A treasure in the Smoky Mountains Grotto Falls in Smoky Mountains

Treasure in the Smoky Mountains

Treasure in the Smoky Mountains is easy to come by. It has always been this way. Today the treasures are different but just as amazing.  The treasure we find here in the Smoky Mountains may be harder to spend than the timber, gold, or coal our ancestors took, but what they left behind is still very valuable.

In my last post, I covered the vistas along the Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway. These are some of the treasures.  In this article, I’m going to get a little closer look at the Smoky Mountain Treasures that the land and water created for us to appreciate.

A treasure in the Smoky Mountains Fox Branch Falls Lower Cascade
Fox Branch Falls Lower Cascade


Chestnut trees once were amazingly abundant in the Appalachian Mountains. With the abundance of Chestnut trees, food (for bears and people) was easy to get. All of that ended with a Chestnut tree blight that completely changed the forest.  Stories about the forests are still abundant in the area west of Nashville all the way to the low lands of North Carolina. One of these stories was about the pre-blight forest filled with so many Chestnut trees.  Since the blight that killed so many Chestnut trees, the bear population is far lower than it used to be.

Long distance Black Bear Sow with two cubs.
Long distance Black Bear Sow with two cubs.

Three large game animals dominate the eastern forests. Deer and Black Bear are still abundant. Elk are nearly gone. Turkeys are still abundant. We have seen turkeys every day here in the park. I have seen more turkeys in Tennessee and North Carolina than I thought possible.  To me, turkeys were like ghosts in the forest, except you hear turkeys, you just can’t see them. Not that I hear or see ghosts.

Turkey at Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Turkey at Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Fish where the fish are

This is one of the first lessons of fishing that honestly I have never really figured out. It means more than to fish in the water. Going to the water is the first step. The estimate is that 10% of the water holds 90% of the fish. This means that 90% of the water has 10% of the fish.  Why is it that I seem to be usually fishing where most of the fish are somewhere else? My luck reversed in Alaska.  In Alaska, it wasn’t fishing, it was catching. Usually, it is hard for me to find the fish.  If you fish where the fish are, you find more fish at the end of your line.

Little River
Treasure in the Smoky Mountains 22

It is a question of food – for the animals

To connect the above fish example to this story, it is a question of food. In Smoky Mountain National Park there is food for the animals in vast areas, but most of the food (for bears and elk) is in the coves. Deer are nearby at the edges of the forest. Look where the food is.


I have seen black bears in five different states. Most were in Colorado and California. I have probably seen more bears in the wild than most people. I have even had a wild bear in the cab of my truck. The windows were open just for that reason. I saved the muddy footprints to show my children. This was in California, where bears are smarter than the average bear (name the source of that reference to date yourself). By leaving the windows open on both sides, the bear didn’t have to turn around, eliminating the possibility that he might forget how he came in.

I have seen more bears in Smoky Mountain National Park than I have seen in my entire life all in one week. This is a treasure in the Smoky Mountains.

Black Bear Sow, the blur to the right is her cub, not tall enough to see over the grass.
Black Bear Sow, the blur to the right is her cub, not tall enough to see over the grass.

Food for Bears

There is plenty of food for bears here in the park — mostly because bears eat nearly anything. For bears, in the Appalachian Mountains food is everywhere. I can’t imagine what it was like for Daniel Boone, back when Chestnuts were abundant and bears were focused on that food source. Since bears were at the top of the food chain, with no predators (other than man) willing or foolish enough to take on a bear. I am sure they had the run of the place. They still have the run of the place. Inside the park, bears have lost their fear of people.

Black Bear eating leaves off a tree. About 30 yards away.
A young Black Bear eating leaves off a tree. About 30 yards away.

Outside the park

Outside the park, bears are still abundant. But outside the park bears avoid people. Outside the park people here still hunt bears, with dogs, hoping to tree the bears as part of the hunt.  Inside the park, dogs are rare, people are tame and bears are smart. Inside the park, bears are smart enough to avoid people but also smart enough to not worry about people. Almost every other bear I have seen, outside a park has seen me first and most were running away. Last year I snuck up on a bear that didn’t see me. I was in my kayak and it was nearly dark.  Here is a link to that story. Stunning Big Sky

Rules about bears

In the campground there are rules about bears but sadly the campers (and the staff) are not serious about the rules. The rule says that you cannot store food outside. However, they are not providing bear proof food storage for campers. Instead they think that storing food inside your vehicle is appropriate. This would never work in California where bears frequently break into vehicles to look for food. That is why I cleaned out my truck and left the windows and glove box open. There was no reason for a bear to break-in or break things.  I also haven’t seen any rules about food containers for backpackers.

Two Black Bear cubs play fighting.
Two Black Bear cubs play fighting.

Speaking about rules about bears, if a bear gets your food – it is no longer your food. Bears take ownership of food very seriously and never share.

Deer and Elk

In the park deer and elk are also not scared of people. I give both of them more respect, and distance than most tourists allow them.  For deer, the best place we have gone to see them was Cades Cove.  Same location for the bears, Cades Cove is quite a special place.  In Cades Cove you see the bears at the edges of the meadows. The deer are in the forest near the edges of the meadows. Deer are not scared of people, but they are nervous about the bears.

White Tail doe in Cades Cove.
White Tail doe in Cades Cove.

Elk are not near Elkmont campground despite the name. Elkmont lacks the meadows that elk require for food and elk really love meadows.  The best meadows we have found are south of Smokemont campground and every evening and morning elk are in the meadows. I would be surprised if I didn’t find elk in these meadows daily.

Young bull elk in early spring, Antlers are just starting to show.
Young bull elk in early spring, Antlers are just starting to show. From this small nub the antlers grow up to six inches a day and then harden in the fall to be real weapons.


Fireflies mate in and near the Elkmont campground about the first week of June. I applied for the lottery to go see the fireflies but this year we didn’t get a ticket. If you are not camping in the Elkmont campground, you have to apply for the lottery to get a parking space to visit the park during the ten-day period the fireflies are expected to be mating. Part of the mating is displaying their glow trying to attract a mate. We didn’t get winning a ticket so we will be able to go to bed early, here in Smokemont campground. the fireflies are a treasure in the Smoky Mountains.

Young bull in early spring, Antlers are just starting to show.
Young bull in early spring,

Waterfalls, a treasure in the Smoky Mountains.

Waterfalls are another feature of the Smoky Mountain area. Pretty much they surround the lower elevations of the park on all sides. The very best waterfall we have seen was a stunning surprise and it is not in the park. These waterfalls are a treasure in the Smoky Mountains.

Mingo Falls. A treasure in the Smoky Mountains.
Mingo Falls

To get to Mingo Falls take the Big Cove road out of Cherokee and the falls will be about a mile up the road. If you get to the KOA campground you have gone too far.

Mingo Falls is just outside the park, but only by a mile or so. After climbing a long stairway, the viewing area is a bridge across the creek. The path gives you no notice that two steps onto the bridge you will then see a huge, beautiful waterfall.  Mingo Falls is more than 200 feet high.

Deep Creek Area

Indian Creek Falls.  A treasure in the Smoky Mountains.
Indian Creek Falls Picture

From the Deep Creek Campground, the trail leads up river to Indian Creek Falls and about the halfway point, just across the river is Tom Branch Falls.  Both are beautiful. When we were there (in late May) Tom Branch was stunning. My guess is that later in the year, both of these waterfalls will have a lack of water.  Even though Mingo Falls was the most surprising, I like the picture of Tom Branch better.

Tom Branch Falls. A treasure in the Smoky Mountains.
Tom Branch Falls in Smoky Mountain

The river through Deep Creek Campground is a tubing playground and attracts lots of floaters on inflatable tubes making laps up the path and down the river. 

Juney Whank

Juney Whank Falls is also just outside the Deep Creek campground and you can get to it by climbing a steep path up from the parking lot or a steeper path up from the trail near Tom Branch Falls. Both of these trails are steep lung burners.

Juney Whank Falls. A treasure in the Smoky Mountains.
Juney Whank Fall

Sugarlands Area

On the Tennessee side of the park near the Elkmont campground there are several waterfalls. Most are very easy to see. The easiest waterfall to see that still requires a short hike is Cataract Falls. The trail starts at the Sugarlands Visitors Center.  There is a shorter path that starts behind the Park Headquarters, but parking is limited.

Cataract Falls. A treasure in the Smoky Mountains.
Cataract Falls

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

To the east of the Sugarland Visitors Center there is a hike to Grotto Falls. This is off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail east of Gatlinburg, in fact one end of this one way road ends at “Red Light #8” in Gatlinburg.  I used the picture of Grotto Falls at the top of this post.  In our picture of Grotto Falls it is a little deceptive and looks like it might be about six feet tall. The next picture help give perspective pertaining to the size of the waterfall.

Grotto Falls. A treasure in the Smoky Mountains.
Grotto Falls in Smoky Mountains

Little River Area

Along the Little River, west of Sugarlands Visitor Center there are two waterfalls that don’t require hiking a trail, but rather are just off the road.

The Sink. A treasure in the Smoky Mountains.
The Sink

The Sink on the Little River is a waterfall/swimming hole that was created by the loggers in the late 1800s.  The story is that the loggers were using the river to float logs in the river to a sawmill; at this point, they created a huge log jam. This jam halted all the logs upstream from the jam and since the river was the only way to move the logs, this halted operations at the sawmill.  The loggers used dynamite to break the jam, lots of dynamite.  The blast was so big as to alter the course of the river and created this waterfall.

Little River near the Sink. A treasure in the Smoky Mountains.
Little River near the Sink

 Meigs Falls is a surprise and we almost missed it. It is just a little west of The Sink and flows off the side of the mountain into the river.  The only marking for Megis Falls is that there is a parking area along the road. It is less than half a mile west of The Sink.

Meigs Falls. A treasure in the Smoky Mountains.
Meigs Falls

I hope you agree that we came away richer for getting to see all these Treasures in the Smoky Mountains.

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2 thoughts on “Treasure in the Smoky Mountains”

  1. Love love the waterfall pics! Especially since we’re in bone dry Utah right now and they look incredibly refreshing. I wish we had known about Mingo Falls. It’s probably not too far from where we camped, but I had no idea. The bears are too cool. They look so cuddly, and yet….. 🙂

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