Monday, March 3, 2014

Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Porters Creek Trail and Fern Branch Falls

From February 22, 2014

After a short hike to the overcrowded Laurel Falls Trail, I planned out an afternoon hike up part of the Porters Creek Trail in the Greenbriar area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a slightly more secluded experience. Greenbriar was formerly a small settlement populated from the late 1800s through the early 1900s until the creation of the park. The drive up the mostly gravel Greenbriar Road takes you along the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Following the signs you end up at a dead end gated road that marks the beginning of the Porters Creek Trail.

The trail actually begins on this gated road.

Following the road bed for quite some distance, the trail wanders past remains of old properties and a family cemetery, although forest has now completely overgrown the ruins. We walked on past these points of interest in order to get up the trail to try to view Fern Branch Falls, 1.8 miles into the trail, before dark. It's a steady climb, rarely steep but relentless. There is a small, neat log bridge over a side tributary of the creek.

A log bridge over a side tributary of Porters Creek. On this particular day the stream was so shallow that it could have been waded in Gore-Tex hiking boots. Hiker: Carolyn Rand

From the trail there are abundant views of beautiful Porters Creek and a surprising amount of greenery, even in winter. The creek and much of the ravine are populated with Rhododendron and there are ferns and smaller evergreen plants carpeting the open forest floor. Some trees are towering giants and moss covers almost everything in areas. The greenery only increases as you hike up the valley and gain elevation.

A lower stretch of Porters Creek, near the confluence with the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
Green everywhere, in late February no less!
Eventually the trail leaves the rough roadbed and crosses Porters Creek on another log bridge, and a fairly sketchy one at that, some 8 or 10 feet above the rocky whitewater of the creek. I was a little nervous and I'm glad it wasn't much higher or I would have had serious doubts about it. One of the hikers elected not to proceed over the bridge while two of us continued on to march hard for Fern Branch Falls, another few tenths of a mile up the trail on a mountainside. The trail became true single track and also became rockier and steeper. It seemed a longer hike up to the falls than it should have been although I think it was an illusion because the going was more difficult.

Sketchy log bridge over the roaring Porters Creek. It's at least an 8 foot drop to the rocky whitewater. Hiker: Lois Newton.

Fern Branch Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have seen. Trail guides and websites do not do it justice and it is usually referred to as a minor waterfall but I thought it was spectacular. The only problem is that it is visible only from a distance from the main trail and it is necessary to rock hop your way up a scree slope through which Fern Branch flows to get a very good view of it. Almost everything in this area was covered with moss. It's a beautiful place!

The view of Fern Branch Falls from the trail. Even though it was getting late and we had someone waiting for us back at the log crossing I couldn't resist going off trail to check out the waterfall up close. Green!
View of Fern Branch Falls from near the base of the waterfall.

A short video from closer to the waterfall.

On the way back to the trail I came through this cool slot, which is bigger than it looks here.

As expected the downhill return to the Porters Creek crossing went much faster and felt easier. Soon we were back at the stream crossing and on our way back to the truck. Since we still had plenty of daylight left, we took the time to explore the historic family cemetery and stopped to ponder and discuss the rock walls that wind their way off into the forest.

A family cemetery, still somewhat maintained, just off the Porters Creek trail, not far from the gate. It's easy to miss when you are hiking out, uphill, but easy to see on the way back. There are several graves of children from the year 1909 - must have been an epidemic.
Remains of the old Greenbriar settlement.
We got back to the vehicle with plenty of daylight and reflected on a good day in the Smokies and started plotting where and when to eat. Porters Creek Trail is a great day hike option in the low elevation areas of GSMNP. I fully recommend it!

1 comment:

  1. A very enjoyable day. Thanks for including us in your plans.