The Hike to Abrams Falls: Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Abrams Falls is a popular short hike located on the western side of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. To get there, you must drive along the Cades Cove Loop, which can take a very long time, with estimates of about 2-4 hours of driving to complete the loop. The hike is described as moderate intensity and about five miles round trip, or 2.5 miles each way. The waterfall is about 20-feet tall, broad, and absolutely gorgeous in person. The pictures do not do the waterfall justice. The hike is popular not only because it is a shorter hike but also (or mostly) because the falls have created a natural swimming pool and wading area that’s shallow and refreshing after the up-and-down hike to get there.

We figured that starting with Abrams Falls would be a sure bet for our trip to the Smokies with our two teenage foster kiddos who aren’t particularly keen on the outdoors. My husband and I, who are more seasoned hikers, did not struggle with the trail at all. The trail was rocky, sure, and it ascended and descended in places at somewhat steeper angles, but it posed no real difficulty for us. We’ve also hiked 350 miles of the PCT, so our perspective is certainly skewed. Still, we both could see why the trail might be more challenging for others who are newer to hiking or not in particularly good shape. Our girls certainly struggled, especially on the return trip after swimming and playing in the shallows and exerting all that energy. A five mile hike and a couple of hours of swimming is nothing to sneeze at. Since it’s such a relatively short hike with such a prize at the end, many people attempt the hike who aren’t truly prepared for it, but I bet they enjoy it all the same!

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Due to its lure to novice hikers, Abrams Falls is a surprisingly deadly trail. In 2008, Backpacker Magazine listed it as one of the 10 most dangerous hikes in America, right alongside Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park. Whoa, right? Hikers don’t bring enough water, sure, but the real danger is the falls themselves. They’re gorgeous and inviting, and you want to just swim right up… and then you’re caught undercurrents, and you drown. Or you ignore the warning to climb up on the rocks, and you fall and drown. Or, after whiling away the hours playing in the shallows, the sun is starting to set, and you’re dripping wet, and you get hypothermia on the way 2.5 mile hike back to the car, become disoriented, and die. All of these are deadly pitfalls should be kept in mind in both preparing for the hike and actually hiking the trail itself right alongside the traditional ones of bringing enough water and wearing sensible shoes.

Believe me, it was more crowded than this photo might appear.

At the same time, though, this hike is absolutely manageable and the shallows around the falls wonderfully delightful. Many families, our own included, were laughing, playing, and having a wonderful time at the falls. Butterflies darted in and out around the edges of the creek, sipping on water and sunning themselves on the rocks. The hike is worth the ups and downs and the scenic (albeit insufferably slow if your only objective is the hike) drive around Cades Cove.

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (I think) sunning itself by the shallows

Trail Tips for an Enjoyable Hike

  • Bring enough water for everyone in your group: a minimum of a liter a person; we ended up wishing we had brought more
  • Wear sensible shoes (tennis shoes are okay, but hiking shoes are best)
  • Pack a towel so you can dry off not only your feet so don’t have wet toes (and thus blisters) on the hike back, but also your body, which is important if it’s a cooler day and you’re heading back to the trailhead late
  • Bring a snack to help fuel your return trip
  • Don’t swim near the falls
  • Don’t climb on the rocks
  • Don’t be an idiot if you see a bear (e.g., chasing it or running away screaming from it—we may have had a second and much sterner talk with our teenage girls about bear encounters after this hike)
  • Wear something you don’t mind swimming in; there is no place to change
  • No bathrooms are available at the falls
  • Be a considerate hiker: right of way falls to those who are ascending
  • Pack out your trash: Keep the falls beautiful!

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