Waterfalls Week: The Ramsey Cascades
*We have added the Ramsey Cascades to the list of Best Hikes in the Southern Appalachians. All things considered, we think it may be the best hike to any waterfall in the Southern US, at least that we’ve done so far. It’s the only waterfall in the Eastern US that currently ranks on our list of best hikes. Read to find out why!
We wrap up Waterfalls Week with the Ramsey Cascades. This remote waterfall, with a drop of 100 feet, is held to be the highest in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The name is also entirely correct…this is a cascade, not a straight drop, but an unusually spectacular one.
The Trailhead is located in the Greenbrier entrance to GSMNP, which is off US 321 about midway between Gatlinburg and the Cosby Campground. This is on the Tennessee side of the park, where most of the top-drawer cool stuff (Cades Cove, Alum Cave, the Chimney Tops etc) resides.
The Ramsey Cascades Trail is quite long for a waterfall hike…I believe it’s close to the longest hike we’ve ever done just to get to a waterfall. But it is far from the longest hike we have done in the Smokys…my experience is that hiking trails in GSMNP are rather on the lengthy side, with the trails to Mt. Leconte, Gregory Bald and Mt. Cammerer all topping out at 10+ miles.
The trail starts out as an easy walk on an old road, turning into a more serious hiking trail at about a mile and a half in, where the path also begins following the Ramsey Prong creek. Beyond this the trail is steep, rough in places, and has many creek crossings on sketchy, makeshift bridges. And I mean, makeshift. At least one of these crossings is high enough so that a fall would result in some sort of serious injury. Exercise caution.
There is also a peculiar elbow shaped double bridge crossing.
The stream running beside the trail makes numerous minor cascades of its own and is one of the highlights of the hike.
At about two miles in the trail passes into old growth forest, where some of the largest and oldest trees in the park can be found. There is one extraordinary open wooded area ringed by giant maples, oaks and tulip trees. These are some of the largest trees I have seen in the Eastern United States, comparing with the rain-drenched giants we saw on the Olympic Peninsula.
From here the Ramsey Cascades Trail just gets rougher and steeper, and in places is quite seriously eroded. Though we did not find any of its challenges to be beyond our abilities, hikers should be aware this is not a quick jaunt from the car to a scenic spot. There is a lot of uphill walking to be done here, and the last quarter mile of so before the finish is very rocky.
When you do first glimpse the falls, thought, it sure is an impressive site. Unlike many other trails that come upon falls from an angle, forcing you to walk around on the slippery rocks to find the perfect viewpoint, the RCT comes at its destination head on. The angle is perfect for viewing!
Was it worth the hike in? You decide. We had no complaints.
The area around the base of the falls was VERY slippery when we were there and I was forced to caution a certain person several times about climbing on the rocks. Please exercise caution here; evacuating an injured person from this remote spot would not be easy.
Also heed the warning signs around the falls, which actually display the number of people killed while climbing on the Ramsey Cascades. That posted number was four when we visited. Today it would be higher. ☹
In 2017 a man fell 80 feet to his death at the Ramsey Cascades. A year seldom goes by when at last one person does not perish at one of the park’s waterfalls. The sad part about it is, 100% of those deaths could have been avoided. The falls themselves are no inherently dangerous if you don’t go and mess with them. Any of these waterworks can be viewed in complete safety without need of heroics.
My advice is stick to the rocks below the falls, don’t try to climb up it. And if you approach closely (which I don’t recommend) be careful, because the rock slab directly below the contact point is both slick and angled sharply (as you can see from the photo below, it’s just behind us.) Expect footing to be poor.
This is a great spot to stop for a snack. In summer it’s a great place to cool off (again, don’t say I didn’t warn you about the risks.)
All in all we consider the hike to Ramsey Cascades to be the best hike to a waterfall in GSMNP…and in fact, the best we have done to a waterfall anywhere in the Southern Appalachians. The combination of serious challenge and scenic payoff at the end (the falls themselves are gorgeous) make this well worth the hike. Because this is not an easy trail, it’s generally not too crowded either (though it isn’t deserted by any means.)
One of the disappointing features of this trail is that there are no views except of course the stream and waterfall. It’s kind of annoying to realize you have climbed 2200 feet to see not a single panorama of anything. Bear this in mind if you hike.
Note also that there are many falls you can reach with much less effort that are about as impressive as this one. Among them are Abrams Falls down the road in Cades Cove; Mingo Falls just outside the park; And Whitewater Falls down on the NC/SC border which is much taller than the Ramsey Cascades. Except all to be VERY crowded.
After the hike we did as we usually do – zipped back down 321 to the Foothills Parkway, avoiding the perpetual traffic jam that is Gatlinburg, TN – a place so not to my liking that Sylvia, upon hearing the name, trembles…for she knows the result will be an old guy rant of cosmic proportions.
Instead we go down the highway to Asheville, our favorite city in the Carolinas, for a bite to eat at Strada Italiano or a cup of fu fu Coffee at World Coffee Café. A perfect place to end Waterfall Week!