There’s a Trail You Can “Hike” by Car in the Smoky Mountains

The roaring Fork motor nature trail by a stream

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a great place to view streams, waterfalls and historic landmarks (photo by William Silver/shutterstock.com)

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a drivable trail in the Smoky Mountains

With one of the flashier names in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail can be one of the more relaxing experiences in the Smokies. The trail is named for one of the larger, faster and louder streams in the Smokies. And it just so happens to be the perfect way to explore the mountains without leaving your car.

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is open from April to November and offers a way for visitors to explore the mountains without leaving their car. A variety of trailheads, landmarks and waterfalls are located along the trail. Wildlife spotting is also usually plentiful.

the roaring fork motor nature trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5 mile one-way road in the Smoky Mountains (photo by Tim Mainiero/shutterstock.com)

About the trail

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail is a narrow, winding, one-way road that is open in the spring, summer and fall. The 5.5-mile loop road is a favorite side trip that offers a glimpse of what life was like in the Smoky Mountains before the park. It also offers pathways to ancient grottos, waterfalls and more. Though the trail is 5.5 miles long, it’s meant to be taken at a leisurely pace. Take your time to enjoy the mountain streams, old-growth forest and a number of preserved log cabins, grist mills and other historic buildings. Spotting some wildlife is not uncommon and can bring the proceedings to a halt.

Much like the Cades Cove Loop Road, it’s difficult to assess how long it takes to drive the trail. It depends on how quickly you want to go and more importantly, how quickly others want to go. I wouldn’t think of trying to drive the trail with less than an hour of free time. And don’t try to tackle it right before you have to be somewhere.

place of a thousand drips along roaring fork motor nature trail
The Place of a Thousand Drips is along the route of the trail (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

Waterfalls and hiking trails

Also located along the route is a wet-weather waterfall called Place of a Thousand Drips. If you want to know how the Roaring Fork got its name, visit when the water is high.

Nearby trails are access points to see ancient hardwood forests. For example, the Trillium Gap Trailhead to Grotto Falls can be found along the route. Trillium Gap can even lead an experienced hiker to the summit of Mt. LeConte. You can also hike deeper to see homesteads and view relics of the past. The first settlers arrived in what is now Gatlinburg more than 100 years before the national park in the early 1800s. Over the decades, their descendants spread out into the hollers and the coves of the surrounding mountains.

ephaim cabin in the great smoky mountains
Check out historic cabins along the trail. Above: the Ephraim cabin along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

Landmarks nearby

When entering the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, you can stop at the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail. The trail offers a walking tour of a mountain farmstead and the surrounding hardwood forest. Just beyond the Ogle farmstead is the trailhead for Rainbow Falls, another popular waterfall in the park.

Another settler, Richard Reagan, lived south of Gatlinburg on LeConte Creek. His children subsequently spread across the area as well. By 1900, three of his grandchildren had settled into the hollow along Roaring Fork, known as Spruce Flats, where they farmed the land. The Bales family followed a similar path. And over the years, the families – which lived on adjoining pieces of land – intermingled. The legacy of those lives lived on the mountain remains along the trail. One of the stops on the Motor Trail is Jim Bales Place, which features the original corn crib, barn, working tub mills, and the Alex Cole Cabin moved from the Sugarlands. From Jim Bales’s Place is the home of his older brother Ephraim.

The Ephraim Bales Place is a double cabin with a passage known as a dog-trot, which essentially connects the two cabins under one roof. With the exception of the back porch, the cabin remains chiefly as it was when the Bales lived there. Also still remaining on the property are a corn crib, hog pen and a barn. Below the Ephraim Bales Place is the Alfred Reagan Place. Alfred was a blacksmith who ran a general store and grist mill. He was also a part-time preacher. Only his cabin and the mill remain today. Reagan’s saddlebag cabin, with its sawboard paneling and paint, features two cabins around a single chimney. A kitchen was added later. Thanks to the paneling and paint, it seems like it is from a completely different era than the two other cabins.

the roaring fork motor nature trail
Do note, due to the nature of the trail, buses, trailers and motor homes are not permitted (photo by ehrlif/shutterstock.com)

Tips for driving the trails

In my opinion, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is worth a trip. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail offers a little something for everyone while enjoying a trip to the Smokies. It provides access to popular trails for hikers, historical landmarks, waterfalls and a relaxing drive to those who prefer to enjoy nature from their climate-controlled vehicles.

On my most recent trip to the nature trail, I was able to see three black bears. Be sure to take your time and be on the lookout. Also, if you’re the one driving, you’ll want to keep your head on a swivel. I was surprised to see someone ahead of me driving backward. Be sure to look out for anyone doing something they are not supposed to. And also, don’t be one of those people.

Please note that buses, trailers and motor homes are not permitted on the Motor Nature Trail. And finally, be sure to respect nature and the historic cabins when you visit. Leave no trace and keep a distance from any black bears or other wildlife.

There are some bathrooms at the trailheads. However, they aren’t much better than port-a-potties. I have used the one at Grotto Falls, and it was rough. I recommend making a stop beforehand whenever possible.

Hours and location

To access the trail, turn off the main Parkway in Gatlinburg at traffic light #8. Then, follow the Historic Nature Trail Road. The entrance to the Motor Trail is a short distance from the parking areas for Rainbow Falls trailhead. It is only a few miles away from the Parkway in Gatlinburg. Or simply set your GPS to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trailhead at 117 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the trail closes around the end of November and reopens after the first week of April. Driving along the trail is free. However, if you plan to park your car in the national park for more than 15 minutes, you will need a valid parking tag. Parking tags cost $5 daily or $15 weekly and are available for purchase both online and onsite at select locations.

Have you traveled the Roaring Fork Motor Trail? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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9 thoughts on “There’s a Trail You Can “Hike” by Car in the Smoky Mountains”

  1. We always make at least 2 trips on roaring fork motor nature trail. Beautiful and peaceful. Usually see bears

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  2. For sure worth it. My first trip, we seen 4 bears and there are lots little creeks. You can’t see far off the road, it’s nothing like Cades Cove loop, where there’s big open fields that border big forest. This loop is going up the side of a mountain, surrounded by huge forest. There are places you can see 30 yards or so and a couple little fields where the homesteads are, which are very cool, but you can still see bears crossing the the road or eating on the side of the road. When you get up top where you start your way back down the mountain, they’re are open areas with amazing views. This place is right in town and you can make 2 loops in a little over an hour and you exit on 321 close to an ice cream shop and restaurants.. So this Motor Trail is a must.

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  3. We are visitors from Wisconsin,and love the GSMNP and all it has to offer.We drive Roaring Forks and Cades Cove every time we visit.A beautiful and interesting historical place

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  4. We drove the Motor Trail late in 2021. We had driven it many times before but this time found it to be poorly maintained and not worth the trip. It was overgrown and very disappointing.

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  5. Definitely worth it! We have traversed it many times, finding something new to be discovered on every trip! However, we were very saddened on our last trip in 2021when the path was so incredibly crowded by vehicles that did not respect the beauty of Roaring Fork Road sadly. Many large four wheel drive pick up trucks had driven off the paved roadway over rocks, trees and fauna. Such disrespectful visitors should not be allowed! At one point they large vehicles were parked so haphazardly and damaging to the park fauna that we had to stop our vehicle to wait for people to get back to their vehicle to move to even allow us passage. We moved our outside mirrors in on our vehicle and only had an inch clearance. We are both firefighters and know that should a fire start or a visitor fall on a park trail, there would be NO clear way for an ambulance or fire vehicle to get to rescue someone. It was quite disgusting and heartbreaking to see humans disrespectful of this beautiful earth and pathway that is such a honor for humans to visit. The roadway is a treasure we have enjoyed many times, respectfully and honorably as we love America’s National Parks. The best time to visit is the off season so you can be witness to God’s beauty and not disrespectful humans. Prafor Smoky Mountains to be protected.

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  6. Baskins Creek Falls is another waterfall hike along Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and is usually MUCH less crowded than Grotto Falls. You can access from the front end (just past the entrance to the one-way drive) or the back end of the drive.

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