The Greenbrier area is a less visited part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that offers captivatingly beautiful views, and water to play in or simply gaze at, all in a peaceful and heavily forested setting.
Greenbrier Road is an easy access from central Gatlinburg, but rapidly plunges deep into the forest silence broken only by the rushing water and the wildlife sounds.
The road starts off paved but soon turns to gravel and becomes narrow and potholed. What’s to love about that? Well, it also runs alongside the Little Pigeon River, and while you can’t park on the roadside there are several places to pull off and venture the short walk to the river.
Not to be confused with the Little Greenbrier School and trailhead in the Metcalf Bottoms area, Greenbrier Road starts off of Gatlinburg’s East Parkway (Hwy 321), about six miles east of the main Parkway. Go east at Light #3 and you’re on East Parkway. Greenbrier Road on the south side of East Parkway is also an entrance to the national park, possibly the least known and the least used entrance.
Greenbrier Road is six miles in length, leading past a Ranger Station at mile one, then the picnic area at mile three. About a half mile farther on is a scenic bridge across the Little Pigeon River, perfect for photographs. And then the turn onto Ramsey Prong Road leading to the Ramsey Cascades trailhead happens at about mile five. The road dead ends a little farther on at the Porters Creek trailhead. These are all names of great magic, well worth exploring.
You could park at the entrance to the park at the beginning of Greenbrier Road, and walk on in if you wanted to. Anywhere along the road you find a pull-off is a great place to stop and venture to the river. Everywhere along the river offers large rocks to clamber on or to watch the water splash over. There are places deep enough to float, and people go tubing and kayaking along here.
Just beware of slippery surfaces, and while the water depth is great for wading, the current can be fast – please be aware of how waters in the park can surge without warning, and follow the park’s guidelines on this.
The picnic area is small but very beautiful and slightly on the primitive side. It has about 12 tables and grills, and a pavilion that you can book for up to 70 people. But the only bathrooms are pit toilets, so you might not want to host a grand family reunion there. You’ll come to appreciate the lack of crowds, however. It’s a very peaceful spot.
The Greenbrier area is in old growth forest. Somehow this area escaped the massive logging that took a lot of the old trees, and so you can get a sense of the enormity of nature here. The two trails are worth knowing about also.
Ramsey Cascades features the tallest fall of water in the national park, at around 100 feet of waterfall. It’s a beautiful and spectacular waterfall, but the trail, although traversing beautiful old growth forest, is very strenuous, with some rugged terrain that calls for strong legs and good footwear, and trekking poles would be wise. The trail gains 2,000 feet in elevation, lasting about 4 miles each way (8 miles round trip). If you make it to the falls, be careful with your adventuring – people have lost their lives attempting to scale the falls.
Past the Ramsey Cascades turn, at the end of Greenbrier Road, lies a better proposition for the less accomplished hiker, the Porters Creek Trail which leads to Fern Branch Falls. This trail is moderately difficult but only 2 miles long (4 miles round trip). The trail offers wonderful natural scenery and a beautiful, 50-foot waterfall that’s perfect for a lunch break.
So this is the Greenbrier area. In springtime this is one of the best areas to see the profusion of wildflowers that explodes throughout the park, that people come from all over the world to see. The farther in and higher up you go, the more you’ll see. Also in fall, the colors of the leaves turning are lovely.
Everywhere along the Greenbrier Road is entrancing. It’s close enough to the main highway, yet deep in the woods and far away gone. If you explore this area, you’ll want to keep it to yourself – we just had to share it with you, but you get the point.