Chasing WaterfallsI was on a short weekend trip to the Smokies that offered me the opportunity to go on two short hikes. I chose to focus on getting to a few waterfalls. I had hiked to the waterfalls of the Road Prong 5 years prior, but I wanted to get back to them and do some additional exploring. I had also put off hiking out to Ramsay Cascades for about 10 years now. My limited time on this weekend made it a good second choice.
The Waterfalls on the Road Prong Trail
The Road Prong is possibly the most ignored trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Thousands of hikers each year pass by the trail on their way to the Chimney Tops. Unfortunately they don’t realize the gems they are passing by on the way to their busy Chimney Tops summit adventure. I was guilty of this same error myself, the first 10 or so times I climbed the Chimneys. But even though I walked right on by, I was always intrigued by this narrow trail, wondering where it led. Only when I did a little research did I realize the opportunity I was missing.
The Road Prong Trail branches off from the Chimney Tops trail 0.9 miles from the Chimney Tops Trailhead. It is a 2.4 mile hike up the Road Prong to the AT and Indian Gap. From Indian Gap it is 1.7 miles to Newfound Gap or 5.2 miles to Clingmans Dome.
While the Road Prong offers the opportunity to reach higher summits within GSMNP the real gems of the Road Prong are within one mile of the start of the trail, where there are several unnamed waterfalls.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) none of these falls are completely visible from the trail. But if you are willing to do some easy to moderate bushwhacking of less than 100 feet, you can get some good views of the falls. And if you are willing to literally walk through the Road Prong you can get even better views of the falls and several good pools. (None of these waterfall photos were taken from the trail.)
This is an excellent hike for a hot summer day. If you are not in a hurry, and enjoy wading or swimming in cold mountains streams then this is a great way to spend a few hours. And more than likely you will be alone. I have hiked on the Road Prong twice. The first time I saw maybe one other hiker and a few trout fisherman. On my hike last Saturday we only saw one other person – who happened to be lost when he turned onto the Road Prong Trail instead of heading up to the Chimney Tops.
Route Suggestion: Combine hiking up to the Chimney Tops with the short side trip to the Road Prong waterfalls. Not that you need an “alpine” start in the Smokies, but start about an hour before sunrise and head to the Chimney Tops first. Hopefully you’ll get to see a beautiful Smokies sunrise. Regardless, you more than likely will have the Chimney Tops all to yourself – which makes the predawn start more than worth it. On your way down turn right onto the Road Prong and continue the rare Smoky Mountain solitude with your bushwhacking adventure to these beautiful waterfalls.
I have put off hiking to Ramsay Cascades for about 10 years now. It has always been on my Smokies “to do” list, but every time I was ready to give it a try I would change my mind, preferring to head to Mt. LeConte, Charlies Bunion, or some other hike that offered mountain vistas - as opposed to heading to a lone waterfall. Besides, the hike to Ramsay Cascades is not easy. There is 2,000 feet of elevation gain on the 4 mile hike to the cascades. For that much effort I’m more inclined to get to a summit.
I almost blew off heading to the cascades again. I had about 6 hours available for hiking and it was a sunny day. Mt. LeConte looked so inviting. I knew it would be a great day for a hike up the Alum Cave Trail, and I had enough time besides. I talked myself out it though. I knew I needed to get to Ramsay Cascades. I had put it off long enough, and I can honestly say I am so glad I finally went.
As with most waterfalls in the Smokies, Ramsay Cascades can be a pretty busy hike. Despite its relatively remote trailhead, this trail sees a lot of activity. It is a 6 mile drive from Gatlinburg to the Greenbrier entrance to the Park. From there it is still 4.7 miles – mostly on a narrow gravel road – to the trailhead. I chose a late Sunday morning to start my hike, and while I was hoping there would only be a few other cars at the trailhead, I wasn’t too disappointed when I counted my car as number 13.
The hike to Ramsay Cascades is rather pleasant. For the majority of the hike the trail stays close to the Middle Prong of the Pigeon River and to Ramsay Prong offering plenty of beautiful stream scenes. If you are not in a hurry there is plenty of easy access to the streams, offering plenty of excellent photographic opportunities, or if it is a hot summer day, chances to take a dip in one of many swimming holes.
Ramsay Cascades are impressive. As I approached them I was surprised at how large they are as they plunge 90 feet down the rocks.
I didn’t hike up to the top of the falls. I didn’t have the time as I wanted to get in a short hike to Fern Falls yet that day. I assume there is an unmaintained trail that allows you to do get to the top of the cascades. There were 3 people at the top while I was there. The area can be dangerous. There is a warning sign as you approach the cascades indicating that there have been 4 deaths from people climbing on the rocks.
Fern FallsSince I was already in Greenbrier, I decided to make the short 1.9 mile hike to Fern Falls. So after finishing my Ramsay Cascades hike I made the 2.5 mile drive over to Porters Creek Trail.
Much like the Ramsay Cascades hike, for the majority of the hike to Fern Falls the trail stays close to the river offering plenty of beautiful stream scenes. Again, if you are not in a hurry there is plenty of easy access to the streams, offering plenty of excellent photographic opportunities, or if it is a hot summer day, chances to take a dip in one of many swimming holes.
It would be fairly easy to miss the falls, as there is no trail sign pointing them out. There is a small creek that crosses the trail at 1.9 miles and the falls are well off the trail to the left. There is an unmaintained trail to the base of the falls for better viewing.
I didn’t have time to continue up Porters Creek Trail, although I am intrigued by the opportunities it may offer. The trail terminates at backcountry campsite 31. Looking at a map, from the end of the trail the Sawteeth ridge is off to the left and it is a straight shot up the mountain towards Charlies Bunion. In Hiking Trails of the Smokies it states “an unmaintained path continues up to the Appalachian Trail at Dry Sluice Gap. Not only is it unmaintained, but it rises 2,000’ in just over a mile, mostly up rocks.” Hmmm…