One of the quieter places in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the Greenbrier area. It’s a great sort of “out of the way” place that’s normally not very busy, which makes it a destination for summer weekends or fall leaf-peeking adventures without the crowds. Less than 6 miles from downtown Gatlinburg, it’s well worth spending a day exploring. The Greenbrier area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a rich history and great trails where you can find remnants and some history of the families who once lived here.
Upon entering Greenbrier, the road is paved for the first mile and then turns to gravel for the last 4 miles. The road runs along the Middle Fork of the Little Pigeon River and there are plenty of places to pull the car off the road and enjoy the water, whether just sitting on the bank or dipping your toes in the clear water.
Greenbrier has some fantastic hiking trails. Ramsey Cascades is a wonderful trail that ends at one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the park. The trail is a moderate hike, 8 miles round trip, and cuts through some of the most majestic virgin forest of the park as it follows Ramsey Prong up the rise of Mount Guyot to Ramsey Cascades. The waterfall towers 65 feet and is nestled between Guyot Spur and Greenbrier Pinnacle. There is a side trail at the end of Ramsey Prong Road that will lead you up to the summit of Greenbrier Pinnacle if you’re so inclined. (Photo Credit: Brian Stansberry)
Another favorite is the Porter’s Creek Trail. The trailhead is at the end of the Greenbrier Road and for the first mile, it’s very easy going. Be prepared to encounter deer along the path on a warm, summer afternoon. The trail follows Porter’s Creek and once you’ve made the first mile, it becomes a bit narrower but it’s well worth the hike. The trail follows Porter’s Creek to Porter’s Flat, where it passes the Messer Barn site. A cemetery, a homestead and Fern Branch Falls are some of the highlights of the trail. You’ll find log bridges at certain points of the trail and there are many photo opportunities to capture some wonderful landscape photos. Another building you will find along the Porter’s Creek Trail is the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Cabin. It’s located next to the Messer Barn and it’s a dog-trot cabin constructed by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club between 1934 and 1936. The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club obtained permission to construct the cabin in 1933 and they used logs from the dismantled Whaley family structures including the cabin and barn from the James and Phoebe Whaley homestead, constructing the Club Cabin around an existing chimney. The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club leased the cabin from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park Service until 1981.
The Grapeyard Ridge Trail roams over the south slope of Brushy Mountain as it follows Rhododendron Creek. This trail leads to the Jim Bales Place at Roaring Fork. Some highlights of the Grapeyard Ridge Trail are the remains of a CCC Camp David Chapman, several of the Rayfield family home sites and a 1920’s Nichols and Shepard self-propelled steam-powered engine, its remains wrecked and resting in the bed of Injun Creek. This trail is rated moderate and is almost 15 miles out and back. It rises to a 3,392 foot elevation. It features some beautiful wildflowers along the way also.
The Old Settler’s Trail is also in Greenbrier. One of the longest trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it connects Greenbrier to the Cosby area. Constructed as a lower elevation alternative to the Appalachian Trail, The Old Settler’s Trail goes over old roadbeds that connected various communities that existed between Greenbrier and Maddron Bald. The trail passes dozens of rock walls, supposedly either to mark old boundaries or keep livestock in depending on what you read, and chimney falls of old homesteads. Many old houses and farms were located along this trail and remnants can be found all along the way, including the Tyson McCarter Place. The McCarter Place consists of a barn, corn crib, smokehouse and springhouse constructed sometime around 1876. Purchased around 1900 by McCarter, the area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Another cabin that you’ll find is the Baxter/Jenkins Cabin, near the junction of the Old Settler’s Trail and the Maddron Bald Trail. The original cabin which still stands was built by Willis Baxter for his son William as a wedding gift in 1889. Chandler Jenkins owned the cabin later. The cabin once stood among other farm buildings but is the only building left at the site. The chicken house was moved to the Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the 1950’s. The cabin’s chimney is made of mud and stone and there used to be a lean-to kitchen attached to the west wall but has since been removed. The hike is long but for visitors and hikers who are interested in the history of the Greenbrier area it’s a treasure trove. The hike is 17 miles long and should be considered a day hike or an overnight hike. There are several cemeteries located off short side trails including the Parton Cemetery and the Lindsey Cemetery. Be aware that timber rattlesnakes are not uncommon on the trail since it’s been a long-known fact that many live on the slopes of Greenbrier Pinnacle. Also take note in summer of poison ivy and the like along the trail.
The history of Greenbrier is rich in local family lore. The Cherokee were the first settlers of Greenbrier and as late as the 20th century, residents of the region called parts of Greenbrier “Indian Nation”.
Two Whaley brothers, William and Middleton, were the first permanent settlers of Euro-American heritage in the Greenbrier region. They came from South Carolina to settle here.
In 1818, the John Ownby family settled downriver from the Whaleys and were soon joined by others of their clan. Once the Whaley and the Ownby families were established in Greenbrier, their homesteads expanded to a total of 26 homes.
Soon, more families came to settle in Greenbrier. The Charles Rayfield family settled here sometime before the Civil War. The Grapeyard Ridge Trail runs through former homesteads of this family.
David Proffitt came to settle sometime around 1870 and settled below the Whaley lands. He was a veteran of the Civil War. Around the same period, James Redwine also settled along the creek that now bears his name.
One of the more well-known names in Eastern Tennessee is the Parton family. Benjamin Christenberry Parton arrived in the Greenbrier area sometime around 1850 and settled in the flats near the confluence of Little Bird Branch and the Middle Fork, on the western base of Greenbrier Pinnacle. Surviving a gunshot wound to the head during the Civil War, Parton and many of his descendants are buried in Parton Cemetery on a hill where his cabin once stood that can be accessed from a side trail on Old Settler’s Trail.
The Greenbrier area grew and in the early 20th century boasted approximately 500 residents with three general stores, a school and grist mills and blacksmiths shops. At this time the Greenbrier area reached from Cosby to Roaring Fork. In and around the early 1900’s the national forest was established, and the Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission began buying up land for the creation of the National Park. Many of the families were relocated and their descendants are still living in the Greenbrier, Cosby and Gatlinburg area today. For example, the Parton family of Greenbrier relocated to a hilly area between Pittman Center, a very small village between Cosby and Gatlinburg, and Richardson Cove to a place called Locust Ridge. The Parton family’s most famous member, entertainer Dolly Parton, is the great-great granddaughter of the original family member who first settled in Greenbrier, Benjamin Christenberry Parton.
Just 3 miles down Greenbrier Road after you turn off US 321 is a very nice picnic area situated near the river. There are ample picnic tables with charcoal grills, a nice parking area, and a restroom. Visitors can walk along the river down a small trail that leads from the left side of the picnic area after they’ve eaten. You never know what you’ll see. Deer, along with some majestic bucks, have been seen along the river here. Be Bear Aware as you walk because no matter where you are in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the black bears are present. The Greenbrier section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is quieter and not as congested as, for example, the Cades Cove area and visitors will have no trouble finding a quiet walkway anywhere in this section of the Park. Many visitors, local and tourists alike, bring bathing attire and spend a warm summer day enjoying the cool, clear water of the Little Pigeon River by pulling off on one of the designated parking areas along the road and just relaxing and wading in the refreshing water. Greenbrier is also a favorite of fly-fishermen and the Little Pigeon River won’t disappoint the dedicated fisherman with his catch of rainbow, brown and speckled trout. If visitors don’t know how to fly fish, there are guides available locally for hire to teach anyone the joys of fly-fishing and wading in the cool water of the river on a hot summer day is a treat while you cast your line in the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. You must have a fishing license to fish in the Park, as in all of Tennessee, and they are available at many places for visitors to purchase. You can purchase a yearly fishing license or a three-day fishing license. Be sure to mention you’ll be fishing inside the Park and what sort of fish you’ll be trying for when you purchase your license as there is a difference in the type of license.
Greenbrier isn’t only for the summer months. Any time of year is the perfect time to visit the Greenbrier section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though Greenbrier does tend to be busier in summer, don’t let that deter you from taking some time and spending the day here.
Some of the best times to visit the Greenbrier area are in March and April if you like to view the spring flowers. Another wonderful time to visit is during the leaf changing season in mid to late October. Not as congested as the main part of the park, you’ll still see the vibrant trees as they color the mountains.
There are only two trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that allow dogs on the trail but you can walk your pups along the road in Greenbrier on a leash and not have to worry too much about traffic. Many people, locals and visitors alike enjoy walking along amid the forest, enjoying one of the most beautiful and quiet areas of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
When visiting Greenbrier, if you have any questions on what to see and do while in this section of the Park, want to know the road conditions, need to inquire about the river, should you be fishing, there’s a ranger station located approximately a mile down the road from Hwy 321 and a Park Ranger there can assist you. Also, if you have any problems or want to report an incident inside the Park boundaries, stop and talk to the Park Ranger. The Ranger will be glad to help you with anything to help you enjoy your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Greenbrier Area.
It’s a good idea to come prepared for the day and what sort of plans you have in mind while visiting Greenbrier. Good hiking shoes, hiking poles if you like, fishing gear, swimming essentials, picnic items—whatever your desire to enjoy your day will be needed so that you can park your car, get off the beaten path and just experience the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.