Waterfalls and hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains go together like chocolate bars and marshmallows in smores. They are utterly fabulous and a great way to enjoy the outdoors. We’ll introduce you to the best, most stunning waterfalls in Gatlinburg Tennessee. Plus, with our included waterfall map and hike description, you’ll have everything you need to lace up your boots and head out on the trail.
Eastern Tennessee is also home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, which why I give homage to the Nobel Prize-winning high-energy physicist, Richard Feynman. Doctor Feynman gave a two-part lecture series ‘Six Easy Pieces’ and ‘Six Not So Easy Pieces.’ In his honor, we’ll begin with the six easiest waterfall hikes and then tackle the six not so easy treks.
Map of Waterfalls Near Gatlinburg
|Waterfall||Fall Height||Round Trip Hike (mi)||Elevation Gain|
|Place of a Thousand Drips||30|
|Indian Flats Falls||60||8.0||1260|
Laurel Falls is the most photographed place in the Smokies for a good reason. They are absolutely beautiful, with a paved trail from the parking lot to the waterfalls. Perhaps the hardest part of a Laurel Falls hike is finding a parking spot. However, with two lots on either side of the road, you should be able to find a spot without waiting too long. Per the park’s website, over 375,000 visitors hiked Laurel Falls in 2020 – that’s an increase of over 110,000 people compared to 2019. Because of the congestion, they are implementing a Visitor Experience Stewardship plan from September 7, 2021 to October 3, 2021. During this time, they will charge a $14 parking fee and require a reservation. We’ll keep our eyes on how this project goes and update this page if there are any changes to Laurel Falls access.
Like so many hikes in Great Smoky National Park, it’s better in the morning when the weather is cool, and you have an excellent chance of seeing bears. It is 1.3 miles out-and-back (2.6 miles round trip) with 350′ of gain. Even though the path is paved, it’s not recommended for wheelchairs. However, it’s an excellent option for a rainy day hike, so you don’t have to fight your way through the muck.
Once you reach Laurel Falls, you’re rewarded with an 80′ waterfall right off the trail. The cool mists blow onto the path, but you don’t have those awkward moments of kids splashing in the pool while you’re trying to take your photo. There’s little opportunity to enter the water from Laurel Falls and always excellent photographs, even when the trail is busy.
Pro Tip- If you want the earliest breakfast in Gatlinburg or to grab a sandwich for lunch on the trail, Old Dad’s General Store’s full service deli opens at 7:00.
Grotto Falls is famous as ‘The One You Can Walk Behind.’ The trail takes you right behind the waterfalls. You get a little mist on your face, but you don’t have to take your shoes off.
The approach to Grotto Falls is beautiful as well. For starters, you take the Roaring Forks Motor Trail out of Gatlinburg, a one-way loop through the mountain that reminds you of a ride at Disney World. Park near the top of the loop to access the falls.
If you go on another waterfall hike near Gatlinburg first thing in the morning, it’s still possible to find parking at Grotto Falls for your second hike. However, too late into the day and parking is hit or miss. If you can’t find a spot near the falls, you’ll be hiking uphill to the trailhead and then uphill to the falls. After all, you can’t come back around on a one-way loop on the Roaring Springs Motor Trail if you missed a spot that you wanted.
The hike to Grotto Falls travels through old-growth forest on Trillium gap Trail, but it requires 2.6 miles round trip travel and about a 600′ gain. Once you arrive, you’re rewarded with a 25′ waterfall with a path behind it. In fact, walking along the final approach to the cascades on Roaring Branch spring is beautiful, with lots of secluded spots to eat a sandwich and soak your feet.
Place of a Thousand Drips
The Place of a Thousand Drips wouldn’t be a destination waterfall, but it’s visible from the Roaring Forks Motor Trail on the way back from Grotto Falls. The motor trail takes you by several photo-worthy stops like the Bud Ogle Cabin, Ephraim Bales Cabin, and the Alfred Reagan Tub Mill. However, this is a waterfall piece, so we’ll focus on waterfalls.
The Place of a Thousand Drips is a series of waterfalls cascading off the rocks about 3-miles past the Grotto Falls parking lot. You can simply enjoy the falls as you drive by, pull over at the parking lot .2 miles past the falls and walk up the road to enjoy them at length.
Abrams Falls at Cades Cove might be the best swimming hole in all of the Smokies that you, unfortunately, can no longer swim in. For starters, there’s a large parking lot with ample parking for even midday hikes. Abrams Falls is the biggest waterfall in Gatlinburg with the most water and deepest pools. Look but don’t leap off the falls, as the hydraulics can be dangerous. With the huge pool beneath the falls, you’ll be able to safely soak after a sweaty hike. In many ways, Abrams Falls reminds me of Lula Lakes in Chattanooga.
The 2.5-mile trail climbs up and over several hills on the way to the falls. On the 5-mile round trip, you’ll end up with over 400′ of elevation gain. The trail condition gets a little rough over the tops of the hills, but it’s in generally good shape. If you’re hiking this midday, you might break a sweat both ways, but you can splash in the creek by the parking lot to cool off before you head out on Cades Cove Loop.
**2021 Update – They are currently doing trail work on the Abrams Falls trail, so make sure you check ahead and are familiar with what days the trail is closed.
The Sinks are another ‘roadside waterfall’ in the Smokies. They are 12-miles past the Sugarland Visitor Center on Old Highway 73 / Fighting Creek Gap Rd. There is a small parking lot at the falls, but no overflow parking.
The falls at The Sinks aren’t the most spectacular view, but it’s an incredible swimming hole. The powerful hydraulics beneath the falls should be avoided, but there are plenty of places to enjoy a swim at The Sinks. The sinks are a perfect stop on the way back to Gatlinburg from Abrams Falls since you should already have your swimsuit on.
Cataract Falls is a small waterfall behind the Sugarland Ranger Station. If you park by the ranger station (and not at Sugarlands Visitor Center), it’s only a .1 of a mile into the falls through deep hemlock forests.
Cataract Falls might not be instaworthy, but it’s a fun walk on a beautiful trail. Since it’s just outside of Gatlinburg, it’s perfect if you’re looking to round out a day or to do one more thing before heading home. It’s even directly connected to town via the 2.0 mile Gatlinburg Trail if you would rather head up the mountain from your hotel instead of venturing into town.
Six not so Easy Pieces
Here are six not so easy waterfall hikes near Gatlinburg to finish out the post. These are hikes that might have more than 5-miles of hiking, steep trails, a lot of elevation gain, or maybe all three. Don’t worry, the longest hike is only 8-miles with 2000′ gain, and you’re never above 8000′. These aren’t death marches, they’re just not so easy.
- Ramsey Cascades: The highest waterfall in Gatlinburg accessible by trail. 8-mile round trip with over 2000′ gain.
- Rainbow Falls: A beautiful waterfall with hikes through the old-growth forest that’s right off the Roaring Springs Motor Trail. 5.4 miles round trip with 1685′ elevation gain.
- Indian Flats Falls: an 8-mile round trip with some rocky sections of the trail. The falls are a series of four waterfalls of 10-15′ high.
- Husky Branch Falls: You could take the easy way along the Little River by the Elkmont Campground or the more challenging up-and-over route from Husky Gap with a total climb of 2300′ on a 9.4-mile round trip.
- Trickling Falls: You gain almost 700′ on the 2.2-mile round trip to Trickling Falls. It’s well worth the .2 miles side trip to see the falls on the way up to Chimney Rock.
- Baskin Creek Falls: It’s not always about the distance… A steep trail drops about 600′ in the final mile to reach Baskin Creek Falls. (3.2 miles round trip). One of the most secluded falls off the Roaring Springs Motor Trail.
Pro-Tip: Read what to pack for a day hike to make so you don’t forget anything.
Wrapping up Waterfall Hikes in Gatlinburg
Hiking in Great Smoky National Forest is always beautiful, but somehow it’s better with a waterfall waiting for you at the end. The six easy waterfall hikes in Gatlinburg are perfect for a half-day activity or string them together to form a waterfall tour. The not so easy hikes are perfect for packing a lunch and enjoying a day in the woods.
Waterfall hikes are beautiful all year long. Hiking in the spring, you’ll see wildflowers and rhododendrons blooming. The summer is the perfect season to splash in the creek. Tennessee in fall attracts leaf peepers and nature lover. Perhaps the most beautiful season for waterfalls is in the winter, where the cascades turn to ice in a frozen, shimmering beauty. Waterfalls hikes in Gatlinburg make a perfect addition to any adventure trip or romantic weekend.
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