The past weekend, we decided to head out to Porters Creek trail on the Tennessee side of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We hiked this trail for the first time in early April, but my wife was sick and wasn’t able to come, so we decided to hike it again so she could see it.
We love this trail, and it’s one of our family favorites. Here are the details:
Location: Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Roundtrip Distance: 4 miles
Features: Waterfall, wildflowers, old growth forest, trail follows stream
Directions: At the intersection of Highway 441 and Highway 321 in Gatlinburg, turn eastbound onto 321. Drive six miles and then turn right into Greenbrier (look for The Great Smoky Mountain National Park entrance sign located on the right). If you’re coming from Gatlinburg, it’s just before a bridge. The sign is small, so watch closely for it. The road turns into a gravel road after a short distance, so don’t be surprised. Drive about three miles until you reach a fork in the road. Continue straight at this junction to reach the Porters Creek trailhead. The parking lot is another mile up the road.
Recommended Gear: See our list of day hiking essentials
Porters Creek Trail is a 4 mile round trip hike out to Fern Branch Falls and back. The trail is famous for an abundance of wild flowers that literally blanket the forest floor all around the trail in early April. Here’s a photo from our visit during the weekend of April 13th, 2014:
The trail begins at the very end of Greenbrier Rd. Once you turn onto Greenbrier Rd, it’s about 3 miles to the end. The road is very narrow in some places, with some pretty steep drops, so go slow and watch for oncoming cars.
At the end of Greenbrier Rd, you veer right onto the loop. The Porters Creek trail entrance is at the very back of the loop. There are some restrooms at the picnic area before the loop, and also off the right just before reaching the loop. I would suggest using them, as there are no facilities on the trail itself.
Once on the loop, there are a number of “pull overs” to park in, just be sure your car is out of the road.
The trail entrance is just past a metal gate and is a gravel road. The first half of Porters Creek trail, follows the windy Porter’s creek. There are a number of places to access the creek along the way, and we would highly recommend doing so. There are some great photo opportunities and small waterfalls to just find a big rock to sit on and enjoy.
The trail slowly inclines upward, and while not a difficult climb, we would rate it moderately strenuous. As you follow the trail, watch to your right and you’ll see old “rock fences” marking property borders. This is what remains of the Elbert Cantrell farmstead, that was founded here in the early 1900s. You’ll also pass Ownby Cemetery, with a number of old grave sites.
Pay attention to the wooded areas to your right and left as you proceed down the trail. Porters Creek trail has a number of wildflowers, and in late April an abundance of Trillium.
At almost one mile from the start of the trail, just after crossing one of the three brides on the trail, you’ll come to a fork. Fern Branch Falls is to the left, and to the right is the historic John Messer farm site where you’ll find a barn built in 1875 and a cabin built in 1935 by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club. The barn, cabin and spring house are about 200 yards from the trail, and worth the extra few minutes.
To continue onto Fern Branch Falls, follow the trail to the left. At this junction, the gravel road stops, and the trail becomes more “trail like” and continues it’s gradual uphill climb to the Fern Branch Falls. You’ll encounter another junction not 100 feet past the first, just continue to go left.
Shortly after the gravel road ends, you’ll notice that the woods become deeper, and you’ll begin to note a number of old growth trees all around you. Some of them fairly large.
At around the 1.6 mile mark, you’ll cross the third, and longest bridge on the trail. If you’re skittish of heights, this one will challenge you a bit.
The bridge really isn’t that high, but it appears high due to the log walkway, and due to having rails on one side only. If you have small children, you’ll want to hold them tight here, a fall to the rocks below could be very dangerous. Our 8 year old daughter made it across with no problems, and we saw a number of families crossing with their kids, so not something you need to avoid, just be careful.
If you are hiking in early to mid April, just after the bridge is area where all of the wildflowers grow. The trail goes right through the middle, and you’ll be surrounded by a beautiful carpet of white wildflowers for acre after acre. The cover photo of this article was taken in this area.
Just after the bridge is also our favorite part of the whole trail, and where we like to spend most of our time. Just after crossing the bridge, to the left is a small trail leading down to the water and waterfalls. There are some great photo opportunities here, along with some little “beach like” areas for the kids to play in, and some really nice large rocks to bask in the sun and enjoy the wonderful rushing water sounds.
We could literally sit right here all day long. In our opinion, this is the most beautiful and natural part of the trail. Just be careful with young children, the water is pretty deep and the current strong in some areas. During this visit, we saw lots of families and kids playing in the water. Some even wore the bathing suits on the hike. They were ready!
From this point, Fern Branch Falls is another .4 miles up the trail. You’ll know you’re at the falls, when you reach a small creek that you have to “rock hop” across. Fern Branch Falls isn’t directly next to the trail, but up the hill on the left. We’ve been able to see it from the trail each time we’ve been, but other hikers have told us that during the summer it’s often difficult to see from the trail, due to the foliage.
To get to the base of the falls, take one of the trails to the left or right of the creek and go up. Personally we think the trail on the left is a little easier, but both are pretty steep. There is a trail to the top of the falls to the right once you are at the base. The trail is a very steep climb, and the drop at the top is significant. The view down is pretty, but be extra careful.
If you enjoy photography, there are some wonderful photo opportunities here, as there are many small waterfalls. If you want to get picture of Fern Branch Falls, I would recommend arriving before noon, as the lighting after midday makes it difficult to get a good photo.
We usually bring a packed lunch or some snacks and spend a good hour here at the falls, resting and enjoying the sounds of the water. This is a common stopping and destination point for hikers, so we’ve had a chance to meet and talk to lots of other people and families.
The way back is the same way you came. The good news? The trail back is all down hill! You can also continue down Porters Creek Trail for another 1.7 miles to campsite #31.
Porters Creek trail is listed in a great book, History Hikes of The Smokies which provides for some interesting details about the trail, it’s history and the area. If you enjoy history, this is a great book to pickup.