Category Archives: Off the Beaten Path

Laurel Falls

Want to get off the beaten path without actually leaving the path next time you’re in the Smoky Mountains? Take a hike to Laurel Falls and be amazed at the true majestic beauty of the Smokies.

The 80-foot high Laurel Falls descends from Laurel Branch in the Great Smoky Mountains. It takes its name from the mountain laurel that grow in the area, especially along the trail that leads to the falls. It can best be seen by hikers during the month of May. A walkway intersects Laurel Falls, which is made up of an upper and lower portion. The walkway crosses the upper section. Laurel Falls is undoubtedly one of the most popular and picturesque locations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Laurel Falls Trail is the route you take to get to the falls, obviously. The trailhead can be reached just outside the Sugarlands Visitors Center in Gatlinburg. As you’re coming into town traveling south from Pigeon Forge, turn toward Cades Cove on Little River Road and drive 3.5 miles to the trailhead. There is parking available at the trailhead but it fills up quickly on a nice day and especially on weekends.

Just so you know and can plan accordingly, the round trip hike to Laurel Falls is 2.6 miles. Give yourself about 2 hours to hike to the waterfall and back, more if you plan on staying awhile which most people do.

This is a paved trail, but it’s a trail that has been traveled by many so to say it is completely even would be a falsehood. Some parts can be slippery in wet weather, especially the steeper parts. Be wary of children at all times, your own and others who may be hiking in. Those who wish to bring strollers or wheelchairs are highly discouraged to do so because of the grade of trail at points and also the worn condition.

Please refrain from climbing on rocks around the waterfall. A fair warning, several people have fallen to their deaths over the years and many others have suffered serious injuries from climbing on rocks near waterfalls or along the riverbanks. These rocks are slippery due to mist and algae.

Also, carry drinking water with you. Pets and bicycles are both prohibited on the trail.

Indian Flats Falls

Looking for a beautiful trek to a Smoky Mountain waterfall near Gatlinburg? Check out Indian Flats Falls, which is located 3.8 miles from the Tremont Trailhead, just south of Townsend, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Via a spur off the Middle Prong Trail, Indian Flats Falls features 4 medium-size cascades. This is a great area for a summer dip in the Smokies as the falls each tumble to an enclosed pool ideal for swimming and wading.

Smoky Mountain visitors will find the trail to Indian Flats Falls especially appealing during the spring and summer months as it doesn’t see many people, is an easy hike, and provides for some wonderful fishing opportunities along the way.

You’ll find that once you reach the area of the falls, they are partially hidden by forest growth. There is also easy access to many smaller but equally scenic cascades leading to and past this point.

The trail continues up the wide south bank of Lynn Camp Prong in a mixed hardwood forest to the Panther Creek Trail split. Note that you’ll seamlessly branch off along Indian Flats Prong shortly beyond this point.

The trail moves steadily under a vine-draped canopy and rhododendron understory to a bridge; once over it climbs away from the creek and winds into a thick forest.

Though water is no longer visible, Indian Flats Falls will be audible as you near the unmarked spur, located behind a large boulder on a sharp, steep bend in the trail.

Note that if you reach the Lynn Camp Prong Trail split, you’ve gone too far.

The unmarked spur undulates ruggedly to the top tier of Indian Flats Falls. The first fall offers the largest viewing area, and a precarious look down upon the second.

To reach the lower falls you must backtrack on the spur and improvise a few steps off trail – never climb or descend rocks adjacent to flowing water. Be mindful of timber rattlesnakes and copperheads as you negotiate the busy forest to the lower falls.

Greenbrier

The Greenbrier section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most picturesque, scenic locales in the Smokies. It’s no wonder that people drive, hike, camp, and do whatever they can to reach a place that most consider “Off the Beaten Path”.

So how about a bit more detail on the area itself… Do all kinds of wildflower species sound good to you? I’m sure it does to you nature lovers out there. There are also plenty of picnic areas, hiking trails to explore the Smoky Mountains, and countless fishing opportunities.

As noted, the Greenbrier area is renowned for its wildflowers, especially during the spring. One of the best drives, if you prefer taking in the scenery from your car, takes you to the Ramsey Cascades trailhead – an 8 mile roundtrip hike. To get there, drive east approximately 6 miles from Gatlinburg on Hwy 321 before making the turn at the Greenbrier entrance to the national park. Then follow the signs 4.7 miles to the Ramsey Cascades trailhead.

If you’re looking for a good, scenic hike, the Porters Creek Trail makes for a really good wildflower walk. To hike Porters Creek, the signs lead you to the trailhead. The trail’s first 1.5 miles are especially packed with spring-time wildflowers. Wildflowers generally come into bloom in March and peak in mid to late April.

The Ramsey Cascades trail is also a great getaway for wildflower viewing. From the trailhead, it’s 4 miles to the cascades – the tallest in the Smoky Mountains.

You’ll find that the upper Greenbrier area is preceded by 6 miles of gravel road. Visitors are welcome to bike along the Greenbrier roads but it is prohibited on its trails.

Want to visit the area during the day? Pack a lunch. The Greenbrier Picnic Area is open year round.

If fishing the area’s streams and rivers are your angle, feel free. You can fish for trout year round. All you need is either a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license.

The Greenbrier Road auto tour follows the Little Pigeon River to Trillium Gap and is another great way to see the area. And you don’t have to worry about trucks, trailers or RVs – they aren’t allowed along the route. The John Messer Barn and the Ramsay Cascades trailhead are reached via this auto tour.

The Greenbrier section of the national park is a great area to visit, no matter what reason you’re there for. Outside of Ramsay Cascades, everyone can see the large stands of virgin growth such as northern red oak, eastern hemlock, and red maple. You won’t see growth like this in any other area of the park, which is just another reason why the Greenbrier has become a destination in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

If you are looking for a different kind of auto tour while you are in the Smoky Mountains, why not try Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (RFMNT).   Roaring Fork is located above Gatlinburg so it is easy to get to and it is a completely different experience than visiting areas like Cades Cove and Cataloochee.  Whereas those areas were valley communities, the Roaring Fork community was a mountain farm town.

The people that made their homes in the Roaring Fork area were a hardy bunch.  Instead of choosing the easier life in the valleys –Cataloochee and Cades Cove – the people that settled these areas were looking for homes in the woods on top of the mountains.  They built their community along the streams where the rushing water could be harnessed and used to power water wheels that would grind grains and help with cutting lumber into usable boards.  They had full service farms that were designed to keep their family going but they also had other industries that keep them busy during the off times of the year.

Today, you can ride through this history filled area of the Smokies.  You get to pass, cabins and other structures that once made up this community.  You even get to see a tubmill.  The tubmill is driven by the flow of the water on a horizontal wheel instead of the more traditional, vertical wheel.  The tubmill was a more efficient form of water power and it was easier then having to build a water chute.  These tubmills were located in many of the communities around the Smokies and there are still several in the boundaries of the GSMNP that visitors can visit and admire.  This, in and of itself, is worth the trip along this auto tour but you also get to see plenty of waterfalls and cascades.  In fact one of the most popular cascades areas in the national park is known as the Place of a Thousand drips and it is located near the exit of this one way road.

To find RFMT, head to Gatlinburg.  Drive along the Parkway until you find Historic Nature Trail Road.  If you have been coming to the area for quite a while you will know that this road used to be known as Airport Road.  Turn onto Historic Nature Trail road and head up the mountain.  You will pass the Space Needle and other Gatlinburg attractions as you go up the hill.  Once you come to a stop sign, you will go straight across his road and follow the signs and Cherokee Orchard Road around the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Elkmont – Ghost Town in the Smokies?

At times in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park it is hard to imagine what the area was like before it became one of our national treasures. Truth be told, the land that is now in the National Park contained industry, business and homes before it became part of the National park Service 75 years ago. One of the places in the Park that makes it easy to see what life was like ‘before the Park’ is Elkmont. Currently Elkmont is home to a campground, fishing areas and hiking trails, but its history goes back much further. Starting as a small settlement in a valley, and changing with the times, it became a center for the logging industry, finally to become a resort town nestled in the Smoky Mountains. With the National Park movement in the 30s, Elkmont was purchased and became part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. With the leases in Elkmont expiring, the buildings were left where they stand to this day; a monument to the past and a ghost town in the Smokies.

The Elkmont area was originally settled by two Smokies families in the 1840s, at least one of which came to the area to look for gold. Like most small mountain communities they were subsistence farmers that produced everything from corn to honey to make ends meet and put food on the table. The creek that runs along the Elkmont Trail is Jake’s Creek, named for Jacob Hauser, probably the first settler to this area. From this time period, the only existing structure is the Avent Cabin which was built around 1845 by the Ownby family.

John English, a Knoxville, Tennessee businessman, began a small-scale logging project in the Elkmont area along Jake’s Creek. This business venture started the logging period for the Elkmont area but it was a Pennsylvania native, Colonel Wilson Townsend (after whom Townsend TN is named) that established the Little River Lumber Company. Townsend setup a railroad that went from his saw mills to the logging camp in what became known as Elkmont to the loggers. The Elkmont area was used as the base of operation for the lumber company through the 20s and 30s. By this time Townsend had sold most of the land to the newly formed national Park. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Townsend noticed that as the forest was being mined for its valuable resources that he could use the train to bring hunters and fishermen to the area. The railroad reached Maryville and Knoxville by 1909 and they began offering the “Elkmont Special.” This special was train service from Knoxville to Elkmont. Tickets on the Elkmont special became a hot commodity. Soon a bigger engine was added and in 1912 Charles Carter built the Wonderland Hotel – a 50 room resort lodge overlooking Elkmont. In 1914 a group of citizens from Knoxville formed the Appalachian Club. This ‘club’ built 40 or more rustic cabins and a lodge. The Elkmont area became the place for Knoxville’s elite to go. Membership into the Appalachian Club was hard to acquire. Even the removal of the railroad to another logging area did not deter the members, who, along with the help of Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, put in a road connecting Townsend and the Elkmont area.

By this point in history, National Parks like Wyoming’s Yellowstone started opening across the country. The idea to open a National Park in the Smokies may have even started with one of the members of the Appalachian Club. Whoever originally came up with the idea, in 1926 Colonel Townsend sold the initial 76,000 acres to start the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Park. Even though the national park would be a great addition to their community, the cottage owners and members of he Appalachian Club were losing their summer homes, their vacation spot. With the help of an attorney from the Little River Lumber Company they were allowed to sell their property at half price and get a lifetime lease. Most of the lifetime leases expired in 1992 with the last two expiring in 2001. The 1982 General Management Plan of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park called for the structures to be removed and the land would be allowed to revert to its natural state. In 1994, just a mere two years after most of the leases had expired, this plan was overridden when Elkmont was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, saving the cottages from destruction. Unfortunately, though they were saved from removal, they were left to deteriorate. The Park Service did not have the means or extra funding to preserve those buildings. The Wonderland Hotel collapsed in 2005 and has since been removed, though some of the historical fixtures and items from the hotel have been preserved. The homes along Little River and Jake’s Creek were also left to the elements, without upkeep.

At the time of this writing, there is sign of reconstruction going on in Elkmont. Some new porches and construction tape now adorn some of the cabins and cottages. According to a brief sent out from the Park Service in the fall of 2007, they are proposing that 19 of the remaining buildings be preserved. This preservation effort would include the Appalachian Clubhouse and other buildings of historic significance. This move is still waiting for approval but it is certainly a positive step to preserve some of the pre-park history.

Since then, the National Park Service in 2009 announced plans to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 cottages and outbuildings in the Appalachian Club area (which were older and more historically significant) and remove all other structures, including the Wonderland Annex which had collapsed in 2005.

Maybe this ghost town in the Smokies will receive some tender loving care, bringing back that Smoky Mountain vacation spot atmosphere that it had so many years ago.

Stargazing in the Smokies

When night falls in the Smokies, the National Park seems to empty.  The people vanish, the cars vanish and most of the animals seem to disappear.  There are few times that the drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee is a lonesome drive but after the sun goes down you can find yourself going for half an hour at a time without seeing a car.  The thought is that since the sun has set, there is nothing to see in the Smokies.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Stargazing in the Smokies is a wonderful way to spend an evening of your Smoky Mountain vacation.

After sunset a whole vista of celestial ‘wildlife’ pops out.  Stars that you never knew existed hangout among familiar constellations.  Extra stars seem to accessorize Orion’s belt.  Ursa Major and Ursa Minor seem to fill out more and you can see why ancient people may have named them what they named them, instead of looking like a dipper it might actually resemble a bear.  Our view of the sky, usually inhibited by city lights, is opened up as you leave the vestiges of civilization and climb higher into the mountain.  Newfound Gap Trailhead, the parking area for one of the most hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail, is one of the best places to stargaze in the Smokies.

Due to the fact that there are no street lights at Newfound Gap Trailhead, there are no cities close enough to see and the fact that at night most of the cars in the parking lot are left by overnight hikers.  This leaves the parking lot vacant and the passing cars don’t add enough light to affect your night vision.  Once you get to the parking area, go to the furthest end of the parking lot, turn off all the lights in your car and wait for your eyes to adjust.  Once your eyes are used to the dark you will start to see some amazing sights in the night sky.  Remember that you are above 6,000 feet in this parking lot, so you may want to bring a coat in the spring or fall because it ill be cooler then it is in the valley areas.  If it is 60 in Pigeon Forge, it will be at least 10 degrees cooler on the mountain.

Another thing to keep in mind is the moon.  If the stars are brighter in the Smokies, then the moon is ten times brighter.  A full moon on top of the mountain is a glorious thing to behold but if your planning on seeing stars keep the phase of the moon in mind.  The perfect time to view stars by the millions is during the new moon.  With the moon out of the way, you will have an unobstructed view of the stars and your stargazing trip to the Smokies will be complete.  If you want to see an amazing moonrise, then get to the summit early during a full moon and it will bright enough to read by.

Because of the lack of lights on the mountain it is possible to take pictures of this starry expanse.  You will need to turn the flash off on your camera and you will have to use fairly long exposures.  Long exposures (one and half to two minutes minimum) will produce star lines on the exposure.  The Earth’s constant movement in relation to the unmovable positions of the stars causes the star lines. This is what you want.  Lots of light into the camera and giving the camera enough time to absorb the light you are letting it will make the outline of the trees hazy and the stars will be small streaks in the sky.  You’ll need to use a tripod to eliminate movement of the camera.

If you are looking for an after-hours opportunity for your family to enjoy something they may not get to see anywhere else, get out of the cabin or hotel room, pack up the cool weather gear and head to the top of the Smokies, or a place like Cades Cove.  Put a sleeping bag on the hood of your car, lean back and enjoy the view.  Instead of looking at the gorgeous mountains below the heavens, turn your eyes upward and look at the stars.

Carver’s Orchard – Off the Beaten Path

In Cosby, Tennessee there is a little slice of heaven called Carvers Orchard. Carver’s is a full service orchard but it is also a farmer’s market, a restaurant and boasts the best fried apple pies in east Tennessee. Surrounded by apple trees, well marked and easy to locate Carver’s is a roadside wonder. The easy way to find them is by following Hwy 321 out of Gatlinburg. The intersection of the 321 and the parkway is at traffic light 3 and it will take you out of town and past the Great Smoky Mountain Arts and Crafts Community. The route from traffic light 3 in Gatlinburg to the orchard is a little over 22 miles and takes you through some beautiful locations. On the way to the orchard you will pass the Greenbrier area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the turn off to the Cosby Campground area of the Smokies and eventually you will arrive at Cosby itself. The Cosby area is not as visited an area as Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in beauty.

At Carver’s Orchard Cosby beauty certainly shines through. The orchard processes apples that grow on the trees in the orchard and they have more than 40,000 trees to pick from. Those 40,000 trees include 126 varieties of apple, from standard fare to heirlooms. During harvest you can watch as thousands of apples are processed. The bright, shiny, red orbs roll down the conveyor belts to be sorted by hand into bushels. The bushels then go to the farmer’s market or to the trucks to be shipped out. The apples that make it to the floor of the farmer’s market are then picked over by cooks and apple coinsurers alike. Like any good farmer’s market they will even let you sample the apple before you buy. Each type is also marked as to what it is best used for, whether that be in a pie or just eaten as is.

Some of the apples end up being used in the orchard’s restaurant. Home-style food with an Appalachian twist abounds at Carver’s. At the beginning of each meal you get a basket of apple fritters and a glass of cider. Really at this point you could almost stop. The fritters are perfect and cider is so fresh that you start looking for pulp. But if you chose to stop you wouldn’t be able to experience the rest of the food they have to offer. From pot roast to catfish they carry all your family’s favorites. Their sandwiches are tremendous and if you get there early you can even have breakfast. Of course the only way to end a meal at Carver’s is with a fried apple pie.

Their fried apple pies are amazing. People in the area know where to get good food and if you are looking for a fried apple pie there is no other place to go. They are sold in the pastry shop and in the restaurant. You can get them with ice cream or by themselves. Either way you experience a Carver’s Orchard fried apple pie will leave you full and dream of a lazy summer watching the bees flit from apple tree to apple tree. Fried apple pies are a bit of southern nostalgia and if your kids haven’t gotten to taste one, you need to beat a hasty path to Carver’s Orchard in Cosby, Tennessee.