Grotto Falls is pretty popular.
First, it’s the only waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that you can walk behind. Bam. Instant appeal.
Second, it’s a short hike. Only 1.4 miles from the Trillium Gap trailhead to the falls. Minimal effort for maximum beauty.
Ironically, Grotto Falls’ popularity and the short trek to get there kept it wayyyy down on my hiking to-do list. I tend to avoid the crowds, y’all. That, and driving 3 hours roundtrip for a 3-mile roundtrip hike had me feeling just eh about it.
So, why did I succumb to hiking Grotto Falls two weekends ago?
Well, friends. It was purely unintentional, I assure you. Earlier in the week, I’d set my sights on the 6.5-mile roundtrip hike to Brushy Mountain – completely unaware that the trail from Trillium Gap passes right behind the falls. Literally. This I learned only a few hours before the hike while Googling to confirm the trailhead location. Thank you, hikinginthesmokys.com!
Driving through the national park to certain trailheads can be a pain, but this one is easy, breezy, beautiful. The narrow, one-way loop road winds its way up through the forest – and it’s PAVED. Praise hands lifted.
Two notes about the parking area at the Trillium Gap trailhead:
- Parking spots are limited, so you may need to park further down the road. I lucked out and arrived just as a car was leaving.
- There’s a very basic restroom facility with no sink. Appreciated, but so, so smelly and gross.
Once I parked, the 1.4-mile hike to Grotto Falls took me about 25 minutes. I was greeted by a line of people waiting to take photos. Not even a short line. No thanks! I hurried along the trail behind the waterfall between photo sessions and managed to snap two quick shots of the falls. Then on to Brushy Mountain.
I passed gobs of people on the way to the falls. However, past that point… not a soul. As popular as Grotto is, folks apparently just stop there. As Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman: BIG mistake.
From Grotto to Brushy Mountain, it’s another 2 miles (one way). And, okayyyy I lied. I did see a human – just not a hiker, per se. This guy was leading a caravan of llamas back down the trail. “You going to Brushy?” he asked as I let his posse pass. I confirmed I was, and he informed me I was “almost there.”
He was right. Soon after, I spotted the trail marker for the final 0.2-mile ascent. And whoa. The most romantic 0.2 miles of hiking I’ve experienced to date. Yes, romantic. That may be a weird way to describe a hike, and even weirder for a solo hike. But that’s exactly what it was. Romantic.
Essentially, the narrow path wanders through a tunnel of dense shrubbery, straight out of a fairy tale, I swear.
Then, just before the top, the sky appears, and the path opens to the most magnificent view of the Smokies to the right. I happened to choose a blue-sky day, and the vibrant colors had me in awe!
Oh, and just to clarify, the “top” of Brushy Mountain is basically a clearing in the path where the surrounding mountains come into view over the brushyness. While the path does continue just beyond the clearing, it dead-ends with no view.
Just as I started my descent, a young couple and their son arrived at the top. I almost high fived them for making the effort. Other than llama dude, they were the only people I saw from Grotto to Brushy and back.
Since most of the hike up was, indeed, up, the hike back down felt easy. And, when I arrived back at Grotto Falls, the line was gone. Just three people hanging out on a rock and that was it. So, pro tip: visit Grotto later in the afternoon or early evening if you can. No line and plenty of parking spots available!
Regardless of when you go, though, don’t miss out on Brushy Mountain. Hike those extra 4 miles roundtrip, ignore those screaming quads, and you will not be sorry. You may even see some llamas – and you’ll definitely see a spectacular view from the top.