Five Smoky Mountain waterfalls you don't want to miss

Grotto Falls near Gatlinburg is one of the easier waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to get to and quite pretty.

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Grotto Falls near Gatlinburg is one of the easier waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to get to and quite pretty.

Waterfalls are some of the most mesmerizingly powerful and beautiful of Mother Nature's gifts. There are some pretty ones right around Atlanta, but if you want to see something bigger, something badder, then you should head to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Some of the biggest, baddest, most beautiful waterfalls in the South are to be found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, only a few hours' drive away. But they aren't for the faint of heart, nor the physically unfit. These waterfall hikes are strenuous business and you should be prepared. Wear appropriate footwear and clothing. Take water and nourishment. Don't take a pet. Watch your step. The rocky terrain you tread near a waterfall is slippery from moisture and algae. And don't even think about climbing on rocks around a waterfall.

And hurry! You don't want to take on these bad boys in the winter and, even if you did, some of them will be closed soon.

ExploreGrotto Falls

Not far from Gatlinburg, this 25-foot waterfall is only about a three-mile round-trip hike from a large parking area down Trillium Gap Trail, passing an old-growth hemlock forest as you go. Take traffic light No. 8 from the parkway in Gatlinburg, follow Historic Nature Trail into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and then take Roaring Fork Motor Trail. And be careful! This trail, as with all waterfall trails, is rocky and can be slippery.

Ramsey Cascades

The tallest waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is called Ramsey Cascades. It is a breathtaking sight to behold as the rushing water drops a dramatic 100 feet, splashing off rock outcroppings before finally collecting in a small pool at the bottom. But you'd better be in shape to try to see this beauty. It requires an eight-mile round-trip hike over demanding terrain that gains 2,000 feet in elevation to get to it. But what a hike if you're up for it! Rivers and streams run alongside most of the trail as it cuts through old-growth hardwood forest, much of it this time of year emblazoned with color. A word of caution, though. The National Park Service warns that you should not attempt to climb to the top of the falls and that several people have been killed trying to do so. To get to Ramsey Cascades Trail head to the Greenbrier entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Gatlinburg, and drive 4.7 miles to the trailhead. This is an all-day affair not for the faint of heart. It'll take you at least five hours just to make the hike to the falls and back.

Laurel Falls

If the mere thought of tackling Ramsey Cascades has you huffin' and puffin' and breakin' out in a cold sweat, then maybe the 80-foot high Laurel Falls would be better for you. Get yourself to the popular Sugarlands Visitor Center in GSMNP, head toward Cades Cove on Little River Road and drive a few miles to the trailhead. The hike is only a little over a mile each way, paved and considered moderate – but don't let that fool you into being careless. There are a few steep sections and a few steep drop-offs. As always, proceed with caution.

Rainbow Falls

If you visit at just the right time, you'll see how this 80-foot high waterfall in the Roaring Fork area came to be named as it is. It'll take a nearly five-and-a-half mile round-trip hike to experience it, but it's well worth it. This is one of my favorites, a tall falls requiring a fairly modest hike. Take Historic Nature Trail from Gatlinburg into GSMNP to the Rainbow Falls parking area.

Abrams Falls

A five-mile round-trip hike to see falls only 20 feet high? It might sound like it's not worth the effort, but here's what you have to understand about Abrams Falls: It is the most voluminous waterfall in the park, making it arguably the most scenic waterfall in the Smokies. The massive rush of water roars and crashes down to a deep pool at its base. Take the Cades Cove Loop Road and turn just past stop No. 10. There's good signage, so it shouldn't be hard to see.