TO THE TRAILHEAD: Take traffic light #3 from Gatlinburg and head towards the Greenbrier/Cosby section of the park. Take a right to enter the Greenbrier section of the park and travel about 4 miles on the road, staying to the left at the fork.
THE HIKE: This hike is a 4 mile roundtrip moderately easy hike that will pass old homesites, the Smoky Mountain hiking club cabin, a cemetery, waterfall, and even an old car. If you want to hike all the way to the end of the trail that ends at a wonderful and secluded campsite, your roundtrip mileage will be 7.4 miles. There is even a seldom used junction that will lead you to Mount LeConte should you wish to go that route.
As the hike begins from the trailhead, you will walk on an old gravel road that was used during the early days of the park. The mile that this road lasts are pretty easy. The elevation gain is modest, and there are no roots or large rocks to hinder your progress. The sound of Porters Creek is always within earshot and often in eyeshot as the trail runs right next to the water. After roughly .7 mile, old stone walls will come into view. These were once part of expansive farmsites on this land. More interestingly, the Ownby cemetery is located just past the stone wall. The small cemetery gives you a glimpse into history as you view the gravestones from an era gone by. A few of them are almost unreadable at this point, but it is a view into history all the same.
After about a mile, you come to a fork that will take you a short distance to two historic buildings. The first is part of an old farmsite with a wonderful old barn and the second is the cabin that was once used by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club. You can walk through both locations for a stroll through history. Once that short side-trip is complete, hop back onto the trail and continue your journey. You will cross two footbridges and three junctions in the two miles leading to Fern Branch Falls. Stay to the left at each crossing.
At 2 miles, you will reach the 60 foot Fern branch Falls. These falls essentially flow down smooth rock surfaces with a hump about 40 feet down. The falls can be either very impressive or unimpressive depending on when you arrive. Obviously the falls are the most impressive after a large rain or during the winter months when ice dots the landscape. For that matter, this trail is a popular choice in winter months since the roads are almost always open and easy to travel, and the trail itself is easy to negotiate even in snow.
At this point, you can turn around for a grand total of 4 miles or you can continue to where the trail terminates 1.7 miles from the falls. The hiking is slightly more steep to get to the campsite, but it is still only a moderate difficulty. The campsite itself is large and has nice flat spots for tents and a place to build fires. The water source is all over as you never leave Porters Creek for the duration of your hike. The campsite can fill up early at certain times of the year, so make your reservations as early as possible. Don’t forget that permits are required for all backcountry stays in the Smoky Mountains, so don’t leave home without it. Also, this campsite is a hiker only site, which means that no horses are allowed.
Overall, this is a wonderful and fairly easy hike with so many options. It has something for about everyone and can be as easy or difficult of a hike as you wish to make it. Though it does sometimes get busy, it is not nearly as bad as places like Laurel Falls or the Chimney Tops. Still, the parking lot can get full during certain periods of the year, so plan accordingly, and don’t miss out on all that this hike has to offer.