By Jeremy Patton
Spruce Flats Falls is located in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tremont, Tennessee.
From Townsend, drive east on US 321/E Lamar Alexander Parkway for about 3.5 miles. Turn right onto Laurel Creek Road. Continue for about 0.25 miles then turn left onto Tremont Road. Drive for about two miles until you cross a small bridge. Soon after, turn left onto a dead-end road to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. You will cross a second bridge on the way. I cannot remember if this road has a name, but signs should lead you to the institute. Park near the gift shop.
Yes, I said a gift shop — sigh. I guess I hate gift shops because one is perched near Cumberland Falls in Whitley County, Kentucky. How do the hordes of tourists show their appreciation for the facilities and easy access? They trash the place.
Fortunately, a fairly exertive hike on a rough trail is required to reach Spruce Flats Falls, which deters some of the knuckle-draggers. I read that it is one of the least visited waterfalls in the Smokies. When I stopped at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center near Townsend to ask for directions, the lady at the front desk told me the same thing — more on that later.
As soon as I walked into the gift shop, I felt out of place. I wore dirty hiking shoes, black cargo pants and a backpack with supplies. The shop was full of tourists wearing shorts and sandals.
Rain battered the windows as I asked the gentleman at the counter for a map. He pulled out a 20×20 inch cloth map, an over-priced collector’s item. I asked him if that was all that he offered. He said yes, but pointed out that it would hold up better in the rain. He winked, then added that the proceeds supported the Institute and trail maintenance.
I bought the damn map and shuffled out the door, fleeing the crowd. I do not despise people, just crowds. Well, I like individuals…some of them. I guess what I am saying is…I prefer to be alone.
After joining the trailhead, I only met a few hikers coming from the opposite direction, so I hoped to enjoy the falls alone for at least a few minutes.
Once I left the Tremont campus and entered the woods (follow the signs), the trail was well-defined. It would be very difficult to get lost, so no map was necessary. The trail climbed about one mile southeast up a steep ridge above the Middle Prong of the Little River. A few partial overlooks were accessible, but rain and fog hampered visibility. The beautiful forest reminded me of home, although the elevation was higher and the grade steeper.
Spruce Flats Falls Trail is littered by stones and thick roots that get slick during wet weather. Sections of the trail are narrow with drop-offs. I rate it as moderately difficult, but too dangerous for young children.
Voices echoed as I rounded a final turn, then I winced at the screams of more than 100 school kids, most of them pre-teens or older. They congregated at the crest and base of the waterfall and on both sides of the stream, wandering around with their cell phones out. Some of them were singing songs in unison. It was crowded, loud and disappointing. One of the chaperones eyed me with pity and offered a few kind words.
I crossed the stream and climbed up a laurel-choked hill to distance myself from the pandemonium, only to stumble upon a woman squatting behind a boulder with her pants around her ankles. I don’t know if she saw me, but I quickly found another hill to climb.
I lingered for about 45 minutes, ate a snack and tried to relax. Gradually, the crowds thinned and I emerged from my hideaway.
A few people stayed behind, clearly not part of the student groups, and I was able to enjoy the remainder of my stay in relative peace. In hindsight, Spruce Flats Falls might be the least visited waterfall in the most visited national park in the United States, so hiking there on a Saturday probably was not the best decision. You might be able to enjoy the falls alone on a Tuesday during winter, while school is in session. It is all about timing.
Spruce Flats Falls is gorgeous and worth the visit. I plan to return under better circumstances and explore some of the other nearby attractions — maybe on December 25th during a blizzard. — I am just kidding about the blizzard.
It is all about timing.
Added 7/26/16 – Updated 7/27/16