The Best Trails, the Most Beautiful Waterfalls
There’s something magical about standing behind a wall of water as it cascades to the ground at Grotto, the only waterfall in the Smokies where you can do this. The walk to Grotto is as easy as pie. It’s just minutes out of Gatlinburg, right off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, so make it a first stop on your day trip into the park. You can stroll the Trillium Trail through old-growth forests, and if you’re there in May, get ready to be wowed by the dazzling wildflowers.
Take a 2.6-mile walk on the paved trail to Laurel Falls, and you’ll see why so many people consider it a must-see. The 80-foot cascade is one of the most-photographed spots in all of the Smokies for good reason. It’s only a few miles from Sugarlands, right outside Gatlinburg. If you arrive in the early morning, you’ll beat the crowds and be rewarded with perfect photography lighting. Bring the whole family. The path is stroller, wheelchair and walker friendly.
The five-mile round trip along Abrams Creek is a moderate hike that’s worth every step. Cross the wooden bridge, and follow the path along the Cades Cove Valley floor among pine, oak, hemlock and rhododendron. When you arrive, you’ll see why a waterfall that’s only 20 feet high is one of the most popular places in the Smokies. The amount of rushing water is staggering, and the pool below it is long and deep. The warnings about swimming are worth heeding! The currents here are dangerous and have swept some to their deaths. Look, but don’t leap!
The views from the top of LeConte Lodge (just shy of 6,600 feet) in the Smokies make it a trek worth taking. You can stock a backpack and head up for a stay at the rustic LeConte Lodge, and despite the lack of electricity, it is a sellout every year. Please note, there are also backcountry campsites nearby. The most spectacular sunrises and sunsets occur on Myrtle Point in the east and Clifftops to the west.
Even if you don’t have reservations at the Lodge or shelter, the trails to LeConte are worth the day trip, and you can reserve lunch at the Lodge dining room, if you call ahead. The Alum Cave Bluffs Trail, past storm-tossed boulders, up stone stairs and under Arch Rock, is one of the best hikes in the Smokies. Try the Boulevard Trail for a longer but easier ascent, or a more challenging trek on Rainbow Falls Trail, all the way to the top.
It’s only a couple of miles up, but there’s a reason hiking enthusiasts from all over the world make the rugged ascent to this bare-rock summit. Climb among the rhododendrons, over wood bridges and along a rushing stream to the summit. The last mile is intimidating, and some hesitate at the base of the rocks, but if you are brave, cautious, in good shape and not-so-nervous about heights, you’ll be rewarded with a full 360-degree view, including Mt. LeConte to the east and Mt. Mingus to the north.
Ramsey Cascades is the highest waterfall accessible by trail in the park. Most of the water comes from the 6621′ Mt. Guyot, the second-highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains. Water drops 100 feet over rock outcroppings and collects in a small pool where numerous salamanders can be found. The trail to the waterfall gains over 2,000′ in elevation over its four-mile course, and the eight-mile roundtrip hike is considered strenuous but well worth the effort. It takes between five and seven hours to hike to the waterfall and back. The trail follows rushing rivers and streams for much of its length. The last two miles pass through an old-growth cove of hardwood forest with large tulip trees, basswoods, silverbells and yellow birches.