Did you know there is a 5.5-mile loop road through the Great Smoky Mountains that begins and ends in the middle of Gatlinburg? This somewhat hidden route features hiking trails, stunning cascades and waterfalls, and beautiful historic buildings. It’s one of my favorite places to explore in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park so I put together this travel guide for you!
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is open to the general public from April 10 until November 30 each year.
The Roaring Fork may temporarily close because of inclement weather – usually snow – during the spring and autumn months.
The gate to the motor nature trail is located after the Rainbow Falls Parking Area, so even during the off season, it is possible for visitors to hike to that waterfall.
Getting to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The route to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail begins at Traffic Light #8 on Parkway in Gatlinburg. Turn onto Historic Nature Trail and continue along the two-lane road lined with hotels. At the only traffic light on the road, continue straight.
Cherokee Orchard Road begins at the light. This two-lane road leaves Gatlinburg behind and enters the boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The road passes Ogle Place and the parking area for Rainbow Falls before looping around and coming back.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is located at the far end of the loop on Cherokee Orchard Road.
The first place to stop, get out, and explore on Cherokee Orchard Road is the Noah “Bud” Ogle Place. It’s an historic site with a short nature trail through an authentic farmstead recreation. There is a large house along with a carriage house nearby.
The parking lot has enough room for about a dozen vehicles in marked spaces.
The Rainbow Falls Trail is one of the most popular trails and waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And for good reason: Rainbow Falls is absolutely stunning! I would show you a photo of the time I spent half a day hiking out to the waterfall and back again except that I left my memory cards in the car. Big time professional photographer right here, folks.
The 5.4-mile round trip hike is pretty strenuous with a climb of about 1,600’ from the parking lot. It takes a few hours to complete the hike and even longer if you’re like me and wanna hang out around the waterfall when you get there.
If you want to really enjoy the peacefulness of the hike and waterfall you need to arrive early. And by early I mean pull into the parking lot about half an hour before sunrise. By noon at the very latest the primary parking area along Cherokee Orchard Road will be full and dozens of hikers will crowd the trail. Alternatively, you could arrive late; I find most people leave the trails in time for dinner.
You can also access the Bullhead Trail here. The 5.9-mile trail eventually leads to Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) and Bullhead Branch.
There is room for a few dozen vehicles to park near the trailhead. If this parking is gone there is an overflow parking area around a couple of curves down the road.
Begin the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
This is your last chance to head back into Gatlinburg before getting on the one-lane, one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Please keep in mind because of the winding road, other traffic, hikers, and narrow passes between parked vehicles it will take about two hours to drive the 5.5-mile loop road to the other end. Do not begin this loop if you have dinner reservations or plans to meet others in less than two hours because you won’t make it.
Scenic Overlook #1
After a bit of an initial climb around a few curves the first stop on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is the first of two scenic overlooks. This overlook faces northwest back toward Gatlinburg. There is enough parking for a few vehicles.
Scenic Overlook #2
Shortly after leaving the first scenic overlook, the second appears around a curve. It offers a bit of a different view of the local landscape and tends to be a better spot for photos. The parking area is about the same as the first scenic overlook with room for a few cars at a time.
Grotto Falls Parking Area
Grotto Falls is the only major waterfall located on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It’s one of the easiest to access in the national park so it tends to be pretty popular. Grotto Falls is a short maybe 10’ waterfall spilling over the edge of a rock formation into a grotto below. The shallow pool is the perfect place for kids to splash around in the summer.
The 2.6-mile round trip hike is moderate with a 550’ elevation change (but it’s downhill all the way back). The trail is well maintained and wide enough for groups of hikers. It takes about 2-3 hours to finish the hike there and back.
The Trillium Gap Trail also begins at this parking area. This is a strenuous trail often hiked by those training for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. The 13.9-mile trail leads to Mount Le Conte during a 3,400’ ascent up the mountain.
Grotto Falls is another parking area that fills up quickly. There is plenty of parking around the privy, but after that it gets tricky. There are plenty of places on both sides of the road that have become “parking spaces” over the years. Be careful pulling into one of those spaces with passenger cars and minivans.
Cascades on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Shortly after leaving the hustle and bustle of Grotto Falls behind you need to roll your windows down. This is my favorite section on the entire loop road. As you wind down the road in a continual descent you’ll start to hear trickling water on the right. This is where the creek meets up with the road the rest of the way to the end.
There are several paved parking spaces in groups of three or four to pull off. One in particular includes three marked parking spaces on the left just before a slight curve. This is my favorite spot to visit and shoot photos of the cascades trickling over the rounded river stones.
Jim Bales Place
Eventually the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail will cross the creek for the first time on a sturdy wooden bridge. Immediately on the right is a collection of log structures that makes up Jim Bales Place. There is a small home and barn in a large open field.
There is room to park before and after crossing the bridge, though I recommend finding a spot as soon as possible.
Ephraim Bales Cabin
You could almost miss this cabin while driving along the Roaring Fork. It’s off to the left beyond a small parking area. The short trail takes only minutes to walk to the dog trot log home.
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. If you walk along a trail beside the house or continue along the Roaring Fork around the curve to a small parking area you’ll find a large cascading waterfall behind the Ephraim Bales Cabin. You can hear the waterfall from the road but you can’t quite see it. It’s one of my favorite places to enjoy a snack and read a book for awhile.
Alfred Reagan Place & Tub Mill
Keep your eye out for a long wooden aqueduct on the right side of the road; this leads to the small Tub Mill beside the creek. It’s a neat place to visit with parking on the other side of the road.
Straight ahead from the parking area is the strikingly white Alfred Reagan Place. It’s the only historic home on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to be painted. The home is usually left open for visitors to walk inside.
There are a few parking spaces directly in front of Alfred Reagan Place across the road from the Tub Mill. If these spaces are taken there are a few more around the curve with a short trail leading back to the historic structures.
The Place of a Thousand Drips
This was the most elusive place to find that actually took me a few tries over several months. It’s also difficult to view but I’ve got a few tips to help you out with that.
The Place of a Thousand Drips is a seasonal waterfall. It really takes a lot of recent rain for the trickles to form something steady across the sheer rock wall. But when there is enough water it really earns the name “Place of a Thousand Drips”.
It’s located on the left side of the Roaring Fork along a somewhat sharp curve to the right. The “top” of the cascade is so high you’d have to crane your neck out the windows to see it, and even then you may not see it all. There is a small pull off just beyond with room for maybe two or three vehicles; if you really want to see The Place of a Thousand Drips park here and walk back.
End of Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Shortly after passing The Place of a Thousand Drips you’ll see a sign noting that two-way traffic resumes. This is officially the end of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail as you leave the Great Smoky Mountains National Park onto Roaring Fork Road.
This locally-owned attraction is an interesting place to visit. Two-way traffic has resumed here so it’s possible to return later, but why miss an opportunity?
Ely’s Mill includes a small shop with arts and crafts from local artisans, a couple of workshops where you can watch people at work, and information about rental cabins along the Roaring Fork.
Returning to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
I’m gonna let you in on the biggest tip I have about visiting the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail because, I mean, this is what I do.
If you’re anything like me one trip on this peaceful loop road just isn’t enough. If you’re also anything else like me you’ve got a cooler with ice cold drinks and snacks just in case anyone is getting hungry.
If you’re keen to drive the one-lane, one-way loop road again there is a short cut from the end to the beginning without having to drive down Parkway. When you return to Parkway you’ll come out at a traffic light. Turn left onto East Parkway. Stay in the left lane going down Parkway.
Before the last big curve to the next traffic light look for Baskins Creek Bypass on the left. Turn onto that road. Follow the two-lane road to where it ends at Cherokee Orchard Road. Turn left onto Cherokee Orchard Road. That road will come to a four-way stop sign. Continue straight ahead and you’ll be back on the road heading toward Ogle Place.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail Parking Etiquette
This one time I came across a rather unfortunate situation on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail that could have ended very badly with damaged vehicles if it weren’t for the help of a complete stranger. Please, if you’ve never driven the Roaring Fork or even if you’re an ace veteran of the hidden route, give this a read.
Parking is a premium on the Roaring Fork. There just aren’t enough paved parking spaces for all the visitors but I also hope the National Park Service never decides to increase parking at the sake of the forest.
Parking is allowed on both sides of the Roaring Fork under two conditions:
- leave enough room for other vehicles to get past
- don’t destroy anything while parking (vegetation, rocks, and signage)
People usually do pretty good about not parking on top of a sapling or trying to crawl across a boulder. But one thing they always tend to forget (or ignore) is leaving enough room for other vehicles to get past.
During the autumn of 2016 I was traveling along the Roaring Fork in a minivan. Just after passing the parking area for Grotto Falls I came to that familiar stretch where people try to find any space they can to park on either side of the road.
I came across a crew cab pickup truck on the right and Jeep wrangler on the left. I don’t know which had parked first, but the end result was a lane of passage seemingly too narrow for my van. I had to park the van in the middle of the road with other vehicles behind me. I had nowhere else to go.
A stranger hiking up the road from where he had parked said he’d help guide me through. He watched my clearance on the passenger side while I watched on the drive side. At the narrowest point I literally had one inch of clearance on either side of the van.
Sometimes you may need to drive quite a bit down the Roaring Fork to find a suitable parking space. Sometimes you may not find a parking space at all. But one thing you have to do is make sure there is enough room for others to get by your parked vehicles.