Grotto Falls hiking guide: How long is it? How do you get there?

Grotto Falls in Tennessee

Grotto Falls is a unique walk-behind waterfall located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee (photo by William Silver/shutterstock.com)

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The Smokies are full of miracles large and small. From the overwhelming views atop mighty peaks to the smallest patches of wildflowers, the beauty of the Smokies rests in the majestic and the minuscule. 

One of my favorite places in the park is Grotto Falls. It is arguably one of the best waterfalls, an oasis built by the primal forces of nature.

How far is Grotto Falls from Gatlinburg?

Grotto Falls is located about 1.3 miles along the Trillium Gap Trail from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a winding, small one-way road.

Trillium Gap Trail is also known as the trek where llamas take supplies to Mt. LeConte Lodge.

The drive from Gatlinburg is just over 6 miles. It should be noted that buses, RVs and large trucks are prohibited on the Roaring Fork Trail.

Trillium Gap Trail in the Smoky Mountains
Trillium Gap Trail is wide but well worn and considered to be moderate in difficulty (photo by Vezzani Photography/shutterstock.com)

Is the Grotto Falls hike hard? 

The walk itself is moderately difficult featuring a wide and well-worn path along a gentle upgrade, lifting you about 500 feet in elevation gain along the way. It is not a paved trail.

Once there you will be rewarded with a one-of-a-kind sight, a 25-foot-high waterfall that you can walk behind, the only one of its kind in the Smokies. 

Cool, refreshing and otherworldly, that little spot behind the water – when you have it to yourself – feels like a gateway to another place, another time.

You can picture generations of mountain people seeking shelter there during a sweltering summer.

You can also gain a real appreciation for the water’s power. When the water’s high, the roar behind the falls is like nothing else, and you can feel the power conveyed by even the relatively small stream. 

Be especially careful when walking behind the falls. 

The area is moist with mist and algae and is the ideal habitat for several species of the park’s salamanders

There are many places in the park that seem almost mythic, perfect spots for storybook creatures like fairies or gnomes. If fairies existed, you would find them at the Grotto Falls. 

Read Also: What should you not miss in the Smoky Mountains? 3 best spots

Grotto Falls in the Smoky Mountains
The view from behind Grotto Falls, a 25-foot waterfall. The ability to walk behind the falls is a distinctive feature of this waterfall in the Smokies (photo by Billy McDonald/stock.adobe.com)

Where can you park and how much does it cost at Grotto Falls?

Starting on the Parkway in Gatlinburg, turn at traffic light #8. From there, drive along the Historic Nature Trail to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Take the scenic Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to stop #5 where there is a large parking area. 

You can park at the Grotto Falls parking area between mile markers 1 and 2 on the motor trail, about 3 or 4 miles from Gatlinburg, and take a brief access path to reach the Trillium Gap Trail.

Also, note that the Roaring Fork Motor Trail is closed during the winter.

The falls are accessible through a back trail, heading out from the Rainbow Falls Trailhead, but the extra 3.4 miles will add significantly to the length and difficulty of your hike. 

At the time of this writing, parking at Grotto Falls is free, but that may change as other popular trails experiment with paid parking and reservation systems to ease park congestion.

How do you get to Grotto Falls?

Grotto Falls is just over a mile into the trail. Hikers and backpackers will see a tumbling cascade first, and just beyond that, upstream, is the waterfall.

Read Also: Easy hikes in the Smoky Mountains; Our top 6 ranked

Grotto falls in the Smoky Mountains
The view from downstream at Grotto Falls inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by PT Hamilton/stock.adobe.com)

How long does the Grotto Falls hike take?

Depending on your speed and how long you linger at the falls, the hike to the grotto and back should take between two and three hours. 

Along the way, you’ll pass through a forest of ancient giants, large eastern hemlocks that tower above the trail.

In the spring, the area around the trail is known for a smorgasbord of wildflowers such as yellow trillium, dutchman’s breeches, stitchwort and more. As a result, the walk along the sometimes rocky trail is all the more scenic. 

If you have the choice, try to go when there has been some rain in the area. When the weather has been dry, the falls are much reduced and not nearly as picturesque. When the water is up, the white cascade is much more impressive.

Also, it should be noted, the trail crosses several small streams. None are enough to cause any real concern, but you will not have the benefit of a footbridge to cross.

If the water is high enough, you might have to get your feet slightly wet. 

It should be noted that the trail – while wide and well worn – is a wild mountain trail that can be rocky or wet and slick. Proper equipment is recommended.

Wear good hiking shoes – flip flops or sandals are a bad idea – and bring your own supply of water.  

Are dogs allowed at the Grotto Falls trail?

Pets and bicycles are forbidden on the trail. Children should be closely supervised. 

For the record, dogs are only allowed on the Gatlinburg Trail near the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the Oconaluftee River Trail, near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

At the falls, you may be tempted to Indiana Jones it, climb around and explore. Don’t.

First of all, the falls are not a jungle gym.

Secondly, the rocks are wet and slippery and more than one person who thought he was more adept at climbing them has fallen.

Bears have been spotted along the trail and in the general area. Please follow park guidelines on what to do if you meet a bear along the path or at the falls.  

Read Also: What to do if you see a black bear: These 3 tips might surprise you

More dedicated hikers have the option of continuing on past Grotto Falls. Another two miles will carry you to the summit of Brushy Mountain and another 5.6 miles will carry you to the 6,593-foot summit of Mt. LeConte.

Do not undertake either adventure lightly. 

Do you think Grotto Falls is a good hike? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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