deer, bears, and mountain laurels. You can stop at Spence Field for lunch and a water refill, but it’s a half-mile off-trail. After lunch it’s a long, tough climb to Rocky Top, where you’ll get a panoramic view of the entire ridge to the south. A steep, rocky descent follows, then it’s rolling hills up to Derrick Knob. I hiked from around 8 am until 7 pm.

Day 3 brings the biggest climb and over 13 miles, so start as early as possible. The first stretch of trail involves increasingly-steep ups and downs until you reach Double Springs Gap Shelter. Stop here for lunch and water before the endless, steep, challenging climb to the summit of Clingmans Dome — the park’s highest point and most touristy area. Snap a few photos from the viewing platform, then begin the two miles of descent to the base of Mount Collins. But the Smokies are just messing with you here — you have to climb up another mile, then hike half a mile off trail to reach the Mount Collins shelter. I hiked from 8 am to almost 8 pm.

Day 4 was my short day — 8 miles. I broke it up like this because I desperately wanted to camp at Icewater Springs, which has the best views of any campsite in the park. From Mount Collins Shelter the trail winds gently up and down until you reach Newfound Gap, the official halfway point. Then it’s a (crowded) 3 miles to Icewater Springs. The sunrise views are spectacular here and you can see the ridge you’ll walk along the next day. I hiked from 9:30 am to 2 pm. If you don’t want to camp at Icewater, you could continue another 4 miles to Peck’s Corner.

Day 5 is the best day, through the remote Sawteeth. You may not see another person all day on this stretch. The beginning is a bit more crowded as you descend to Charlie’s Bunion (be very careful exploring the rocks with your pack on). But then you head up along the most remote stretch of ridge in the Smokies. There are few views, but the forest is breathtaking, with moss and mushrooms overtaking the fallen trees all around. It’s mostly flat-ish. Stop at Tricorner Knob Shelter for the night. I started at 7 am and ended at 2:30 pm in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to beat the storms.

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Day 6 was my last day, and I covered nearly 18 miles. Coming out of Tricorner Knob, the trail ascends and descends a couple peaks before the drop begins in earnest. It’s a long way down to Deep Gap (passing Cosby Knob shelter on the way). Then, in another example of the Smokies being cruel, you have to climb almost 1,500 feet back up to reach the turnoff to Mt. Cammerer — a highly recommended side trip if you have any energy left. Finally, it’s a brutally steep five miles to Davenport Gap and the end of your hike. I started at 7 am and ended at 3:30 pm.

Where to camp

Unlike the other best backpacking trails in North Carolina, in the Smoky Mountains, you have to reserve your campsites in advance. They cost $4 a night for a maximum of $20. You can only begin your reservation starting two weeks before you leave. Book here.

Permits are not competitive — you’ll generally get the ones you want. The only exception is if you’re in a big group. Occasionally a shelter or two is closed due to bear activity.

In non-COVID times, you are required to sleep in the shelters. But right now the Park Service is allowing you to pitch a tent within sight of the shelters.

All shelters have fireplaces, flat areas to pitch tents, fire pits, piped water sources, and bear cables. Some have privies as well.

Here’s the rundown on the shelters along the AT:

  • Mollie’s Ridge: On-trail. Tons of camping space. Friendly/non-aggressive bear. Fairly isolated. Water source is a steep .1 mile. No privy.
  • Russell Field: On-trail. Tons of camping space. I didn’t go to the water source. No privy.
  • Spence Field: A quarter mile off-trail. Space for about 3 tents. Water source is another .2 miles downhill. Privy, but it’s near a wild boar nest.
  • Derrick Knob: On-trail. Tons of camping space. Nice sunset through the trees. Water is a steep .1 mile downhill. No privy.
  • Double Springs Gap: On-trail. Tons of camping space. Water is a gentle .1 mile away. No privy. Closed due to bear activity when I hiked.
  • Mount Collins: My 2nd-favorite shelter, in the pine forest. Half a mile off-trail. Tons of camping space. Water source is far downhill (maybe .4 miles?). Privy. Very cold mornings.
  • Icewater Springs: My favorite shelter. On-trail, on a crowded stretch where day hikers walk through constantly. Space for about 5 tents. Water is almost immediately outside the shelter. Privy. Incredible sunrises.
  • Pecks Corner: Half a mile off-trail. Tons of bears around here (I saw three). I didn’t hike down to the shelter because it was too much extra mileage.
  • Tricorner Knob: On-trail, but the most isolated shelter in the park. No good camping space. Water is right outside the shelter. Privy.
  • Cosby Knob: .2 miles off-trail. Tons of camping space. Friendly/nuisance bear. Water source is right outside the shelter. No privy.
  • Davenport Gap: Party shelter that often attracts sketchy characters. Don’t camp here.

Water sources

Another truly great thing about backpacking in the Smokies is that all the shelters and campsites have water sources. That means you never have to hike more than eight miles before finding piped water.

The downside is other than the shelters, there is absolutely no water up on the ridge. Which means sometimes you have to hike a long way off-trail to reach a water source. Just to give you an idea of how much this adds up, in six days I hiked over five extra miles just to retrieve water.

You’ll need to carry capacity for up to three liters of water, but usually you can get away with carrying two. The only day I really needed three liters was between Icewater Springs and Tricorner Knob (11 miles), and only because I didn’t want to hike in to Pecks Corner to refill on the way. Since you’ll always have water at camp you don’t have to carry any for cooking.

Many of the water sources are down steep, poorly maintained paths. Keep this in mind if you bring flip-flops as camp shoes. I managed, but i bruised two of my toes pretty badly.

Parking and transportation

You have two options for parking right along the AT (assuming you want to hop in your car at the end rather than shuttling at the end). If you’re hiking north-south, you’d park at Fontana Dam. In the other direction you’d theoretically park at Davenport Gap.

However, Davenport Gap is infamous for car break-ins. It’s far better/safer to park at Big Creek instead. You’ll hike down a branch trail instead of finishing on the AT itself (or if you are a true masochist, do the 2-mile road walk from Davenport Gap to Big Creek), but you’ll get access to good parking at a campground parking lot.

Since this is a point-to-point hike you’ll need to either bring two cars or use a shuttle service. I used AAA Hiker Services. They gave me a fantastic price of $140 for the three-hour drive.

And yes, even though it’s only 70 miles, it really does take three hours to drive between the two trailheads. The fastest route if you’re driving yourself is to take the Smoky Mountains Expressway through the North Carolina side of the park. The back-roads look more direct but they’re much slower, and driving through Gatlinburg means contending with traffic.

On that note: On your first day, time your shuttle to ensure that you’re starting to hike by 1 pm at the latest (in June or July when the sun sets close to 9 pm). Otherwise, you risk not making it to Mollie’s Ridge during daylight hours. Remember, it’s 10 miles of climbing with six days of food in your pack — it will take you much longer than you expect.

The best backpacking in North Carolina: Summary and other random tips

Views of Fontana Dam from Shuckstack Fire Tower in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The views make all the challenging uphill backpacking in NC totally worth it.

Between the Art Loeb, Sam Knob and the Smokies, backpackers of all experience levels can choose the perfect trip through Western North Carolina’s mountains. All it takes is one night in Southern Appalachia to fall in love with our lush green landscapes, deep blue ridges, cloudless skies, and rushing rivers.

Here are a few final tips to make your trip more enjoyable:

  • Bring trekking poles. Your knees will thank you.
  • Hike in April for trillium, May for mountain laurel, June for rhododendrons, July and August for wild mushrooms, and September-October for fall colors.
  • Backpacking is hard if you’re hungry. Calculate how many calories you’ll burn in advance and make sure you bring enough. This is especially crucial in the Smokies — if you don’t eat enough on Day 2, you’ll still be feeling the energy depletion on Day 6.
  • Bring one shirt to hike in and one to sleep in. Every ounce matters.
  • But always bring a beanie, because your ears will get cold while you’re waiting for your water to boil on 35-degree mornings.
  • The fog in the mornings can be pretty insane and makes navigation difficult. Sometimes you have 5 feet of visibility or less. If you can’t find the trail, wait for it to clear out.

If you have questions about planning your trip to WNC, feel free to reach out. I go hiking every weekend and backpacking at least once a month, so I know these trails like the back of my hand and I’m happy to help you plan a tailored route if none of these appeal. I want you to love these mountains as much as I do!

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Asheville, NC is a paradise for backpackers. Discover the best three backpacking trails in NC -- the Art Loeb Trail, the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Sam Knob Loop in Shining Rock Wilderness. Also includes the best time to visit Asheville and more. #hiking #usa #travel


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chrissy K
2 years ago

These trails look so amazing. Asheville has always been on my list of places to visit here in the states. Great post, pinning so I have this as a reference when I make it there.

Cindy Scott
2 years ago

Love all of this information! Planning on being in that area next year and will definitely be using this guide, thanks so much!

2 years ago

Love this! Dying to visit. Thanks for the tips 🌈

2 years ago

These look like great hiking trails to go on, and the views are incredible too!

2 years ago

Now, this is a very well-written post with all the important details. Always wanted to do AT section through Great Smokies. Great details, saving it for the future planning.

Rosana Rodriguez
2 years ago

It’s great that you have the opportunity for such a camping trip. Incredibly beautiful photos. Communication with nature is the best medicine for me. Stay Safe!

10 months ago

Hi !

My 19 year old son is coming up for spring break and I would like to take him on an overnight hike, maybe 2 nights max. Nothing to extreme but we can handle moderate. Hoping for a spot with beautiful views and a waterfall along the way, away from tourist. Do you have any recommendations ? So far I have Sams Knob, Shining Rock, and Lemon to Max Patch. I’d love to hear your recommendations.

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