Ramsey Cascades trail climbs steadily along the Ramsey Prong, through one of the largest pockets of virgin forest in the Smokies, eventually emerging at the base of the 90-foot Ramsey Cascades. This is a 4-mile, moderate hike starting at 2,100 feet elevation and ending at 4,200 feet.
To find the trailhead, take U.S. Highway 321 east out of Gatlinburg and continue 5.9 miles to the Greenbrier Road entrance to the park. Turn right onto Greenbrier Rd. and follow it 3.2 miles to the left turn at the sign for Ramsey Cascades, crossing the Little Pigeon River on two bridges. The road follows along the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon for 1.5 miles to dead-end at the trailhead for Ramsey Cascades.
The trail is named for the Ramseys, who had a hunting camp here in the mid-1800s. It begins at the end of the parking area, and after a short distance crosses the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River on a long and springy wooden bridge. Just across the footbridge you will see black locust trees. Their presence, with small, straight tulip trees, are evidence of cutting, probably to accommodate farming. The trail, which is actually an old graded roadbed, climbs gradually through a forest of hemlock and mixed hardwood, with large boulders and the Middle Prong on the right. In summer hikers should watch for hornets' nests hanging over the trail at about eye level, looking like large gray paper balls. On the lower part of the trail, Dutchman's pipe vine, with large heart-shaped leaves and curvy vines, can be found on the trees.
At 1 mile some side streams flow into the Middle Prong from the left. The trail crosses on a wooden bridge and continues the ascent. At 1.5 miles you'll reach the junction with the old Greenbrier Pinnacle Trail, which is actually an old traffic circle, marking the end of the old roadway you have been following. This trail to the top of Greenbrier Pinnacle, where a fire tower used to stand, is no longer maintained and is becoming overgrown. Peregrine falcons were released on the pinnacle by volunteers a few years ago, but apparently did not stay in the area.
At the end of the old roadbed is. the sign for Ramsey Cascades, and the trail continues from this point as a narrow footpath. To the right of the sign is a three-trunked witchhazel at the side of the stream, you will pass to the left through a tunnel of rhododendron and mountain laurel on the Ramsey Cascades Trail. Ramsey Prong, a tributary of the Middle Prong, flows past the trail on the right. The trail opens out into a canyon at about 2 miles, and a log footbridge takes you across the creek, which can be seen below tumbling over boulders.
The trail continues to climb, entering one of the largest pockets of virgin forest in the Smoky Mountains. The trees seen here include hemlock, yellow poplar, black cherry, silverbell, yellow and sweet birch, and cucumber magnolia (with large yellowish flowers in late April and early May). At one point the trail passes between huge poplars, some of the largest trees in the park. You can recognize the trees in a virgin forest by their large size and exposed roots, and you will see plenty of both here.
This forest was saved from logging because this upper area along the Ramsey Prong is not only difficult to hike, but also difficult to log.
At 2.5 miles the trail passes through two huge, straight yellow poplar (also called tuliptrees), and around the next bend, an even bigger yellow poplar -can be found, with roots as big as small trees themselves. A little farther down on the right are several large silverbell trees (with bluish-black, flaky bark). You also may find red bee-balm blooming in mid to late summer. Pinch the flower and smell the lemon scent. The trail wanders from the creek a little, which is now on the left, and at 3 miles crosses again on another log footbridge.
The trail swings away from Ramsey Prong for a time and then returns, crossing a side-stream, and then follows along the creek. The trail becomes narrower as it climbs through boulder passages, and eventually emerges at Ramsey Cascades, a 90-foot-high spillway. The water falls from ledge to ledge and produces a cool spray. The Ramsey Prong falls as double streams that meet half way down the cascade and fall together into the pool below. The watershed for the cascade comes off of Mount Guyot, more than 6,000 feet high. Hikers are warned not to climb the cascade, although you can look for salamanders in the pool at the bottom of the cascade.
Ramsey Cascades is the highest waterfall in the park accessible by trail, so understandably it is a popular destination. While you may find solitude much of the time walking the trail, you will probably find a small crowd at the base of the falls when you arrive.