The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a massive place, with hundreds of square miles waiting to be explored. However, not everyone has the time (or the mobility) to devote to all-day hikes and remote campsites deep within the national park. Instead, many visitors opt to stay in nearby Gatlinburg, Tennessee and take in some of the Smoky Mountains’ most magnificent hikes and waterfalls on short, more bite-size hikes. Some trails even include pavement, providing easy access for those using strollers, scooters, or wheelchairs. Let’s visit three waterfalls within an easy hike of Gatlinburg, with natural splendor just waiting to be explored.

Grotto Falls: A 360-degree experience

Grotto Falls has the distinction of being the only waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains you can walk behind. After a hike on a warm summer’s day, its misty confines can be a welcome cool-down!

In Grotto Falls, you can slip behind the curtain of falling water.

In Grotto Falls, you can slip behind the curtain of falling water.

Grotto Falls is easily reached bia a wide, well-worn path through old-growth forest. The falls are just over a mile from the beginning of the Trillium Gap Trail, named for the profusion of wildflowers which decorate this path in the spring. Along the Trillium Gap Trail you’ll find several streams to cross without help of a footbridge. Once you reach Grotto Falls, be careful of slipping, as the rocks around the falls can be treacherous.

Grotto Falls and the Trillium Gap Trail are easily accessible from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which is just a few miles outside of downtown Gatlinburg. In the winter months (December-March) this road is closed, but you can reach Grotto Falls on a longer hike by using the Rainbow Falls Trailhead. You can find more information on reaching Grotto Falls at the National Parks Service website.

Laurel Falls: Easy access for everyone

If you or anyone in your party isn’t up to uneven ground and fording mountain streams, Laurel Falls is the perfect waterfall hike for you. This 80-foot waterfall is a beautiful experience made accessible to everyone with a paved, 2.3 mile trail.

Laurel Falls offers easy access and beautiful views near Gatlinburg.

Laurel Falls offers easy access and beautiful views near Gatlinburg.

Because of its easy access, Laurel Falls and the Laurel Falls Trail can be crowded. Your best option is to start out early, especially in high tourism seasons. You’ll also find that morning light is perfect for your waterfall photos — an added bonus to that early wake-up call!

The Laurel Falls Trail is located near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, on Little River Road. You’ll find parking at the trailhead. Get details from the National Park Service website.

Abrams Falls: Roaring waters

Abrams Falls makes up for its relatively short stature (about twenty feet) with a massive quantity of water. This crashing waterfall pushes the highest volume of water over its rocks in the Smoky Mountains, and its frigid pool below swirls with strong currents. In fact, Abrams Falls should only be admired from the trail, as its slippery rocks and dangerous pool have caused serious injuries and deaths in recent years.

Despite the danger of getting up close and personal with Abrams Falls, all that power is beautiful to watch from the sidelines, and so Abrams Falls remains a popular trail near Gatlinburg. Located on a trailhead off the Cades Cove Loop Road, the round-trip hike is about five miles long and composed of moderate to difficult terrain. Like Laurel Falls, this trail’s popularity means it’s best tackled early in the day to avoid the crowds of midday. For some interesting tidbits on the background of the trail, both historical and modern-day, visit HikingintheSmokys.com.

If you’re looking to get a taste of the Great Smoky Mountains without committing to a week in the woods, these trails will lead you through old-growth forest on the way to stunningly beautiful waterfalls. They’re the perfect introduction to some of North America’s oldest mountains, as well as the United States’ most popular national park. Best of all, they’re just minutes outside of downtown Gatlinburg.

Abrams Falls pumps a tremendous amount of water over its sandstone rocks every day. Photo: Flickr/ms_project

Abrams Falls pumps a tremendous amount of water over its sandstone rocks every day. Photo: Flickr/ms_project

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