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Exploring Nature's Majesty: The Best Waterfall Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Added: Jun 20, 2023
Category: Things to Do


The #1 question we are asked is “what are the best waterfall hikes in the Smokies?” Everyone loves the tranquility of watching and listening to waterfalls. We like to pack a picnic so that we have an excuse to stay and enjoy our destination longer when we arrive. Join me as we uncover the best waterfall hikes in the Smoky Mountains, where adventure and serenity intertwine in perfect harmony.

Grotto Falls***

Grotto Falls is our FAVORITE hike so far!!! It offers a 2.6-mile roundtrip hike that inspires you to soak up the peace and simple beauty around you. As you meander along the very easy, mostly flat trail with a few roots here and there, you'll hear the nearby stream down below. It was fun to cross over several streams with baby waterfalls along the way and made the journey seem extra adventurous. There are a few places as you get closer to the falls, where you can get down to the stream and cool off or cross over on large bolders. Our boys enjoyed skipping stones across a pool and exclaimed "we're having the time of our lives!" Shortly after the stream access points, you'll stumble upon the captivating Grotto Falls, where water cascades over an overhanging ledge, creating a mesmerizing curtain of liquid crystal. It's so exciting to go behind the falls for photos!

There are a couple things to be aware of to make this trip more successful:

  • There are only 17 parking spaces, so we are told it fills up by 8 am. We tried to go around lunch and did find it was full, so we circled back around 3 and there were many open spaces!!

  • This waterfall was hard for us to find because you don't go "into" the main entrance to the park and you have to "leave" the park from the Sugarland Visitor Center, back into Gatlinburg to get there. From the cabin you go to Gatlinburg traffic light A8, turn left, then go down just a ways and you end up right back into the National Park on Old Cherokee Road. This is one lane and makes a loop to include Rainbow Falls, Baskins Creek Falls, and Grotto Falls. Then as a nice surprise on your drive out, there are 2 more waterfalls you can see right out your car window! Place of a Thousand Drips and then another that isn't named on the map. This is perfect for elderly who want to see waterfalls, but can't do the hiking.

Rainbow Falls

If you're looking for a hike that rewards you with a mesmerizing display of colors, then Rainbow Falls is the perfect choice. This 5.4 mile round trip adventure will take you through a diverse landscape, offering glimpses of wildflowers, old-growth forests, and moss-covered boulders. The anticipation builds as you approach the main event—the 80-foot cascade that showers the rocks below, creating a stunning mist that refracts sunlight into a dazzling rainbow. *Please note the location and direction recommendations above for Grotto Falls.

Mingo Falls***

As the tallest waterfall in the southern Appalachians at 120 ft., this waterfall is beautiful and another of our favorites! It's exactly 167 actual steps to hike the .4 mile to the falls and who to stairs make the muscles burn. It's a "easy" climb, but you will most likely stop a couple times and shake out the legs. It makes for a great picture, since you can stand on an observation bridge right in front of the falls. To get here, you will travel south to Cherokee about 35 minutes. You will be out of the park when you head east another 5 minutes to the trail where there is plenty of parking. The nice thing is you will also get to see the Elk herd on your way as they are grazing north of Cherokee in the morning and evenings.

Indian Creek & Toms Branch Falls***

This is definitely the easiest of all waterfall hikes in the park - you could even use a walker if needed. Bikes are allowed on the very wide, hard trail and it's only .2 mile to Toms Branch Falls where you will find benches to sit and take in the beauty for as long as you like. This is the prettiest of all the falls in my opinion - it's very romantic with several levels of cascades. If you want to keep going, the trail continues along the river another .6 mile to Indian Creek Falls. If you go when the weather is warm, there are many places to rent tubes and tube the river, which takes you past Toms Branch Falls. Finding this part of the park is easiest if you follow signs to the Deep Creek Campground - GPS did work well. Like Mingo Falls, you will head south to Cherokee, then turn right to Bryson City. It makes for a very nice day to go to this park of the park to see several waterfalls and elk!

Laurel Falls                                

Probably the most popular waterfall for visitors, since it’s been considered one of the easiest and closest hikes for viewing a waterfall. This scenic trail, just a short drive from Gatlinburg, is a moderate 2.6 mile round trip hike. When we first hiked here 20 years ago, it was a nice paved path the whole way, so strollers or even wheelchairs could access it. Now unfortunately, it's all uneven pavement that has been washed out and pitted along the edges, making it very uneven, so I would not recommend it for elderly people or strollers. I spoke to the guide at the welcome center and learned this is on the list of park improvements, so hopefully we see that soon! It's still an easy hike for kids and able bodied adults, so it's still worth your time. Don't forget your camera; this is 80 foot waterfall is a picture-perfect spot to capture memories that will last a lifetime. Just be careful as wet rocks are extremely slippery…my husband of 36 hours was almost widowed on our honeymoon when I was trying to get to a better picture spot!

Abrams Falls

Get ready for an adventure that will take you back in time. Abrams Falls offers a 5 mile round trip hike that leads you deep into the heart of Cades Cove. As you navigate the trail, you'll find yourself immersed in the history and beauty of the region. Plunging 20 feet into a picturesque pool, it invites you to cool off and take a refreshing dip. Remember to bring your swimsuit and embrace the exhilaration of nature's own water park. Something to note is that Cade's Cove is an hour drive from the Gatlinburg entrance and then Abrams Falls is another 20 minutes into the loop for Cade's Cove, so it's a drive from our cabins, but make a day of it if you can!

There you have it, fellow adventurers—the best waterfall hikes in the Smoky Mountains. From the roaring cascades of Laurel Falls to the colorful spectacle of Rainbow Falls, each of these hikes offers a unique and unforgettable experience. So, grab your hiking buddy, pack some snacks, and get ready to immerse yourself in the natural wonders of this stunning mountain range. Remember to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. Happy trails!

For a full list of hikes, distance, difficulty, photos and more, visit:

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