The Ramsey Cascades Trail is one of the best hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, featuring the park’s largest waterfall and the chance to explore an old-growth forest. Located on the northeastern side of the park, Ramsey Cascades remains off the beaten path and offers a great reprieve from the crowds found in many other parts of the park.
However, accessing the stunning waterfall won’t come easy. It requires a challenging 8-mile round trip hike with over 2,000 feet of elevation gain, but the trek is worth it!
Use this Ramsey Cascades trail guide to help plan your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to see the beautiful Ramsey Cascades waterfall.
All photos below courtesy of Sarah Vaughan
Ramsey Cascades Trail Basics
- Trail Features: Tallest waterfall in the Smokies, old-growth forest
- Distance: 8 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 2,250 ft
- Time: 4.5-7 hours (it took me 5 hours)
- Difficulty: Challenging
- Trailhead start: Ramsey Cascades Trailhead (Greenbrier area)
- Dogs Allowed: No
Best Time to Hike the Ramsey Cascades Trail
The best time to hike Ramsey Cascades is during the fall from September through early November when the beautiful Smoky Mountain’s fall colors are on full display! If you aren’t able to visit during the fall, spring (April to May) is also a great time to hike the Ramsey Cascades Trail thanks to milder temperatures.
During the summer, temperatures at lower elevations frequently top 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the heat brings hazy skies. That being said, most of the Ramsey Cascades hike is well shaded, so if you are visiting the Smoky Mountains during the summer, this hike is still a great option! During the winter, snow is possible although not very frequent, and freezing conditions can cause the trail to become icy and slick. Always check the park website for current closures and conditions.
Note: The Ramsey Cascades Trail will be closed Monday through Thursday from May 2nd to November 17th in 2022 to conduct trail rehabilitation. The trail will still be open Friday through Sunday during this time.
How Long Does it Take to Hike Ramsey Cascades?
This is a challenging hike with 2,250 feet of elevation gain over 4 miles to the Ramsey Cascades waterfall. The final mile to the falls is very steep with rocky, muddy terrain and slick roots to navigate. As such, you should expect the Ramsey Cascades hike to take anywhere from 4.5 hours up to 7 hours, depending on your pace.
I completed the hike in 5 hours moving at a fairly consistent pace, with a 30-minute rest at the waterfall.
Getting to the Ramsey Cascades Trailhead
The trailhead for Ramsey Cascades is located 35 minutes from Cosby, Tennessee, and 30 minutes from Gatlinburg, Tennessee on the northeastern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
From US-321, turn onto Greenbriar Road and continue for about 3 miles before taking a left turn onto Ramsey Prong Road and continuing for 1.5 miles until you reach the trailhead. Both Greenbriar Road and Ramsey Prong Road are not paved and become narrow in sections, but are fairly well-maintained and typically do not require 4WD.
Ramsey Cascades Trail Guide
Starting the Hike
From the parking lot at the trailhead, you will almost immediately cross a wooden footbridge over the Middle Prong Little Pigeon River. From there, the trail follows along an old fire road on the northern bank of the river, gaining elevation at a moderate pace.
At 1.5 miles into the hike, the trail crosses over the river again, offering a wide log as a bridge and a railing on one side for support. There are several more bridges like this along the trail and I found it useful to have my trekking poles for extra stability.
Due to the challenging nature of the hike and the more remote location of the trailhead, Ramsey Cascades Trail tends to be less crowded than many of the other great hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Take a moment to enjoy the peace and quiet of the forest, with only the sound of birds chirping and water flowing.
Old Growth Forest
As you continue farther along the Ramsey Cascades Trail, you begin to enter one of the Smoky Mountains largest old-growth forests! So what exactly is an old-growth forest? Before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1926, much of the area was harvested for lumber.
An old-growth forest is any section of the forest that was never cleared. This means that the trees found in the area are very old, and as such, very large! You’ll know when you’ve entered the old-growth forest by the enormous trees that tower over the forest with huge leaves creating a lush canopy above.
Final Climb to Ramsey Cascades
The miles will fly by as you meander through the beautiful old-growth forest filled with unique types of plants, moss-covered logs, and the largest leaves you’ve ever seen.
The final one mile or so before reaching Ramsey Cascades is the most challenging part of the hike. At this point, the trail narrows and becomes very steep, rocky, and root-covered. It’ll certainly get your thighs burning, but push on and you’ll arrive at the falls in no time!
Ramsey Cascades Waterfall
After about 4 miles of hiking and 2,250 feet of elevation gain, your hard work is paid off when you finally catch a glimpse of the stunning Ramsey Cascades waterfall. Water cascades 100 feet over a massive pile of boulders, collecting in several small pools below the falls.
These pools are known to be home to an abundant population of salamanders, which are well camouflaged against the rocks. The salamanders tend to lay their eggs underneath rocks, so it’s important that you do not move or stack rocks in this area to preserve these vulnerable creatures.
The slabs of rock below Ramsey Cascades make for the perfect spot to rest, cool off, and enjoy the view. Please do not attempt to continue past this spot, or climb to the top of the falls as the slick rock and rushing water is very dangerous! Once you’ve soaked in the views, return back the way you came and follow the trail to return to the parking lot.
Fun fact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known as the “Salamander Capital of the World” due to its abundant and diverse population of salamanders, including 30 different species!
What to Know Before You Go
In addition to carrying the 10 Day Hiking Essentials, here are a few tips for your hike out to Ramsey Cascade waterfall:
- Cell Service: There is no cell service on the Ramsey Cascades hike or at the trailhead. Be sure to have a trail map downloaded before leaving Gatlinburg or Cosby.
- Hiking Clothes: Temperatures in the fall can change drastically, so be sure to pack layers and check out our blog post on what to wear hiking in fall.
- Water Availability: Most of the trail follows along the Middle Prong Little Pigeon River, so water is available along the hike. Pack a water filter if you wish to fill up while hiking.
- Trail Conditions: The Ramsey Cascades Trail is well-worn and generally easy to follow. The trail starts off along a wide fire road, but narrows and becomes very rocky about one mile in. The final mile to the Ramsey Cascades waterfall is steep and muddy at times, with a challenging set of rocky stairs and slick roots to navigate around. A pair of hiking boots or trail running shoes with good traction are recommended.
- Safety: The Ramsey Cascades hike ends at the bottom of the waterfall. Do NOT attempt to climb to the top of the falls, as the strong current can be very dangerous. Several people have died attempting to do so.
- Be bear aware! As with any hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s possible to encounter a black bear along the Ramsey Cascades Trail. Be sure to carry bear spray, and never leave food or trash unattended. Read up on what to do if you see a bear before you hike.
- Leave No Trace: The old-growth forests through which the trail to Ramsey Cascades traverses are home to a diverse population of animals and plants, with many trees several hundreds of years old. In order to protect this very special and fragile area, please remember to follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace. Most importantly, always stay on the established trail, do not carve or vandalize the trees, pack out any food and trash you bring with you, take only photos and memories as you leave, and do not feed the animals.
What questions do you have about hiking Ramsey Cascades Trail in the Smoky Mountains? What’s your favorite waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Drop us a comment below!