This popular five mile hike follows a beautiful stream for most of the route and ends with a visit to lovely Abrams Falls.
Tuesday morning dawned thick with clouds and fog… a perfect day for a waterfall hike. Although there were plenty of waterfalls near the Cherokee side of the Smokies, we decided to take a ride over to Cades Cove to hike the exceedingly popular Abrams Falls trail.
The easy five-mile hike is one of the top five trafficked trails in the park. Since we had an early start on the day, we decided we could probably beat the worst of the crowds and enjoy seeing the falls with some semblance of solitude.
Getting to the trailhead took longer than we expected. The drive along the Little River into Cades Cove was so pretty, I had to stop and take lots of photos. Once we got into the cove, grazing horses, wild turkeys showing off their plumage, and abundant whitetail deer distracted us. I wanted to stop at a few of the old cabins, churches and farms, but we decided that would have to wait for another day.
The Abrams Falls trailhead was at the end of an unpaved, muddy road. (restroom facilities were available) The trail marker at the beginning indicated that the trail was moderately strenuous and would take 4-5 hours. The sign also warned that no water or restrooms would be found at the falls. I suppose this is a clear indicator that hikers of all experience levels and abilities use the trail. And indeed this turned out to be true – I even saw a hiker wearing black pantyhose under a pair of denim shorts. That was a first for me!
The hike began by crossing a bridge over Abrams Creek. All along the river, we saw fly fishermen. The stream looked ideal for brook trout. The trail runs parallel to the creek for much of the hike – sometimes at stream level, sometimes high above.
The trail is mostly flat with several short, but steep, climbs. It mostly passes through thick green forest, with one exception. Near the top of the steepest climb, the trail becomes rocky and almost barren, with many dead and toppled trees. Maybe a fire or storm damaged the trail in this area, because it was nothing else like the rest of the hike.
A steep downhill climb and a walk across two log bridges empties you out into a grotto with Abrams Falls at the end. When we visited, the falls were gushing! The water was so powerful; I couldn’t take a long exposure of the waterfall without the water turning into a solid wave of white.
As expected, many people were enjoying the falls. Families picnicked, couples posed for photos and kids caught tadpoles in the pools of water between the rocks. One of the notable features near the waterfall was a large glacial pothole. It looked really similar to features I’ve seen in New Hampshire.
We didn’t spend long at the falls because we wanted to get back before it started raining. The return leg of the hike just retraced our steps. On the way back, we passed even more people on their way to the falls. This is definitely one of the Smokies most popular spots. Understandably – such beautiful falls, and so easily reached (by most)!
When we were thinking of some hikes we wanted to accomplish in the Smokies, we wanted to hike to a bald, a nice hike with views, and some waterfalls. After accomplishing the first two items the first two days, it was time to do a waterfall. We started fairly early in the morning knowing that we would have a longer drive to get to Cades Cove from our takeoff point of Bryson City. When we had been driving on 441 to Newfound Gap, we had heard about construction but had never quite reached it. When we crossed over Newfound Gap, we quickly ran into some construction as they were working on repaving the road. Bringing the two-way road to a one-way road required us to wait about 20 minutes before the lead car allowed us to go further. We finally got through the construction and made our way towards Cades Cove. When driving on the one-way Cades Cove road, you should also expect to go very slow on this 11 mile road. Cars creep along, hoping to see wildlife. We were shocked to see so many cars stopped to a halt to take a picture of a deer. I guess we feel a little spoiled in Virginia with all the deer we see regularly. We typically have a yard full of deer every morning.
The hike to Abrams Falls starts off with an informational sign. Soon you will cross a bridge and begin to see fly fisherman in Abrams Creek. Abrams Creek is a great spot for fishing brook trout. Rainbow trout tend to be found in higher elevations in the Smokies. The trail has a slight incline with a few areas of steep climbs. At .8 miles, you cross over the Arbutus Ridge, which changes the hike from being largely uphill to being more downhill. At 2.25 miles, the trail then begins to take a steeper descent until you reach Abrams Falls at 2.5 miles.
Abrams Creek and Abrams Falls were named after Chief Abram (previously known as Chief Oskuah and also known as Old Abraham), the Cherokee Chief of Chilhowie nearby. Chief Abram and a war chief known as Dragging Canoe were aligned with the British during the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and led an attack on Fort Watauga. In 1788, Chief Abram was killed by tomahawks by the son of John Kirk, seeking vengeance for his family that had been massacred by Cherokees on Nine Mile Creek.
This hike was a little humbling to me. As I was hiking early on uphill, I started feeling very weak and hot. I was carrying Christine’s heavy tripod for a while, but I was surprised if this was the reason I was feeling so fatigued. I had to stop for about 15 minutes and ate several hand-fulls of trail mix. My blood sugar was quite low from not eating a huge breakfast before hiking. As we rested, I felt lame for having to take a break and let other people pass us, but I know we made the right decision. Within about 25 minutes, I felt more like myself as we continued hiking.
There are a number of log bridges on the trail, which have handrails around thigh or waist level on one side. I’m not a big fan of heights or water (since I can’t swim), so these log bridges can feel a little unnerving for people like me.
As soon as we reached the falls, we set up the tripod and took some nice photos of the falls. You should expect to see a lot of people at the falls and you will likely have to wait to get pictures of the falls that don’t have strangers in them. The water does come out in a powerful force as it plunges about 20 feet into the pool below. We spotted some crayfish moving from rock to rock near the shoreline. We refueled with some very disappointing Kashi granola bars to make our hike up the steep section and returned to our car.
- Distance – 5.0 miles
- Elevation Change – about 600 feet
- Difficulty – 2. There is a little bit of climbing on this hike, but most people will find the terrain fairly easy.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is well maintained and easy to walk. It’s much less rocky and rooty than other trails in the Smokies.
- Views– 0. None on this hike.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. The stream and the falls are both spectacularly pretty!
- Wildlife – 2. Because of the popularity of this hike, don’t expect to see too many animals hanging out. Although… we did see a turkey and a deer. Otters have been spotted in Abrams Creek.
- Ease to Navigate – 5. Very simple – just follow the path and you can’t get lost. There is one trail junction near the falls, but if you read the trail marker, you’ll stay the course.
- Solitude – 0. Lots of hikers, lots of fly fishermen.
Directions to trailhead: Past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, take the Little River Road until you reach the Cades Cove Loop Road. The Cades Cove Loop Road is closed until 10AM on Wednesdays and Saturdays to car traffic. Follow the Cades Cove Loop Road 4.9 miles. Take a right on the gravel road that leads to the Abrams Falls parking lot. The trail starts at the end of the lot.