Seeing the Smoky Mountains from above them is spectacular and Great Smoky Mountains National Park has some terrific options for exploring. The fire towers – once used as manned lookouts along the heavily forested mountains – are excellent spots for viewing the mountains, seeing for hundreds of miles. Most of them require hiking in but the views are worth the effort.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park stretches across more than 800 square miles of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The park is home to amazing wildlife, breathtaking views all year long and some of the oldest mountains in the world.
The park welcomed a record 12,547,743 visitors in 2019, which is 1,126,540 more visitors than in 2018 – making it the most visited national park in the United States. The crest of the Great Smokies runs in an unbroken chain of peaks that rise more than 5,000 feet for more than 36 miles. Elevations in the park range from 876 to 6,643 feet – at Clingman’s Dome, which we’ll talk about below.
The Top 10 Peaks (elevation in feet):
Clingmans Dome – 6,643
Mount Guyot – 6,621
Mount Le Conte (High Top) – 6,593
Mount Buckley – 6,580
Mount Love – 6,420
Mount Chapman – 6,417
Old Black – 6,370
Luftee Knob – 6,234
Mount Kephart – 6,217
Mount Collins – 6,118
Here are some of our favorite towers in the park and some stops along the parkway for the best vistas.
Different from the rest of the Great Smoky Mountain fire towers, which are made of metal, the Mount Cammerer fire tower is made of timber and native rock. It looks like it could be a home in Maine with its round shape and vast windows and surrounding deck. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930’s, the tower was restored through in the mid 1990’s.
From the deck, hikers take in panoramic views of the Tennessee Valley, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pisgah and Cherokee national forests. The hike itself is a long one – 11+ miles roundtrip.
This hike to Mt. Cammerer begins from the Low Gap Trailhead next to the Cosby Campground. To reach the trailhead from the junction of 441 and 321 in Gatlinburg (Light 3), turn to travel eastbound on Highway 321/73 for 18.2 miles until the road dead-ends into Highway 32. Turn right towards Cosby and drive 1.2 miles to the park entrance. Turn right into the park and drive another 2.1 miles to the Cosby Campground entrance station. At the entrance station turn left into a large parking area for the Low Gap Trailhead.
This hike is the shortest and most commonly used route to the summit of the 4928-foot mountain. From the trailhead hikers will climb the Low Gap Trail for three miles before reaching the Appalachian Trail. “This is a steep and relentless climb that traverses over several switchbacks, while taking hikers through a beautiful, mature hardwood forest as they proceed up the Cosby Creek valley.”
The summit of Mt. Cammerer sits on the edge of a rocky outcropping overlooking the Pigeon River Gorge. Hikers say that on a clear day “the views are simply stunning; some even say one of the best in the park.”
Step up to the deck of the stone fire lookout for outstanding 360-degree views. Look in any direction and see row upon row of mountains. The mountain directly across the gorge, with the white aviation tower at the top, is 4263-foot Snowbird Mountain. Below that you may be able to see the water tower for the hydro-electric plant in the Big Creek area. Toward the south is Mt. Sterling, which also has an old fire tower on its summit. Look southwest to the expanse of mountains known as the Great Smoky Mountains.
“The mountain itself is named after Arno Cammerer, the well-liked Director of the National Park Service in the 1930s. Cammerer was an instrumental figure in helping to establish a national park in the Great Smoky Mountains. With the help of Colonel David C. Chapman of Knoxville, Cammerer convinced John D. Rockefeller Jr. to make a gift of $5 Million, which was used to purchase the lands that would become the national park.”
This 60-foot tower is an ominous looking metal structure where one must climb up the center to get to the top. The trap door is still open at the top and the views are breathtaking if you are brave enough to climb through.
The hike to this tower is 12.2 miles roundtrip, with a total elevation gain of 4,200 feet to the highest point of 5,842 feet.
On a clear day at the top, see Balsam Mountain and Luftee Knob towards the west, Mount Guyot to the northwest, Max Patch to the east, and the Cataloochee Valley towards the south.
There are several trails that lead to the summit of Mt. Sterling; however, the toughest route to the historic fire tower is the Baxter Creek Trail, which begins from the Big Creek area. The Baxter Creek Trail to the top of Mt. Sterling is one of the toughest day hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains. Although even and well-graded, the trail climbs roughly 4200 feet in just 6.2 miles.
From the trailhead hikers cross over a steel footbridge that spans Big Creek. From here the path mostly follows Big Creek for the next half-mile or so, before it begins climbing the northern slopes of Mt. Sterling.
The fire tower at the summit was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. In the park’s early days a lookout spent many hours in the tower, keeping a close eye on the heavily forested terrain of the surrounding mountains. Today the Park Service uses the tower as a radio repeater.
From I-40 near the Tennessee-North Carolina border, take the Waterville Road Exit (#451). Turn left after crossing the Pigeon River and proceed 2.1 miles to a 4-way intersection. Continue straight ahead onto the narrow gravel road and drive past the ranger station to a large parking area at the end of the road. The Baxter Creek Trailhead is located on the far side of the Big Creek picnic area, roughly 3 miles from the highway.
Look Rock Tower
Look Rock Tower – with its incredible 360 panoramic views – is an easy ½ mile hike off The Foothills Parkway. There’s also a natural observation ledge at the pull off and is the highest point along the parkway. The National Park Service also maintains a picnic area and a campground here.
The Foothills Parkway skirts portions of the park’s northern side in Tennessee. Foothills Parkway West runs from Walland to Chilhowee, while Foothills Parkway East travels from Cosby to I-40, Exit #443. Originally, the road was intended to run the entire distance from I-40 to Chilhowee. The Foothills Parkway’s open sections provide beautiful views of the park and surrounding country. Completed sections of the Foothills Parkway are open year-round, weather permitting.
Look Rock Tower holds the park’s IMPROVE monitoring station, in addition to many other air quality monitoring instruments. IMPROVE stands for Interagency Monitoring of PROtected Visual Environments, and measures both the amount and chemical composition of particulate matter. After knowing these measurements, the park can determine how much pollution particles scatter light, a major determinant of the haze.
The Look Rock station also collects measurements of ozone, sulfur dioxide, sulfate, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, wind speed & direction, temperature, humidity, precipitation, solar radiation, continuous PM 2.5, and black carbon.
See the live WebCam view from Look Rock, which offers views of Mount Le Conte, Clingmans Dome and Cades Cove.
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher.
“The observation tower on the summit of Clingmans Dome offers spectacular 360° views of the Smokies and beyond for visitors willing to climb the steep half-mile walk to the tower at the top. On clear days, views expand more than 100 miles.”
There’s a Webcam too! Located at high elevation on the eastern end on the park, the Clingmans Dome webcam offers views to the west.
Check out our blog on smoky mountain hiking tips.
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