Kephart Prong Trail

  • Kephart Prong Trail2.0 miles in length
  • Starting Points – 8.8 miles from Newfound Gap – headed toward North Carolina
  • Points of Interest – CCC Camp, Fish Hatchery, Railroad Remains, Kephart Shelter
  • Difficulty – 1-2

This is a great trail, especially if you are looking for something a little out of the ordinary but still short enough to hike in one afternoon.  Along the way you will get to see some history from the early days of the GSMNP, cross some streams and even take in one of the shelters that you can reserve if you want to stay on the trail overnight.  Also, this trail is named for a very famous person:  Horace Kephart.  Kephart was one of the people that helped with the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and actually established most of the trails in the park.

Kephart Prong TrailThe trail is inclined, gradually gaining altitude as you hike.  Within the first few feet, you will cross the Oconaluftee River on a footbridge.  The trail starts out very wide, easily allowing 3-4 people to walk side by side.  The trail narrows as it continues.  Inside the first half mile yo will come upon a chimney that marks the location of an old CCC camp.  These members of the Civilian Conservation Corps helped build the infrastructure in the National Park during the 30s and 40s.

At 0.7 miles into the trail you will come to the abandon fish hatchery.  This hatchery was used by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.  The WPA helped to establish the National Park.  This hatchery helped to establish the rainbow trout population in the Smokies.  Though this trout did have adverse effects on the native brook trout, the rainbow trout did establish the Smokies as the trout fishing capital of the south.

Kephart Prong TrailIn the last mile of the trail, you will experience 4 stream crossings.  If you are unfamiliar with the term stream crossing, you are going to encounter a stream that runs across the trail.  The stream crossings vary in depth and width.  In most cases, on the trails in the Smokies, there will be some type of bridge to assist you with those crossings.  On all of the stream crossings along Kephart Prong Trail you can choose to cross them by wading across the stream or by using the bridges.  Now, these bridgesd are nothing like the footbridge that you crossed the Oconaluftee on earlier.  These are trees that have been cut in half and laid across the stream.  The logs are held in place by stonework and they have handrails in most cases.

Along the final 0.2 miles of the trail you will encounter the remains of a narrow gauge railroad from the Champion Fibre Company.  Along the side of the trail you will see the iron rails of the railroad covered in most and rusting.  This narrow gauge track system transported materials out of the mountains until the establishment of the national park.  Not wanting to spend the resources to remove the rails from the park, the iron rails have been left in the mountains to testify to a time long gone.

Rainbow Falls Trail

Summary: The Rainbow Falls Trail is fairly challenging if completed all the way to Mt LeConte. Allow an hour and a half to Rainbow Falls and four hours to Mt LeConte. Hikers will gain nearly 4,000 feet in elevation by the time they get to Mt. LeConte.

Point of Departure: Cherokee Orchard Road – Turn at light #8 in Gatlinburg and follow the Airport Road 1 mile out of Gatlinburg into the Great Smokies National Park. The name will change from Airport Road to Cherokee Orchard Road. About 2.5 miles after entering the Park, Cherokee Orchard Road approaches the Rainbow Falls parking area. You will find the trail head at one edge of the parking area.

Features of Interest: Your first reward comes at the 2.8 mile point when you arrive at Rainbow Falls. At the 6.6 mile point you will come upon an Alum Cave Trail junction which leads left 0.1 mile to the LeConte Lodge (the only lodging to be found within the Park), which is 6.7 miles from where you began. Overnights at LeConte Lodge require a reservation, which should be obtained weeks or even months in advance by calling (865) 429-5704.

A short jaunt to Rainbow Falls and a challenging climb on to Mt. LeConte await the hiker on The Rainbow Falls Trail. The Rainbow Falls Trail gains nearly four thousand feet in 6.7 miles, making it one of the more uniquely challenging climbs in the Smokies. The original trail is arguably the oldest route to Mount LeConte, and followed the east side of LeConte Creek. At that time, LeConte Creek was known as Mill Creek– because of the large number of grist mills that operated along the creek.

The Rainbow Falls Trail begins along the stream, and 1 mile above Cherokee Orchard, it twists away from the stream onto an exposed ridge. Shortly it returns creekside, the hiker crossing by way of a footlog, and then begins a series of climbing switchbacks.

After you cross the stream a second time, you can spot the high cliff from which the falls descend. The cliff is surrounded by a thicket of rhododendron and a growth of hemlocks.

LeConte Creek is fairly narrow at this point, and forces the water outward into a heavy mist before settling eighty-two feet below. Sunlight reflecting off this mist creates the rainbow effect which gives the falls their name.

When you cross the LeConte Creek for the third time, Rainbow Falls comes into complete view. Navigation over the rocks allows a closer approach–and a better view–of the falls. For the hardier hiker, the trail continues beyond Rainbow Falls, and becomes steeper, before changing again to a more easy course on the way to the LeConte terminus. The hiker should remember–as the trail moves up the mountain and into the cooler, moist upper reaches of LeConte–that temperatures can change considerably and unprepared hikers might find themselves in surprisingly cool temperatures–especially if it’s raining. With the change in climate, plant life changes as well. Balsam, spruce, and mountain ash dominate the trees, and crimson bee balms, asters, Indian Pipes, and monkshoods are also evident.

Note: If you have access to the internet prior to departure, you can check the general weather conditions and temperatures at different elevations. Use this only as a guideline, however, because conditions can change abruptly in the Smokies, which average 90 inches of rain each year.A short distance from the summit of Mount LeConte the Bull Head and Alum Cave Bluff trails intersect the Rainbow Falls Trail. At this point, you will be only a few hundred yards from the top of Mt. LeConte and LeConte Lodge.

Bull Head Trail

For all you locals, the Bull Head Trail is probably one you’ve heard of before, and if you’ve been to Mount LeConte might have even hiked as you made your way back to civilization.

In all, it’s a 5.9 downhill hike. We’re starting you off at the summit of Mount LeConte and traveling downward toward the Rainbow Falls Trail junction to its intersection with the Old Sugarlands Trail. For wildflowers lookers or fall color seekers, this is a perfect hiking trail and one you’re sure to come back to with the changing seasons.

Starting out, you’ll find yourself at LeConte’s West Point at the intersection with the Rainbow Falls Trail. Many choose to hike up the Rainbow Falls Trail to reach the summit of Mount LeConte and take the Bull Head Trail back down the mountain.

As mentioned this is a wonderful wildflower hike whether you decide to go during the spring or summer. Bee-balms and trout-lilies are just a few of the seasonal blooms you’re sure to notice along the way. Views are just as good, especially at points where you get to gaze down at the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.

You come to the Pulpit at mile 3.3 of the hike – a stone cairn built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Not only can you stand on it and look out to a majestic view, 2 or 3 people can sit on if they wish. Many a Smokies hiker have stopped to eat or take a break at this point.

From there, you’ll swing left before starting the switchbacks. This is the area known as the head of the bull – its profile seen northward. A wild buffalo bull. Talk to someone who has hiked the area over the years and they might be able to show you the whole of the bull. Balsam Point being the bull’s shoulders, the crest of Mount LeConte its body, and the Sawteeth its tail.

Magnolias, hemlocks, sugar maples meet the hiker on the way down past the Pulpit. Rock overhangs are present on this part of the trail and can provide a bit of covering during a pop-up rain storm. But be wary of these overhangs during a lightning storm. From here it’s a near straight line to the Old Sugarlands Trail.

Alum Cave Bluffs Trail

The Alum Cave Bluffs Trail is one of the most traversed in the national park and for good reason. It’s by far the most popular route to Mount LeConte as you gain 2600 feet on the way to 6400 feet.

To reach the trailhead via the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg, drive 8.6 miles along Newfound Gap Road traveling east. There you’ll find the sign to the trail and two large parking areas, where a path leads to the beginning of a 2.3 mile hike to Alum Cave Bluff.

The hike itself is a 4.6 mile round-trip climb following by a descent back or 5.1 miles on to LeConte Lodge. Expect the hike to the bluffs to take about 2 and 1/2 hours. Allow for about 3 and 1/2 hours if you decide to go on to LeConte Lodge.

Arch rock is the point of interest along the trail and you’ll bear witness to nature’s majestic power during this 4.6 mile (round-trip) hike. Even better views can be found if you hike on to LeConte Lodge and Cliff Tops.

Just off the parking area, you come to the Alum Cave Bluff Trailhead which is followed on its side for a mile by the Alum Cave Creek. Arch Rock appears at mile 1.5. Here, a set of stone stairs marks your passage through one of the few natural arches inside the national park. Inspiration Point appears at the 1.8 mile mark, where a panoramic view of the area meets the hiker. It’s an overwhelming sight and if you’ve packed a camera this is one of the places to use it. Low shrubs come to dot the trail from here on, before you arrive at Alum Cave Bluff (mile 2.3). Don’t take Alum Cave on name alone. Rather than a cave, it’s black slate that juts out in the form of a ledge, covering the trail and giving the impression of a cave. Alum Cave’s name derives from the alum deposits found along its walls.

If you do decide to continue and hike on to LeConte Lodge, the trail curves and follows the ridge that forms the southern flank of Mount LeConte. You’ll eventually be joined on the left by the Rainbow Falls Trail – 200 yards from it’s finish at LeConte Lodge. LeConte Lodge consists of several wood-shingled cabins, two lodges, and a dining room. There is no electricity and water is pumped into holding tanks from a spring. Reservations can be made at LeConte Lodge by calling (865) 429-5704.

Baskins Creek Trail

Surely if you’re an avid hiker you’ve looked for those trails that everyone seems to skip over and has overgrown just enough to feel like you’re really in a remote wilderness. Trails like those still exist, a few in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Baskins Creek Trail falls under that classification if only for its cryptic location.

The lovely 2.7 mile trail begins at the junction of the Trillium Gap Trail and ends in the middle of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – a very popular route for tourists coming to Smokies for the first time. It’s a wonder that the trail isn’t more traversed due to the number of popular places in the area like Grotto and Rainbow Falls.

As mentioned, the Baskins Creek trailhead is located along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Most hikers will park along Cherokee Orchard Road and walk along the trail before coming to the trailhead.

Once on the trail trail, you’ll notice various red maples, oaks, Eastern hemlocks. In winter, you can catch glimpses of Mount LeConte along the trail. You’ll cross Falls Branch at exactly 1 mile into the hike by stepping stones before descending a short ways.

Hikers will be tempted at 1.4 miles to take the side trail leading to the base of Baskins Creek Falls. Be warned, this trail is  not maintained by the national park or any other entity and is steep and can be extremely slippery for even the best of outdoorsmen.

You’ll cross Baskins Creek again at mile 1.6 after walking through a rhododendron tunnel then start a climb up a gulch where you can hear the Roaring Fork on certain days. The trail ends at the Bales Cemetery and the junction of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Kanati Fork Trail

The Kanati Fork Trail isn’t just a Smoky Mountain trail with a funny name. It’s a challenging uphill hike that with test even the most experienced of hikers and one where you can get some incredible shots of spring wildflowers.

In all, it’s a 2.9 mile hike from its trailhead on Newfound Gap Road to the junction with the Thomas Divide Trail. To reach the trailhead, walk 0.3 miles north of the Kephart Prong Trail parking area which is eight miles north of the Oconoluftee Visitor Center.

Like many other trails in the Smokies, the Kenati Fork Trail is a wonderful trail for viewing spring wildflowers, but it’s also a trail that can be fairly muddy if a storm has come through the area recently. The name “Kanati” comes from an old Cherokee tale, though there is no known reason as to why it was applied to this stream.

As you ascend this trail, notice the lush forest of birch and magnolia, as well as the creek valley on your left. Wildflowers that can be found along the Kanati Fork Trail include bee-balm, great chickweed, Dutchman’s britches, rue anemone, violets, trillium, and trout-lily.

Hikers will cross, then cross again, one of Kanati Fork’s feeder creeks, climb a switchback, then crosses the creek for a third time at 0.9 mile on the trail.

Thomas Divide creeps ever closer at the 2-mike marker and you cross another feeder creek before the trail levels off somewhat and another switchback come into play. At 2.9 miles, you reach the intersection with the Thomas Divide Trail and the end of the Kenati Fork Trail. Happy hiking!

Little Bottoms Trail

All you Smokies hikers out there looking for great little creek as well as backcountry campsite to camp out at need to look no further than the Little Bottoms Trail, a 2.3 miler on the Tennessee side of the park.

To get there, prepare to hike 1.3 miles by way of the Cooper Road Trail from the Abrams Creek ranger station. By the time you reach and hike Little Bottoms, you’ll have reached its junction with the Hatcher Mountain Trail.

To say that this trail gets its share of use would be an understatement. It’s THE people use to reach Abrams Falls from Happy Valley and a popular alternate route to the falls for those who wish to avoid the traffic of Cades Cove.

Starting out on the trail you’ll ascend a ridge of pine. The popular Indian Pipe blooms in abundance here from June through August in small clusters. Passing over the ridge, you’ll soon hear the flow Abrams Creek. Backcountry campsite No. 17 is reached at mile 1.6 on the trail and Abrams Creek moves musicly not far from here. An old Smokies homesite is still visible here and campers can use the creek as a water source.

The trail reaches its end at 2.3 miles at its intersection with the Hatcher Mountain Trail. Enjoy the Smokies!

Little Brier Gap Trail

As far as historical trails go in the Great Smoky Mountains, you’d be hard pressed to find a trail that packs as much history into as small a distance as the Little Brier Gap Trail.

It’s only a 1.4 mile trail, but during that time you’ll pass the Little Greenbrier School, as well as the Walker Sisters’ cabin and farm. It’s a great spot for taking shots of historic structures still standing that belonged to some of the region’s earliest settlers and some of the last to live in the park.

To get to the trailhead which is located at Little Greenbrier School, drive to Metcalf Bottoms picnic area, or hike the 0.6 mile Metcalf Bottoms Trail to the school. From the school’s parking area, the trail starts just up the hill.

As you begin your hike on the Little Brier Gap Trail, take note of the trees that surround the trail. These same species were the ones that early settlers like the Walker family used to construct their homestead – tuliptrees, white oak, maple, and beech were all used in one aspect or another to build and maintain their cabin.

After hiking three quarters of way, notice that the grassy road continues on and a gravel trails back. The grassy way takes hikers on to the Little Greenbrier Trail, the gravel road takes hikers to the Walker Sisters’ cabin. Besides the cabin, the springhouse is also still standing at the site which stored items like milk and eggs. It was said that there used to be many outbuildings that once stood on the property due to the industriousness of John Walker. Today, all that remain are the springhouse and corn crib/gear shack. A barn, pigpen, smokehouse, apple house, and blacksmith shop are said to be among the buildings that once stood on the property.

In all, 5 Walker sisters lived on the property up until 1964 when the last, Louisa Susan, passed away. They even lived on the property after the land was designated as a national park through a “life-time lease” which allowed property owners to sell their land to the park, yet live out their lives there.

Back on the trail, continue on to the trails end at the junction with the Little Greenbrier Trail where you can head east to the Laurel Falls Trail, west to Wear Cove Road, or just circle back to Little Greenbrier School. Happy hiking!


Indian Creek Trail

The Indian Creek Trail in the Smokies simply has it all – waterfalls, wildflowers, old Smoky Mountain home sites, a majestic stream valley, and all on a trail that only 3.6 miles through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

To reach the Indian Creek Trail, you’ll need to make your way over to Bryson City, NC first, traveling toward the Deep Creek Campground. Once you’ve arrived there, park in the Deep Creek Trail parking area then hike a little under a mile on the Deep Creek Trail to the Indian Creek Trailhead.

Of course, this trail is primarily used by campers and hikers to get to Indian Creek Falls, and we don’t blame them. It’s quite a sight. It’s a 200-foot cascade and one of the most picturesque in the entire Smoky Mountain region.

Continuing on the trail past the falls, hikers will cross Indian Creek by bridge before reaching the part of the trail where Stone Pile Gap Trail takes a right at 0.5 miles in. If you decide to follow the Stone Pile Gap Trail at some point, it travels 0.9 miles up to the Thomas Divide Trail. Keeping on the Indian Creek Trail, you’ll notice more maples and oaks dotting the forest before meeting the creek.

Loop Trail comes into view 0.8 miles on Indian Creek Trail and once you’ve hiked around 1.5 miles the trail encircles what was once an early Smoky Mountain homestead. Moving along, you’ll pass four of these such sites: the Beard farmstead, the Widow Styles place, the Hardy Styles place, and the William Laney farm. At one point these properties all had houses, barns, and various other buildings, though no more. The only real markings that remain are the clearings.

The trail eventually meets up again with Indian Creek which flows into cascades and various whirling pools as you move along the trail. Wildflowers can be seen by the hundreds in this area of the park so be sure to pack a camera.

Passing the final farmstead, the Indian Creek Trail turns back into a wooded hike before crossing Indian Creek again by bridge. The trail goes on a reaches the Deeplow Gap Trail at 2.9 miles. Four more bridges make up the final mile of the trail before reaching the junction with the Martins Gap Trail. Enjoy your adventure in the Smokies!

Ramsay Cascades

The rewards are great on this 8-mile round-trip hike in the Greenbrier section of the Park. The diligent hiker not only gets to enjoy the Ramsay Cascade falls–arguably the best waterfall in the Smokies– but also can view stands of old-growth trees which never suffered from the logger’s saw or the settler’s ax.

Summary: You have only to take this hike once to understand why it’s one of the most popular. The falls are ample reward not only for the hiker, but the artist and photographer as well. The trail starts out with a slight upgrade in the beginning, then becomes more challenging as you near the cascades. The latter portion of the trail is where you will find the old growth trees–some of which measure in record proportions. The round-trip is approximately 8 miles and can take a little over four hours, depending on whether you take children.

Directions: From Gatlinburg, drive east along US 321 (stop-light #3 in Gatlinburg) for approximately 6 miles. Turn right on Greenbrier Road and travel 3.1 miles along the Little Pigeon River to Greenbrier Cove. Turn left at Ramsay Prong Road and travel 1.5 miles to the parking area. The trail begins at the back of the parking area.

Your hike will start on the south side of the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River on the Ramsay Cascade Trail. You will cross the prong on a very long footbridge, and make your way past Ramsay Branch, which flows from Greenbrier Pinnacle on your left. At mile 1.5, the trail comes to a turnaround. The Greenbrier Pinnacle Trail turns off to the left. The Ramsay Cascade Trail continues forward and your climb becomes more steep.

Beside the Ramsay Prong is a primitive stand of chestnut oaks, poplars, black cherries, hemlocks, and yellow birch that forms a high canopy over the trail. Some of the largest chestnut oaks in the Smokies are found along this lower section of the trail. At higher elevations the black cherries and poplars grow to near-record sizes.

Shortly after the first crossing, the trail passes through a stand of cucumber trees. These trees are particularly enjoyable in the spring when they are sporting their bright, yellow blossoms. At the 2-mile point, before the trail crosses back to the Pinnacle Lead side of the creek, the undergrowth falls away, leaving the trail flanked by a grove of tall buckeyes, hemlocks, red maples, poplars, and tall black cherry trees, from which the section gets its name–the Cherry Orchard.

A winding passageway through huge boulders identifies the approach to Ramsay Cascades–arguably the most spectacular waterfall in the Park. Here, two streams converge to tumble nearly 100 feet over the eight stair-step ledges. It’s a marvelous place to spread out a lunch or set up the tripod and camera, or simply relax and recover from the trail.

The graded trail ends at the cascades (“Ramsay Cascades” by Gatlinburg watercolorist Vern Hippensteal at right), but more reward waits for the intrepid hiker, for approximately one-half mile above Ramsay Cascade–if you make your way through dense rhododendron–the trail approaches the creek at a memorable location known as Drinkwater Pool. Drinkwater Pool is the largest of a succession of basins on the Ramsay Prong, where the water collects in pools before continuing on to charm the visitors at the cascades. Drinkwater Pool is surrounded by ledges covered with overhanging rhododendron above which towers a stand of virgin birch. We stood in this area and imagined being the first to discover the sight. We are truly blessed to be able to enjoy such as this!

Don’t quit yet! About a half mile above Drinkwater Pool is a second cascade, which is higher and nearly as enjoyable as Ramsay Cascades. On the face of a two-hundred-foot cliff are more than a dozen small, wispy waterfalls. They catch the eye and hold it, for these falls are not aligned one after the other. Each fall has a separate ledge where the water pools before falling to the next.

For the hardiest of hikers, the Appalachian Trail waits above these falls—should you want to continue another 1.5 miles.