Hike the Trillium Gap Trail to the walk-behind waterfall at Grotto Falls, one of the most sought-after waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains.
LOCATION:in the Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg, TN
OFFICIAL MAP: Trails Illustrated #317: Clingmans Dome, Cataloochee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (find it at Trailful Outdoor Co.)
Grotto Falls is not only one of the most beautiful waterfall hikes in the Smoky Mountains, but it also offers a unique chance to hike behind the falls. This hike follows the Trillium Gap Trail from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, meandering and climbing deep into an old-growth hemlock forest. It’s a particularly beautiful and scenic hike. The route offers the chance to view a variety of flora and fauna along the banks of the brilliantly clear and rambunctiously tumbling Roaring Fork.
This hike explores a particularly beautiful stretch of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a popular hike, too – so expect company on the trail. If you go, please remember to pack out everything you pack in, and leave no trace to help preserve the bountiful beauty of Smokies.
Grotto Falls: the hike
The hike begins at a trailhead off the mile-long Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, located just southeast of Gatlinburg, TN (view maps and driving directions). (This hike’s popularity often leads to limited parking. If the main parking area is full, there’s an auxiliary parking area just past the main trailhead).
The hike’s first tenth of a mile follows an access trail to an intersection with the Trillium Gap Trail. The route begins a climb, following the Trillium Gap to the southeast. The trail’s gentle gradient winds its way across four usually-shallow stream crossings on the way to the falls. Stepping stones offer a semi-dry way to cross the creek crossings, but a good, grippy waterproof boot (and careful treading) helps to ensure dry feet.
A springtime hike along this trail reveals the nature of its name. In late spring, colorful trillium wildflowers carpet the forest floor alongside a plethora of other wildflowers. Bloom season in the Smokies is simply incredible. The hike continues winding through wide switchbacks, climbing roughly three hundred feet to a small waterfall. At just under 1.25 miles, the first glimpse of the waterfall comes into view.
A dazzling series of cascades, with clear, deep pools come together to put on a display of natural splendor. Golden light casts down from the tree canopy above, blanketing the trail with a soft and natural glow. A cool breeze mists its way up from the base of the falls.
The trail skirts along the right side of the falls, crossing some slick, mossy boulders coated in the waterfall’s mist. The view is incredible, but tread carefully!
Perhaps the most popular feature of the waterfall is the chance to sneak behind the falls and experience the rumble of whitewater against the pool below. During the heat of the summer months, the waterfall’s cool mist offers a most welcome chance to cool off mid-hike.
Beyond Grotto Falls, the Trillium Gap Trail continues its climb, offering access to the summit of Mount LeConte after hiking another five miles to the southeast. This hike departs from the waterfall, following its outbound route in reverse. The return to the parking area is as easy going as it is acoustically rich, with a wide variety of birds singing a cheerful chorus. The hike reaches the trailhead at 2.6 miles, completing the adventure.
More Smoky Mountain hiking adventures
The Smokies are certainly hike-worthy, with scores of soaring green mountain summits, lush valleys, and tumbling waterfalls. Follow the Alum Cave Trail to Mt LeConte, climbing through a rocky, rugged terrain to the LeConte Lodge at the mountain’s summit, and stunning vistas from Cliff Top and Myrtle Point. Hike the Chimney Tops Trail, climbing to stunning views of a craggy pinnacle and nearby Mt LeConte. For a more mellow adventure, hike to Andrews Bald near Clingman’s Dome, and catch beautiful vistas from a grassy mountaintop covered in late-spring wildflowers. Explore Cades Cove and hike to the tumbling cascade at Abrams Falls. Or check out the full list of our favorite Smoky Mountains hiking trails for even more adventure inspiration.
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.
Trillium Gap Trail to Grotto Falls: Map, Directions & Details
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Free parking is available at the trailhead.
35.680217, -83.463617 // N35 40.813 W83 27.817