Travel companions are nice and all, but if you’re anything like me, you secretly crave alone time just as much when you’re on the road.
There’s something to be said for finding solitude in nature, to control your own route, and push your limits without someone else’s influence. During my recent trip to the Smoky Mountains, I decided to look into the trees instead of at the footsteps ahead of me. I set my own pace, stopped to take photos when I wanted to, and focused on listening to my jumbled thoughts.
My solo route of choice was the Grotto Falls trail, and I drove from Pigeon Forge through Gatlinburg, and along windy, narrow uphill roads to reach it. I passed by the Rainbow Falls Trailhead, which was disgustingly crowded, and came to an abrupt halt at a road closure blocking my way.
The road to the Grotto Falls trail had been barricaded off, most likely because the National Park Service hadn’t yet opened all of the trails for spring. But since it was the middle of March, I was surprised to be greeted by orange cones and metal gates instead of an idyllic path.
I parked my Jeep along the side of the road and made my way back towards the crowded trailhead I passed a bit earlier. After a half mile of roadside walking, I reached a different trailhead with a sign: “Grotto Falls 3.5 miles.”
Now I’m no sissy to a seven-mile round trip hike, but in the spirit of solo safety, I’d left word back at the RV that I’d be back (from a significantly shorter hike) within an hour or two. The mountains aren’t exactly known for their stellar cellphone reception, but I managed to squeeze a text through the void and provide a tip off that I’d be a little later than expected.
And what an excellent decision that was!
Some sections of the trail were easy and flat, while others were coated in a fresh layer of mud from the previous evening’s snowfall. The light dusting of snow on the tree branches provided the perfect backdrop for a stereotypically introspective afternoon.
Since there were really no steep cliffs along this route, my hike was more about endurance and less nerve-racking than I expected. There were a few fallen trees along the trail and a few streams blocking the path, but nothing that I couldn’t hop over with an ounce of grace.
I visually compartmentalized each category of thoughts into “folders,” filing one away when I’d sifted through it just enough to move on to the next one. While mental flickerings of my work stress, my relationship, and my enduring restlessness came and went, one thought persisted:
Wow, it’s taking me a lot longer to hike this than I ever expected!
As a kid, I remember watching stupid cartoons where a character was stranded in the desert and began to hallucinate, envisioning a mirage of water in the far distance. Well on this hike, a mirage of my own emerged…the elusive sounds of a waterfall.
I knew that my journey would be half done when I reached Grotto Falls, and I could have sworn to hear the falls miles in advance of their actual location. As I turned a corner with a glimmer of hope in my eye, I would come to find that the sound of rushing water could only be attributed to a tiny stream not even worth mention on a map.
Then the temperature began to drop. Noticeably drop.
A sound, much louder than any sound I’d encountered thus far on the hike, filled my ears to the brim. Finally, one turn I took led me to a totally mediocre waterfall.
“That’s it? That’s what I hiked four miles for?!”
But as I continued on, the small waterfall led to a much larger waterfall, and my bitching promptly subsided.
Although the rocks leading up to the falls were frozen and slippery, the falls flowed fast. There are quite a few waterfall hikes in the Smokies, but very few that you can actually walk behind. This is one of them. The rocks were glistening with ice crystals and the mist would have only been refreshing if it was 40-degrees warmer outside.
Since this is an out-and-back hike, rather than a loop, you have two options to get back to your car. You can either backtrack exactly what you just did, or you can walk along the road about two miles to the barricaded gate. Since I knew there’d be no traffic along the road, I chose that route for a change in scenery.
Some might call this downhill route “cheating,” but it did offer some amazing mountain views. And I’m okay with that. After 7+ miles and 3+ hours, I made it back to my Jeep with a heightened sense of confidence and way better attitude about the rest of this Tennessee road trip.
Solo Hiking Tips from a Pseudo-Expert
- Decide on a specific trail and let someone know what it is
- Read some online trail journals to learn about what previous hikers encountered on your route
- Take a GPS or two-way radio because cellphones are worthless on hikes
- Keep a record of how many miles you’ve hiked in the past (and on what type of terrain) and be realistic about how hardcore you are
- Memorize some maps to get an overview of the area in case you make a wrong turn
- Don’t underestimate your need for basic stuff like granola bars, water, a first-aid kit, and extra layers
- Pay attention to what time of day it is and plan to be back before sunset
- Take a million pictures because you’re the only one seeing this