The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a popular vacation getaway for good reason. We have beautiful mountain peaks, many of the highest in the eastern US. We’re also home to more than 2900 miles of flowing streams. Flowing streams means plenty of waterfalls! Ask any visitor to the park and you’ll hear how much they loved a certain waterfall they visited with their family. While each tourist has their favorite destination, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite waterfall walks that are also family friendly and easy enough for any member of your group.
Cataract Falls – The Easiest to Access
The trail to Cataract Falls is a nice and easy walk for any family. Start at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and follow the self-guided nature trail. Along the way, you’ll be able to climb inside a giant sycamore tree and cross a bridge over a babbling stream. The stream is a great place to climb in and look for salamanders along the way.
As you wind your way back to the falls, you’ll cross under a park access road before climbing a small set of stairs. At the top, turn right and wander back to the waterfall. Take care to stay on trail by the waterfall and not be tempted to climb the hillside. Lots of erosion has exposed too much of this fragile area.
You can return to the visitor center the way you came. This gentle trail is 0.75 miles round trip and makes an excellent walk you can take with young kids.
Laurel Falls – The Most Popular
Laurel Falls Trail is arguably the most popular hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With an 80 foot waterfall as the “payoff” for this hike, it’s easy to see why. This hike is best for families who like to get an early start, or families who want that last minute activity before heading out to supper. Laurel Falls gets extremely busy during the late morning and afternoon.
Follow the paved trail for approximately 1.2 miles, being sure to pay attention to little ones, as there are a few drop offs along the way. This is one of the few places you’ll find mileage markers on a trail in the park as well, so no more asking “are we there yet?!”
The most interesting feature of this waterfall is the fact that a bridge transects the waterfall. You’ll cross at the base of the upper falls, so make sure to see both sets while you’re here. You’ll return to the car the way you came.
While this trail was paved to help prevent erosion, but make no mistake – it isn’t stroller friendly.
Don’t want to fight the traffic and find a parking spot? Don’t worry! The tan line of the Gatlinburg Trolley drops off here for a small fee all summer long.
Grotto Falls – The Most Unique
For the family who loves waterfalls, Grotto Falls is a must see in the park. While there are many places you can see waterfalls, Grotto Falls is the only one you actually walk behind as part of the trail! To reach the trailhead for Grotto Falls, you’ll need to drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The Grotto Falls parking area is easy to find and well-signed. This is another hike you want to start early in the morning. Limited parking and a 1-way road means you may not find parking.
Once you get parked and ready to hike, you’ll follow the sign on the Trillium Gap Trail to the left for approximately 1.3 miles. This well-worn and widely graded trail is a gentle walk. When you reach the falls, a 25-foot cascade is a real treat. The shallow pool at the base of the falls is a great place to look for salamanders and cool off your feet on a summer day. If you’re coming for just the waterfall, turn around here.
Otherwise, continue on 5.5 more miles to the top of the famous Mt. LeConte. It’s important to note this road is closed from December to mid March every year, so you’ll want to make sure the road is open before deciding to take this waterfall walk. The road is also not suitable for RVs, buses, or long vans. For 2019 and 2020, Trillium Gap Trail is closed for rehabilitation From May 6 to November 14 from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The trail will be open on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and federal holidays.
Spruce Flat Falls – The Off Trail Adventure
Planning a trip to Cades Cove? Definitely save some time for this secret waterfall! Spruce Flats Falls is a local favorite for getting a quick walk in the woods.
On your way to or from Cades Cove, you’ll turn off at the Tremont Road. Follow the signs to the Tremont Institute and park here. From the parking area, you’ll wander up the hill on a gravel road and follow the signs for the Buckeye Trail. You’ll pass through parts of the Tremont Institute property before intersecting a second trail.
You’ll take a left and head up a short, but steep hill. At the top, be rewarded with views of the road below and Thunderhead Mountain and the famous Appalachian Trail above. You’ll have a short downhill and use a unique foot log with carved in steps before reaching the waterfall. The trail is a bit more rugged here with rocks and tree roots, but it is easy to follow.
The tiered waterfall makes a few unique places to explore, and the stream isn’t too deep for a quick splash. You’ll return to your car the way you came for a challenging, but fun, 1.4 mile walk.
Baskins Creek – The Hidden Waterfall
Baskins Creek Falls is thought of as a hidden waterfall in the park. The trail to it is unique in the sense that you’ll begin your hike by going downhill to this waterfall instead of up. You’ll park on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail almost immediately after turning on to it. Take the Baskins Creek Trail to your left and follow the trail slightly uphill for just a moment before it levels off and drops down. Walking through this area, you’ll get an up close and personal look at the fire damage from the 2016 wildfire that ravaged the park and the city of Gatlinburg. Witness first hand how fire ecology, while damaging, creates new undergrowth and allows new trees to take root.
At approximately 1 mile, you’ll need to cross a stream with no foot bridge. Try your best to stay in the water and avoid creating erosion around the stream. After another 0.25 miles, you’ll see a side trail veering to the left. This unmarked trail leads up a steep hill to a small family cemetery.
At mile 1.3, reach the trail junction on your left down to the waterfall. The trail becomes quite rugged and steep, so take care with your footing as you head down to the waterfall. When you reach it, you’ll see a 40-foot falls. Cross the small stream and have a snack and snap some photos before you begin the climb back up to your car.
This trail drops approximately 700 feet in elevation, so give yourself plenty of time to climb back up on the way out.
It’s important to note Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is closed from December to mid March every year, so you’ll want to make sure the road is open before deciding to take this waterfall walk. The road is also not suitable for RVs, buses, or long vans.
Hen Wallow Falls – The Quiet Waterfall
Located in the Cosby section of the park, this hike will see far fewer crowds than some of the other walks listed here. You’ll park in the hiker parking area, easily visible and marked with a sign, before walking down the road and heading left into the woods on the Gabes Mountain Trail.
The early section of this hike takes you through an area that was hit by catastrophic flash flooding in 2015, and a high wind event only a few years earlier. After approximately 1 mile, you’ll cross Rock Creek on a foot log and head on an uphill climb. When you reach the ridgeline, check out the interesting rock formations and gorgeous lichens that formed on these rocks.
At mile 2.1, you’ll see a sign pointing you steeply downhill to the waterfall. While the falls start narrow at the top, the water fans out slowly down the 90 foot drop. It’s a truly stunning sight after a heavy rain. You’ll return back to your car the way you came.
Abrams Falls – The Classic Waterfall
No trip to Cades Cove is complete without a trip to Abrams Falls. This classic Smoky Mountain waterfall walk should be a part of your vacation. At 5.2 miles round trip, this is the most difficult walk of the line up. The well worn path is easy to follow and quite wide for a large portion of this hike. You’ll be close enough to the creek to hear it for nearly the entire length of the hike, although thick rhododendron doesn’t make it easy to access for most of the walk.
For 2.5 miles, you’ll wander on gentle uphills and along a ridgeline in a gorgeous forest. You’ll also see some signs of devastation where a tornado tore through the area in 2011. Fortunately, the forest has been able to recover well.
At mile 2.6, you’ll see a footbridge to your left to take you out to a small beach area to view the raucous waterfall. Take great care in this area. While the deep pools look inviting for a swim, the strong undertow and unique geologic formation of this waterfall make it a deadly area to do so. This trail is frequently listed as one of the most dangerous in America due to the numerous swimming accidents occurring here.
Enjoy the waterfall and have a picnic before returning to your vehicle the way you came.
A reminder that on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, Cades Cove is closed to vehicular traffic until 10 a.m. to allow ample space for bicycle riders and walkers to enjoy the road. Starting this hike in the mornings, going on a weekday, or in the off season will be your most enjoyable way to see this waterfall. It has been reported that nearly 1000 visitors a day trek to Abrams Falls during the peak season.
Lynn Camp Prong – Off the Beaten Path
Lynn Camp Prong doesn’t get a lot of accolade, but it should definitely make the list. This lovely side trip makes a great place to unwind after spending the day in nearby Cades Cove. It’s easy to access and doesn’t require a ton of extra time on your schedule.
Follow Tremont Road past the Tremont Institute. The paved road will turn to gravel. Now, you’ll be following along the old railroad bed for three miles until you reach the parking area.
If you have extra time, it’s always nice to grab the autotour booklet and make the guided stops along the way as well!
After parking, you’ll follow the Middle Prong Trail. This old rail grade is nice and wide with decent footing. After approximately half a mile, you’ll see the gorgeous and multitiered Lynn Camp Prong Falls. At more than 30 feet high, this waterfall is absolutely breathtaking, especially after a hard rain.
If you’re feeling adventurous, travel another quarter mile up the trail to view another multitiered, albeit smaller, waterfall with a beach for viewing. Turn around and return to your vehicle the way you came.
Time for some rest and relaxation!
After a fun day exploring waterfalls in the national park, get ready to wind down with a tasty supper in town. Or, head back to your amazing Gatlinburg cabin rental! All of our cabins have a fully equipped kitchen, and some even have grills. A quick stop at the store and you’re ready to prepare a feast for the entire family.
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