By Nancy Gross
The spectacular Smoky Mountains showcase their autumn finery with vibrant color displays of red, orange and yellow. Providing a feast for the eyes, yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple and pin cherry burst on the scene in mid-September.
The dazzling array of fall colors reaches its peak between mid-October and early November, with colorful trees like sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweet gum and red maple.
Lace ‘em up
For those who love to hike, there’s no better place than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The crest of the Smoky Mountains forms the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina, bisecting the park from the northeast to southwest in an unbroken chain that rises more than 5,000 feet for over 36 miles.
World-renowned as a hiker’s paradise, the national park has more than 800 miles of maintained trails and features gently contoured mountains covered with plants. The wondrous diversity of life in the Smokies includes 100 species of native trees and more than 17,000 species of plants, animals and invertebrates.
Pristine waterfalls adorn almost every stream in the Smokies, and hiking to these awe-inspiring waterfalls is a popular activity for park visitors. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers gorgeous views of stunning waterfalls with hiking options ranging from easy to strenuous.
Indian Creek and Toms Branch Falls
An easy round-trip hike of 1.6 miles will lead you to two beautiful waterfalls in the Deep Creek area. The trailhead is at the end of Deep Creek Road. You can walk the Deep Creek Trail for 0.7 miles to the junction with Indian Creek Trail.
On your way, you can view the 60-foot-high Tom Branch Falls on the far side of Deep Creek. Turn right at the junction with Indian Creek Trail and hike about 200 feet to reach the 25-foot-high Indian Creek Falls. It takes approximately one to two hours to hike to the falls and back.
Trillium Gap Trail meanders through an old-growth hemlock forest and actually runs behind Grotto Falls, a 25-foot-high waterfall. Because the trail is near the falls itself, it makes for a pleasant, cool environment for hikers.
Trillium Gap Trail can be accessed from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The hike to Grotto Falls is three miles round trip and considered moderate in difficulty. It takes about two to three hours to hike to the waterfall and back.
Hen Wallow Falls
Also considered moderate in difficulty, the hike to Hen Wallow Falls takes you through a peaceful hemlock and rhododendron forest. A signed trail leads to the base of the falls by way of steep switchbacks. The waterfall is a dazzling 90 feet high.
If you look in the water at the base of the falls, you’re likely to see salamanders. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been called the “Salamander Capital of the World,” with 30 salamander species in five families.
Gabes Mountain Trail is the trailhead for the hike to Hen Wallow Falls, which is 4.4 miles round trip and takes three to four hours to hike to the falls and back.
One of the most popular destinations in the park, Laurel Falls is 80 feet high and consists of an upper and lower section divided by a walkway, which crosses the stream at the base of the upper falls.
Although the trail is paved, the pavement is rough and uneven. There are also short, steep sections that can be slippery in wet weather. Considered moderate in difficulty, this hike takes about two hours round trip and is 2.6 miles in length, beginning at Laurel Falls Trail on Little River Road.
Rainbow Falls is a stunning, 80-foot-high waterfall that produces a rainbow from its mist on sunny afternoons. Between the trailhead in the Roaring Fork area and the falls, Rainbow Falls Trail gains about 1,500 feet in elevation.
The round-trip distance to the waterfall is 5.4 miles, and it takes about three to five hours to hike to the waterfall and back. Although generally considered moderate in difficulty, due to the length, elevation gain and rocky terrain in sections of the trail, some hikers may rate this as a difficult hike.
Hikers who are capable of a hike that’s considered strenuous will be richly rewarded when they reach Ramsey Cascades. With water dropping 100 feet over rock outcroppings, Ramsey Cascades is the tallest and one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the national park.
The trail gains over 2,000 feet in elevation over its four-mile path to the waterfall. The last two miles pass through old-growth cove hardwood forest with large tulip trees, basswoods, silver bells and yellow birches.
The Ramsey Cascades Trail is accessed in the Greenbrier area. The roundtrip distance to the waterfall is eight miles and takes about five to seven hours.
A Hiker’s Dream Destination
Few hiking experiences are more rewarding than taking in the grandeur of the waterfalls found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There’s something magical about the extraordinary beauty of waterfalls that draws us to them.
In the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, hikers revel in the sights and sounds of lush green forests, cool mountain streams and quiet meadows. This natural wonderland is home to thousands of animal and plant species, from the asters blooming in late fall to the tiny finches and the elusive black bear. Whether you’re a novice or an expert hiker, the Great Smoky Mountains offers an unrivaled hiking experience. I-L