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 Rainbow Falls Hikers

Hiking the Smokies:
Fern Branch Fire Tower Day Hike

Length: 3.8 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Easy
Highlights: Wonderful spring wildflowers, lesser-known waterfall
Note: Trail is used heavily in the spring – hike early in the morning to avoid crowds

Fern Branch Falls Dayhike

Looking for a short, easy wildflower walk in the Smokies? No wildflower pilgrimage would be complete without a walk to Fern Branch Falls. Located on the Porter’s Creek Trail in the Greenbrier section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this two-mile excursion leads you along a shady creek, past dozens of species of spring and summer wildflowers, and through a bit of history as well.

The Greenbrier section of the park is located about six miles east of Gatlinburg on Highway 321. Turn into Greenbrier and drive to the very end of the road (about four miles from the entrance). You’ll find a large parking area and a sign for the Porter’s Creek Trail.

You’ll begin your walk on a gravel road with a gentle uphill grade. Begin to watch for traces of history. After a half-mile or so, old foundations and stone walls will be visible to the careful observer. Greenbrier was once one of the most heavily populated areas of what is now the National Park, supporting several hundred people. Residents built homes, churches, schools, gristmills and blacksmith shops, and called this valley home.

Before long, you’ll cross a bridge over the creek. Watch the right hand side of the trail for a set of stone steps leading up the embankment. This short diversion takes you to the Ownby Cemetery.

The gravel road ends after a mile in Porter’s Flat. You’ll see a junction for the Brushy Mountain Trail, as well as the old Hiking Club Cabin.

Continue to the left up the Porter’s Creek Trail. The trail narrows significantly after leaving the flat, but the walking remains relatively easy if you take it at a leisurely pace. Although wildflowers abound throughout the hike, this second half of the walk will take you through fields of trillium and phacelia, which bloom in the month of April.

You’ll cross the creek yet again, this time on a long foot log. Soon you’ll enter a beautiful cove, carpeted with flowers. I’ve walked through this section of the woods in early spring on many an occasion, and the gentle scent of wildflowers finds you wherever you go… there’s no need to stop and smell the flowers, unless you simply want a larger dose of their sweet aroma.

Fern Branch Falls will appear on your left at just under two miles into your walk. The falls are actually a series of small cascades, about forty feet tall, lined with plants and wildflowers. This is an excellent place to take a break and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

Continuing on up the trail will take you out of the wildflowers and eventually to campsite #31 after two more miles (7.4 miles total roundtrip). The walk back to the parking area is a pleasant downhill stroll.

The walk to Fern Branch Falls is famous for its wildflower displays, so it is best enjoyed in the early hours of the day for solitude. Happy hiking!

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General Tips for Enjoying Hikes in the Smokies

he hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on some hikes can be 10 degrees cooler than when you leave lower elevations. 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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