Friday, March 15, 2013

A few weeks ago I finally decided to hike to Ramsey Cascades, which is the largest waterfall in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. I wanted to visit it early in the year because in the summer months the towns and trails are swamped with tourists and I prefer a more secluded feel to my hike. In February, the Smokies received four inches of rain in less than a 24 hour period. The raging flood waters took their toll on some of the most popular trails, the pedestrian foot bridge at the Chimney Tops trail head was destroyed after standing since 1950, and unbeknownst to me, the road leading to Ramsey Cascades was washed away.
Little Pigeon River
First bridge crossing the Little Pigeon River
The turn up Ramsey Prong
Pretty large cascade before log bridge crossing.

After a two hour ride, including some mind numbing traffic for a weekday in Pigeon Forge, I was really frustrated to find the road gated over five miles away from the actual trail head. I decided to head across town and hike the Chimney Tops since it was the first hike Amber and I took as husband and wife. Imagine, if you will, my anger when I also discovered it to be closed. Luckily, my friend Jeff is a GSMNP hiking connoisseur and recommended a worthy replacement hike off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail to Rainbow Falls.
downstream from the log bridge
Beautiful log bridge heading across Ramsey Prong.

When Jeff told me earlier in the week the necessary road work had been completed and the Ramsey Cascades trail was reopened, I vowed to hike there my next off day. Yesterday I packed up early trying to get a better jump on the tourist traffic and arrived at the trail head at 11am. I was a little discouraged with the parking lot being so packed but at least if I were to get injured I would have some help. I loaded my pack a little heavier than normal considering the hike is almost 10 miles round trip and started up the gravel road that eventually breaks off and follows Ramsey Prong to the falls.
The first giant along the trail.
Tulip Poplar, one of the largest in the Smokies and all of the East coast.
The same tree only the top portion
The trail going between two more of the old growth trees.

The first part of the hike is easy and lots of older couples were strolling up the trail with their dogs, everyone was friendly and soon I was at the first crossing of the Little Pigeon River. A massive bridge is high above the water here, and I took time to photograph the gorgeous cascades. The trail stays with the river and I picked off trail at a blistering clip. The first 1.5 miles went by in less than 30 minutes. The trail comes to a circle and I found a sign telling me I was 2.5 miles from the falls. The nice gravel flat road is soon a distant memory as the trail narrows and begins gaining elevation. Ramsey Prong was flowing good and between the sound of the roaring water and my heavy breathing I was lost to my thoughts. Considering how many people were at the parking lot I was encountering very few of them on my journey and I was worried they would all be camped out ruining my chances of shooting the falls only. I had overtook three groups of hikers already when I met my first outbound hiker, he walked by with his head down looking exhausted. I couldn't believe how many cascades and deep pools were along the trail and I was bummed it was too cold to take a dip.
Rocky portion of trail.
Third bridge crossing and damage from flooding.
Ferns growing on tree branches.
...and more stairs
Narrow trail just before the main attraction.

I soon arrived at a large log foot bridge across the creek, the stunning thing about it was the log was one piece, indicating it was a massive tree at one time. As I wound up the right side of the creek I started seeing some ice accumulation and some large trees. The trail winds through an "old growth" forest and it is incredible. The trail splits between two towering Tulip Poplars and a short time later arrives at one of the largest trees in the national forest (also a poplar). I walked around it's base and it was 27 paces toe to toe. It's almost eight feet in diameter and rises well over 100 ft dominating the forest canopy. I put my arms around it but I was merely a child compared to this giant. I wasn't sure how far I was in but I knew my legs were already tired and my ingrown toenail was on fire. I pushed on still rising in elevation with each  step becoming heavier than the last. My spirits were lifted when I caught up to another group of hikers, they appeared in much better shape than me but the trail had made their legs jelly. I caught my second wind and climbed several rock stair cases and arrived at the third bridge of the hike. It was a curved log bridge completed in two segments, a large tree had been washed in against it from the February flood and had warped the entire structure. I continued on crossing several small side streams and eventually was winding out of earshot of the creek. I really hated this part of the hike, it was not only silent but steep and slick. I caught some more hikers winded from the climb and continued on past them. I was starting to swing back toward the creek and I soon entered a really rocky section of trail. The climb is unrelenting and I passed between large boulders and up winding rock stair cases. The creek crashes over a 20ft drop but I couldn't get out to take good pictures because of all the ice covered rocks. In the summer this looks to be a great swimming hole. The scenery kept me moving and I could see blue sky as if I was about to cross a ridge. I rested on a stump off the trail, it felt good to be off my feet and I was sure that I had traveled 2.5 miles. My ears were ringing and I felt like I might pass out. I fished my water out of my pack, gulped some down, and that seemed to help steady my head. When my ears quit ringing I thought I could hear the roar of the waterfall. I climbed another winding staircase and to my delight, Ramsey Cascades came into view! A large tributary cuts in from the left and is a beautiful picture in it's own right but Ramsey was magnificent.
Ramsey Cascades
Notice how the falls look like they are at the top of the mountain.
I was behind the large rock here, as you can tell it's almost seven feet tall.
buzz kill

A couple of hikers that had actually caught me and blew by me as I was taking photos earlier were leaving the falls and a family was sitting on a large rock at it's base. I had to take my time crossing the side stream though, the ice was a couple inches thick on every rock. I helped the young boy across the stream and then his father, then I had to maneuver around a freshly fallen tree, before finally climbing onto the big rock at the base of the falls. The family was packing up their belongings and soon I had Ramsey Cascades to myself!
Icy waters...this was from sitting on that old log.
The missing bark is not from age, but tourists over the years taking a piece of the park home.
My turn to hug the tree, probably the highlight of the hike.

The waterfall can't be done justice with a photo, it's truly massive dropping 65 feet over a large rock cliff and cascading an additional 30 feet below the large rock. It appears it flows out of the sky as there is no mountain visible beyond the falls. Before I could take any photos I drank the rest of my first water and laid on the rock staring straight up at the sky. It's rare that a hike winds me so much, but Ramsey is a long uphill grind. I finally felt good enough to explore and shoot the falls. Ice was coated on everything and a sign was posted with the current death toll. The sun was high in the sky but still I couldn't use my normal camera settings cause of the brightness. I took as many pictures as I could before another hiker arrived at the falls. I was courteous (pay attention everyone) and moved out of his way so he could take pictures also. I went downstream and found a potential crossing. An old tree had fell across the creek about ten feet above the water. I laid my pack down, straddled the log, and started scooting across with my camera swaying from my neck. I only made it a short distance before good sense and the squeaking log turned me back. My dream shot of the entire waterfall would have to wait.
This bridge once was a massive tree, look how long!
Not a very wide bridge.
Cascade just before rejoining the Little Pigeon River.

I was the bearer of good news as I hiked my way out, each weary hiker asked "Am I almost there?" and to each one I giddily said "yes, you are!" no matter the distance they had left. I met people from Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Minnesota, Louisiana, Texas and of course, good ol' rocky top. As I arrived back at the large Tulip Poplars I waited for someone else to show up so that I could be photoed with the giants. A nice college couple from Indiana agreed to oblige, and I was on my way to the truck.
For Jeff.

Ramsey Cascades was everything I hoped it would be and more. The waterfall was beautiful and the ice was a nice effect for photos. The old growth forest was intimidating and the foot bridges ancient yet sufficient. The creek itself has so many beautiful photo ops you could spend a day just exploring it. The trail is listed as being 8 miles in length and over 2300 feet in elevation but most GPS units track this trip closer to 10 miles.  I will return in the summer for some swimming and hopefully that photo from the opposite side of the creek, until then...happy trails.

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