The Great Smoky Mountains abound with the two ingredients essential for waterfalls—ample rainfall and an elevation gradient. During wet years, peaks like Mt. Le Conte and Clingmans Dome receive over eight feet of rain. This abundant rainfall trickles and rushes down the mountain sides, from high elevation to low, sometimes dropping more than a mile in elevation from the high peaks to the foothills at the park’s boundary.
Every year over 200,000 visitors hike well-worn trails to view Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, Rainbow, and other popular waterfalls in the park. Large waterfalls attract the crowds, but smaller cascades and falls can be found on nearly every river and stream in the park. Here are some of our favorites:
1. Laurel Falls. The trail is 2.6 miles round trip and considered moderate in difficulty. The trail is paved and is suitable for strollers. Laurel Falls is one of the most popular destinations in the park and parking at the trailhead is limited. The area is especially busy on weekends year-round and on weekdays during summer. Laurel Branch and the 80-foot high Laurel Falls are named for mountain laurel, an evergreen shrub which blooms along the trail and near the falls in May. To find the trailhead from Sugarlands Visitor Center, turn toward Cades Cove on Little River Road and drive 3.5 miles to the trailhead where there are parking areas on both sides of the road.
2. Mouse Creek Falls. The 4-mile round trip hike to the waterfall is considered moderate in difficulty. Big Creek Trail follows an old railroad grade used to haul lumber out of the mountains during the logging boom at the start of the 20th century. At 1.4 miles the trail passes Midnight Hole, a deep, picturesque pool below a 6′ falls. At 2.1 miles a short side trail on the left leads to a bench where hikers can rest and view Mouse Creek Falls which is on the far side of Big Creek. The falls are 45’ in height. To find the trailhead, exit I-40 at Waterville Road (#451). Turn left after crossing the Pigeon River and proceed 2.3 miles to an intersection. Continue straight, past the ranger station, to a large parking area at road’s end.
3. Hen Wallow Falls. A 4.5 mile round trip hike. Take the Gabes Mountain Trail which begins from the parking area at the entrance to Cosby Campground. The trip to Hen Wallow Falls is a pleasant walk through hemlock and rhododendron forest. A signed side trail leads to the base of the falls by way of steep switchbacks. Hen Wallow Creek, only two feet wide at the top of the falls, fans out to 20 feet at the base. The waterfall is 90 feet high. The hike to the falls is 4.4 miles round trip and considered moderate in difficulty. Hikers continuing on the Gabes Mountain Trail beyond the falls can enjoy an impressive old-growth forest.
4. Indian Creek Falls. An easy 1.6 mile round trip hike will allow you to enjoy two beautiful waterfalls in the Deep Creek area. Walk Deep Creek Trail 0.7 mile to the junction with Indian Creek Trail. On your way you can view elegant Tom Branch Falls located on the far side of Deep Creek. Turn right at the junction with Indian Creek Trail and proceed approximately 200′ to Indian Creek Falls. The falls are 25 feet in height. To find the trailhead, follow the signs through downtown Bryson City, NC to Deep Creek Campground. Continue past the campground to the trailhead at the end of Deep Creek Road.
5. Juney Whank Falls. The trail to the waterfall is 0.8 miles round trip and is considered moderate in difficulty. Juney Whank Falls is divided into an upper and lower section. Both can be viewed from the footbridge which crosses Juney Whank Branch at the falls. Together they drop 90 feet from top to bottom. To find the trailhead, follow the signs through downtown Bryson City, NC to Deep Creek Campground. Continue past the campground to the trailhead at the end of Deep Creek Road. Backtrack on foot 0.1 mile along the road to the trail.
6. Rainbow Falls. The 5.4 mile round trip hike is considered moderate in difficulty. The Rainbow Falls Trail continues for approximately 4 miles beyond the falls to the summit of Mt. Le Conte. A rainbow produced by mist from this 80-foot high waterfall is visible on sunny afternoons. During extended winter cold spells, an impressive ice formation builds around the falls. Between trail head and falls, Rainbow Falls Trail gains about 1,500′ in elevation. From the parkway in Gatlinburg, turn at traffic light #8 and follow Historic Nature Trail into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Continue past the Noah “Bud” Ogle homesite to the clearly signed Rainbow Falls parking area.
7. Ramsey Cascades. The trail to the waterfall gains over 2,000′ in elevation over its 4 mile course and the 8-mile roundtrip hike is considered strenuous in difficulty. It follows rushing rivers and streams for much of its length. The last 2 miles pass through old-growth cove hardwood forest with large tuliptrees, basswoods, silverbells, and yellow birches. Do not attempt to climb to the top of the falls. Several people have been killed trying to do so. Ramsey Cascades is the tallest waterfall in the park and one of the most spectacular. Water drops 100 feet over rock outcroppings and collects in a small pool where numerous well-camouflaged salamanders can be found. To find the trailhead, drive six miles east of Gatlinburg on Highway 321 and turn at the Greenbrier entrance to the park. Follow the signs 4.7 miles to the trailhead.
Please note that several fatalities and numerous injuries have resulted from people climbing on rocks near waterfalls.
These rocks are very slippery due to algae and mist. Do not attempt to climb to the tops of waterfalls. Closely supervise children at all times near water and waterfalls.
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