These waterfalls are in the vicinity of the Sugarlands Visitor Center of the Smoky Mountains NP on the Tennessee side. We almost never go there. Partly because we already live on the NC side, partly because going anywhere in the Gatlinburg-Cades Cove corridor is just asking to spend the afternoon sitting in traffic. Yet, here we are on a Sunday afternoon in the summer.
I don’t know how many Laurel Falls we have been to. This one is just a little south of the Sugarlands visitor center. You’ll know you are there by the 200 cars parked all over both sides of the road near the trailhead. Obviously with that many cars at the trailhead, there are going to be that many people at the falls. There is not a spacious viewing / playing area here.
The hike is an easy 1.3 miles (~ 2km) each way, about 350 ft (100 m) of elevation gain, primarily in the first half of the hike. Ironically, one way to know you are on an easy trail in the Smokies is the parade of people you overhear complaining about how hard the hike is. The trail is paved although not well, it is not handicapped accessible and don’t even consider a stroller.
From the Sugarlands center if you walk past the restrooms there are several flat easy trails. Cataract Falls is about a half mile away. It’s a very easy, nicely forested walk with one set of stairs. The falls is not particularly impressive but this is a surprisingly quiet area. If you continue past Cataract Falls you could make the long connection up Cove Mountain to Laurel Falls. Since the Gatlinburg Trolley stops at both the Laurel Falls trailhead and the Sugarlands visitor center you could even do it one way with a trolley shuttle. We did not do this, perhaps some future trip though which will not be in mid-summer.
This is a fun little triangle hike if you’re at Clingman’s Dome and don’t want to spend the entire time on the wide paved path with however many other people are currently visiting Clingman’s Dome. At the base of the paved path across from the gift store, stairs go down to the Dome Bypass Trail. Take these, turn right in 0.1 miles at the trail junction and head towards the A.T.
It’s about a half mile on a relatively gentle incline. The trail is rocky and has difficult footing but there are some good views down on the NC side of the park.
Once you reach the Appalachian Trail, you can head to the right (northbound) towards Clingman’s Dome. We took a short detour the other direction here to reach the summit of Mount Buckley. Mount Buckley isn’t much to write home about (or a blog entry) but it is a peak, there’s a small grove of stunted spruce trees at the summit and depending on the season, there may be good views into Tennessee. On our visit, the entire AT was in the clouds, mist and intermittent rain so it mostly looked like this.
We ended our hike with a trip up the architecturally bizarre lookout tower. If it isn’t strange enough normally, in the clouds it really looks like some alien space craft. There was absolutely nothing to see up here except the tower itself. Total distance for the triangle is right about 2.0 miles.
Welcome to our second consecutive waterfall fail (sort of). We were on our way from Maggie to Cherokee so we thought we’d get in a small hike somewhere new. We tried Balsam Mountain / Heintooga Ridge Rd off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is a less used access point to the Smoky Mountains. In particular, we were headed down the Flat Creek Trail which makes a loop (IF you count the road as part of the loop) from the Balsam Campground area.
Notice we are leading with a picture of a garter snake rather than the waterfall. This is a clue that there will be no waterfall picture. Here are the details if you’re on your way to Flat Creek Falls:
First, don’t bother in the summer. There is so much foliage you have no chance of a clear view of the falls. If you insist on trying to find the falls, follow the Flat Creek trail from the parking area along the road. This is actually a lovely trail and crosses a small creek on a log bridge before arriving at a wet crossing (rock-hop) of Bunches Creek. After this you’ll ascend the shoulder of a hill and then descend on the other side. 0.7 miles into the hike you’ll find a sign telling you that you’re 0.7 miles into this hike. This is actually a sign that you should turn towards the river (off trail) and head for the falls. You should be able to hear it from here and there is a faint overgrown trail with all sorts of logs across it. This will reach the river and then run along it to the top of the falls. Usual disclaimers apply, this leads to wet slippery rocks at the top of a large waterfall. The top of the waterfall is (as usual) dangerous and not all that scenic. You can go down a VERY steep trail along the waterfall to the bottom (actually sort of the middle). This trail is little more than an otter slide really and you still won’t have a great view. If you are serious about reaching the bottom of these falls, I’d consider bringing ropes.
Having said all that, Flat Creek Trail is a very nice trail, lots of wildflowers in July. Animal tracks everywhere (we only saw snakes) and a creek to keep you company.
Both of these locations are on the Big Creek Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains NP. Big Creek is located on the eastern edge of the park on the North Carolina side, near I-40. There’s a ranger station, a horse camp, a group camp and some walk-in tent sites located at Big Creek. Big Creek Trail is one of several that lead out of here and as a horse accessible trail it’s relatively wide and an easy grade.
Midnight Hole is a fantastic swimming spot about 1.5 miles (2.5 km) up the trail. This a deep clear pool, good rocks for sunning and jumping off of (at your own risk of course) and a spectacular setting in the forest. In late May, this water is also rather on the chilly side.
Another half mile (0.8 km) up Big Creek Trail is Mouse Creek Falls. You can just barely tell that the noise of Big Creek has gotten slightly louder but there’s a horse hitching rail just before the viewpoint of the falls. Mouse Creek is a tributary that flows in from the south and falls most of the last 100 feet or so into Big Creek. The trail continues from here another three miles to Walnut Bottom Campgrounds and a junction with several other trails, we however did not.
The Roaring Fork nature trail is a car trail out of Gatlinburg, Tennessee into the Smokies. There are several major waterfall hikes here of which Baskins Creek seems to be the one that no one takes. Baskins Creek Trail is an L-shaped trail that starts and ends at different locations on the Roaring Fork road. The falls is pretty much right in the middle.
We took the trail from the eastern trailhead simply because it’s a rolling path over several spurs rather than a continuous descent (followed by a continuous ascent on the way back). The first ridge was awash in mountain laurel.
The falls is down a steep bit of trail into a quiet cove. There wasn’t much of a swimming hole when we visited but it would be easy enough to stand in the falls.
We also saw this salamander at the falls. We’d normally try and ID it but that’s difficult for salamanders so we’ll just leave it at that.
After a rough day of judging BBQ over in Sevierville, Tennessee we stopped at a couple easy waterfalls on the way back home. Mingo Falls is located just outside the NC side of the Great Smoky Mountains NP on the Cherokee Reservation. On the way you’ll pass the fantastic new school complex Cherokee has built.
It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a trail to Mingo Falls. It’s basically a long staircase and then a very short walk to the cove in which the falls is located. It could be strenuous if you’re as pregnant as Melanie is in the above picture though. The falls is quite impressive.
Just south of Soco Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway is Soco falls. This is also is barely classified as a hike. It’s a pull out on the east side of the road and a couple switchbacks down to some viewing platforms. Soco Falls is actually two separate falls at right angles at a confluence. This is the larger and easier to photograph.
The Chimney Tops trail on the Tennessee side of the Smokies is a popular one with good reason. This is actually the most crowded trail we’ve been on in a long time. The peaks are quite noticeable from the Tennessee side of the park near US 441.
The trail is about 2 miles with something like 1300 feet of elevation gain. It’s a constant climb although there are some very scenic river crossings along the way. There are good views of Mount Mingus and Mt. Le Conte. The highlight of this trail though is the finale which is a rock climb to the top. There are signs warning of this at the trailhead but they don’t really show off the exposure of this rock face. Near the summit it becomes apparent just how much prominence there is to the west.
Probably less than 20% of people hiking up the trail actually climbed to the top. The views are good although honestly they aren’t all that much better than other nearby peaks. There were about 10 other people on the summit which is relatively close to capacity. It does feature 360 degree views but it isn’t a very large area and there are couple of very exciting crevices to avoid.
Goldmine Loop is a three to four mile trail segment located just off the end of the Road to Nowhere in the Smoky Mountains. Part of the trail follows a creek down to Lake Fontana and there is in fact the remnants of a cabin along the way.
The end of the Road the Nowhere incidentally is the Tunnel to Nowhere which has a certain place in Smoky Mountain lore by now. Only hikers and horses (intrepid horses apparently) are allowed through now. It’s about 1000 feet long and other than some fun optical effects when you’re in the middle of it, it’s really not that exciting.
We were doing a wildflower survey along the way as well. Melanie is particularly good with the wildflowers and generally spends about 2 hours after a wildflower hike with the assorted wildflower books coming up with a list of things that I will forget the name of by the time we go hiking next weekend.
However, to commemorate all the work she did on it, here is her list from this 4 mile loop:
Common Blue Violet
Sweet White Violet
Crested Dwarf Iris
Canadian Dwarf Cinquefoil
Baneberry (prob. Red Baneberry)
Pussytoes (prob. Plantain-leaved)
Aster species (2 different unknown)
Vetch species (unknown, purple)
Deep Creek is a campground and trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s located just outside Bryson City on the North Carolina side of the park. From the Deep Gap trailheads it is an easy 3 mile loop (or less if you backtrack a bit) to reach three different waterfalls.
Tom’s Branch Falls is just about 2/10ths of a mile up the Deep Creek Trail and enters Deep Creek from a side stream.
Farther up the Deep Gap trail, Indian Creek Falls is just off of the main trail.
Juney Whank Falls is actually about a half mile in the opposite direction from the trailhead. It can be reached by backtracking (which is cheating of course) or by crossing Deep Creek and doubling back on the Deep Creek Horse Trail.
The bridge over the falls is rather surprisingly close to the water. I would suspect in higher water the bridge would definately be in the splash zone.