Thursday, October 20, 2016

Behind Grotto Falls

After the mountain vistas and high peaks of the previous day, I wanted to show the boys a different side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park; one of moist hardwood coves, abundant animal life, towering trees and fragrant forests that in my mind embody this National Park. The timing of our visit coincided with prime leaf-peeping in the region, and despite the draw of the unique historical and biological value of nearby Cades Cove, I knew that it would be bumper-to-bumper traffic, overflowing pull-offs and very little, if any wildlife sightings – which is why I turned my attention to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Similar to Cades Cove only in that it’s a loop, the one-way Roaring Fork passes through rhododendron thickets and dense hardwood forests as it follows the old roadbed of the Roaring Fork community. To reach it, visitors must drive through Gatlinburg and then a short distance on Cherokee Orchard Rd, through what once was an 800-acre commercial orchard in the early 1900s. It was here that we saw our first bear; traffic had slowed to near stop despite the ranger waving everyone on. Not long after we spotted a wild turkey, of which we would see a lot of on this trip! After 3.6 miles we made the right turn onto Roaring Fork, where a tour booklet can be purchased from the kiosk for a small fee.

Built by hand, the road is narrow and serpentine, winding through the forest connecting the homesteads of about 25 families that lived in the area. Many had running water thanks to a series of troughs which can still be seen today, such as at the Alfred Regan Cabin. Proximity to the river and various tributaries also means fantastic natural geographic features; there are three major waterfalls within easy hiking distance of the Motor Trail. Rainbow Falls is a strenuous 5.4 miles to an 80-foot waterfall that is very popular due to the heavy mist that surrounds it, the Baskins Falls trail (3.2 miles) leads to a 30-foot waterfall, and a 2.6 mile hike will bring you to Grotto Falls.

We chose Grotto Falls as our destination, partly for the shorter distance, and partly due to it being rated moderate (it has an elevation gain of 585ft as opposed to 1,700ft on Rainbow Falls and 950ft for Baskins). Then there's the trees; although the old-growth hemlock forest is suffering the effects of the balsam woody adelgid, there are still enormous hemlocks to be seen. However the clincher was the grotto; the trail actually passes behind the 25ft waterfall!

The trail is packed hard with years of use, not only by people headed to the waterfall, Brushy Mountain and LeConte Lodge, but also by llamas! As the resupply route for the lodge, it is the trail that the llama train uses to carry supplies up the mountain. The llamas leave very early in the morning, and so our chances of catching them on the way up were slim to none. But in order to get a parking spot we headed out sooner than later, and so they hadn’t started their return trip yet (it’s my understanding that they usually return sometime in the afternoon). We had to settle for llama poop and checking out the llama trailer…

This is far from a secret hike, and is actually one of the most popular hikes on this side of the park; therefore it was not surprising that we arrived to a crowd at the waterfall. As the kids were still fresh we decided to keep climbing, hoping to reach the intersection of Trillium Gap and Brushy Mountain trail (3+ miles from the trailhead), where I’ve heard the views are pretty fantastic. However after about another mile we got our fill of views and elevation gain, and instead headed back down to linger at the falls.

Although there was still a crowd, it wasn’t quite as obnoxious as when we were on our way up. We let the boys play in Roaring Fork, and were rewarded with several salamander sightings including what might have been a hellbender judging by its size. 

A salamander (but not the hellbender), a millipede and a brown squirrel

Not only a haven for amphibians, the perpetual mist makes it ideal habitat for wildflowers such as white and yellow trillium in the spring, hence the name Trillium Gap.

source: here

Know before you go: The roundtrip distance to the waterfall is 2.6 miles and the hike is generally considered moderate in difficulty. It takes about 2-3 hours to hike to the waterfall and back so carry drinking water with you. Pets and bicycles are prohibited on the trail, and black bears are regularly seen in the area. Do not climb on rocks around the waterfall; people have fallen to their deaths and suffered serious injuries! Not only are you risking life & limb and causing erosion of sensitive habitat on your way to the top, but you are ruining other people’s photos for that selfie – and there’s nothing to be seen at the top! Finally, make sure to stop at the roadside Thousand Drips Falls near the exit of the Motor Trail; after a rain it’s a great cascade plummeting down the mountain, but even in drier weather it is still a sight to behold.

Once back at the car we continued on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and found a quieter spot to enjoy a picnic lunch. The boys spent an hour splashing in the cool mountain water before we packed up the car and headed east into the mountains, where more adventures awaited.

A boy finds his first salamander


  1. Grotto Falls is a wonderful family trip. What healthy, wholesome family adventures. There is an UPPER grotto Falls and several more up there beyond it, but no trail. The Upper Grotto Falls is not too bad to visit. The ones on past it are tough.

    1. Hi Dana, thanks for your comment! I am a big supporter of staying on trail, for many reasons... first of all, we've got the little kids, and the easiest way to make things enjoyable for them is to keep it simple. Also, having worked as a wildland firefighter, I know how easy it is to get turned around - we had to rescue the occasional tourist! Finally, I see firsthand all the damage done to sensitive areas by folks scrambling up steep mountainsides and would hate to be a part of all that. I'm sure the locals know the right way in, so I'll leave the upper falls to you and yours... unless you want to show us around ;)

  2. This sounds like a fantastic hike!


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