It's Christmas come early for those of you pining for the best waterfalls near Knoxville. This list ranges from steep hikes into pristine valleys to waterfalls you can literally drive right up to. So no matter your athletic aptitude, we'll get you on site for one or more of these spectacular falls.
1. Grotto Falls
We'll start our set in the heart of waterfall wonderland, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park . Set out from the parking area on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail down the Trillium Gap Trail into a beautiful hemlock grove. For a mile, hike through a mature forest of beeches, silverbells, and maples frequented by park visitors, Pileated Woodpeckers, and llamas carrying supplies up to LeConte Lodge . After the first stretch you'll hear the steadily growing rumble of Roaring Fork, which travels from Mt. LeConte down to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River . A straight stretch of downhill takes you to Grotto Falls. With only about a mile of pretty easy hiking, you can access this quintessentially Appalachian waterfall, and the only waterfall in the Smokies that you can actually (read: safely) walk behind.
2. Ramsey Cascades
An hour away from Grotto Falls via Gatlinburg is another mature forest and one of the best retreats in the Smokies on a hot, summer day. From the parking lot , start along an old road bed on this moderately difficult hike, and you'll eventually curve away onto a more rugged (but still very discernible) trail where you'll be greeted by large tulip trees, hemlocks, and big black cherries—some of the largest trees in the park! You'll also meet up with Ramsey Prong, which will be your babbling, gurgling, surging companion for almost the entirety of the remaining hike.
After a pretty steep final climb, the trail ends at Ramsey Cascades, a 90-foot high roar of whitewater. Soak up the sun and the gentle spray on the wide stone ledge located right next to the trail before heading back. The hike is 8 miles roundtrip.
3. Abrams Falls
An easy, wide trail follows Abrams Creek for a short 2.5 mile hike to perhaps the most frequented waterfall in the park. Only 20 feet high, the falls are popular not for their height but for the sheer volume of water that pours over them, as well as for the refreshing 100-ft wide pool at the bottom of the cascades popular amongst summertime hikers. Bring a lunch and relax on the rocks near the pool or climb above the falls via a steep access point in the wooded area to the left and wade amongst the small rapids and pools there. Be aware though: there have been some deaths in this area from drowning and pneumonia. Always be cautious to swim, climb, and explore within your scope, and take along a buddy!
4. Bald River Falls
Let's head away from the Smokies now to explore a favorite among motor tourists: Bald River Falls. We covered its majesty and grandeur in our Tellico Plains and Fort Loudoun Adventures post, but it bears repeating that this is a truly spectacular waterfall. Nestled in the Cherokee National Forest between the Smokies and the Chattahoochee NF, the falls are accessible and easily visible from the road, but if you're looking to get out and stretch your legs, there's a lovely and often deserted trail accessible from the parking lot that follows Bald River upstream for a few miles through thick greenery and a few fun little rock scrambles.
5. Wildcat Falls
Contrasted against the easy, roadside access of Bald River Falls, Wildcat Falls in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness makes you journey pretty deep into the woods for its cascading spectacle and refreshing plunging pools. This multi-tiered waterfall requires a steep hike down into the valley of Slickrock Creek, but we don't think you'll mind its arduousness, because it's one of the most beautiful and pristine areas in East Tennessee (though technically you'll be walking the Tennessee-North Carolina boarder at one point). If you're just looking to reach the falls, you can opt for the longer, more gradual descent via Stiff-Knee and Slickrock Trail or descend via Big Stack Gap and Foderstack, where you'll climb down (and eventually have to climb back up) 1500 ft in 1.8 miles. But we recommend doing the full 12-mile loop as described in this destination post to fully experience this landmark wilderness. The loop makes a perfect overnighter for weekend warriors looking for a less-congested alternative to the Smokies.