Roaring Fork Begins in Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg, Tennessee is one of the most popular gateway cities of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Gatlinburg hosts up to 35,000 guests a night, turning this quaint mountain town into a crowded vacation wonderland. Just minutes away is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Once you arrive in Gatlinburg, you may want to park your car and walk. In peak season, pedestrians pack the sidewalks making their way to restaurants, museums, attractions, entertainment venues, and souvenir shops. If you are indisposed to crowds, visit in the colder months.
For the most part, we recommend leaving your car in the parking lot and walking when possible; it is part of the Gatlinburg experience. However, there is at least one time you want to grab the keys, a water bottle and snack, and head for the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
The corner of Parkway and Historic Nature Trail / Airport Road in downtown Gatlinburg is home to burger joints, ice cream parlors, moonshine outlets, donut shops, numerous shopping hot spots, and the Space Needle reaching into the sky.
It is hard to imagine that just minutes away is a forest hideaway where you can escape all the bustle of the streets.
Turn onto Historic Nature Trail (Traffic Light #8) and begin your drive into forestry heaven. The road quickly narrows to two lanes, then merges with Cherokee Orchard Road. Welcome to the forest. A short distance more and you enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Congratulations, you traveled three minutes and less than a mile. Your escape from city life is under way.
IMPORTANT: The National Park Service does not allow buses, RV’s, motor homes, and vehicles with trailers on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. While the road is in great condition, it is too narrow for these type vehicles. DON’T TRY IT!
Noah “Bud” Ogle Place
Technically speaking, this historic landmark is not on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The trail officially doesn’t begin until you turn onto Roaring Fork Road. However, it is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is worth your time to stop and see it.
The Great Smoky Mountains Association, in cooperation with the National Park Service, printed a guide and made it available next to the parking lot. The cost is 50 cents.
William Ogle and Martha Huskey are the earliest known settlers of European ancestry in Gatlinburg. After arriving in the early 1800’s, they acquired 400 acres of land and began farming.
Before long, the region was well populated with Ogles, apple trees, and corn. By the 1880’s most of the Ogle farm was sub-divided among their offspring.
Noah “Bud” Ogle is the great grandson of these early pioneers and his home is about 1.8 miles inside the park.
The Noah “Bud” Ogle Place is one of the oldest mountain farm houses remaining in the Smoky Mountains, built in the late 1880’s.
Two other structures built by Noah Ogle still exist on the property, a barn and a tub mill. We suggest that you take a walking tour if you have the time.
About a dozen or so parking spaces are available with easy access to the home.
IMPORTANT: Immediately after the Noah “Bud” Ogle Place, the road divides and becomes a one-way road. From this point forward, you are traveling on a one-way road with no ability to turn around. The only way out is to complete the loop.
Roaring Fork Hiking Opportunities
Access two popular hiking trails, Rainbow Falls Trail and Trillium Gap Trail, both with waterfalls, from Cherokee Orchard Road and Roaring Fork Road respectively.
Rainbow Falls Trail is the first trail where you may want to stop for a hike. If the parking area is full, keep driving, another parking area is just up the road. Do not park your car in the road like in our photo. It is illegal and it blocks traffic.
The hike to Rainbow Falls is 2.8 miles in each direction and is considered either “moderate” or “strenuous” depending on which hiking guide you are reading. The payoff is an 80’ tall waterfall that produces a beautiful rainbow on sunny afternoons.
In winter, the falls become an exquisite ice formation.
Trillium Gap is the second main hiking trail on the tour, accessible from Roaring Fork Road. Trillium Gap Trail takes you to the 25’ tall Grotto Falls, a very popular waterfall for hikers in the area.
The 1.3 (2.6 RT) mile hike to Grotto Falls is considered “easy” by most hiking guides, as the elevation rises only 520 feet and is a relatively short hike.
However, Trillium Gap Trail does not end at Grotto Falls, it goes all the way to the summit of Mt. LeConte, an additional four miles. This section is also a much more strenuous hike.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail Entrance
Shortly after the last Rainbow Falls parking area, is the entrance to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The entrance is well marked, so unless you are blissfully unaware of your surroundings, you can’t miss it. Turn right for the motor trail or keep left to loop back around and return to Gatlinburg.
The narrow road contributes to the feeling you are hiking on a trail, but without the exertion. Trees rise to the sky mere inches from the road and the canopy provides shade for the drive. White-tail deer and black bears roaming around is not unusual.
More than 1,500 black bears are home in the Smoky Mountains, and you may see one or two.
If you see a black bear, do not get out of your vehicle and NEVER APPROACH A BEAR. It is illegal to get within 50 yards of a bear. Black bears can be dangerous if they feel threatened.
The Roaring Fork Historic District is the heart of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. While William Ogle created a homestead for his family just a few miles away, other families settled down in an area called the Roaring Fork Community.
In the early 1800’s, the Smoky Mountains saw new faces with dreams of farming and creating something for their families. The land was plentiful, but it was difficult to farm. Rocky soil, steep slopes, and few roads, if any, made farming easier said than done.
Despite all the challenges, a handful of families counted the cost and plowed on.
Jim Bales Place
Jim Bales Place contains the first buildings you approach in the Roaring Fork Historic District. Born a few years after the Civil War ended, in 1869, Jim Bales eventually inherited this land from his father.
Bales continued the family farming tradition until the U.S. government evicted the family in the 1930’s as part of the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The house at the Jim Bales Place is not the home the Bales lived in. The Bales home was torn down after the government took possession. The home you see is the Alex Cole Cabin.
It is not original to the current site. Preservationists moved the cabin here from the Sugarlands Community in order to preserve it. Jim Bales owned the corn crib and barn, originally built on this site.
Ephraim Bales Place
Across the street and a short drive up the road is the Ephraim Bales Place, the home of Jim’s older brother. Ephraim, his wife, Minerva, and their nine children called this small cabin home. It is hard to imagine eleven people crammed into this small home, but they managed.
The home remains as it did when they lived there, with the exception of a back porch that no longer exists. Bales’ hog pen, corn crib, and barn are still standing nearby.
Alfred Reagan Place
Alfred Reagan, like the rest of the Roaring Fork Community, was a farmer by trade; but that is not who he was. Alfred Reagan was a servant at heart and driven to be useful to his community. He used his numerous talents and skills to meet the needs of many.
When Reagan saw a need for a blacksmith shop, he built one. When the community grew in population, he opened a local store so the people could shop without having to travel to Knoxville.
He also built a mill and offered milling services to the Roaring Fork neighbors. Carpentry was another of his skills, and he contributed the resources to build coffins when someone died, and preached regularly at the church he helped build on land he donated.
Alfred Reagan was a remarkable man, facing extraordinary circumstances. Pioneering was a difficult life. Like so many others in the Roaring Fork Community, he worked hard, served his neighbors, and risked his life to make something for his family.
The house and the mill are all that remain on this earth of his handiwork.
These are all points of interest you may want to explore. While some visitors remain in their cars for the entire tour, we recommend getting out and enjoying a walking tour if you are physically able.
Go back in time. Imagine the life they lived. Appreciate the effort it took just for them to eat a hot meal, drink clean water, or wash their clothes. These were extraordinary people.
The Place of a Thousand Drips is near the end of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Stop and enjoy this unique waterfall. It is better in the rainy season, but can be enjoyed whenever the trail is open.
As you exit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you enter a rural residential area. Roaring Forks Road slowly leads you back to civilization and the East Parkway.
IMPORTANT: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is closed in winter. Please check the National Park Service for closure dates.