A spectacular waterfall isn’t the only highlight of the Ramsey Cascades Trail in the Greenbrier area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail to the cascade gains more than 2,000 feet as it follows rushing rivers and streams filled with moss-covered boulders for its four-mile length. The last couple miles pass through old-growth hardwood forest with giant tulip trees, birch and hemlock. Rhododendron is plentiful as you reach the cascade, the tallest waterfall in the park. Water splashes 100 feet over rock outcroppings and collects in a small pool enjoyed by various amphibians…and sweaty hikers. This hike occurred on Wednesday, May 16, 2012 from 9:00am to 3:00pm. Our plan was to take the Ramsey Prong forest road to the trailhead then hike to Ramsey Cascades and return. The National Park Service marks the Ramsey Cascades Trail as an 8-mile round trip. Perhaps that is straight line because my GPS tracker had it as more than 10.
Hike Length: 8 miles Hike Duration: 6 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate Blaze: None needed Hike Configuration: Up and Back
Elevation Change: 2375 feet Elevation Gain: 3105 feet
Trail Condition: Good; old gravel road first 1.5 miles, narrow and rooty after that.
Starting Point: Ramsey Cascades Trailhead at end of Ramsey Prong forest road.
Trail Traffic: This is a popular trail. There were about four dozen other hikers on a weekday.
How to Get There: From NC take exit 443 on I-40. Cross the Foothills Parkway and turn left on Hwy 321. Go past Pittman Center and turn left on Greenbrier Road. This road will change to gravel after a short distance. Drive 3.1 miles to Ramsey Prong Road. Turn left across the bridge. The road ends at the trailhead in another 1.5 miles. From Gatlinburg, TN travel east on Hwy 321 six miles and turn right onto Greenbrier Road.
Whenever I hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park I also enjoy the trip to get there. It’s rugged country between my home in Western North Carolina and the Smokies. When traveling to the northern section of the park I always take the opportunity to cross the eastern Foothills Parkway, a short scenic 6-mile climb up and over Green Mountain that affords multiple long-distance views of Newport and the Pigeon River Valley to the north, and mountains in the national park on the other side of the ridge.
From the Foothills Parkway, Hwy 321 takes you west along the north border of the park a little more than 10 miles to a small community called Pittman Center. You will pass several golf courses along the way. The left turn on Greenbrier Road into the Greenbrier section of the park is easy to miss. It’s just on the other side of a bridge over Middle Prong of Little Pigeon River. There is a national park signboard there.
Once on Greenbrier it’s about a mile to the ranger station and another two miles on gravel forest road to Ramsey Prong Road. There aren’t any signs, but look for a bridge over the river on the left. From there it’s another mile and a half to parking at the end of the road. The trailhead is well-marked at the east end of the parking area.
If you like river and stream hikes, this one is for you. The trail parallels Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River and Ramsey Prong for its full length. You will always hear that refreshing sound of rushing water as the river drains from Mount Guyot, at more than 6,600′ the 2nd highest mountain in the park.
Not long after hitting the trail you’ll cross a footbridge over the river, one of four along the route to Ramsey Cascades. The trail is quite wide, following an old gravel logging road deep into the forest. You may notice down at the bottom of this page, when you look at the photos from this hike, how dark it was. The forest is extremely dense; little light gets through the forest canopy.
My hiking companion for the day was my brother Dave, the other Internet Brother. Not long after starting we passed an area of extremely dense forest with moss covered boulders strewn about that looked like headstones in a cemetery. We called it “The Graveyard.” The trail goes very gradually upward and for awhile climbs away from the river, but never far enough to miss the omnipresent rush of the water.
As you get back closer to the river again, 1.5 miles in, the gravel covered trail reaches an old turnaround where Ramsey Prong meets Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. I know, lots of prongs to keep track of. There is a sign there pointing the easterly direction of the continuing trail. From here on the hike gets truly interesting.
The climb gets a little more strenuous, though still not overly difficult, but the trail is now a narrow footpath with lots of roots, rocks and ground cover, especially galax… your typical Smoky Mountains track. The river will always be at your side providing many, many opportunities for photographs and relaxation. Go ahead, dip your toes in the crisp cool mountain water.
We came upon the first of two log crossings of Ramsey Prong. Built to look as natural as possible, these bridges have a paved non-slip surface that is comforting in the rainforest-like conditions. Everything is always at least damp, so we were continuously careful, especially around river crossings and mossy boulders. Slippery rocks in a creek on Rich Mountain near Cades Cove got me a couple years ago
— didn’t need any repeat performances.
The last two miles pass through the largest remaining old-growth forest in the national park. It took the work of literally thousands to save these woods from logging back in the 1920s. From the National Park Service,
“Establishing most of the older parks located in the western United States, such as Yellowstone, was fairly easy. Congress merely carved them out of lands already owned by the government—often places where no one wanted to live anyway. But getting park land in this area was a different story. The land that became Great Smoky Mountains National Park was owned by hundreds of small farmers and a handful of large timber and paper companies. The farmers did not want to leave their family homesteads, nor did the large corporations want to abandon huge forests of timber, miles of railroad track, systems of logging equipment, and whole villages of employee housing.”
When you see the giant tulip trees, basswood and hemlock, some with trunks as wide as 8 feet in diameter, you will be in awe. As you stand at the base of one of these kings of the forest, whisper a thank you to the children of North Carolina and Tennessee who saved their pennies to protect this cherished land. Look also for the silver bells trees. Perhaps you’ll want to come back when there’s a fresh covering of snow to put you in that seasonal mood.
The last footbridge is just about a mile from Ramsey Cascades. This one is unique in that it has two sections at a 330
° angle. From the center of the bridge the scene created by the forest and the prong is stimulating. I suspect this is a fabulous locale when the white rhododendron are blooming, but as it was, we enjoyed the brilliant harlequin that pervades the forest in early to mid spring.
The final climb is the hardest part of the hike. It gets steeper and tighter. The river is really loud now, perpetual whitewater. There are other streams and creeks feeding the river that have to be navigated. If you carry trekking poles or a hiking stick this is the time to use them. The roots and rocks are very, very slick. Hopefully you wore your waterproof hiking shoes or boots. Do not attempt to hike the trail in sandals or flip flops. No and no. Because this is a popular hike there is occasional trail traffic, so be cognizant that there can be bottlenecks at the particularly difficult places.
It took us right at three hours to get there, but we are Meanderthals and we take lots of pictures. You may do it quicker. As we approached the cascades a few of the catawba rhododendron were blooming, a special treat for mid-May. We knew we must be close when we came upon the sign: WARNING! Closely Control Children. 4 Deaths Here From Falls. PLEASE DON’T BE NEXT! That’s pretty clear. As we climbed the final boulders past the sign we could see why.
This is a dangerous area. Care should be taken with every step. There are no fences or railings. The viewing area is a few boulders that are smooth and slippery. There is room for no more than 10 people at the waterfall, so enjoy your time there but don’t dawdle. Leave room for those coming up behind you so it won’t become too crowded and even more dangerous.
Warning! Most of all, don’t attempt to climb the waterfall. Apparently that is how the casualties have occurred. I can’t emphasize this enough. Be very careful when you reach Ramsey Cascades. There is very little room to maneuver. There are likely to be other hikers there making it even more difficult to get around. The rocks are slick and you are guaranteed to hit your head if you fall. The best thing to do is sit down and enjoy the scene.
And what a spectacular scene it is. One of the veterans to the area who was coming down while we were going up said the water flow was considerable. Sometimes it can be fairly dry, but this region has received a good amount of rain this spring and we were treated to the cascade at its finest. A series of outcrops creates a terraced effect for the water. Click the photo at the top of this post for a large view. That is only the top half of the falls. It’s a 100-foot drop in total ending up in a pool they say has salamanders. It was difficult to get close because of the high flow rate, but I’ll take their word for it.
We stayed long enough for a quick lunch and some pictures and then it began to get a little crowded. I thought coming up the last 200 feet had been kinda dicey. That was nothing compared to going down. Every step was a slip or an ankle twist waiting to happen, but we both managed to navigate through it without incident. Take your time and you’ll be okay.
After that first few hundred feet and then getting across a couple creeks, the return trip is really pretty easy. We weren’t in any hurry at all, so we stopped a few times to setup the tripod and to just chill by the river. The Smokies are obviously known for forests and mountains, but I’m always reminded just how much water there is. No matter where you are in the Smoky Mountains you will inevitably find water somewhere, and of course, water means green.
We passed a lot of hikers coming up as we were going down. We started fairly early, around 9:00AM, and there were about eight other cars in the parking lot. When we got back there were probably triple that many. Remember too, this was a Wednesday, so plan accordingly.
My brother and I thoroughly enjoyed the Ramsey Cascades hike. It’s the right distance for us with plenty of elevation gain for a workout, but not excessively steep to exhaust us. The river and the cascades are magnificent. The lower stretches of the trail are kid friendly, but I wouldn’t recommend young children up top at the cascades. No pets or bicycles are allowed on the trail. The forest service says black bear are sometimes active in the area, and a blogging friend warns that hornets nests hanging over the trail in the summer can be an issue. Otherwise, this is a great hike that I recommend.