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The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is one of the most popular scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains! This 5.5-mile loop road offers glimpses of an old-growth forest, historic structures and more. The motor nature trail also provides access to some of the most popular spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, like Grotto Falls! To help you plan your visit, we’ve put together a guide to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
What to See Along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork area of the park is home to historic buildings like log cabins and grist mills, waterfalls, and other landmarks. The scenic drive offers views of those historic structures, the forest and rushing streams. You’ll also have opportunities to get out of the car and explore! Here are some of the things you can see along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail:
1. Noah “Bud” Ogle Self-Guiding Nature Trail
Before you reach the one-way, motor nature trail, you’ll pass the Ogle Place. We recommend parking and getting out to explore before you enter the loop. The Noah “Bud” Ogle Place is a historic site with a short nature trail that leads you through an authentic farmstead. You’ll see a streamside tub mill and the Ogle’s handcrafted wooden flume plumbing system!
2. Rainbow Falls Trail
Just past the Ogle farmstead, you’ll find the trailhead for Rainbow Falls. This popular waterfall hike is 5.4 miles roundtrip and takes you to an 80-foot waterfall. On sunny afternoons, you can see a rainbow that’s formed from the mist of the falls. Along the hike to the waterfall, the trail gains about 1,500 feet in elevation. If you plan to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail before your scenic drive, keep in mind it takes about 3 to 5 hours to hike to the waterfall and back.
From this area, you can also access the Bullhead Trail.
3. Scenic Overlooks
After you pass the Rainbow Falls Trailhead, you’ll get on the one-lane Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The first things you’ll see along the road are a couple scenic overlooks. The first overlook faces northwest back toward Gatlinburg. The second overlook appears shortly after the first around a curve. It offers a different view of the local landscape and is a great spot to take pictures!
4. Trillium Gap Trailhead
Next along the motor nature trail you’ll reach the parking area for the hike to Grotto Falls. We recommend parking and taking the Trillium Gap Trail to this popular waterfall! It’s the only major waterfall located along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The roundtrip hike to Grotto Falls is about 2.6 miles and worth every step. Grotto Falls is a 25-foot-high waterfall, and the trail actually runs behind it! Its cool environment is perfect during the summer!
When you continue your scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, we recommend rolling your windows down! You’ll start to hear trickling water where the creek meets up with the road. There are several paved parking areas where you can pull off and take photos of the small cascades you can see trickling over the rocks.
6. Jim Bales Place
Next along the drive you’ll come upon the Jim Bales Place. You’ll see a collection of log structures, including a small home and a barn sitting in a large, open field. Jim Bales and his older brother, Ephraim, spent most of their lives on the Roaring Fork. Jim married Emma Ogle, a young woman from a neighboring homestead. In this spot, you’ll be able to see Jim Bales’ corn crib and barn, but the cabin that sits in this area is the Alex Cole Cabin. The cabin was relocated here from the Sugarland area so the original location could be returned to nature.
7. Ephraim Bales Cabin
The next stop is the Ephraim Bales Cabin. Ephraim was Jim Bales’ brother. This cabin is easy to miss, so be sure to keep an eye out for it! It’s on the left beyond a small parking area. Ephraim lived here with his wife and 9 children. The homestead is actually two cabins placed side by side, with a common roof connecting them together. The larger cabin served as the living area, while the other was the kitchen.
8. Alfred Reagan Place & Tub Mill
Next, on the right side of the road, you’ll see a long wooden aqueduct that leads to the small Tub Mill beside the creek. There’s parking on the side of the road. Straight ahead from the parking area is the white Alfred Reagan Place. This is the only historic home on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail that’s been painted!
9. Place of a Thousand Drips
The Place of a Thousand Drips is a seasonal waterfall that you can see from your car! However, to get a better view, park at the small pull off and walk back to see it. Wet periods are the best time to see a Place of a Thousand Drips. The flow of the water splits into numerous small channels around the rocks, creating “a thousand drips.”
10. Ely’s Mill
Shortly after you pass The Place of a Thousand Drips, two-way traffic will resume, and you’ve officially reached the end of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. However, there’s one more spot you have to stop at! Ely’s Mill is a locally owned attraction that includes a small shop with arts and crafts from local artisans. After your journey along the nature trail, you’ll love stopping here for a cold drink and to stretch your legs!
Directions to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail isn’t hard to find! From Gatlinburg, turn off the main Parkway at Traffic Light #8 and follow the Historic Nature Trail to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You’ll follow along Cherokee Orchard Road until the road splits, and you’ll enter the one-way, 5.5-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This is just a short distance past the parking area for the Rainbow Falls Trail.
When making plans to explore the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, keep in mind that the road is closed during the winter. This popular scenic drive is available from early April through November.
More Scenic Drives in the Smoky Mountains
If you love exploring the Smoky Mountains from the comfort of your car, you’re in luck. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is just one of many scenic drives in the Smokies! Check out these other popular scenic drives and decide which ones you want to try on your vacation.