Porters Creek to Fern Branch Falls
This 4 mile out-and-back follows beautiful Porter Creek to a small waterfall at Fern Branch. The waterfall itself was barely a trickle when we visited, but the lush Smoky Mountain forest was especially beautiful here. This hike also takes you by a historic barn and an old hiking club cabin.
With our week in the Smokies winding down, we wanted to hike something special and something we had never hiked before. I found myself referring to the ‘Hiking In the Smokys‘ website again. They have a list of their personal top 10 favorite hikes. We didn’t want anything over 10 miles, so that ruled out Gregory Bald, Rocky Top and Mt. Cammerer. We had already hiked six of the others (LeConte, Charlies Bunion, Andrews Bald, Chimney Tops, The Jump Off, and Alum Cave). So that left just one from the favorites list – Porters Creek. It sounded like a lovely trail – old growth forest, streams, a waterfall and lots of history.
Before setting out on our hike, we got donuts from The Donut Friar. This made me exceedingly happy and was the perfect start to the day. There is something magical about their chocolate crullers. After donuts, we were on our way to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies. We’d never hiked anything in that area before, so we were excited to try someplace new.
The road into Greenbrier is mostly gravel, but is well-maintained and easy to drive. It’s also very scenic and follows the Little Pigeon River. The trailhead is about 4 miles down the road. It’s clearly marked and there is plenty of parking.
The trail starts off as a wide, gravel road through the woods. Porters Creek runs along the trail, offering plenty of scenic water views. About .6 of a mile along the way, you’ll see signs of old stone walls and stairs on the right side of the trail. The remnants date back to the early 1900’s when Elbert Cantrell built a farm in this area. Immediately past the farm, you’ll pass the Ownby cemetery. Adam and I walked around the cemetery and noticed that most of the graves belonged to very young children. Sad – it really makes one appreciate modern medicine and vaccinations.
About a mile into the hike, you’ll cross a log footbridge over the creek and come to a Y-junction in the gravel road. The trail to the right goes to more historical structures, but we’ll cover those on the way back. We took the trail to the left and arrived almost immediately to another trail junction – continue bearing left on the Porters Creek Trail. At this point, the gravel road ends and becomes a ‘real’ trail.
This section of the hike is beautiful – lots of big old, trees. It’s so green, shady and peaceful. At 1.6 miles we crossed another log footbridge. This one was much longer and crossed the stream crookedly. From there, the trail ascended gently until we reached Fern Branch falls at 2 miles. The falls are on the left side of the trail and set back a bit in the woods.
When we visited the falls were not flowing very heavily. It was still a beautiful spot – especially with the sunlight filtering into the woods at the crest of the falls. We took some photos and then headed back the way we came.
On the return arm of the trip, we stopped at the Y-junction and visited the John Messer farm site. The cantilevered barn is in excellent condition. Just past the barn, you can visit a springhouse and an old cabin built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking club. Overnight stays at the cabin are no longer permitted.
After visiting the barn and cabin, we made our way back to the car and headed back into town for lunch. We ended up at Hungry Bear Barbecue. It was great and definitely deserves the top ratings it has online.
Porters Creek was definitely beautiful and we would recommend the hike for a low-key, easy day. It would also be our last new hike of our 2014 spring trip. The next day, we chose to re-hike an old favorite – Charlies Bunion.
Staying in Gatlinburg, TN for a few days, we wanted to explore some different sections of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We decided to check out the Porters Creek after reading about Fern Branch Falls and the wildflowers on the trail. When we got out of our car, we could tell from the wetness of the area and the humidity that it would be a good idea to douse ourselves in bug spray.
We crossed the gate and started along the wide fire road. As Christine mentioned, during the first mile you do get some stream views, ruins of an old farm, and a family cemetery. The trail does ascend, but very slowly, so it is not very challenging.
At the .9 mile mark, there is a small footbridge you can use to cross a small stream (or you can rockhop across). At the 1.0 mile marker, you reach a large junction. There is a side trail to the Messer Barn and hiking club cabin and also a junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail. Take the left Porters Creek Trail. At 1.5 miles, you come to a large footbridge that crosses Porters Creek. This footbridge was much longer and can be a little unsettling since it is fairly high above the creek in some points. The railing for me was also below my hip in some spots, which didn’t give me the feeling that it would protect me if I did slip. After you cross the footbridge, the trail seems to change environments as you walk through a large area of wildflowers and fern. The forest floor was exploding in green! The trail then becomes steeper, narrower, and rocky through this portion until you reach the falls.
As we were walking along, we could hear a waterfall off to our right and got a faint glimpse from a distance, but this was not Fern Branch Falls. Instead, at 1.8 miles, we reached the large waterfall on our left. The trickle from the waterfall wasn’t overly impressive, but it was a nice scenic spot. We made our way back the way we came.
When we returned to the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail, we took the short side trail that led to the barn. Behind the barn, you cross a small stream and then can find the hiking cabin and springhouse. Both the cabin and barn are open, so we enjoyed exploring the abandoned buildings.
We made our way back to our car and found several cars that were arriving to hike this trail. With the cabin, farm, ruins, and graveyard, this hike really does give you a glimpse into the life and environment of families that lived in this area and used these facilities in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. The hiking cabin actually permitted members to stay here until 1981.
- Distance – 4 miles
- Elevation Change – About 800 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. The climbing is gradual and gentle.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The section from the trailhead to the Messer farm is essentially a road. The section from the farm to the falls is trail, but it’s in good shape. The only part that may challenge some hikers are the two log footbridges.
- Views – 0. None
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. Porters Creek is lovely. Fern Branch falls would probably be more impressive in wetter weather. It was fairly small when we visited.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple salamanders and a big black snake. There are bear sightings in all parts of the Smokies.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well-marked and easy to follow. You may miss some of the historical remnants if you’re not paying attention.
- Solitude – 3. We hiked on a pretty Thursday in late May and only saw a few other people.
Directions to trailhead: From Gatlinburg, go east on 321 for 6 miles. Take a right at the Greenbrier entrance to GSMNP. The road will turn to gravel. The road will fork at 3.1 miles, but continue straight at the fork to reach the Porters Creek parking area at about 4 miles.