Thunderhead Mountain (Rocky Top)Difficult

The 3 peaks of Thunderhead Mountain on the right as seen from Cades Cove
Thunderhead Mountain (Rocky Top)

Distance (One Way)

6.6 miles

Elevation Gain

3,520 feet


Cades Cove Picnic Area


Townsend, TN

Trail Description

Thunderhead Mountain rises 5,527 above sea level and is the highest point in Blount County. The hike to Thunderhead Mountain generally refers to the hike to its first subpeak, known as Rocky Top. The location is said to have inspired Felice and Boudleaux Bryant to write what is now the University of Tennessee's fight song.

Rocky Top (5,440 ft) is said by many to be one of the most beautiful vantage points in the Great Smoky Mountains. The most common route to reach this subpeak of Thunderhead Mountain begins on Anthony Creek Trail at the Cades Cove picnic area. Continue for all 3.5 miles of this trail before reaching the intersection with Bote Mountain Trail. Continue for the last 1.7 miles of Bote Mountain trail before reaching the intersection with the Appalachian Trail on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.

Turning right on the AT from this point will quickly take you to the Spence Field shelter and eventually to Russell Field shelter (see Spence/Russell Field loop).

To reach Rocky Top, head left on the Appalachian Trail for about 1.4 miles.

An alternate route that shaves about a mile off your round trip total begins with Lead Cove Trail instead of Anthony Creek Trail. You will find the trailhead just over a mile before the entrance to Cades Cove; it is in the same place as the trailheads for Turkeypen Ridge and Finley Cane Trail. If using your GPS to find it, try navigating to the Turkeypen Ridge trailhead and you'll find Lead Cove across the street.

Lead Cove trail is only 1.8 miles long and takes you directly to Bote Mountain Trail. From here you will continue 1.2 miles before reaching the intersection with Anthony Creek trail. Continue on Bote Mountain and you will reach the AT the same way as the longer route.

#appalachian trail
#cades cove
#rocky top
#townsend tn

Thunderhead Mountain (Rocky Top) Elevation Profile

Thunderhead Mountain (Rocky Top) Elevation Profile

Trail Difficulty Scales Explained

Elevation Grade


Fairly Steep

Paul Petzoldt Scale






Shenandoah Scale


Very Strenuous




Hiker Tips & Trivia

  • Arnold Guyot's 1859 survey of the Great Smoky Mountains lists Thunderhead Mountain as 5,520 feet above sea level - only 7 feet under the modern measurement
  • "The last Spence Field clearing offers a good view of the three summits of Thunderhead Mountain to the northeast, about 1 mile away. The farthest knob is Thunderhead proper, preceded by two more knobs of almost equal elevation, the first being Rocky Top." - Adam Brimer, Morgan Simmons (Knox News Archive)

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