Posted by Phil Rodgers in Smoky Mountains
Did you know that Great Smoky Mountains National Park received some 12 million visitors in 2022? That's the second highest total in park history, cementing its claim on being the most visited national park in the country.
Naturally, hiking is one of the most popular activities inside the park, which boasts more than 800 miles of trails to traverse between the Tennessee and North Carolina sides. And out of all those trails, those that lead to or pass by waterfalls are among the most popular with visitors. There's something about watching massive amounts of water from a mountain stream gush from great heights and explode with a misty splash at the bottom that's mesmerizing and gratifying for hikers.
In this post, we'd like to pass along our recommendations for some of the most rewarding and frequently visited waterfall hikes in the Smokies. Here, you'll find something for all experience levels, from short and accessible treks to long and challenging ones.
Cataract Falls – This is one of the most accessible waterfalls in the park. From Sugarlands Visitor Center, follow the signs to the self-guided nature trail that meanders through mature forests and crosses a meandering stream. It's fairly level and only .75 miles round-trip, making it one of the best waterfall destinations for families and parents with smaller children.
Laurel Falls – Regarded as probably the most popular waterfall in GSMNP, Laurel Falls is also quite accessible, although it's a good bit more of a hike to get to. From the trailhead, follow the paved pathway 1.2 miles to the 80-foot-tall waterfall. One of the more interesting features of this hike is the bridge that passes right in front of the falls. It's a great way to soak in the beauty of nature and also soak in a cooling mist on a warm day.
Grotto Falls – To access this trailhead, you'll have to drive onto Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Just look for the signs for the Grotto Falls parking area, although we recommend getting an early start on this one, because parking is limited, and the one-way road isn't conducive to improvised roadside parking. Once you start, follow the Trillium Gap Trail for 1.3 miles, and you'll be rewarded with a 25-foot-high cascade that you can actually walk behind. If you go another five miles, you'll wind up at the summit of Mt. LeConte!
Hen Wallow Falls – This fall is accessed by entering the national park through the Cosby entrance. And because this is a less-frequented area of the park, it's usually not as busy or as crowded. Park in the hiker parking area and then follow the signs to enter the woods on Gabes Mountain Trail. At 2.1 miles, look for a sign pointing you down a steep section of trail to the waterfall. The fall itself starts off narrow at the top and then fans out wide over the course of its 90-foot drop.
Abrams Falls – Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations inside GSMNP, and Abrams Falls is arguably one of the most popular things to do for those who commit to driving the 10-mile auto loop. At 5.2 miles into the drive, look for the trailhead to Abrams Falls. Then on foot, you'll follow the signs to a 2.5-mile trail that gently undulates up and down alongside the river. At mile 2.6, look for the footbridge that takes you down to the riverside area, where you can view the falls. And please don't try to swim in the waters near these falls; they can be hazardous.
After spending a day hiking in the national park, another way to unwind with the family would be to spend a few hours playing at Goats on the Roof in Pigeon Forge! From a speedy alpine coaster to our namesake live goats grazing on our roof, our Smoky Mountains attraction has something for all ages. We hope to see you soon.
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