We often get questions about what trail to hike , where to see waterfalls, where to picnic, etc…in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (GSMNP) I am going to share some of the places we have experienced, and hopefully it will answer some of your questions. BUT! If you have a question and don’t find your answer, please email us and we will do our best to find an answer for you.
I have only hiked a fraction of the 800 miles of trails in the Smokies, but I will do my best to share what I do know. I have children that accompany me on most hikes, so I haven’t been able to do many long ones. My 13 yr old isn’t big on hikes, she’s my city girl. My 7 yr old loves them and her longest hike so far was almost 5 miles.
Let someone know where you will be for the day and what time to expect your return. There is no cellular service within the park boundaries. You can not simply call to let them know you need help, or if you will be running late.
Please prepare for your hike, BRING WATER, know your abilities, and pack accordingly. REI has a great day hiking checklist.
Please read over some bear safety tips.
It is dangerous to play in the waterfalls and/or pools beneath. Deaths have occurred, caused by slipping on the rocks or jumping into unknown waters and causing head and neck injuries.
Check out the park’s page to get up to date information about trail closing, and weather updates along with another info about the National Park.
On to my hiking experiences…
I have hiked to Baskins Creek Falls once. It is, in my option, an underrated waterfall. Baskins Creek Falls is a beautiful 40 ft, two tier waterfall. The trail is less crowded, the hike is rated easy. The trail is accessed from Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The trail-head is around 0.2 miles after the one way stretch of the motor nature trail starts. When I hiked Baskins Creek Trail it was just to hike through the woods for a little while. I met a gentleman on the way in and asked if there was anything worth seeing if I kept going, he informed me there was a waterfall. I can’t say I would have hiked to the falls if I hadn’t known it was there waiting for me. I still can not find any information about this particular waterfall on the GSMNP website, even on their waterfalls page. They mention Mingo Falls, which is not within the park boundaries, but nothing about Baskins Falls, which is located in one of the busiest tourist areas within the park.
Grotto Falls is a rather popular spot. The round trip distance is about 2.5 miles. The trail actually runs behind the 25′ falls. It is a very refreshing experience to feel the mist behind the falls after the hike up. The trail-head for Grotto Falls is also located off of Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail loop. Parking for this trail can be a nightmare as well as Rainbow Falls and Laurel Falls. The lot fills up quick, there are pull offs along the roadside after the parking area, then everyone seems to find places to park. You could end up hiking a 1/4 mile along the road just to get to the trail-head. (Go early if you want to beat the crowd.)
Laurel Falls is, I would guess, the most popular of all the falls and very crowded. I recommend going very early or during a down time. Unless, you don’t mind the crowds. I like to go when I can enjoy the walk and hear nature and not the normal noises of a busy day back home. To get to and back from the falls it is a 2.6 mile round trip. The trail is paved all the way to the falls. It is easy for stroller and wheel chair access, the trail is however up hill all the way. There is a log bridge with hand rails at the falls, but it is not accessible to wheel chairs and strollers.
Traveling to the trail-head you may wonder if you have taken a wrong turn. You can enter the park through the Wears Valley entrance, near Townsend, or head towards Cades Cove and make a left towards Tremont Institute. After about 2 miles the road turns to gravel for the next 3 miles and dead-ends at the trail-head. This trail is also used by horses, so it is wider than some. It is easy to navigate and runs parallel to Little River. There are multiple waterfalls/cascades, an old car they say has been there since logging days, and lots more to take in.
Mingo Falls! One of my favorite. You have to drive to the Cherokee side for this one, VERY much worth it. I decided to drive over the mountain and take the short hike. I figured the walk was short, therefore if the waterfall wasn’t spectacular, I wouldn’t have hiked to far to see it. It is a less than a 1/2 mile trip to get to the towering 120′ falls at the end. There is a small bridge that crosses the bottom of the falls and you are able to stand in front of it and take in the entire falls with all of its splendor. The hike to the falls is a steady climb, it is rated moderate in difficulty. There are stairs during part of the hike. The reaction of my daughter at the age of 3 says it all. We got to the bridge, I told her “here we are” and she responded with “that’s it?” while looking down at the small rocks below the bridge. I told her to look up and her response changed drastically. “WHHHOOOOAAAAA!” One of those “to remember” moments. Mingo Falls is simply breath taking…. go see it.
I hiked to Rainbow Falls 10 years ago with my younger brother and no children. I haven’t tried it with the kids yet. We started around 8 am and returned around 4 pm. It is a 5.4 mile round trip. At the end you are rewarded with an 80 ft waterfall. We hiked at a leisurely pace and took everything in. The hike is up hill all the way, to the falls. It has 2 log bridges to cross, a small waterfall along the way with a sitting bench, great place to sit and have a snack before continuing on. Rainbow Falls is a very popular hike, the parking lot, as well as, the sides of the road fill up fast with vehicles.
There are multiple stops along Newfound Gap Road, from Gatlinburg all the way to Cherokee called Quiet Walkways. I do not have first hand experience with many of these. There is a small booklet at the visitors centers called New Found Gap Road auto tour, you can purchase for $1. It has every quiet walkway, lookout and point of interest listed in order of mile markers.
Hiking in the Smokies.com is a go to for me when looking for a trail. They have information on more than 70 trails, and the information they provide is stellar. You can see trail list in alphabetical order, order of difficulty, by location, top 10…and a few more. Each trail has directions to the trail head, a description of the trail itself, including elevation, mileage, and difficulty rating. There is also lots of great information at the park’s visitors centers. They have small brochures on many different hot spots in the GSMNP. They do cost $1-2 each, but full of good info.
Other Helpful Information
If you need gear, GSM Outfitters is my new go-to Outdoor store. It is a small locally owned business. The owners are very knowledgeable and eager to help. They have clothing, gear, accessories and a coffee shop. They offer a military discount on your purchases, and often have sales.
If you are looking for a guided hike with a very knowledgeable naturalist, try Just Get Outdoors. Owned and operated by Liz Domingue, I have been on a few excursions with Liz and have learned an abundance of facts on each one. She offers planned hikes, over night trips, small groups, or one on one hikes. A little info about the owner Liz from her website:
“Liz has over 30 years of experience as a naturalist, educator, wildlife biologist, photographer, and writer. She received her M.S. in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Biology from the University of Florida in 1995 and her B.S. in Wildlife Biology from Cornell University in 1987. She is trained in CPR and is certified by The National Registry as a Wilderness First Responder.”
There are hundreds of picnic spots with in the National Park. I tend to pull up a rock and have my lunch. Sometimes in the middle of a river, other times I snack on the side of a cliff. If you are looking for something with a table, Greenbrier area has a nice picnic area, it is located off of Hwy 321 towards Cosby. Chimney Tops Picnic area has many tables, it is around mile 6 on New Found Gap Road. The number one thing to remember when picnicking, LEAVE THE AREA AS YOU FOUND IT! (or cleaner) All trash, goes with you or in one of the bear proof trash cans provided by the park. A fed bear is a dead bear. Bears start to relate humans with food and start to look toward humans when hungry. This causes the bears to be aggressive sometimes when hungry. If the animal places it’s mouth on a human, leaving marks or not the bear must be euthanized. Black bears are one of the many things people want to see when visiting the Smokies, leave your picnic area looking like you were never there.
I hope this helps some of you when making trying to make a decision on where to hike, walk, picnic, or just get grounded. Be safe out there and do your part to keep yourselves and our wildlife safe.
Safe and Happy Travels,