Local shares tips for visiting the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
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 park. And I believe it is both a perfect spot for a relaxing drive and the launching point for hundreds of potential adventures.
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What to expect on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: Things you should know
The 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.
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. 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.
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.
What waterfalls and hiking trails are on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail?
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.
Landmarks and walking trails 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.
Tips for traveling the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
In my opinion the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is absolutely 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.
Have you traveled the Roaring Fork Motor Trail? What did you think? Let us know in the comments. View the web story version of this article here.