When we were getting ready to do some hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park – a longtime favorite of mine! – we asked a park ranger for some recommendations. He told us that Grotto Falls was one of the best waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains because it was the only one that visitors can walk behind. Combine that with a scenic drive to get to the trailhead and a nice, moderate hike that provided the perfect level of challenge for us, and the hiking to Grotto Falls along the Trillium Gap Trail was a great way to end our time in the National Park while enjoying one of the best Smoky Mountain waterfall hikes.
Getting to Grotto Falls
Access to the Grotto Falls trailhead is from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This small loop can only be accessed from Gatlinburg and doesn’t connect to the Newfound Gap Road or any of the other main routes through the park. It’s a little isolated, but that makes this Gatlinburg scenic drive all the more pleasant. If you’re coming from the Newfound Gap Road area, you’ll likely have to fight through traffic, but once you get clear of the downtown area, you’ll be fine. Try hiking early to avoid congestion.
Most of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one-way loop that takes a very narrow, curving path. Note: The road is closed during the winter. Check the official park website for updates. You can buy a guidebook with information about the markers along the route at the entrance. There are a few pull-offs, including one that shows the scars left by the 2016 wildfires that hit the area. The speed limit is 10 mph, but for some reason we kept getting stuck behind people who didn’t know how to drive in the mountains and insisted on crawling along at 4-5 mph and riding their brakes down every downslope. Along the way, you’ll pass the trailhead for slightly more famous Rainbow Falls, another one of the best waterfalls in Smoky Mountain National Park.
There’s a decent amount of parking at the Grotto Falls trailhead, and there were lots of spots to pull off on the shoulder along the road. I’d highly recommend car-pooling to the trailhead if you’re hiking with a group as it was really congested.
Hiking to Grotto Falls
The Grotto Falls trail was easy to follow and well-marked. You have an opportunity to fork off to visit Rainbow Falls at one point, but we continued straight toward our destination. There is a general uphill grade on the way to the waterfall, but it wasn’t particularly strenuous even though it was our second hike of the day. It’s about 1.4 miles in each direction to reach Grotto Falls.
The trail did play a few tricks on us as there are several spots where it runs along and crosses over a flowing creek. Every time we’d hear the rushing water up ahead we’d think, “Wow, I can’t believe we’re here already,” only to laugh at ourselves. There were two spots where we had to cross the stream by stepping on larger rocks. It had been raining quite a bit during our stay, but we were still able to cross easily, and having grown up playing hours and hours of Oregon Trail, we felt well-prepared to ford the river.
The final approach to Grotto Falls runs along cascades of flowing water coming from the pool at the base of the waterfall. It makes for a pretty presentation with the main waterfall looming at the end. The water is fast-moving, but not too deep and people were lounging on large rocks and tree branches in it.
There are a couple of good spots to view the falls from the righthand side (as you face it), but the best views are achieved by crossing behind the flowing water. The ledge that takes you around behind it is somewhat narrow and slippery, so use caution while crossing. I put my camera and phone away in our waterproof backpack to keep them dry on the way over, but we barely got wet and I just carried them with me on the way back.
Once you cross behind Grotto Falls, you can walk out onto some large rocks to take photos in front of the water. At 25 feet tall, it’s certainly not the biggest waterfall, but the greenery around it makes it beautiful and it provides a nice, relaxing sound with the rushing water.
The good news is that the return trip to the trailhead is almost entirely downhill, so getting back to your car should be a breeze if you made it to the waterfall.
Tips for hiking to Grotto Falls
- Get there early to avoid traffic on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, find parking spots more easily, and enjoy the waterfall without crowds of other visitors.
- Bring water! It’s not a particularly strenuous hike, but you’ll be spending a couple of hours on the trail and you’ll be thirsty.
- Bring bug spray. You’re hiking through a forest and might get bitten up.
- Wear good shoes. While it’s not terribly difficult, There are several spots where you have to climb up or across rocks. You definitely don’t want to try this in flip flops.
Looking for more great National Park hikes? Check out these posts.
Don’t forget to save this Smoky Mountains waterfall hike for later!