A lifetime ago, we celebrated my high school graduation by taking my grandparents – who would have been in their mid-60s at the time – tubing on the Little River.
We put in just below the Wye and began our “leisurely” float.
Fast forward 30 minutes. I’m racing down the bank barefoot, bruising the soles of my feet on the rocks with every step. I am trying to catch my runaway grandmother before she reached the Mississippi. Meanwhile, my uncle is fishing Papaw out of a mess of large limbs and branches that were hanging over the water.
While that was happening, my aunt got nervous as her tube approached a small “waterfall” in the middle of the river. She was, in fact, nearing the water where it was cutting its way between a pair of larger rocks.
My aunt tried to stop herself, bracing her feet against the rocks. But the power of the water in the lazy part of the Little River got under her and flipped her. She banged her head and was lucky to not have a concussion.
I learned a few lessons that day.
First, wear your shoes on the river. Second, respect the water’s power even when it doesn’t look powerful.
On another trip, I can’t remember if it was before or after graduation, but we hosted a family reunion for my stepfather’s side of the family at Metcalf Bottoms.
We had a massive picnic, cookout, barbecue, whatever you want to call it. And we spent much of the day tubing along the twisting river from the bottoms down to the Little River Gorge Parking area where there was a truck waiting to haul us back.
I remember fairly specifically where we stopped because it isn’t that much farther down to The Sinks.
What are The Sinks?
The Sinks are – technically it should be “The Sinks is” because it’s just one thing but it sounds funny that way – a short waterfall between Metcalf Bottoms and the Townsend Wye.
That’s a clinical explanation, however.
The Sinks are where the entire volume of the Little Pigeon River drops through a deep gorge area. And it forms a series of pools that make for tempting little swimming holes and powerful rapids that are great for drowning.
Certainly, I’m not the most adventurous guy in the world. But I’ve done my share of reckless dumb stuff – most of them involved motor vehicles. The number of times I should have broken something on a 4-wheeler only to get lucky at the last second probably ranks in the dozens.
However, I’ve never been overly adventurous in the water.
I hadn’t been in Tennessee long when I learned that people can be seriously injured or worse at The Sinks. In fact, it is the most common spot for drowning in the park. And so, I’ve remained a respectful distance.
But as long as you’re smart and cautious, The Sinks can be a perfectly fun place to hang out and enjoy a day of rejuvenating recreation.
Are The Sinks naturally occurring?
Interestingly, according to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Sinks are not a naturally occurring phenomenon.
In the 1800s, long before the national park, the region around the Wye, including Elkmont and other small mountain communities was a hotbed for logging.
Although, today I think we’d consider logging a generous term for what was going on. The Smokies were actually being deforested.
In fact, one of the main drivers for the creation of the park was to protect the ancient forest from the loggers.
Anyway, the loggers used the river to float their timber downstream to the mills. During a flood in the 1800s, a massive log jam formed at the mouth of a horseshoe bend in the river.
Taking a page out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s book, the loggers rounded up some dynamite to unclog the jam.
The explosion created by the dynamite blast cleared the logs and also blasted a massive hole in the rocky streambed, rerouting the river which no longer flows around the horseshoe bend.
Where are The Sinks located?
Coming from Gatlinburg on the Little River Gorge Road, they’re about 12 miles from the Sugarland Visitor Center.
Coming from Townsend, if you take a left at the Wye, you’ll head towards The Sinks. If you take a right, you’ll head towards Cades Cove.
It’s a popular destination on warm days for swimmers seeking out large pools. Also, it’s a short drive from the Metcalf Bottoms picnic area to The Sinks’ small parking area.
What can you do at The Sinks?
You can perish before your time. OK, well, that seems a little dramatic. Let’s back off that.
What do I recommend? I recommend taking in the scenery. Take some pictures from the viewing area. Maybe having a nice picnic near the water. I recommend seeing The Sinks and then going someplace else to actually get in the river.
Some people have been known to jump off the rocks at The Sinks. I don’t recommend it.
Of the park’s many waterfalls, The Sinks is the one that comes with the easiest access, being located right next to the road.
The truth is there isn’t anything you can do at The Sinks you can’t do more safely not very far away.
But John, it’s not really that dangerous, right?
No. Not if you’re smart. I’m exaggerating somewhat because of my personal fears. But still, I hate to be a Debbie Downer.
Hundreds, probably thousands of people go to The Sinks each year.
Get in the water, enjoy the deep pools – or maybe a small pool – and then get out and go on about their vacation with nothing bad happening. I just can’t in good conscience recommend it.
It will probably be fine. It will probably be perfectly safe but if there’s one spot in the area where it might not be safe, this is it.
Also, I will add this, please be extra cautious if the water is high. When the water is up, it goes from being a pretty spot to rest and relax to a fairly turbulent waterfall.
Too many people who haven’t grown up around rapids and waterfalls fail to understand the primal force with which even a small river like the Little Pigeon operates. The strong currents can take your granny and her little tube and zip it away like she’s using a sail. It can pin you to a rock or under one.
If you respect the power of the river, you’ll be fine. If not, you’ll probably still be fine but the chances are quite as good.
OK John, what can I do at The Sinks if I promise not to get in the water?
The Little River Gorge Road crosses the river right there near The Sinks, making it a great place for photos. Particularly when the water is up from the still and somewhat new viewing platform.
The Meigs Creek Trailhead is also there in the parking area next to the bridge. The trail runs between The Sinks and the Wye. It’s not an especially difficult hike. The 7-mile round trip trail is rated moderately difficult.
The trail crosses Meigs Creek, named after Return Jonathan Meigs, a Colonel in the Continental Army. Meigs later served the federal government as a “U.S. Indian Agent” to the Cherokee Nation. Also, Meigs County, Tennessee and Meigs Mountain were named in his honor as were the Upper Meigs Falls which are just below The Sinks.
I mention all that so I can tell you that – if the portraits I’ve seen are accurate – I’m pretty sure he was related to the Big Brain Alien guy from the Star Trek meme.
Notwithstanding, his son went on to become governor of Ohio.
Is there anything else to do nearby?
If you go right at the Wye – approaching from Townsend – take the first left onto Tremont Road which will take you up to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. This is where the Lumber Ridge Trail starts as does the West Prong Trail. You can get good views of Lumber Ridge if you look to the south from The Sinks.
If you want a really adventurous hike, you could take the Lumber Ridge Trail up around the Bloody Branch where it connects with the Meigs Mountain Trail as well as the Meigs Creek Trail. Follow the Meigs Creek Trail back down across the Bunch Prong and down past the Henderson Prong and Curry Prong.
That route will take you past the Meigs Creek Cascade and eventually back down to The Sinks parking area. But that is some pretty serious back-country hiking and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.
Are you planning a venture out to The Sinks in Gatlinburg, TN? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
View the web story version of this article here.