Fern Branch Falls, Porters Creek Trailhead, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Fern Branch Falls - 3.7 miles
Porters Creek Trailhead
|Round-Trip Length:||3.7 miles|
|Start-End Elevation:||1,925' - 2,685' (2,685' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+760' net elevation gain (+805' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
Fern Branch Falls tumble from an unassuming tributary along the Porters Creek Trail in a remote section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The falls are set back from the trail in a steep ravine, and fairly easy to miss if not anticipating them. The short hike follows Porters Creek past the Messer farm site, Ownby Cemetery, and Smoky Mountain Hiking Club Cabin to the falls, and continues on to Backcountry Campsite #31, one of the most isolated sites in the Park.
The trail begins on a wide, packed dirt path beside Porters Creek. Some of the area's best fishing and wading locales can be found within a short walk of the trailhead. It rises steadily to the Porters Creek - Brushy Mountain Trail split and branches left toward the falls (.95 miles : 2,280').
Note that the trail will fork in a cul de sac just before you see any trail signs; Porters Creek Trail continues left, while access to Messer Cabin can be found on the right side of this split near the Brushy Mountain Trail sign.
The Porters Creek Trail narrows, grows rocky, and steepens into a thick forest away from the creek to a long, rail-aided bridge (1.5 miles : 2,430'). Once over, begin looking left (east) for the falls, and signs of running water across your path.
Fern Branch Falls are not marked, and concealed by heavy brush. A light trickle bisects the trail where two vague social trails on either side of it break off into the forest (1.8 miles :2,635'). A short but rugged scramble leads to the base of Fern Branch Falls in a heavily wooded ravine just east of the trail (1.85 miles : 2,685').
The falls slide 40' down a near-vertical, moss covered rock face. Good head on views can be had with minimal effort, but a closer look requires significantly more exertion and risk.
Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84View Interactive Google Map
- N35 41.802 W83 23.299 — Porters Creek Trailhead
- N35 41.414 W83 23.672 — .6 miles : First signs of historical remains
- N35 41.215 W83 23.831 — 1.0 miles : Porters Creek - Brushy MT Trail split
- N35 40.850 W83 23.857 — 1.5 miles : Cross long bridge
- N35 40.591 W83 23.825 — 1.8 miles : Falls off to left, accessible by social trai
- N35 40.584 W83 23.797 — 1.85 miles : Fern Branch Falls
- The Porters Creek Trail is known as one of the best wildflower hikes on the west side of the Park. April - mid May are peak season for phacelia, trillium, bishops cap, iris, cohosh, and many others.
- The Messer Cabin was built c. 1875, and restored to accurately reflect building techniques and living conditions for homesteaders in the late 1800s. Allow extra time to explore the barn, cabin, and spring house. Look for original stone walls and steps .5 miles from the trailhead.
- Smoky Mountain Hiking Club Cabin was built between 1934 and 1936.
- It is illegal to move, remove, or enter historical objects and structures within the Park unless otherwise noted. Enjoy historical remains from a distance.
- Enjoy waterfalls from a safe distance, and be mindful of slippery surfaces in the vicinity. Do not attempt to climb the falls. Deaths have occurred at numerous falls throughout the Park.
Camping and Backpacking Information
BACKPACKING IN THE SMOKIES
Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit and advance reservations for all backcountry camping in the park. Before planning your backcountry trip, please read through this important information about reservations and permits, regulations, bear safety, trail closures, and more.
Reserve your Backcountry or Thru Hike permits here: https://smokiespermits.nps.gov/
Please direct questions concerning backpacking trip planning to the Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297. Phone calls are the preferred method of contact. The information office is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). In addition to answering your backpacking questions, the experienced backpackers in the Backcountry Information Office can provide you with tips to make your trip safe and enjoyable.
Backpackers and hikers are subject to all Backcountry Rules and Regulations. Failure to abide by park regulations may subject you to a fine under Title 36, Code of Federal Regulations. Maximum fine for each violation is $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail.
General Backcountry Regulations
1. Camping is permitted only at designated backcountry campsites and shelters.
2. You may not stay at any backcountry campsite for more than 3 consecutive nights. You may not stay consecutive nights at campsite 113 or at any shelter.
3. Maximum party size is 8. Two parties affiliated with the same group may not stay in the same campsite or at the same shelter on the same night(s). Special permits may be issued for a few sites that accommodate parties of up to 12.
4. Fires are only allowed at designated campsites and shelters and must be contained in a fire ring. Constructing new fire rings is prohibited. You may only burn wood that is dead and already on the ground. You may not cut any standing wood.
5. It is illegal to possess firewood originating from a location from which a federal or state firewood quarantine is in effect. Read information about this quarantine and the states affected.
6. Building a fire in the fireplace of any historic structure or removing any parts of a historic structure, including brick or rock, is illegal.
7. Backcountry permit holders may not use tents at shelters.
8. Hammocks may only be used within designated backcountry campsites. They may not be used inside shelters and may not be attached to shelters in any way.
9. All odorous items (e.g., food, trash, lip balm, toothpaste, stock feed, hay etc) must be hung on the bear cable system at each campsite or shelter.
10. Human waste must be disposed of at least 100 feet from any campsite, shelter, water source or trail and must be buried in a hole at least 6 inches deep.
11. All food, trash, clothing, equipment or personal items must be packed out.
12. Burning food, trash or anything other than dead wood is prohibited.
13. Carving into or defacing trees, signs, shelters or other backcountry features is illegal.
14. Soap, even biodegradable soap, may not be used in any water sources. Bathing and washing dishes should be done well away from water sources and campsites.
15. No dogs or other pets are allowed on any park trails except the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. No dogs or other pets may be carried into the backcountry.
16. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the backcountry.
17. No hunting is allowed anywhere in the park
18. Feeding, touching or teasing wildlife is prohibited. You may not willfully approach within 50 yards (150 feet) of elk or bears.
- Fishing is permitted year-round, from 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset.
- The park allows fishing in all streams except Bear Creek at its junction with Forney Creek, and Lynn Camp Prong upstream of its confluence with Thunderhead Prong.
- A valid fishing license from Tennessee or North Carolina is required to fish in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Either state license is valid throughout the park and no trout stamp is required. Fishing licenses and permits are not available in the park, but may be purchased in nearby towns or online.
- Daily Possession Limits: Five (5) brook, rainbow or brown trout, smallmouth bass, or a combination of these, each day or in possession, regardless of whether they are fresh, stored in an ice chest, or otherwise preserved. The combined total must not exceed five fish. Twenty (20) rock bass may be kept in addition to the above limit. A person must stop fishing immediately after obtaining the limit.
- Size Limits: Brook, rainbow, and brown trout: 7 inch minimum. Smallmouth bass: 7 inch minimum. Rockbass: no minimum. Trout or smallmouth bass caught less than the legal length shall be immediately returned to the water from which it was taken.
- Lures, Bait, and Equipment: Fishing is permitted only by the use of one hand-held rod. Only artificial flies or lures with a single hook may be used. Dropper flies may be used, with up to two flies on a leader.
Rules and Regulations
- There is no entrance fee to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Pets, motorized vehicles, and bicycles are not permitted on backcountry trails in GSMNP.
- Leashed pets are allowed in developed areas and along roads, but are not allowed on park trails.
Directions to Trailhead
The Porters Creek Trailhead is located 9.9 miles from Gatlinburg TN in the Greenbrier section of the park (north central quadrant).
From downtown Gatlinburg, access Highway 321 at traffic light #3 and head approximately 6 miles north (east) to Greenbrier Road. Turn right (south) on Greenbrier Road and travel 3.9 miles to the cul de sac and Porters Creek Trailhead. Note these secondary roads are packed gravel, but generally passable for any car except when flooded.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Visitor Information - Recorded Message
Backcountry Office - Camping and Reservations
The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8 am - 6 pm daily (EST)
Backcountry Information Office - Trip Planning Questions
The information office is open daily 9 am - 12n (EST)
Oconaluftee Visitor Center (North Carolina side - south entrance)
Sugarlands Visitor Center (Tennessee side - north entrance)