My daughter and I spent three days hiking in the Smoky Mountains, exploring a few trails I hiked growing up in Tennessee. We stayed in a hotel as I’ve reached an age where I don’t want to sleep on the hard ground. However, we are both early risers and planned to be on the trails early and off the trails in time to clean up and enjoy the comforts of a hot tub, hot food, and cold drink.
On day two, I had three waterfalls on the itinerary for a total of nine miles, well within our comfort zone. As I hadn’t hiked in the area in forty years, we stretched our legs and waited for the ranger’s office to open by hiking a lovely nature trail by the river where turkeys, deer, and a few other critters welcomed us to their wooded wonderland. I highly recommend checking with a visitor’s center or ranger station before hiking, especially if you are in new territory. The rangers may have vital information to share. Case in point, the road to one of the waterfalls wouldn’t open until May 1st. Since day two was April 30th, plans were adjusted.
We arrived at the Rainbow Falls Trailhead by 8:30 am which is later than I like to start, but the ranger’s station didn’t open until 8 am. We donned our backpacks and began our hike. The trail to the waterfall is 5.6 miles (round trip) straight up the mountain. I confess, I enjoyed the trail more than the falls. The wooded trail follows the river and ascends Mount LeConte if you continue past the falls. Beautiful cascades remain in visual range for most of the trail. The wooded path felt even cooler with the sound of water flowing over the rocks.
When we descended Rainbow Falls, we saw a trail to the destination of the closed road. The sign said 3.5 miles (that’s 7 miles round trip) to Grotto Falls. That would put us past the planned ten miles for the day, but we felt good, and the journey was within our comfort zone. Besides, Grotto Falls Trail meanders with a bit of flat trail allowing us (mostly me) to catch our breath, unlike Rainbow Falls which ascends ever higher toward a peak.
The connector trail was peaceful and not as peopled as Rainbow Falls allowing for additional critter sightings, including a Pileated Woodpecker and more turkeys. When we reached 3.5 miles, we were at the Grotto Falls parking lot. It was then I realized my mistake. It was a connector trail. We still had 1.5 miles to hike to get to the falls. That added another 3 miles out and back to our hike. We were too close to turn back, so we carried on, carrying our backpacks. We both carry full packs on the trail in case of emergency. At this point, my shoulders questioned the need to carry a loaded pack when the supplies weren’t being used.
When we reached 10 miles on our journey, Grotto Falls – the only waterfall in Tennessee you can walk behind – was as beautiful as I remembered, although I suspect what I truly enjoyed was removing the backpack for a while. We took a nice break at the falls for which my legs and shoulders gave thanks. We also did the obligatory photos behind the falls. The return trip to the car was a mere 5 miles, although the last couple of miles I had to remind my legs that we were moving closer to our goal with every step. The goal being the car, including a cold Dr. Pepper for me and a cold coffee for my daughter.
We added the third waterfall to our day three itinerary. We hiked fewer than 5 miles on day three before driving home.