It’s no secret that the state of Tennessee is absolutely filled with gorgeous places to explore. Every corner of the state is unique and special in its own way, but the one thing that stands out the most about the eastern and middle portions of the state is the breathtaking waterfalls. To list them all would take an entire book, so instead, we’ve put together this list of 10 of the very best waterfall hikes in the state to get you started.
Note: Some of these trails have been affected by the 2016 fires. Check to make sure a trail is open before heading out.
1. Virgin Falls and Big Laurel Falls
Location: Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness in Sparta
Height: Virgin Falls is approx. 110 feet and Big Laurel Falls is approx. 40 feet
Tucked away in the small town of Sparta is one of the most unique waterfall hikes and backcountry camping spots in the state. Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness has really cool natural features (like caves and cenotes), and this 9-mile roundtrip hike includes four waterfalls. Two of these waterfalls are the Big Laurel Falls and Virgin Falls. Big Laurel Falls is about halfway to Virgin Falls, has a large cave mouth behind the falls to explore, and is also home to one of the many backcountry campsite locations.
Virgin Falls is another perfect spot for sleeping beside a majestic waterfall. Standing at 110 feet high, the water comes out of a cave above the falls, then crashes down into a sinkhole and disappears into another cave. To see Virgin Falls at high flow is an experience like none other and might just take your breath away. This trek can easily be done as a day hike, but it’s highly recommended to stay overnight for a unique camping experience. Local tip: If it’s a clear night or there’s a meteor shower event happening, check out the Overlook campsite.
2. Hen Wallow Falls
Location: Cosby Section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
*Height: 90 feet *
Located in the quieter part of the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains, Hen Wallow Falls is a perfect waterfall to combine with a camping trip. Perfect because the trailhead is located near the Cosby picnic area, which is very close to the rarely-busy Cosby Campground. With more than 100 campsites, there is almost always an open spot to pop a tent or park your RV here. Gabes Mountain Trail is lined with lush rhododendrons and ferns, taking you under large poplars, and past a cave. The entire hike is 4.4 miles roundtrip.
3. Ramsey Cascades
Location: Greenbrier Section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Height: Roughly 100 feet with multiple tiers
Ramsey Cascades is found in the Greenbrier section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and can be accessed via the 8-mile roundtrip Ramsey Cascades Trail. Not only is it one of the most magnificent falls in the park, but Ramsey Cascades is also the highest waterfall in the Smokies (and one of the most popular!). Be prepared for a challenging and strenuous hike, but between the waterfall and some of the oldest and largest trees inside of the park, the route is filled with beauty. Be very careful near the falls—it can be slippery and dangerous.
4. Indian Flats Falls
Location: Tremont Section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Height: 60 feet in three tiers
The hike to Indian Flats Falls is filled with history, tranquility, and (of course) waterfalls. To find Indian Flats Falls, take the Middle Prong Trail, and about four miles in (after the first switchback), look for an unmarked spur trail on your right. The trail is well-worn, but can be easy to miss. Along the way, you’ll pass by other cascades and waterfalls, and at mile two, you can take a side trail to see a 100-year old Cadillac that was left behind by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Indian Flats Falls is an ideal place to take a picnic, look for salamanders, or just soak up the peacefulness of the Smokies.
5. Grotto Falls
*Location: Roaring Fork Section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park *
Height: 25 feet
Grotto Falls is found along the Trillium Gap Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and is the only waterfall inside the park where you can actually go behind the falls. This popular trek will likely be packed by mid-morning, so be sure to get an early start. The hike to Grotto Fallsand back is only 2.6 miles, which makes it easily accessible for families, a new hiker, or anyone short on time. If you add a trip up to Mount LeConte and then down the Rainbow Falls Trail past Rainbow Falls, you can get away from the crowd for a 14-mile hike filled with beauty and epic views.
6. Fern Branch Falls
Location: Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Height: approx. 40 feet
Fern Branch Falls is easy to miss, but the hike to the waterfall is absolutely fantastic. Access the waterfall by taking the Porters Creek Trail up the banks of Porters Creek, passing by an old farmstead, giant trees, moss covered boulders, a 20th century cemetery, and through a lush forest. In the spring, the Porters Creek trail is one of the top spots for seeing blooming wildflowers, but honestly, it’s a wonderful place to escape into the mountains any time of year. The main hike is 4 miles roundtrip, or you can continue 1.7 miles past the waterfall to backcountry campsite #31 for an overnight adventure.
7. Laurel-Snow Falls
Location: Laurel-Snow Segment of the Cumberland Trail near Dayton
Height: Laurel Falls is 80 feet and Snow Falls is 35 feet
The Laurel-Snow segment of the Cumberland Trail is a moderately strenuous hike along creeks and gorges, so plan to get your feet wet. Located just outside of the busy streets of Dayton, this tranquil area is a fantastic day trip or a wonderful spot for backcountry camping. The hike out to Laurel Falls alone is about five miles roundtrip, or continue on to see Snow Falls for just under 10 miles roundtrip. There are tons of photo opps along this trail—the old Richland coalmine, the Dayton Reservoir with its turquoise water, multiple cascades, and scenic overlooks of the gorges and the Cumberland Plateau.
8. Stinging Fork Falls
Location: Falls Segment of the Cumberland Trail in Spring City
Height: approx. 35 feet
This hike on the Cumberland Trail is only two miles roundtrip, but is a lovely, moderate walk to a beautiful waterfall. The cove with the falls is stunning, so have your camera ready. About half a mile in, take the spur trail out to the Indian Head Point Overlook for a view of the Stinging Fork Gorge. It will only add about .2 miles to your trip, and is worth the detour.
If you want a longer adventure, add on a hike to the nearby Piney Falls in Grandview, named one of the 10 Best Waterfalls Near Nashville. You’ll avoid the crowds that frequent some of the other trails, and add on a couple more miles to your day.
9. Great Falls
Location: Rock Island State Park in Rock Island
Height: 30 feet
Great Falls is a large, horseshoe-shaped waterfall in Rock Island State Park. You’ll immediately see Great Falls from the overlook, but to truly experience this spot, take the steep, 0.5-mile Upstream Trail that leads down into the gorge. You’ll find multiple waterfalls and walls of water dripping along the way, limestone paths, and unique rock formations. It’s fun to rock hop down in the gorge, but the area can flood very quickly. If you hear the sirens, get out of the gorge immediately. There are also times when the gorge is closed to the public, so double check before you go.
Also at the park is Center Hill Lake, which is perfect for camping, kayaking, fishing, and swimming.
10. Margarette Falls
Location: Cherokee National Forest in Greeneville
*Height: 60 feet *
Margarette Falls is a great summer hike thanks to several creek crossings that give you the opportunity to cool off on a hot day. Located in an area that was once a thriving logging community, it’s now a part of the Cherokee National Forest. This 2.7-mile roundtrip hike will get your heart pumping, but it’s a walk in the woods that you won’t soon forget. The trail winds through through formations and around several smaller cascades on your way to the 60-foot tall fan-shaped waterfall. With both free-falling and cascading water, the picture perfect falls is especially worth visiting after a good rain.
Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.