Roaring Fork Nature Trail is one of the most beautiful drives in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and features not only old homesteads and beautiful wildflowers but also some wonderful waterfalls. Drawing its name from the fast running stream, Roaring Fork, that follows along beside the trail visitors will be treated to one of the most popular drives in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park while they get to experience forested views along with mountain scenery.
Roaring Fork stream begins its journey nearly 5,000 feet up on the slopes of Mt. Leconte. It then drops 2,500 feet within 2 miles and spills over Grotto Falls. It then follows through a narrow valley between Mt. Winnesoka and Piney Mountain. On most days, Roaring Fork is a fast flowing mountain stream but after a rain, the name Roaring Fork becomes apparent as the stream ‘roars’ through the mountain pass.
The first permanent settlers arrived here at Roaring Fork, also known as the White Oak Flats area and what is now called Gatlinburg, between 1800 and 1810. Their descendants eventually spread out to the coves and valleys into Sugarlands. The families who lived here, the Reagans, the Bales, the Clabos, the Ogles and the Mellingers farmed the land and intermarried, creating a community of their own. Around 1850 they constructed a rustic road connecting the area to the White Oak Flats area and by 1900 their small community had its own school, general store, church and tub mills. This first rustic road is now a stop along the Roaring Fork Nature Trail. A ‘tub mill’ is a form of grist mill that grinds the grain for the farmers. There is one in good condition along the Trail once owned by Alfred Reagan. By 1976, the Roaring Fork Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
To enhance the experience of driving the Roaring Fork Nature Trail, visitors can stop by any of the National Park visitor centers and pick up a $1 guide book that highlights all of the historical stops and sights along the trail. It will guide visitors while explaining part of the forestry and historic areas that may not be noticed along the drive. There is also a small stand at the entrance to the one way nature trail drive where visitors can pick up a brochure and leave a donation.
To reach Roaring Fork Nature Trail by driving the main Parkway, HWY 441, through Gatlinburg to Stop Light #8 where you will make a turn here to and follow the street to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Once in the National Park, follow the road until you come to the entrance to Roaring Fork Nature Trail. The Trail is a 5.5 mile driving loop that is one-way.
Driving the Roaring Fork Nature Trail, visitors should allow for at least one to two hours, stopping at the historical sites along the way. If there is hiking in mind, allow for more time. Be sure to take your camera. Visitors will want to take home memories of the rustic cabins and historic sites along with the natural scenic beauty of the mountains. Bears have also been known to be sighted here along the trail.
One of the historic places along the trail is the Jim Bales Place. It’s the first stop along the historic trail and is a frame that Jim Bales inherited from his father, Caleb. Jim married Emma Ogle, granddaughter of Gilbert Ogle, whose farm adjoined the Bales place. The farm passed on to other families, one which built a frame house, called the ‘fancy house’, where they received visitors. When the park service took control of the land, they tore down the frame house in the 1930’s. The Alex Cole cabin, a throwback to the pioneer days of Appalachia, was then moved from the Sugarlands onto the Bales property and stands there now. The Alex Cole Cabin is the last surviving cabin from the Sugarlands community. The Bales corn crib and barn do remain on the property for visitors to see.
Below the Jim Bales farm is the Ephraim Bales Place. Ephraim was Jim Bales’ older brother and he farmed 30 acres of this 70 acre farm. The remaining 40 acres was forested and the wood used for construction and firewood. Ephraim’s cabin was considered a ‘dog trot’ cabin. It’s a double cabin with a passageway in between but with one continuous roof covering all. These cabins are common throughout the southeast and usually involve two cabins with approximately 10 feet in between them, the ‘dog trot’. The space between the cabins was normally cool in summer and warm in winter, making it a place dogs enjoyed. Both cabins had their own chimneys and the cabin here remains mostly as it was when the Bales family resided here in the early 1900’s. Along with the cabin, the corn crib, hog pen and barn are still intact on the property just a few yards from the cabin. A rock wall and paling fence stand on the property, examples of two boundaries that were normally used in the Smokies in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Alfred Reagan, a descendant of the original Reagans in the area, owned a small farm just below the Bales Place. Reagan performed a multitude of positions in the community including working at the blacksmith shop, general store and grist mill and also served as preacher at the Roaring Fork Church, which he donated the land to build the church on. Though more buildings were originally located on the farm, only Reagan’s cabin remains today. The cabin is a standout in the Smokies today. It’s design is described as a ‘saddlebag’ cabin in which two cabins were built around a single chimney with a kitchen added later. The building stands out due to its sawboard paneling and white coat of paint, stark against the backdrop of the forest. Reagan’s Mill is a standard tub mill with a flume to redirect water from Roaring Fork to power a tub-wheel turbine used to grind the grain. The mill was well positioned and even in lower water times, the water could be redirected to power the mill to keep it running when others couldn’t.
The Roaring Fork Nature Trail itself is a one-way driving trail that is somewhat narrow and is open to cars, pickup trucks and motorcycles. No large vehicles are allowed on the narrow winding road, including RVs, campers or trailers. The Roaring Fork Nature Trail is open in spring, summer, and fall but closed in winter due to icy and slick road conditions. The trail begins just past the Rainbow Falls trailhead and slowly winds up Piney Mountain where there is an overlook at the top, approximately 3,000 feet in elevation. As the trail continues, visitors will see several large chestnut tree blowdowns. These trees were known to grow from 5 to 6 feet in diameter and were killed off by a blight to the chestnut in the 1930’s.
As the road begins its descent down the mountain, it passes the parking lot for the Trillium Gap Trail. This hiking trail leads past Grotto Falls and Trillium Gap on its way to the summit of Mt. LeConte. Trillium Gap is the gap between Brushy Mountain and Mt. LeConte. It was named by Horace Albright when he observed the trillium filled area in the 1920’s.
The road then continues as it enters into the upper part of Roaring Fork Hollow. Groups of young tulip trees mark the former locations of the Clabo and Ogle farmsteads. After the road crosses Roaring Fork, the Jim Bales place can be seen on the right. The Grapeyard Ridge Trail, connecting Roaring Fork to Greenbrier, begins on this end just behind the Bales’ barn. Along the road visitors will also see the Ephraim Bales Place and the Alfred Reagan Place. Then the road continues on past the historic district and a parking area where visitors can pull off to view the waters of Roaring Fork. The last stop along the driving trail is the thin waterfall known as ‘The Place of a Thousand Drips’. Then the trail reenters Gatlinburg on HWY 321.
The waterfalls of the Roaring Fork Nature Trail are glorious indeed. Rainbow Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The falls gets its name from the rainbow produced by the mist of the 80 foot waterfall that can be seen on sunny days. In the winter, cold spells produce impressive ice formations at the falls also. The trailhead is located just before the Roaring Fork Nature Trail entrance and its one of the most popular waterfall trails of the Park. The parking areas for the trailhead are clearly marked for Rainbow Falls. The roundtrip distance to the Falls is approximately 5 ½ miles and its typically considered moderate in difficulty. Due to the length, rocky terrain and elevation, some visitors to the Park deem this trail to be moderately strenuous. It takes approximately 3.5 to 5 hours to hike to the waterfall and back so allow for time accordingly. Carry drinking water with you. Do not try to hike this trail wearing sandals or flip flops. Wear sturdy hiking shoes. Some portions of this trail are very rocky. This trail does not allow pets or bicycles. Once arriving at the waterfall, do not climb on the surrounding rocks. The rocks are slippery and several people have fallen to their deaths while others have been seriously injured while trying to climb on the rocks near the falls. The mist and growing algae on the rocks make them dangerous. Pay attention to children and keep them in your sight. Also bears are sometimes active in this area so stay Bear Aware.
Grotto Falls is the only waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where visitors can actually walk behind the falling water and hear its roar as it cascades into a pool at the foot of its drop. The 25 foot waterfall is cool and shady and behind its tumbling waters is a great environment for salamanders. Be careful of your footing should you walk behind the falls due to the wet and sometimes slippery conditions. The trail is approximately 2 ½ miles roundtrip through old growth forest. You can access the Grotto Falls trail from the Trillium Gap Trailhead. In the spring, this trail is filled with wildflowers like trillium, violets and Dutchman’s Breeches. As you go along the trail, you will need to make four small streams where there is no footbridge. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes. Just a little over one mile in hikers will reach a tumbling cascade and just past this point will receive their first look at Grotto Falls. Once at the Falls, if you’re still ready for more hiking, you can proceed another two miles up the trail to the summit of Brushy Mountain, or, if you like, you can also continue for another 5 ½ miles from Grotto Falls to the summit of Mt. LeConte. Both summits offer wondrous views of the mountains and surrounding area. Though available in spring, summer and fall, be aware that the Roaring Fork Nature Trail is closed in the winter months and the only way to access the Grotto Falls Trail during winter is by beginning your hike at the Rainbow Falls Trailhead and adding another 3 ½ miles to the hike.
The remaining waterfall of the Roaring Fork Nature Trail is the Place of One Thousand Drips. It’s close to the road and parking is minimal but it is a sight to see during or after a rainfall when the water swells and cascades down an 80 foot drop. During drier weather it is a Place of One Thousand Drips and still a treat to visit. After a major downpour, this waterfall becomes very impressive with all of the angled drops over the rocks as it makes its way down toward the stream. Be sure to give it a look even in the rain. You won’t be disappointed.
As you travel the Roaring Forks Nature Trail, take your time to enjoy all of the stops along the way and visit the cabins where the original settlers once lived, view the wonderful vistas from the top of the mountain and enjoy the playful splashes of the waterfalls as they dance in the forest on their way to the stream.