There’s a war at work in the high country along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The war began before there was a Tennessee, before there were Carolinas.
The war was waging before European settlers set foot in the Americas, before natives first made their homes in the vast mountains of forest, before even the mountains were dominated by saber-toothed cats, prehistoric elephants, ancestral rhinos or a genus of panda bear.
The war began when tectonic plates met and pushed the mountains up out of the subsurface. And the victory has never been in doubt.
In the eons old battle of water vs. rock, the ever-patient water always wears away its foe.
The best waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains
There are two essential ingredients for waterfalls, lots of rain and a drop in elevation. The Smokies high country averages 85 inches of rain each year and, in rainy seasons, Clingmans Dome and Mt. Le Conte can receive over 8 feet of rain.
All this water trickles down to streams, creeks and rivers, creating a wide array of cascading water, some bigger than others.
Here are some of our favorite waterfalls in the Smokies.
5. Grotto Falls
Located in an old growth hemlock forest, the Grotto Falls is accessible on the Trillium Gap Trail – which actually runs behind the falls. It offers a cool respite for summer hikers and the perfect place to just stop, rest and enjoy the relaxation of the forest.
Look, it’s a grotto. Grottos are like parfaits, everybody likes grottos. The three mile roundtrip hike is considered moderate in difficulty and takes two to three hours. The trailhead is located on stop No. 5 on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
4. Mingo Falls
Located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, just outside of the park, Mingo Falls is 120 feet of wonder. The flow of the water covers the rocky mountainside and creates dozens of tiny waterfalls that combine to form a shimmering curtain.
At .4 miles in length, the hike to the falls is one of the shortest in the Smokies, but it is still considered moderate in difficulty. The Pigeon Creek Trailhead is located at the Mingo Falls Campground, not far from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
3. Ramsey Cascades
One of the most spectacular views in the park, the Ramsey Cascades, drop 100 feet over rock outcroppings into a small pool. Surrounded by hardwood forest, the cascades look like something out of a medieval European fairy tale.
Still, the hike to the cascades is a difficult one. It gains over 2,000-feet in elevation over its four miles. The 8-mile roundtrip hike is strenuous and takes five to seven hours to complete. Be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to complete the hike in daylight.
2. Laurel Falls
Possibly the most popular falls in the park, the 80-foot high Laurel Falls is located 1.3 miles down the trail, which is rated moderately difficult. The trail is paved at the trailhead, but the pavement is uneven and rough. It does not extend the full length of the trail.
Strollers and wheelchairs are not suitable for the trail, and bicycles and pets are prohibited. Those who make the trek to the falls are treated to a lovely two-tiered falls, a perfect spot for pictures, romantic outings and even the occasional wedding proposal.
Editor’s Note: Be fairly certain you’re going to get a yes if you want to pop the question at the falls. The walk back to the car is about an hour and things might get awfully awkward.
The trailhead is located on Little River Road on the way up to Cades Cove.
1. Abrams Falls
What Abrams Falls lacks in height, it more than makes up for in volume. The mass of white water and the deep pool at its base makes for a perfect picture spot.
But that same combination makes it a dangerous place to try and enter the water. I’ve seen swimmers in the pool below the falls, but the National Park Service warns against it due to the strong currents and undertow. It is also a bad idea to try and climb the rocks around or above the waterfall. Again, the strength of the rushing water cannot be overestimated. People who are not careful drown above and below the falls.
That being said, the falls are beautiful and a nice place to stop and rest halfway through the 5-mile round trip hike. The hike is rated as moderate through pine-oak forest. The Abrams Fall Trail head is accessible in Cades Cove.
Bonus Waterfall: Cumberland Falls
Cumberland Falls are not located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but offer a unique experience worth exploring. Located in the Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin, Ky., the falls are a 125-feet wide wall of water, dropping 60 feet into a boulder strewn gorge.
Under the right conditions, the resulting mists will catch the shimmering light of the moon and create one of the few moonbows in North America and the only regular moonbow in the Western Hemisphere. The Moonbow Trail Hike is long and strenuous, but there are several other view options including the half mile Cumberland Falls Trail that ended at the observation deck.
The total descent for that trail is 200 feet. The trail is paved and wheelchair accessible with assistance.
Tips for chasing waterfalls
Before you decide to hike to any Smokies waterfall, be sure to have plenty of drinking water. Many of the hiking trails have steep drop-offs. Be sure to closely monitor children on the hike and also at the falls.
Waterfalls can be dangerous. Don’t climb the rocks near the waterfalls or attempt to reach the top of the waterfall for any reason. People have drowned or been seriously injured at nearly all of the Smokies waterfalls.
Black bears can be encountered on the trails, especially Laurel and Abrams falls. Be sure to know what to do if you encounter a wild animal in the park.
Wear proper hiking boots for the terrain. Do not attempt to tackle these trails in sandals or flip flops – or for God’s sake – Crocs.