Beyond L.A. Two waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws an average of over 11 million visitors per year – as much as any other two National Parks put together. The 800-plus square mile park straddles North Carolina and Tennessee, giving hikers a chance to do something that is not common in California (except perhaps the Tahoe area): hiking in two different states on the same day. Hen Wallow Falls is in Tennessee and Mouse Creek Falls is about a half hour drive east, in North Carolina. While both trails are popular, they don’t receive the heavy visitation of Cades Cove or Clingman’s Dome, thus offering a degree of solitude. Ambitious hikers can easily knock both of these trips off in the same day; either one makes a worthwhile destination in its own right with both providing a nice introduction to the park and a chance to view an attractive waterfall – and perhaps see an eastern diamondback rattlesnake or a copperhead.


Getting to Great Smoky Mountains National Park: These hikes are both in the northeastern corner of the park. The closest towns are Cosby, TN and Newport, NC. The nearest big city is Charlotte, about 175 miles away (3 hour drive). Atlanta (225 miles/4 hours) and Nashville (250 miles/4 hours) are options as well. Smaller cities such as Asheville or Knoxville are closer (both about an hour’s drive, in opposite directions) but don’t have as many options for flights from the west coast. The hike to Hen Wallow Falls leaves from the Cosby Picnic Area and the hike to Mouse Creek Falls leaves from the Big Creek Trail Head.

Staying at Great Smoky Mountains National Park: There are both drive-in and hike-in campsites throughout the park. Both of the trips described below can be extended into backpacking trips: Back Country Site 35 is located about 2.5 miles past Hen Wallow Falls and Back Country Site 37 is located 3 miles past the bridge above Mouse Creek Falls. For information about camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, click here. For information about lodging in the nearby town of Cosby, click here.

Weather: Temperatures in Cosby, TN range from average lows of 22 degrees in January to average highs of 79 degrees in July and August. Average precipitation is more than three times that of Los Angeles at 51 inches per year. Precipitation is consistent throughout the year, typically 4+ iches per month, so there is no peak season for the waterfalls. For more information about weather in Great Smoky Mountain National Park click here and here.

Cell phone reception: (Hen Wallow Falls): none at the trail head; weak to fair at the waterfall (Mouse Creek Falls): Good at the trail head, weak to fair en route; none at the waterfall or at the bridge

Dogs: Not allowed


Hen Wallow Falls

4.4 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain; allow 3 hours

With considerably more elevation gain and terrain that is often rocky and full of tree roots, the hike to Hen Wallow Falls is the more challenging of the two written up in this post. If you are attempting both in the same day, do this one first, especially during warm weather.

From the picnic area, head north on the road for a short distance to the signed Gabes Mountain Trail Head, on the left. The trail heads west through an attractive woodland, gradually heading uphill to a junction (0.4 mile) with a trail coming from the campground. Head right and descend to the first of two footbridges crossing the creek. A railing on the right side of the narrow wooden bridge will help with balance, although some hikers might find the crossing unnerving.

The trail ascends through the woods, reaching a second footbridge. The wooden railing on this bridge is loose, but can still help stabilize you as you make your way across. Soon after, you reach a unsigned junction. Your choices are now to use a promising looking wooden plank that ultimately requires some bushwhacking to rejoin the main trail, or to head down to the creek, use stepping stones to cross it and bypass a fallen tree before getting to friendlier terrain.

Just under a mile from the start, you reach Messer’s Gap, a meadow. Turn left and continue the ascent, passing by some interesting rock formations and getting glimpses of the valley to the north. After a couple of small dips and climbs, you reach a signed junction with a use trail on the right, heading down to the falls. The trail is quite steep in spots and there are many tree roots, so exercise caution.

About 0.2 mile from the main trail, you reach the waterfall which cascades over a 90-foot slope before continuing its course down the mountain. Several rocks make for good spots to sit and watch the display but as with any potentially slippery terrain, exercise caution when climbing to your viewing spot of choice.

More information: NPS page here; ProTrails page here; trip descriptions here, here, here and here

Cosby Picnic Area, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Morning sun, Cosby Picnic Area

Gabes Mountain trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

First footbridge over the creek

Footbrdige, Gabes Mountain Trail

Crossing the second footbridge

Gabes Mountain Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Small caves on the Gabes Mountain Trail

Gabes Mountain Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Greenery on the Gabes Mountain Trail

Hen Wallow Falls trail, Great Smoky Mountains

Spur to Hen Wallow Falls

Hen Wallow Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Looking downstream from Hen Wallow Falls

Hen Wallow Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Hen Wallow Falls

Mouse Creek Falls

4 miles round trip plus optional detour to bridge, approximately 550 feet elevation gain; allow 2.5 hours

Mouse Creek is a tributary of Big Creek, which will accompany you for the entirety of this hike, providing a pleasing soundtrack. The wide, gently graded path, a former railroad route, climbs through the woods, passing a junction with a spur leading to the Appalachian Trail.

At 2 miles from the start, look for a hitching post on the left. Two different use trails branch off and head down to the creek, affording a view of 45-foot Mouse Creek Falls. The safest way to enjoy the waterfall is to simply stay on the banks of Big Creek. With caution, you can climb the rocks down to the surface of the water and get a closer look at the falls. Attempting to cross Big Creek has resulted in numerous accidents over the years, some of which have been fatal.

After enjoying the falls, you can make a worthwhile detour by continuing up the trail for another 0.3 mile where it crosses the creek on a footbridge. Here you can enjoy views of Big Rock Creek in both directions. The trail continues another 3 miles to Back Country Campsite #37.

More information: NPS page here; trip descriptions here, here, here, here and here

Big Creek trail head, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Big Creek trail head

Big Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Greenery on the Big Creek Trail

Big Creek

Big Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains

Wild mushroom, Big Creek trail

Big Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains

Hitching post near the use trail to Mouse Creek Falls

Mouse Creek Falls

Mouse Creek Falls

Big Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Looking downstream from the bridge

Big Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Looking upstream from the bridge

Text and photography copyright 2018 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

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