Road to Nowhere – Goldmine Loop (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

While the Road to Nowhere is popular and well-known, the adjacent Goldmine Loop seems lightly traveled and mysterious. We had a hard time finding reliable information about the trail and did some guesswork along the route. As it turns out, it’s a beautiful, jungle-like trail that leads down to the shores of Fontana Lake. The total route ended up being 4.7 miles with a moderate amount of climbing.

View the full album of photos from this hike

Rainbow Over Fontana Lake
At the end of our hike, we enjoyed a rainbow over Fontana Lake.

Adam Says…

In early July, we made our way down to the southern end of the Smokies for a couple day stay in Bryson City, NC. There was lots of rain on and off during our trip, so we had to be strategic about timing our hiking possibilities. Our rental cabin was near a place in the Smokies called The Road to Nowhere.  This is not a Talking Heads song reference, but a road that has an interesting history. In the 1930s and 1940s, Swain County donated a lot of its private land to the federal government to help create the Fontana Lake area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hundreds of people were displaced from their homes when Old Highway 288 was covered by water after the creation of Fontana Dam.  The government promised to create a new road that would connect Bryson City to Fontana (30 miles away to the west). They began work on constructing Lakeview Drive, but came across numerous environmental issues – a study released stated that completing the road would have major, adverse, long-term impacts to topography, geology, and soils. Construction was stopped at the long, impressive tunnel that marks the beginning of this hike. The environmental issue was eventually resolved, but the road was never continued.  Ultimately in 2010, the Department of the Interior paid Swain County $52 million in lieu of finishing construction of the road.

The Road to Nowehere Tunnel
The road ends in the tunnel and you come out on trail. Below: The trailhead; Blooming Rosebay Rhododendron; The tunnel.

Trailhead Rosebay Tunnel Headlamp

The road ends at a gate before the tunnel, but before the gate there is a large parking lot on the right hand side of the road. You will see trail signs along the side of the road. We parked there, walked down the road, went around the gate, and made our way toward the tunnel. When you enter the tunnel, it will be quite dark.  We used headlamps so we could see where we were stepping but the tunnel floor was quite flat and smooth.  On the other side of the tunnel, the true Lakeshore Trail begins.  Continuing a bit further up the trail, we reached a junction at .6 miles that is the Tunnel Bypass Trail.  We took this trail which skirted alongside the hillside.  It was incredibly humid from the recent rains and my glasses were fogging up and the ground was wet in many places. It continued to drizzle on and off.

Graffitti
Graffiti in the tunnel. Below: The first trail junction; Wet trail.

Junction Wet Trail

As we walked along we could clearly hear the sound of a barred owl nearby. It remained out of sight but was moving up ahead of us on the trail.  At 1.8 miles, we reached the junction with the Goldmine Loop Trail. We took a right to get on this trail. The Goldmine Loop Trail descends for the next mile. At 2.4 miles we came to where Tunnel Branch runs alongside the trail.  It was a very picturesque stream with lots of blooming rhododendron all around. At 2.8 miles, we reached the lowest part of elevation as we came to Goldmine Branch, a larger stream that leads into the Tuckaseigee River, which is part of the larger Fontana Lake waterway. Even though this is a river, it feels very much like a lake due to the beaver dams and high water level. A short side path leads you to a serene place to enjoy a waterside view.  We continued back along the trail and our slow ascent began.  This area was very mucky from all the water near this low part of the elevation and we slogged through some mud in a few places.

Near the trail’s low point, we saw a large hog trap that was placed by the park service.  Wild hogs are destructive to the environment and have been known to be aggressive to humans.  Just a short tenth of a mile from seeing the hog trap, we noticed something crashing through the woods toward us, followed by a deep guttural sound of a wild hog.  Knowing how dangerous they are, we decided to move along quickly to leave the hog alone.  It was quite a rush and we have never heard such sounds.  At 3.2 miles, we reached a junction that leads to Campsite 67 (a site you must reserve through the GSMNP overnight camping permit system).  We passed on checking this out since it was a bit off the trail and just continued onward.  Shortly after this campsite trail, we came upon an old chimney from a home foundation. The ground was mucky and the area was heavily overgrown so we decided against checking out the site further. The trail then really began to ascend very steeply and we reached the junction with the Lakeshore Trail again at 4.1 miles. From here, we took a right on the Lakeshore Trail and then passed by the original Tunnel Bypass Trail junction just .1 mile later.  We continued back the way we came to reach the tunnel and then back to our car on the other side to make this about a 4.7 mile round trip.

Dense Rhododendron
The rhododendron thickets here are extremely dense. Below: Rhododendrons; Views of storm clouds; Pretty, lush trail.

Tons of Rosebay Storm Clouds Goldmine Loop

Christine Says…

We planned several amazing hikes for our whirlwind three-day Smokies trip… and not a single one panned out!  Stormy weather and low clouds forced us to revisit all of the high elevation hikes we considered doing. We are capable of hiking in bad weather, but when you have a trail blog you want to do your best to capture views and landmarks. We did a bit of logistical scrambling to find lower elevation hikes where views might be open beneath the cloud shelf.

The first one we settled on was the Road to Nowhere paired with the Goldmine Loop. They hike was just a few minutes from our rental cabin, so it was easy to tackle after the rain stopped in the late afternoon. We didn’t get on the trail until almost 4:00 p.m. Online and printed guides listed the trail anywhere from three to seven miles. With the long days of summer in effect, we knew we could finish a hike in that range before the sun set. We still packed headlamps… just in case! They turned out to be handy for walking through the long, dark tunnel.

Fontana Lake
Adam sits alongside the Tuckaseigee arm of Fontana Lake. Below: Another angle on the water view; A hog trap; An old homestead chimney.

Fontana Lake Hog Trap Chimney

I thought the tunnel itself was really cool. It looks relatively short to the naked eye, but when you’re inside you walk much longer than you expect. The tunnel is a full quarter mile long and produces the most excellent echoes! The amount of graffiti was disappointing and seriously – can’t people think of better things to draw than penises? There were more of those drawn than any other element of graffiti. After the tunnel, we proceeded a short way down the trail to its junction with the Tunnel Bypass Trail.

The Bypass Trail descended into ever thickening rhododendrons. By the time we reached the Goldmine Loop, I felt like we were in a veritable jungle. I would never want to get lost off-trail in an area like this. The denseness of the forest would be very disorienting.  I think the mist, the solitude, the hooting owl, the lack of good trail information, the hog sounds, and the thickness of the forest lent an eerie feeling to the entire hike. We’ve never hiked in the Smokies and seen so few people! I’ll admit, I felt a little bit uneasy on this hike. I rarely describe a hike as creepy, but this one may have approached that feeling!

I was pretty glad when the trail rejoined familiar terrain coming off the Goldmine Loop. On the return trip through the tunnel, we left our headlamps off and enjoyed the almost complete darkness. We just kept walking toward the spot of light at the far end of the tunnel. Soon we were back in the car and headed back to our little cabin in Bryson City.  On the way, we stopped at an overlook that peered down into the watershed we just hiked.  There was a gorgeous rainbow above and everything looked so peaceful below.  It definitely didn’t feel eerie from above!

Trail Notes

  • Distance –4.7 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
    About a half mile of tracking was lost in the tunnel.
  • Elevation Change – About 1371 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  The ground conditions made it a little tough and there was a steep ascent before we rejoined the Lakeshore Trail.
  • Trail Conditions –2.  The trail was fairly well maintained, but the mucky conditions made for some times where we slogged along the trail at the lower elevations.
  • Views – 1.  We did get a few obstructed views alongside the Tunnel Bypass Trail, but nothing much mentioning.  Along the road leading up to the trail, there is a nice view of Fontana Lake alongside the road.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.  There were some nice stream views along the way and the mountain laurel created some extra scenery.
  • Wildlife – 4.  This particular loop isn’t particularly well traveled, so don’t be surprised to find some wildlife.  The wild hog encounter definitely gives this a higher score for us.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  We had a hard time due to the lack of knowledge out there about the trail system.  Hopefully, the map we are providing will help.
  • Solitude – 4.  After we went through the tunnel, we only saw a few other people on the hike.  This could be due to the recent rains, but this isn’t a popular area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park except for local populations.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: From the center of Bryson City, NC head north on Everett Street.  Everett Street becomes Fontana Road.  Fontana Road becomes Lakeview Drive.  Follow Lakeview Drive until you arrive at the parking lot before the road that closes off this Road to Nowhere, about 8.5 miles away from the center of Bryson City.  Park in the parking lot and continue on foot up the road leading to the tunnel.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Mouse Creek Falls & Midnight Hole (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

This is an easy 4.25 mile hike that take you to visit two special spots – a beautiful waterfall and one of the most popular swimming holes in the Smokies.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Mouse Creek Falls
Mouse Creek Falls may not be the largest or most impressive of the waterfalls in the Smokies, but it is still a beautiful spot.

Christine Says…

On our third day of the trip, we decided to head into the national park and explore an area we hadn’t visited before – Big Creek in Cataloochee.  This area is known for its population of elk, and for being much quieter than other parts of the park, like Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome.

The drive was  a bit further than our previous two hike, but we had heard that Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole were both beautiful, worthwhile destinations.   As usual, we got an early start and beat the crowds to the trailhead.

Families Hike Up Big Creek
Easy terrain makes this a popular family hike. Below: Trailhead sign for Mouse Creek Falls; Adam standing along the stream; Horse hitch near the falls.

Trailhead Sign for Mouse Creek Falls Adam Stands Along Big Creek Horse Hitch Near Mouse Creek Falls

The hike up Big Creek really couldn’t be much simpler or easier.  It follows a wide, old road bed the entire way.  At first, you can hear the rushing sounds of the creek in the distance, but within several tenths of a mile, the trail begins to closely follow the water.

Like most creeks in the Smokies, Big Creek is a jumble of big boulders that create lots of cascading rapids and small waterfalls – so beautiful!  We saw a serious photographer hiking back from the falls with a large pack of gear and a heavy tripod.  He visited the falls on a perfect day for waterfall photography.  It was overcast and windless, which allows the opportunity for long exposure images.  I always love the silky misty effect a slow shutter speed lends to the water, and I was pretty happy with the shots I got on this hike!

On the hike up, we skipped Midnight Hole.  We figured we’d see the waterfall first, and then stop at other pretty spots on the hike back.  The falls were indeed lovely, though the mosquitoes and biting flies were abundant and aggressive!  This was the first and only time on the trip that I had to use bug spray.  We took tons of waterfall photos, and then made our way back down the trail.

Christine Enjoys the Rocks Around Mouse Creek Falls
Christine enjoys Mouse Creek Falls. Below: Pretty stream scenery along Big Creek.  Mouse Creek Falls are formed where smaller Mouse Creek pours into Big Creek.

Big Creek Big Creek Scenery Big Creek Scenery

On the way back, there were many more people out and about.  Lots of them were dressed in swimsuits and had water-wings and innertubes.  Apparently, this creek is one of the areas favorites for mountain swimming.  When we reached Midnight Hole, there was a family of five there.  The two youngest sons were taking turns plunging off rocks into the pool below.  It was a cool, cloudy day, so they squealed each time they hit the icy water.  The pool itself is deep and brilliant green – really an idyllic spot for a swim.

After leaving Midnight Hole, we stopped at a couple more pretty rapids along the stream for more photos.  When we were on the trail, we jogged to outrun the mosquito assault!  It was so buggy!

After this hike, we decided to drive into Asheville (yes… filthy and covered with bug spray) so we could visit a few breweries and get some lunch.  We also managed stops at Vortex Donuts and French Broad Chocolates.

Adam Says…

Mouse Creek Falls is an easy family hike that everyone can enjoy.  With the distance being only a little over two miles to the waterfall and very little change in elevation, it is a hike that even small kids won’t complain too much to do.

We started off early and had most of the trail to ourselves.  We saw there were lots of places to step off the side of the trail to get views of rocky rapids down Mouse Creek, but we decided to make a beeline for the main waterfall.  The trail had a slight incline, but never felt like a steep walk.  We arrived at Mouse Creek Falls and made a climb down to near the base of the falls to get some photos of the stream and the falls together.  If you don’t feel like climbing to the base, you can still get a distant, yet unobstructed view of the falls from the top.  When another family arrived, we decided to leave to give them the solitude that we enjoyed, but we were equally pressured by all the mosquitoes at the water.  We didn’t feel a ton of mosquitoes on the way up, but the entire trip back we were swarmed.

Midnight Hole
Midnight Hole is a popular swimming spot in the Smokies. Below: The water in Midnight Hole is clear and reflects the green of the trees around it; There is a picnic area along this lovely spot on Big Creek.

Midnight Hole Picnic Area Bridge

About .5 miles back on our return trip, we stopped to enjoy Midnight Hole.  A pond is created here by two small waterfalls that dump water into this serene swimming hole.  We lingered a bit at this spot before making our way back to our car, chased by a cloud of mosquitoes who seemed to not mind the bug spray we used.  We made it back to our car quickly at a little over four miles and saw many people making their way up.  I’m sure this is an extremely popular hike and swimming hole spot for many people.  If you want to miss the crowds, go as early as possible.

On our way out, we passed by several buses that were unloading people for whitewater rafting along the Pigeon River.  We saw probably a hundred people on the river in rafts and it looked like a great way to spend the day.  We headed into Asheville, NC from our hike to sample some beers.  It was Asheville Beer Week, so all of the breweries in the area were doing special events.  We started off with lunch at Wicked Weed, where we enjoy the food as much as the beverages.  From there, we stopped by a few more breweries to try one small sample at each – Green Man, Burial, and Hi-Wire.  While we were there, there was a disc golf competition where event organizers moved a portable basket and the competitors threw their discs down the streets and alleyways as they moved from one brewery to the next.  Luckily, the competitors were very accurate and I didn’t see any spectators beamed in the head.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4.25 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 635 ft.
  • Difficulty – 1.5.  This is an easy walk along a gradually climbing path.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5.  The path is wide and well-graded.
  • Views  0.  This is a waterfall walk, there are no views along the way.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.5.  The falls are small but pretty.  Big Creek and Midnight Hole are also lovely.
  • Wildlife –3.5.  People regularly see elk and bears in the area.  We didn’t see any on our hike.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.  You really can’t go wrong on this hike.  It’s a straight shot up the path.
  • Solitude – 1.  This area is popular with swimmers and families.  Expect lots of people.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.751094, -83.109993.  From Asheville, NC take I-40 West for 46 miles before taking exit 451 toward Waterville Road.  Turn left onto Green Corner Road at the end of the exit ramp which merges onto Tobes Creek Road. Take the first left to cross a bridge and stay on Tobes Creek Road.  Once you cross the bridge, take the first left onto Waterville Road.  Follow this for two miles and you will then enter the Big Creek Entrance Road.  Follow this for about a mile and you will reach the Big Creek Campground.  You will find a large parking lot on the right and just before entering the parking lot, you will pass the trailhead for the Big Creek Trail, which is your starting point.  This parking lot fills up quickly, so you may have to park along the roadside.

Azaleas Atop Gregory Bald

Gregory Bald (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Gregory Bald is famous for its brilliant display of flame azaleas each June.  On prior trips to the Smokies, we were in the area too early to catch the bloom.  This time, we hit it just right, and enjoyed this wonderful, challenging 9.5 mile hike (includes .5 mile of walking the trails around the bald).  The views and blooms did not disappoint!

Update Spring 2016:  Parsons Branch Road (the route to this trailhead) is indefinitely closed to vehicular traffic.  It’s been determined by the National Park Service that towering dead hemlocks pose too great of a falling risk.  You may still walk up Parsons Branch Road or take the longer hiking route outlined here: http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/gregory.htm

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Azaleas Atop Gregory Bald
In June, the summit of Gregory Bald explodes with the color of blooming azaleas.

Christine Says…

Goodness… we’re doing a lot of hiking and not much writing!  Here we are in mid-August, still playing catch-up on hikes from June.  We have a backlog of twelve (yikes!) hikes to write about.

The first is this wonderful climb to Gregory Bald that we did on our Smokies a couple months ago.  Typically, we visit the Smokies in late May.  Mid-spring is a gorgeous time of year for cool temperatures, wildflowers, and smaller crowds.  This year, we had to put our trip off until mid-June.  It was much hotter and the park was more crowded, but the timing gave us the opportunity to finally climb Gregory Bald when the flame azalea was at peak.

There are a couple routes up to the bald.  The most common route is probably the ascent along the Gregory Ridge trail.  It’s an 11.3 mile hike with just over 3,000 feet of climbing.  It’s more popular because it’s easier to access by car and is supposedly a little more scenic along the way.  We chose to climb via the Gregory Bald trail from Parson Branch Rd.  It’s a shorter hike with less elevation gain. It’s also much harder to get to! Parson Branch Rd. is a one-way, seasonal road (closed in the winter) that requires 4WD/AWD.  We had four 8-9 mile hikes planned in 3.5 days, so the shorter/easy route appealed to us.  Thankfully, our little Subaru proved up to the challenge and we successfully jolted and bumped along the rugged road until eventually reaching the trailhead.

Rosebay Rhododendron
Rhodendron blooming along the lower trail. Below: Trailhead sign, Crowded parking along Parson Branch Road; Adam starts off down the trail.

Trailhead on Parsons Branch Road Parking on Parsons Branch Gregory Bald Trail

We got there pretty early, but there were already tons of other cars filling the small lot and lining the dirt road.  We geared up and hit the trail.  Honestly, there isn’t much to see along the 4.5 mile walk to the bald.  It’s a lovely wooded trail, but there aren’t any noteworthy features until you reach the bald.

Adam and I walked along, chatting and talking about past hikes.  Suddenly, Adam froze in his tracks and said ‘SNAKE!’.  It was a beautiful, dark-colored timber rattler sunning itself across the trail.  Adam hates snakes, but I find them beautiful and fascinating.  He stepped back while I tried to get a few photos – which proved difficult with my wide angle lens.  I tossed some small pebbles near the snake to encourage him off the trail.  He obliged and we were on our way!

Near the ridge, we passed Sheep Pen Gap campsite.  It was occupied by a group of extremely well-equipped horse campers.  They had a full camp kitchen, coolers, and canvas tents big enough to stand in – definitely the opposite of our ultralight gear!  There was a piped water source near the campsite.  It was flowing nicely, but it was definitely water you’d want to boil or filter due to the large amount of horse manure in the area.

Gregory Bald Trail
There was nothing remarkable about the trail to the top. Below: We did see lots of snails; And a timber rattler; We crossed one shallow stream.

Snail Rattlesnake Stream

About a half mile past the campsite, we emerged onto the bald.  It was absolutely exploding with color – azaleas in red, salmon, pink, orange, gold, and white!  I can understand why people come from all over to witness this display first-hand.  On top of the amazing floral display, the summit also offered panoramic views.  We ate our lunch overlooking Cades Cove and then spent some time walking around and admiring all the different colored azaleas.  We even met a fellow JMU grad on the summit.

The longer we stayed atop the bald, the more people arrived, and we decided it was time to make our way down.  The descent went very quickly, as the trail had easy, uncomplicated footing.  About a mile from the parking lot, we ran up on the JMU alumni we had met earlier.  He and his girlfriend were stopped in the middle of the trail.  A bear had just crossed in front of them and they were waiting and making sure it was safe to proceed.  Adam and I were disappointed that we had missed seeing the bear.

We ended up walking the last mile with them, chatting about hiking and the Bonnaroo festival they had just attended.  Before we knew it, we were back at the car!  The remaining stretch of one-way Parsons Branch Rd. was an adventure, too.  I think we must have driven our car through at least a dozen streams before eventually coming out on the famous Tail of the Dragon road.  I’ll let Adam talk more about that!  It was a fun day, and I’m so glad I finally got to see the famous Gregory Bald azalea bloom!

Adam Says…

The hike to Gregory Bald has been one we have been considering for years.  Some of the balds in the Smoky Mountains have been quite overgrown, since the park service has wanted to return them to their natural state over time.  I was preparing myself to be disappointed, but luckily that was not the case.  The day we visited was the peak of the blooming azaleas and the skies were so dramatic that it was a photographer’s paradise.

Gregory Bald is named after Russell Gregory, a resident of Cades Cove who died in 1864.  Russell lived in a stone house near the summit during the spring and summer, while his cattle grazed on the summit.  A Union support, Gregory was killed by a Confederate soldier while protecting his land and cattle.  The Cherokee had named this mountain “Tsitsu’yi”, meaning “Rabbit Place” and it was believed that the chief of all rabbits lived on the summit.

Abundance of Color
The azaleas bloom in many colors, but mostly oranges and reds. Below: Campsite at Sheep Pen Gap; Arriving at the bald; Beautiful azaleas.

Sheep Pen Gap Arriving at Gregory Bald Views from Gregory Bald

As Christine mentioned, the drive was a chore.  To access Parson Branch road, we had to go through Cades Cove most of the way.  Drives to me to Cades Cove are always frustrating to me.  Before you even get to the Cades Cove area, people were driving 12mph in an area where you can go much faster.  When we arrived in Cades Cove finally, we had more of the same.  Nobody would pull over to let us pass on the one-way road.  Instead, we had people in front creeping a long at 5mph with doors opened on both sides of their mini-vans to enhance their wildlife/scenery viewing.  What felt like 500 hours later, we finally were able to turn off the Cades Cove loop onto Forge Creek Road.  Once we turned on to Parson Branch road, the gravel road became extremely steep and filled with potholes and uneven road.  While we don’t do a lot of “offroad” driving for hiking, this was one of the roughest stretches of roads I’ve driven.  We made it to the top of the hill eventually and found the full lot and line of cars on the side of the road.  We parked along the side of the road as best we could, I crawled to the passenger’s side to escape the vehicle, and we made our way to the trailhead.

The hike up to Gregory Bald was a steady uphill, but the trail was in decent shape and not rocky, to allow for easy footing.  The trail was mostly shaded by trees all around, so it kept the sun and heat off of us for most of the day.  Other than seeing the rattlesnake, it was mostly uneventful – a nice walk through the woods without a lot to see.

Close-Up Gregory Bald Azaleas
Close-Up Gregory Bald Azaleas  Below: Orange azaleas; More views of the bald and the mountains beyond.

Orange Azaleas Views at the Top of Gregory Bald Mountain Views from Gregory Bald

Around the four-mile mark, we reached the Sheep Pen Gap campsite area on the right.  Shortly after the campsite, there is a junction with the Wolf Ridge Trail.  Take a left here to stay on the Gregory Bald Trail to reach the summit.  This short section of trail was much steeper, but the terrain was still comfortable.  After a couple of tenths of a mile, a side trail shot to the right leading to a small clearing with the first of the azalea blooms.  We decided to press on to the summit which was just ahead.  When we stepped into the scene from the summit, it was breathtaking.  The shape of the ridge doesn’t always give you the best views of mountains all around you, but the colors were all around.   There was lush green in the grass, reds and oranges around us in every direction from the azaleas, blue skies with large, puffy white clouds in the sky.  It reminded me of one of those beautiful yet sadistic jigsaw puzzles you get where you could only group things by  a few colors, taking forever to solve.  We ate our lunches under this gorgeous spectacle and then spent a long time exploring the summit on all of the interweaving foot trails, searching for all of the different color variations of azaleas.

We made our way back down the way we came.  When we got back to the car, we proceeded down the mountain on the one-way road.  The road was in a little better shape on this side of the mountain.  There were several stream crossings we had to make with our car; we weren’t scared to cross through the shallow water, but it reminded me of what you may see occasionally on SUV commercials.  When we got on to the main road, we took a right and found ourselves on the Tail of the Dragon on US-129.  This dangerous section of windy roads includes 318 curves over 11 miles.  Since it is a popular destination for motorcycles that like to live dangerously, we passed several photographers stationed on the side of the road that take pictures all day of all the cars and motorcycles that pass.  They sell the photos online for people to buy.  The first couple of ones I thought were ridiculous, but then I put up my “heavy metal” hand gesture and rock-out face to the last photographer.  When I got back to the hotel, I looked it up online and laughed -the Subaru Outback is not the epitome of a vehicle living on the wild side.

Tree at the Top
This neat tree provides shade atop the bald.  Below: Horse campers at Sheep Pen Gap; The descent; We saw another group of horse campers hiking up.

Horse Camping Rhodie Tunnel Horses Going Uphill

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 9.5 miles (includes distance to the bald, and a half mile of walking the network of trails on the bald)
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2290 ft.
  • Difficulty – 4.  The climbing on this trail is relentless and moderate to strenuous.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was smooth, uncomplicated dirt.
  • Views  5.  Gorgeous and made even moreso by the blooming azaleas.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There were a couple very low streams that were usable as water sources, but not scenic.
  • Wildlife – 4.5. We saw a timber rattlesnake and the couple right ahead of us crossed paths with a black bear!
  • Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is easy to follow and the one junction is well-marked
  • Solitude – 2.  The trail is one of the park’s most popular.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Do not attempt to access this trailhead without an AWD vehicle.  Parson Branch road is one-way, gravel, and very rough.  You will traverse steep inclines, deep potholes, and many small streams in your vehicle.  Our Subaru Outback did fine, but I wouldn’t have wanted to attempt the drive with less.

From Gatlinburg, TN, take US-441S into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  In 1.6 miles, take a right on to Fighting Creek Gap Road.  Stay straight until you reach Cades Cove as Fighting Creek Gap Road becomes Little River Gorge Road, Laurel Creek Road, and Cades Cove Loop Road over the next 30 miles.  Once you enter Cades Cove and pass the visiting station, stay on the loop road for 5.6 miles.  Then turn right on to Forge Creek Road.  In 2.1 miles, turn right on to Parson Branch Road (this road is closed November-March).  Continue up the one-way Parson Branch road for about 3.5 miles until you reach the small parking lot on the right.  The trailhead is across the road.  The parking lot only has room for a couple of cars, so you may need to park on the side of the road during weekends or the summer.

Ramsey Cascades (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

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

Beautiful Ramsey Cascades
We’ve seen a number of the big waterfalls in the Smokies. Ramsey Cascades might be one of the prettiest. Below: Adam at the trailhead; The first part of the trail was along an old road; You could see and hear water for most of the hike.

Ramsey Cascades Trailhead Easy Start to Ramsey Cascades Hike Pretty Stream Along the Trail

Adam Says…

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.

Scary Bridge
The foot log across this chasm was narrow and long. Below:  The chasm beneath the log bridge; Another view of the bridge’s narrowness; Christine under the giant tulip poplar.

Stream Below the Bridge Almost Across Tulip Poplar

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.

Stone Stairs
After crossing the narrow log bridge, the trail became increasingly steep and rugged. Below: Hiking along the rocky part of the trail; The second L-shaped log footbridge; Rocky trail; Arriving at the falls.

Rocky Trail Another Easier Log Bridge
Steep and Rocky Warning Sign

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.

Christine Says…

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.

Swimmers at Ramsey Cascades
Some people opted to swim in the basin beneath the falls.  Below: A vertical version.

Christine at the Falls

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.

Giant Tulip Poplar
We stopped by the three giant tulip poplars again on the hike back. Below: Adam crossing one of the small streams; Back across the scary footbridge; Pretty green Smokies forest.

Hike Back Hike Back green smokies

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!

Post Hike Dinner
Great steak dinner at Smoky Mountain Brewery post-hike. Below: Smoky Mountain Brewery flight; Pretzels and beer cheese!

Beers pretzels

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.

Trail Notes

  • 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

Porters Creek to Fern Branch Falls (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Fern Branch Falls
Fern Branch Falls was running low, but it was still beautiful! Below: Pretty rapids on Porters Creek; Tall trees provided a wonderful canopy of shade; The Messer Barn.

Porters Creek Tall Trees Messer Barn

Christine Says…

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.

Lush Green Woods
Adam hikes along the early parts of the Porters Creek Trail. Below: Porters Creek Trailhead – it ties into the larger trail system in the park; Overhead view of Porters Creek; Old stone walls.

Trailhead Porters Creek from Above Old Stone Wall

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.

Log Foot Bridge
The first log foot bridge you come to is short and easy to cross.  Below: The Ownby Cemetery; Adam at the trail junction before the path goes from old road to real trail; Little cascades on the creek.

Ownby Cemetery Junction Pretty Porters Creek

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.

Adam Says…

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.

Trail After Junction
After the trail junction, the path became narrower and steeper.  Everything was so green!  Below: The second log foot bridge was segmented and much longer; wildflowers; Adam at the base of Fern Branch Falls.

Crooked Foot Log Wildflowers Fern Branch Falls

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.

Hiking Club & Spring House
The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club used this cabin as an overnight camp until 1981.  Below: Crossing the bridge on the return trip; The Messer barn is well-preserved example of a cantilevered barn; Adam checks out the interior of the hiking club cabin.

Crossing Messer Barn Inside the Hiking Club

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.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4 miles
    MapMyHike Stats
  • 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.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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.