A growth process route that results in thin film GaN templates with a smooth surface morphology at the optimum temperature of 1020°C has been developed. Atomic force microscopy (AFM) reveals hillocks on films grown above 1020°C. Hillocks resulted from the rotation of heterogeneous steps formed at pure screw or mixed dislocations which terminated on the (0001) surface. Growth of the latter feature was controlled kinetically by temperature through adatom diffusion. The 106 cm-2 density of the hillocks was reduced through growth on thick GaN templates and regions of pendeo-epitaxy (PE) overgrowth with lower pure screw or mixed dislocations. Smooth PE surfaces were obtained at temperatures that reduced the lateral to vertical growth rate but also retarded hillock growth that originated in the stripe regions. The (1120 ) PE sidewall surface was atomically smooth, with a root mean square roughness value of 0.17 nm which was the noise limited resolution of the AFM measurements.