Editor’s Note: This information was gathered from two books, ‘Hiking Trails of the Smokies’ and ‘The Best of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Hiker’s Guide to Trails and Attractions’. These books, and others, are available at various visitors’ centers in and around the GSMNP. They are also available online through the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
When Old Man Winter forces road closures deeper in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), The Porters Creek Trail (PCT) is a perfect pick for a hike.
The trail is considered moderate, as it is four miles in round trip length with a total elevation gain of 699 ft. PCT offers waterfalls, history, wildflowers (when in season), and stream views. It can be found in the Greenbrier area of the GSMNP, just outside of the Gatlinburg City Limits.
The PCT begins with an old gravel road for the first mile, as it winds through a forest of moss-covered trees and rocks while following along Porters Creek. If you take the opportunity to hike this trail in the spring, you will find an array of yellow trillium near the trailhead.
Two-thirds of a mile in, you will begin to see numerous stone walls to your right—remnants of the Elbert Cantrell farmstead, who settled in the Porters Creek community in the early 1900s. Just
past the Cantrell farmstead, you will find the Ownby Cemetery, which dates back to the turn of the 20th Century.
After crossing a footbridge, one mile into the PCT, you will reach a fork in the trail. The trail to your right leads to the historic John Messer farm site, which includes a cantilevered barn that was built by John Whaley circa 1875. Also on site, you will see a cabin that was built by The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in the mid-1930s (club members were permitted to use the cabin overnight until 1981). This site is only a short
distance of approximately 250 yards from the footbridge.
To continue on the PCT, you can take the trail to your left at this junction, as it will lead you towards the waterfalls. In another 100 yards, you will come to a second junction, which you will continue to your left to stay on the PCT. At this point, the gravel road turns into a path. You will also notice much larger old-growth trees as you continue further upstream.
At 1.6 miles, you will cross a second footbridge; in the spring you will see numerous types of wildflowers. The forest floor will become blanketed with bloodroot, hepaticas, white fringed phacelia, violets, white trilliums, and many others as early as late March or the beginning of April. As spring progresses, you can find yellow trillium, toothwort, wild geranium, May-Apple, dwarf ginseng, blue phlox, baneberry, foam flower, halberd-leaved violets, woodland bluets and Jack-In-The-Pulpits along the entire trail.
At approximately two miles, you will arrive at the 60-foot Fern Branch Falls, which is to your left, as it drops off the ridge. At this point, the PCT ends, yet the trail continues for another 1.7 miles to Backcountry Campsite 31.
This hike is a great option for families with small children or those who want a fairly easy hike with very little elevation gain. The PCT can be done any time of the year, but is a common choice for GSMNP visitors in the winter months, as snow fall can make foot travel in the higher elevations nearly impossible, as it also creates GSMNP road closures.
To reach the trailhead, you will travel east on Highway 321 from traffic light 3 in downtown Gatlinburg (at the junction of Highway 441 and Highway 321) for six miles. You will then turn right
into Greenbrier (the entrance is marked with a GSMNP entrance sign). The road will turn to gravel after a short distance. Travel 3.1 miles to a fork in the road—you will continue straight at the junction to reach the PCT trailhead. The parking lot is another mile from the junction.