Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area
We’re back in the Smokies region for the next three hikes! Ramsey Cascades is the tallest waterfall in the park. It’s also one of the most popular – despite the fact that the hike is a strenuous 8-miler!
View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike
Our May vacation plans fell through due to a sick pet, but we were fortunate enough to slip away on a last-minute four day trip to the Smokies in mid-June. When we vacation, we tend to go hard. We try to pack in as much as we can during every waking moment of the day. While it may not be as relaxing as some people like on vacation, we feel we want as many experiences as possible. We like to tell each other that we can be tired and act like zombies at work for the first day back, so we stay “on the go” during vacation. So, to maximize our time, we woke up around 4:30 a.m., packed up the car, and headed out to the Smokies. When we got to the trailhead, it was a little after noon and the temperature and humidity made it feel like over 100 degrees. We typically like to start hiking (especially in the warmer months) early in the morning before you can feel the height of the day’s heat. This time, we were stuck with it. The small parking lot for the trail was packed with cars, so we ended up having to park a little down the road. So, we quickly got on the trail and pushed on. Most of the trail was fairly shady, so not being in direct sunlight helped.
The trail starts on a wide gravel fire road which made for easy footing. One family had ventured out before us when we were trying to find parking. We saw the mother of the family doubling back along the trail, looking for the rubber foot that was lost on one of her children’s trekking poles. When we came upon the rest of the family, it looks like they sent the mom off about a mile to look for it. We felt bad that the mom was spending all of this time searching while the rest of the group was just relaxing. At 1.5 miles, you reach an area that comes to edge of the stream. To the left, the trail goes through a deep tunnel of rhododendron. It is here the trail begins to climb and the trail becomes narrower.
At 2.1 miles, we reached a long foot log bridge. As I’ve stated before, I hate man-made things when it comes to heights. We had just passed another family on the hike, so I thought I would try to cross before they got there. I got a little ways along, chickened out, and returned to the start of the bridge. I knew it would take me a while to muster the strength to do it and I didn’t want to feel the pressure of judging eyes as I made my way across. I debated internally if I should just wait here and let Christine continue on, but I knew I would regret not making it to the falls. We let two families go by, one boldly taking selfies on the log. After they were out of sight, I decided to give it another try. As you can tell from the picture above, the bridge is only wide enough for an average person’s feet. I’m not sure how far the drop would be if you fell off, but I would guess you would likely break something if you fell. I decided to shuffle my feet side-by-side, while gripping the handrail white-knuckled. During half of the traverse, I could feel the bridge bounce slightly up and down with each step, not easing my comfort-level at all. I finally made it across and double-checked my map. I was hoping there was a loop on this hike, but since this is a straight out-and-back hike, I’d have to face this beast again. I rested on the other side a while, because I felt like I had just burned 2000 calories through the stress and adrenaline used crossing the log.
At 2.6 miles, we came across the three large tulip poplars. The size of these trees was truly impressive! There was a large group of high school JROTC students stopping here, so we decided to take time to appreciate them more on the way back. We continued up the steep trail, which was very tough in this muggy, hot weather. Eventually, at 4.0 miles, we arrived at Ramsey Cascades. The waterfall is probably 90 feet across and plunges down through cascading rocks over 100 feet. The rock outcropping to view the falls was packed with people, but we waited a while and eventually most of them left. This is one of the prettiest waterfalls in the Smokies, so it was worth the sweat and effort (and maybe even crossing that log bridge).
We made our way back fairly quickly since the hike was mostly downhill. We stopped to enjoy the large tulip trees along the way. When I got to the bridge this time, I folded up my trekking poles (which I didn’t do on the way across initially) and immediately went across. I was much quicker this time across, but it still took a toll on me. I rested again, ate some jelly beans to replenish my sapped energy, and continued back. The rest of the trip was easy and we made quick time back to our car.
We cranked up the AC in the car and drove to our hotel in Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg was even hotter than the trail, so it was hard to get cooled down for the rest of the day. But, we were so glad we made the trip out to view Ramsey Cascades.
It was a little nuts to hop into the car at five in the morning just so we could pack one more day of hiking into our whirlwind, too-short, almost-completely-unplanned trip to the Smokies. We’ve visited the area for three consecutive years, but there are still so many mountains and streams for us to explore. We love coming back to this area!
The first hike on deck was Ramsey Cascades. It’s one of the park’s most popular and impressive waterfalls, and we’ve wanted to hike it for a while now. We arrived to the area a little before mid-day, so we decided to fuel up with a quick lunch at The Sub Station. It had great reviews on Yelp and it was right along our route. We scarfed down pulled pork sandwiches and then made our way to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies.
Arriving right at noon, the parking lot was already jam-packed with cars, so we had to find a pull off further down the road. As soon as I stepped out of the car, the heat and humidity hit me like a sucker punch. I looked at Adam and said, “We’re not used to this heat… this is going to be a brutal hike!” The area went on to set several heat records during our visit.
The first part of the hike followed an old gravel road. It climbed steadily uphill, but was nicely graded and easy to traverse. We saw lots of rosebay rhododendron starting to bloom along the trail. We also enjoyed the constant sound of running water from the Little Pigeon River.
About a mile and a half in, the gravel road ended and the route became a narrow footpath through the lush green forest. This section of the hike followed alongside the Ramsey Prong which drains down the side of 6621-foot Mt. Guyot – the second tallest mountain in the park. As we walked, I tried to focus on the loveliness of the trail instead of how I was feeling. I was utterly gassed. The heat was getting to me and making me feel weak and lightheaded. I kept drinking water, but it just made the sandwich I’d had for lunch churn in my stomach. Maybe eating had been a bad idea. I kept pushing my physical discomfort to the back of my mind and focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, it just what you have to do!
At 2.1 miles, we reached the narrow log bridge that Adam described so thoroughly. The Smokies are full of these split log bridges, but this was the longest and highest one we’ve seen! I suppose these log bridges keep streams cross-able when water is high (as opposed to a rock hop) and are less expensive than real bridges to build/maintain. I like the way they blend into the natural scenery so nicely.
After crossing the bridge, we soon reached a grove of giant, old growth trees. There are three tulip poplars that you’ll notice immediately. They rise, straight and proud, from the forest floor – all of them dwarfing the other trees around them. They were such impressive trees!
The last mile to the falls was increasingly steep and rocky. We climbed stone steps, crossed another L-shaped log bridge, scrambled over boulders, and stepped over a couple shallow streams before reaching the falls. At first, we could just see it through the woods, but after climbing over one last large boulder, we came to a big clearing.
The falls were so impressive, plunging over 100 feet down the mountainside into a beautiful pool. There were tons of people gathered on the rocks. It was hard to find a place to sit and relax, but we eventually did. Despite warning about treacherous conditions, people were still swimming, wading, and climbing on rocks around the falls. We saw one young teenager come very close to taking a terrible fall onto the rocks. He was lucky that he caught himself at the last minute.
We stayed and enjoyed the falls for quite a while. This gave me a chance to cool off and eat a little sugary snack. That definitely made me feel better and helped my dizziness and fatigue. Eventually, the crowd thinned and we had the falls to ourselves. Or I should say mostly to ourselves with the exception of bees! I don’t know why it is, but there are massive numbers of bees living in hives around the falls. There are hundreds of them and they’re constantly buzzing around. Fortunately, they’re not aggressive and seemed happy to share the falls. Just be careful about sitting or putting your hands down. I’m sure they’d sting if someone tried to squish them!
After taking a bunch more photos, we made our way back down the trail. The downhill hiking went really quickly. Adam crossed the scary log bridge boldly on the return trip. We were back at the parking lot in half the time it took us to climb up!
Before we got in the car, I was very tempted to jump into the Little Pigeon River. The spot where we parked was right next to a deep, cool swimming hole. Adam told me it was a bad idea and that I’d be soaking wet in the car – so phooey – I passed on my chance to plunge in!
We had a short drive into Gatlinburg from the hike. Because we didn’t plan ahead for this trip, our choices for lodging were fairly limited – but we picked a winner. We ended up stayed at the Mountain House Motor Inn. It was clean and comfortable, with a super-strong air conditioner. It was also located within walking distance of all the downtown restaurants and shops.
We checked in, showered, and headed out for a great dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery! What a great first day of this mini vacation.
- Distance – 8 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2240 ft.
- Difficulty – 4.5. The trail starts off fairly easy and gradual, but becomes steeper and rockier after the first 1.5 miles. The last few tenths of a mile to the falls are a scramble over boulders.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail is rocky in places. There is also a long, narrow log bridge that might intimidate some hikers. It crosses a chasm over a stream and feels precipitous to anyone afraid of heights.
- Views – 0. No views here – it’s all about the stream scenery!
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. The stream is beautiful and Ramsey Cascades is one of the park’s prettiest waterfalls.
- Wildlife – 0. There were so many people on the trail we didn’t see any animals.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is simple to follow. There aren’t any turns or junctions.
- Solitude – 1. The trail is one of the park’s most popular.
Download a Trail Map (PDF)
Directions to trailhead: From Gatlinburg, TN, take US-321 N/East Parkway for about 5.5 miles. Turn right onto Greenbriar Road. Follow this for 3.1 miles before turning left onto Ramsey Prong Road. Go 1.5 miles and you should reach the parking lot for the trailhead. The trailhead starts at the end of the parking area. Coordinates: 35.702730, -83.357599