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Ramsay Cascades Hike

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he Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 270 miles of roads, over 800 miles of trails, and more than 500,000 acres of land. How much of it have you traversed? There are 50 species of mammals, 80 species of fish, 200 species of birds, and 1,300 species of flowering plants. The Park even boasts seven trees of record dimensions. How many of these have you seen?

More than ten million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park yearly, but most only see the park superficially. The best part of the Smoky Mountains area is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park itself, yet most people's views and experiences of the Park are limited to the main roads, a handful of the most frequented trails, the Cades Cove loop road, and the bumper of the car in front of them. While the individuals who experience these things are richer for the experience (except for the bumper), they are missing so much. Perhaps saving the rest for another trip? That's a worthwhile notion, but most will simply revisit the places which afforded them so much pleasure before, while there is a lifetime of adventure and experiences left undiscovered.

Though there is so much land and so many sites, discovering the beauty and solitude of this national park does not have to be a hit-or-miss effort. Rod's Guide will help you plan part of your visit to the Park. With the help of Rod's Guide, you can get out of your car and get lost (figuratively speaking) in the splendor of the Park. This month we feature a not-to-difficult hike from the trailhead at Newfound Gap Road to the Alum Cave Bluff--and for the heartier soul, a continuance on up the trail to the Mount LeConte Lodge and the Appalachian Trail.

Map to Ramsay Cascades Hike

The Trail to Ramsay Cascades

The rewards are great on this 8-mile round-trip hike in the Greenbrier section of the Park. The diligent hiker not only gets to enjoy the Ramsay Cascade falls--arguably the best waterfall in the Smokies-- but also can view stands of old-growth trees which never suffered from the logger's saw or the settler's ax.

Summary: You have only to take this hike once to understand why it's one of the most popular. The falls are ample reward not only for the hiker, but the artist and photographer as well. The trail starts out with a slight upgrade in the beginning, then becomes more challenging as you near the cascades. The latter portion of the trail is where you will find the old growth trees--some of which measure in record proportions. The round-trip is approximately 8 miles and can take a little over four hours, depending on whether you take children.

Directions: From Gatlinburg, drive east along US 321 (stop-light #3 in Gatlinburg) for approximately 6 miles. Turn right on Greenbrier Road and travel 3.1 miles along the Little Pigeon River to Greenbrier Cove. Turn left at Ramsay Prong Road and travel 1.5 miles to the parking area. The trail begins at the back of the parking area.

 Ramsay Cascades
our hike will start on the south side of the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River on the Ramsay Cascade Trail. You will cross the prong on a very long footbridge, and make your way past Ramsay Branch, which flows from Greenbrier Pinnacle on your left. At mile 1.5, the trail comes to a turnaround. The Greenbrier Pinnacle Trail turns off to the left. The Ramsay Cascade Trail continues forward and your climb becomes more steep.

Beside the Ramsay Prong is a primitive stand of chestnut oaks, poplars, black cherries, hemlocks, and yellow birch that forms a Ramsay Cascades by Vern Hippenstealhigh canopy over the trail. Some of the largest chestnut oaks in the Smokies are found along this lower section of the trail. At higher elevations the black cherries and poplars grow to near-record sizes.

Shortly after the first crossing, the trail passes through a stand of cucumber trees. These trees are particularly enjoyable in the spring when they are sporting their bright, yellow blossoms. At the 2-mile point, before the trail crosses back to the Pinnacle Lead side of the creek, the undergrowth falls away, leaving the trail flanked by a grove of tall buckeyes, hemlocks, red maples, poplars, and tall black cherry trees, from which the section gets its name--the Cherry Orchard.

A winding passageway through huge boulders identifies the approach to Ramsay Cascades--arguably the most spectacular waterfall in the Park. Here, two streams converge to tumble nearly 100 feet over the eight stairstep ledges. It's a marvelous place to spread out a lunch or set up the tripod and camera, or simply relax and recover from the trail.

The graded trail ends at the cascades ("Ramsay Cascades" by Gatlinburg watercolorist Vern Hippensteal at right), but more reward waits for the intrepid hiker, for approximately one-half mile above Ramsay Cascade--if you make your way through dense rhododendron--the trail approaches the creek at a memorable location known as Drinkwater Pool. Drinkwater Pool is the largest of a succession of basins on the Ramsay Prong, where the water collects in pools before continuing on to charm the visitors at the cascades. Drinkwater Pool is surrounded by ledges covered with overhanging rhododendron above which towers a stand of virgin birch. We stood in this area and imagined being the first to discover the sight. We are truly blessed to be able to enjoy such as this!

Don't quit yet! About a half mile above Drinkwater Pool is a second cascade, which is higher and nearly as enjoyable as Ramsay Cascades. On the face of a two-hundred-foot cliff are more than a dozen small, wispy waterfalls. They catch the eye and hold it, for these falls are not aligned one after the other. Each fall has a separate ledge where the water pools before falling to the next.

For the hardiest of hikers, the Appalachian Trail waits above these falls--should you want to continue another 1.5 miles.

General Tips for Enjoying Hikes in the Smokies

he hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on this hike can be 10 degrees cooler than when you left the lower elevation. Combine this with the fact that the Smokies are also the wettest place in the South, and you have the possibility for great discomfort in the event of a sudden storm. The higher elevations in the park can receive upwards of 90 inches of precipitation a year.

Don't judge the complete day by the morning sky. In summer the days usually start out clear, but as the day heats up, clouds can build up, resulting in a heavy shower. Winter is a great time to be in the Smokies, but also represents the most challenging time as well. Frontal systems sweep through the region, with alternately cloudy and sunny days, though cloudy days are most frequent in winter.

When traveling in the Smokies, it's a good idea to carry clothes for all weather conditions.

Footwear should be chosen with care. Though tennis shoes may be generally appropriate for some day hikes, boots should be worn on the uneven trails in the Park. They support the ankles from sprains and the foot from cuts and abrasions.

Stay on the designated trail, because most hikers who get lost do so when they leave the path. If you get temporarily lost, try to retrace your steps until you cross the trail again. Then its just a matter of guessing which way you were headed when you left the trail. You will either continue the way you were headed or go back to your starting point--either way, no harm is done.

Always bring rain gear and a wool sweater. They don't weigh much and might make the difference between being miserable or not in the event it rains. As mentioned earlier, the Smokies get approximately 90 inches of rain a year. This is good. Its what makes the Smokies such a wonderful place to be. Don't start a hike if thunderstorms threaten--some of the most devastating damage ever to the Park has been from great storms which can be upon you with little warning.

Cross streams carefully. Getting wet, even in summer, could lead to hypothermia, which leads ultimately to disorientation, poor decision making and, in extreme circumstances, death. Having said that, don't let a fear of hypothermia, getting lost, or bears prevent you from the enjoyment to be had by trekking the trails of the Park.

When we questioned a Park Ranger about how to react to meeting a bear on the trail, he smilingly told us the most likely sighting of a bear will be its tail disappearing over a ridge. Most "incidents" occur when an ignorant visitor feeds or otherwise harasses a bear. Our own experiences with bears have proven this to be true.

To avoid crowds, hike during the week; avoid holidays; go during the "off" season. Also, go in the morning before most folks are through eating breakfast; this is a good time to see wildlife and morning light is great for photography! You can also avoid crowds by using the outlying trailheads such as those found at the Cosby and Wears Valley entrances. I'm embarrassed to say we didn't know these existed for our first 18 visits to the Smokies. But to our delight, we found new vistas, trails, and landscapes to "discover for the first time".

ith a little care and planning, your trip to the Smokies can be much more rewarding and repay you with more great memories. You can enjoy not only the visual splendor of the Park, you can view it without counting out-of-state license plates, and you can get more fit in the bargain.

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