Plan your next summer adventure around one of these six classic waterfall hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Tucked deep in the Appalachians along the NC/TN state line, the Great Smoky Mountains are a mountainous paradise full of high peaks, epic views, unique rock formations, diverse history – and an array of stunning waterfalls. As a subrange of the greater Appalachian Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) was dedicated nearly 90 years ago, and it's since become America’s most visited national park. Whether you’re hiking with the family or looking for a challenge, this guidebook compilates the six must-visit waterfalls hikes, all of which boast their own unique beauty.
Topping the list, Rainbow Falls is the must-do waterfall hike on this list – that is, if you’re up for the challenge. Towering in at nearly 80’ tall, Rainbow Falls holds the title as the largest single-drop waterfall anywhere in the park! On a sunny afternoon, the mist creates a stunning rainbow seen from the trail – a popular subject for both amateur and professional photographers alike. During cold winter streaks, the waterfall often freezes and creates “impressive ice formations,” as described by the National Park Service. Though technically taller, Hen Wallow Falls is a stunning 90’ waterfall that spreads from 2’ at the top to 20’ at its base via a series of cascades. If you find yourself closer to the Cosby Campground, this is the better bang-for-the-buck route.
As the best beginner-friendly hikes on the list, both Laurel Falls and the even shorter Cataract Falls are two options perfect for the entire family. According to adventurer Jesse Weber, Laurel Falls is named after the “lush greenery of mountain laurel… a thick-leaved shrub plus its cousin, rhododendron, all along the trail. They bloom in early summer with white and purple blossoms.” As the easiest hike on the list, Cataract is another excellent choice and less than a 10-minute walk from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Not far from Gatlinburg, Grotto Falls is another excellent waterfall hike that stands apart from the rest. While every other route on this list is visible from a distance, the trail to the falls actually passes underneath and behind the 25’ waterfall! It’s the perfect summer hike for the entire family, and “the cool, moist environment near the falls is ideal for salamanders,” the NPS writes.
Last but not least, Abrams Falls is a “high-volume waterfall about 20 feet high that drops into a large pool with great swimming spots and a wide beach of river stones,” according to Jesse Weber. It is one of the more visited falls on this list, so be sure to get an early start to your day to avoid the crowds.