Rain. It is essential to the very existence of almost every ecosystem on earth and appreciated by all living organisms. The exception being humans of course. True, there are those who find delight in the pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof, or in the crisp, clean air that many showers bring with them. To the rest of us, however, they can range from an annoyance to the cause of serious mental disorders such as depression. During the spring and summer months, showers and thunderstorms are almost a daily occurrence here in the Appalachian region. They can be a slight inconvenience and ruin plans for a picnic or late afternoon hike, or they can mutate into giant super cells which spew hail and spawn tornadoes that can devastate our communities.
We should definitely be thankful, for without it we would not have our magnificent forests, beautiful wildflowers, and the hundreds of cascading waterfalls for which our area is known. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, home to some of the most popular waterfalls in the East, sees the highest levels of precipitation. In fact, much of the park is classified as a temperate rainforest, with annual rates topping 60 inches annually. These rates are higher even than the Everglades in southern Florida.
With all the thunderstorms we have seen this past week, it would be an excellent time to venture into the park’s wilderness to witness the beauty of the waterfalls firsthand. One of our favorites is Grotto Falls, located on Trillium Gap Trail and just a short distance above Gatlinburg, Tennessee. One of the most popular falls in the park, the trail sees thousands of tourists on an average day, so a bit of planning is required if you would like to enjoy the sights and sounds of the forest in relative solitude. Your best bet is to visit early, before 9:00 A.M., and preferably on a weekday.
There are two ways to access Trillium Gap Trail, the conventional choice being to park at the Grotto Falls Parking Area along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Here a wide, rutted path leads into the woods to connect with the main trail to the falls. A longer and far more peaceful route may be followed by parking instead at the Rainbow Falls trailhead directly off Cherokee Orchard Road. Follow Rainbow Falls Trail 0.1 of a mile and Trillium Gap Trail begins on the left hand side of the path.
This path is much different from the portion of the trail you will encounter later. The narrow tread is in excellent shape and winds gracefully through the woods of Cherokee Orchard. Look carefully, especially in spring, and you may spot a few gnarly apple trees scattered throughout the surrounding forest. Yes, this area actually was an orchard before the park was established and covered hundreds of acres; most traces of the operation are gone, but the many stone fences marching through the woods showcase the skills of those who lived here before.
Soon the sound of traffic may be heard creeping back into the stillness, and shortly after the 0.6 mile mark the trail makes a junction with Baskins Creek Trail on the right side. This also provides a route from which to access the trail, as it connects with Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail a few hundred feet away. You will want to continue straight ahead, however, as the trail begins to run a parallel course with the motor trail. While the occasional motorcycle may pierce the stillness, the nearby road is mostly undiscernible as the trail climbs high above it on the hillside.
As you walk through the woods, you may notice a pattern which repeats itself on many other trails in the park. The trail ascends through a somewhat scrubby forest filled with oaks, mountain laurel, and pine trees only to swing around a ridgeline and onto the northern side of the mountain. Here the forest changes abruptly, as the trees are much taller and are composed of species such as the stately tulip poplar, eastern hemlock, and yellow buckeye. The trail now passes through a cooler, moist environment and descends into a stream valley filled with a lush understory of shrubs, ferns, and wildflowers. After crossing the stream, the process is repeated once again. Up, down, in and out, this trail serves as a perfect example showcasing how different forest types fill and make use of each niche throughout the mountains.
After 1.7 likely-secluded miles, the shortcut to the Grotto Falls parking area joins the trail from the left hand side. Here trail quality degrades significantly, due to the heavy traffic causing severe erosion in many places. Mud also is a frequent adversary but can usually be avoided if you are careful.
Repeating the in-and-out maneuver the trail started early on, you will cross four stream valleys after the junction before the rumble of the aptly-named Roaring Fork is heard in the distance. As the trail enters the stream valley, ferns line the banks of the trail and nearby stream in abundance. Several cascades will be passed on the left side, but don’t be fooled. The main attraction is just ahead and can’t be missed.
Grotto Falls is perhaps one of the most unique falls in the Appalachians. Located in a rocky amphitheater, the sound of the cascading torrent echoes in every direction. Mist covers everything, allowing almost every surface to sport a thick covering of slippery moss or algae which makes straying from the path treacherous indeed. You’ll want to stay on the path, however, as it proceeds through one of the most interesting passages in the park. While not technically a cave, the overhanging rock does allow safe passage behind the cascade, which the trail makes use of to go behind the stream instead of crossing over it on the treacherous boulders. It truly is a magical place, especially early in the morning when the sun is just starting to break through the mist. Whenever you decide to go, you are sure to have a wonderful time.
Directions: From Gatlinburg, Tennessee, turn left from U.S. 441 at traffic light #8 onto Historic Nature Trail. Continue straight on this road for 3 miles and the Rainbow Falls Parking Area will be on the right hand side of the road. Spaces fill up fast, so as stated before, try to arrive early in the morning. Round trip distance from this trailhead is 9.2 miles, while the distance from the main trailhead is only 2.6 miles.