A Solo Smokies Hike Along Grotto Falls Trail

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.

Grotto 1

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.

It was time to improvise.Grotto 2

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.

Grotto 3

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.
Grotto 4

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!

Grotto 5

Keep trudging along…just 1.2 miles to go. Oh, and then the whole return trip.

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.

Grotto 7A 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.

Grotto 6

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.

grotto returnSome 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 thisGrotto 8

Hiking the Chimney Tops Trail: #1 of 3 Smoky Mountain Adventures

There are at least a hundred hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains, so how’s a girl supposed to settle on just one for an introductory hike?

Eeny meeny miny moe, randomly point on a map, and hit the road!


The Chimney Tops Trail climbs 1,400 feet in two miles, making it a relatively steep trail in anyone’s book. The round-trip trail length is four miles, making it perfect for a moderate morning hike. You’ll find the trail-head for the trip almost seven miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the Newfound Gap Road (latitude 35.63538, longitude -83.46979). There’s a “parking lot” alongside the road that you could easily mistake for a vista point pullout. This is less than a 30 minute drive if you’re camping in Pigeon Forge, like I did.


Chimney Tops is a mountain in the central Smokys with an elevation of 4,724 feet. It’s one of the rare occurrences of a bare rock summit in the mountain range.


Another reason to hit this trail early in the morning is that it is incredibly popular and gets disgustingly crowded…even during the off-season. The first 0.9 miles of the trail is super easy, so you can get a good pace going.


During this stretch, you’ll hike along Road Prong Creek and across several picturesque bridges and up some conveniently placed steps. Expect to step in a good bit of mud, even if you can’t recall the last time it rained.


You’ll know you’re halfway to the summit when you reach Beech Flats, and everything gets a little more challenging from here. Stay on the trail that veers right to reach the summit, which is a bouldering problem if I ever saw one.


To get the absolute best view, you’ll need to scramble to the top without the help of a cable to hold on to or any technical gear. Hikers get injured here all the time, so if you’ll feeling shaky, stay off the pinnacles and enjoy the comparably awesome view of the Sugarland Mountain in the west and Sugarlands Valley in the north.


I, for one, had yet to develop my mountain legs and told myself I was satisfied with the view after climbing up about one-third of the pinnacle structure. It is nerve-racking up there, but if you gaze straight forward to either side, the characteristically hazy views should restore some inner balance.


From start to finish, Chimney Tops is an incredibly well-marked trail that provides an impressive introduction to the Smoky Mountains. The better-than-average signage also ensures that directionally challenged hikers, like me, won’t get lost and take a wrong turn.

I hiked this trail in about two hours in early March, starting at about 8:00 am. On the return hike back to the car, I began passing by lots of other hikers. By 10:00 am, there wasn’t a single parking spot available in the area.


Chimney Tops was my first Smoky Mountain hike during my most recent trip to the national park. As I later noticed, every Smoky hike is surprisingly unique and has its own particular set of challenges. Coming up next, I tackle the Grotto Falls Trail and the Rainbow Falls Trail, which both had something entirely different in store for me and my trusty hiking boots.