Roaring Fork: The Smoky Mountains OTHER Motor Trail
In the Smoky Mountains, Cades Cove receives all the accolades, the adoration, and an endless stream of admirers- sometimes so endless that it can take hours to drive the famous Great Smoky Mountain National Park motor trail. But over hills from the popular Cades Cove lays a lesser known scenic drive- you won’t see the swathes of open fields fit for cattle-grazing that Cades Cove is famous for, but you may spot a bear or two- or even a llama on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail winds up and around scenic mountain top ridges and down through lush dense old-growth forest of Tennessee. Visitors have the opportunity to explore historic farmstead buildings, hike to incredible waterfalls and glimpse the scenic mountaintop landscapes that have made the Great Smoky Mountains National Park one of the most visited national parks in America.
Roaring Fork Motor Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Despite the “Motor Trail” moniker, this 5.5 narrow one way road provides visitors with pull-off opportunities to stop for a rest or to take their scenic photos, and parking areas for the trailheads, but unlike the other motor trail in the Smoky Mountains Park, there are no facilities- although there IS a compost toilet, located in the parking area of the popular Grotto Falls Trailhead. Also unlike Cades Cove, this motor trail is located under the shady canopy of the forest. The road is steep and winding and also closed during the winter months, due to ice and snow- conditions that make it too dangerous to drive on this high mountain road.
The historic Noah “Bud” Ogle Homestead is the first destination point you come to and is actually right before Roaring Fork one-way trail begins, but definitely worth a look. The charred trees surrounding the log cabin resulted from the November fires that burned through the area, but the hand-built dwelling still stands, a testament to time. You can wander through the dusty wooden floored rooms inside the cabin for a glimpse of an era past. Outside, the grass grows like a mossy carpet over the rocky homestead. A nature trail leads to the stream tub mill, but the path can get very soggy during wet weather.
After a leg stretch, head up the road to Rainbow Falls, though still closed for maintenance during this writing, this 5.4 round-trip trek rewards hikers with a view of the 80ft cascading waters of Rainbow Falls, the tallest single-drop falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Baskin Creek Falls
Another trail-to-the-falls hike, this 3.8-mile roundtrip hike heads down instead of up- meaning it’s an uphill climb back to the trailhead. The trail goes through the burnt area of the Smokies from the November fires and has not been maintained. A small waterfall is strewn with debris. There’s also a side trip to an old cemetery. This trail can get sunny and hot due to lack of overhead canopy.
Scenic Overlooks & Fire Damage
Further up the road are scenic overlooks that give you a before-and after look of the fire damage from the recent November Chimney Tops 2 fires. The vibrant greenery sprouting back around the charred tree bases shows proof that nature is indeed returning to the area. From here there is a clear view of the mountains all around. Just a short distance away, the next scenic overlook gives another view of the mountain tops, but unlike the last, this area is dense with thick growth. By the signs of toilet paper in the bushes, it also seems to be a toilet stop for many. Don’t follow suit and hang on- there’s an official toilet just up the road.
Grotto Falls Trail
The next trailhead is for Trillium Gap. Hikers can use this to reach Grotto Falls or drive further up to the Parking Area marked “Grotto Falls” and the only toilet on Roaring Fork (until the end). This parking area fills up fast- so come early. There are pull-offs that can be used for parking further down the road, but no other ‘official’ parking areas for this trailhead, so choose wisely. Sometimes there’s horse trailer parked in the no-parking zone. Don’t block them off- that’s for the llama’s they use to transport supplies to Mt. Le Conte Lodge in the mountains.
Grotto Falls is a 2.6-mile roundtrip hike up the mountain to a 25 ft waterfall. One of the shorter hikes; it is also one of the more popular ones. A well worn but rocky path climbs up into the mountains, remaining for the most part under the old growth forest shade. The path crosses little streams with small waterfalls along the way, but there are no bridges, just stones to step on or cool waters to step through. This trail goes through the damp rocky space (grotto) behind the falls. The reward of this mountain hike is the waterfalls. Many hikers hang out in the cooler misty spray around the falls to rest, take photos, and catch their breath. Resist the urge to dive into that icy cool pool of water- Swimming in the National Park is frowned upon- drowning in the waterfalls have been the highest cause of death in the park.
Though the majority of visitors turn around once they reach the falls and retrace their steps back to the parking area, Grotto Falls does not mark the end of the trail; beyond the falls the trail rises to lead avid hikers further to Brushy Mountain and Mount Le Conte. It’s another 5.2 miles to reach Mt. Le Conte Lodge, a hike-inn wilderness lodge in the Smokies. Trillium Gap trail is considered the easiest route to use to reach the lodge, and reservations are required!
Returning to the Grotto Falls Trailhead seems easier- but it’s all downhill.
Roaring Fork’s Historic Homesteads
A distance from Grotto Falls is another parking area with limited parking just above where the Roaring Fork River rushes under a bridge the road crosses. This is the only parking place to access the Jim Bales Farmstead. You can park there and walk down to the mountain creek or cross the bridge by foot to explore the historic cabin and barn on the farmstead on the other side of the creek. The buildings are open to the public for exploration and there is a trail located at the back of the grassy area.
Up the road, there are more opportunities to explore other Appalachian log cabins at the Ephraim Bales Place and the unique-for-its-time painted Alfred Reagan Cabin. Reagan also built a tub mill nearby as well.
The Place of a Thousand Drips
Before the motor trail leaves the national park, the road passes a waterfall called ‘The Place of a Thousand Drips.’ Unlike the other falls in the area, these are more dependent on rainfall, and in times of drought they dry up. There is a roadside pull off for these falls and little steps carved into the side of the mountain for a closer look at these more delicate flowing waters. Below this area, the Roaring Fork River runs past.
Roaring Fork ends at Ely’s Mill, a group of wooden buildings resembling a small town with cabins, a mill, a wood workshop and even a little store. This is not part of the national park, and their very clean toilets are for customer use only. The little store offers local books, handmade soaps, and snacks, as well as a variety of local artisan handicrafts. This is a great place to grab a cold drink and sit for a spell on the front porch before you return to the busier side of civilization.
Things to Know Before You Go:
- The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is closed from December to Mid-March, but you can still access trails on foot.
- This motor trail entrance can be reached from Cherokee Orchard Road in Gatlinburg- the Parkway Traffic Light #8. Follow the signs along the road.
- The motor trail exits through Roaring Fork Road and onto 321/East Parkway. Turn left to return to the main Parkway in Gatlinburg.
- The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one-way single lane 5.5-mile narrow road. There are no facilities for gas/food on this trail. Plan accordingly.
- The best time to explore is early in the morning. Parking in the trailhead areas is limited and fills up fast.
- The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Website lists warnings and trail closure alerts on their website, a good place to check before heading out on any trail.
- Inexpensive Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail Guides are available from the National Park Visitor Centers. They provide the history and details on the area.
More stories in this area:
- Family Fun in Pigeon Forge
- Riding the Rails at Dollywood
- Beneath the Smokies: Tuckaleechee Caverns
- Whitewater Rafting in the Smokies
- Think Before You Drink: Water Safety in the Smoky Mountains
- Returning to the Smokies: After the Fires
- Defying Gravity at Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Adventures