Great Smoky Mountains National Park | ROARING FORK MOTOR NATURE TRAIL

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (click to enlarge)

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (click to enlarge)

See the Gatlinburg Region web page for an interactive location map.

Roaring Fork was a mountain community of about two dozen families by the turn of the 20th century. The community took its name from Roaring Fork, one of the fastest flowing streams in the Smoky Mountains. Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park can travel through the area on the one-way, 5.5-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail that begins at the end of Cherokee Orchard Road.

Roaring Fork

Roaring Fork

A booklet with information about the nature and history of the area can be purchased at a roadside kiosk near the start of the drive. Payment is on the honor system, so drop your money into the pay slot, grab your guide, and start the journey. Numbered stops in the booklet correspond to numbered parking areas along the road. Many stops are just to look at nature, but a few have actual attractions that you may want to get out of your car to explore. The following is a list of such stops in the order:


Noah “Bud” Ogle Nature Trail
1-mile loop trail through the Ogle Homstead, which includes an original cabin, grist mill, and barn.

Rainbow Falls Trail
The trail is 6 miles, one-way, but the waterfall is located only 2.6 miles from the start.


Trillum Gap Trail (to Grotto Falls)
Waterfall is located 1.4 miles up the trail (2.8-mile round trip)

Jim Bales Homestead
Cabin, barn, and corn crib

Ephraim Bales Homestead
Cabin, barn, corn crib, and hog pen

Alfred Reagan Homestead
Farmhouse and grist mill

So what exactly is a “Motor Nature Trail?” It’s just a fancy way to say “Scenic Drive.” On the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and of course the Cherokee Orchard Road that you must take to get to it, travelers are greeted to a relaxing motorized trek through the forest and past many streams, plus at Stop 3, one of the few chances to get a clear view of the Smoky Mountains. As the saying goes, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Well, most of the time in the Smokies you can’t see the mountains for the trees.

View of the mountains from Stop 3

View of the mountains from Stop 3

The main reason to drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is to hike to one of three waterfalls or to see the three historical homesteads along the way (four if you count the Ogle homestead on Cherokee Orchard Road). These stops are popular and the parking areas are often full, so you may have to park along the shoulder farther down the road.

While any vehicle can travel on Cherokee Orchard Road, no buses, trailers, or RVs are allowed on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Cherokee Orchard Road forms a loop at the end, so turning around and heading back to Gatlinburg is not a problem for large vehicles. Furthermore, the road is not open year-round due to snow. In most cases, access begins May 1st and continues through the end of November. Opening and closing dates can change, so for a current schedule please visit the National Park Service’s Roads web page.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

The only problem with driving on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is that you must access it from downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. At the wrong time of year (i. e. the fall) it could take hours to get through the town. On my first attempt to drive the scenic road—a nice, fall Saturday afternoon—I made a wrong turn and headed north towards Pigeon Forge. With traffic backed up for miles in the direction I had just come from, there was no sense turning around. Why not just make a loop with Hwy 441, 321, and the park’s Little River Road to get back to Cherokee Orchard Road? What could go wrong? Five hours later it was too dark to start the drive, and I had to do it another day.

Traffic jam on Little River Road heading toward Gatlinburg

Traffic jam on Little River Road heading towards Gatlinburg

My second attempt was made on a Wednesday at 11 AM. I was coming from the Elkmont Campground west of Gatlinburg on Little River Road and traffic was again at a standstill, but this time opposite of the way I was traveling, thank goodness. I suspect most of the cars were heading to Cades Cove, the busiest section of the park during the fall season. If I had forgotten something like my camera back at the campground, turning around would have resulted in another wasted day.

Gatlinburg is without a doubt the most congested area of any National Park on the East Coast—and possibly the country—and I’ve been to them all including those in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D. C. Only the Great Falls Tavern area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park just outside of Georgetown in Washington, D. C,. comes close. It amazes me that masses of people line the sidewalks twenty deep at one of the country’s largest tourist traps—Gatlinburg—when only a few miles away is over 500,000 acres of wilderness, much of it empty of people.

As far as the amount of time to allow for the drive, if you stop at the homesteads and walk around, it takes about two hours. Hiking to the waterfalls are multiple hour endeavors on their own. If you were to drive around without stopping other than to take a few photos here and there, it shouldn’t take more than an hour. None of these estimated times include traffic jams in Gatlinburg.

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Last updated on December 29, 2020
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