Waterfalls near Gatlinburg

Trip Start Aug 19, 2012
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Trip End Dec 30, 2013


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Where I stayed
Elkmont Campground Gatlinburg
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of United States  , Tennessee
Friday, October 18, 2013

This past weekend was our annual Fall Foliage trip to the Smokies.  Fortunately, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina paid to open the park and the federal government shutdown finally ended, so our trip was on.  We all met up in Chapel Hill and made the long drive out to the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It’s a good 5 to 6 hour drive from the Triangle, so we left early at about 7.  We stopped for lunch at Subway while still in North Carolina and got to Gatlinburg in the early afternoon.  Not surprising, the traffic was terrible in Gatlinburg as it usually is.  With the park just reopening and being near the peak of fall color, Gatlinburg was packed.  We passed through town and entered the park at traffic light 8 onto Historic Nature Trail.  From here, we got on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a one-way winding gravel road that makes a loop and pulled off at stop #5, which is the trailhead for Trillium Gap Trail that leads to Grotto Falls.  As we were getting ready for our first hike, we saw a number of classic cars driving down the road and a couple parked in the lot.  We also saw the llama truck and trailer.  There are no roads leading to the lodge at the summit of Mount LeConte, so all supplies must be brought up by llamas, who make the trek up via the Trillium Gap Trail.  Unfortunately, the llamas had already started up the mountain and we didn’t get a chance to see them, but someday I’d love to be here when they are making their trip up the mountain, especially when they pass under Grotto Falls.  But not this time.  We hiked up the easy Trillium Gap Trail for about a mile and a half to the waterfall.  The trail runs through a nice old-growth hemlock forest, but at the lower elevations, we weren’t seeing much fall color yet.  Ultimately, the trail leads to the lodge on to Mount LeConte, but we were only following it for the first mile and a half to the falls.  As expected, the waterfall was very crowded.  It’s a 25-foot waterfall that wouldn’t be too impressive, except that the trail runs behind the falls through a natural grotto (hence the name).  And of course everyone at the falls wants to get a picture behind the falls.  So we waited our turn to get some pictures and then headed back.  Just downstream of the falls, there were some nice cascades that I climbed down to see and get some pictures without another a bunch of people all around.  After that, we hiked back to the car and continued on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.  Driving on the road is slow, especially during peak tourist season with everyone stopping to take in the sights.  One car in particular was driving extremely slowly and stopping frequently, sometimes right next to a pulloff.  But they sure were not going to actually pull off so the line of traffic behind them could get around.   Finally, when we were almost done with the loop, we pulled off to see Place of a Thousand Drips and not be stuck behind the rude driver.  When we pulled off, there must have been a line of 10 or more cars backed up behind the slow car.  I understand that this is a nice waterfall during wetter times, but it was pretty dry today.  We got a couple of pictures, but it was more like a dozen drops today and not so impressive.  We finished up the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and got back on US-321 through Gatlinburg, getting stuck in the traffic yet again.  It’s too bad the one-way road doesn’t go the other way so we could use it to bypass Gatlinburg altogether.  Past Gatlinburg, we pulled into the Sugarlands Visitor Center for our next waterfall, Cataract Falls.  This one is a very short hike along the Cove Mountain Trail from the parking lot, maybe 0.1 miles to the falls.  With such an easy hike, this one was fairly crowded as well.  It’s a small waterfall, maybe 10 or 15 feet, and with the water level low, it wasn’t very powerful.  We got some pictures and then made the quick trip back to the car.  Our next stop was the trailhead for Laurel Falls Trail, roughly half way between Sugarlands and Elkmont.  We parked here and got ready for our hike.  The hike is 1.3 miles to the falls from parking area and is moderate in difficulty.  It is one of the few paved hiking trails in the park.  As one of the most popular trails in the park, it was paved in 1960s to reduce erosion from heavy traffic.  From the parking lot, the trail ascends for a while, crossing Pine Knot Branch, and then levels off as it runs parallel to Laurel Branch.  The left side of the trail has a very steep drop to Laurel Branch below and the right side of the trail has some neat rock outcrops.  We were starting to see a bit of fall color along this trail, but were still not high enough in elevation to see the peak color.  Soon, we arrived at the waterfall, which was crowded like all the others we had seen.  The waterfall has an upper and lower section, with a footbridge running across between the two at the base of the upper section.  We got a few shots of the upper section and then climbed down to the base of the lower section.  It is a steep, rocky climb down and initially we were the only ones down here, but I guess when people saw us going down, they decided to follow.  Down here, it's possible to get a shot of both sections, but it was challenging with all the people milling about.  Once it got crowded at the base of the lower falls, we headed back up to the trail and back to the cars.  From here, we made the short drive to Elkmont and set up camp at group site 2.  We had dinner at camp to avoid getting stuck in Gatlinburg traffic again and made a nice big campfire to keep warm.  We could tell that it really is fall now as it was very chilly once the sun went down.

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