Trailside Talk: Greenbrier

Trailside Talk: Greenbrier

By Mike Hembree

It’s easy to miss the entrance to one of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most noteworthy sections. Drive too fast on Highway 321 east of Gatlinburg and you’ll zoom past the small GSMNP sign by the Little Pigeon River bridge, and you’ll miss a grand experience.

You’ll miss Greenbrier.

In a Smokies landscape so awash in beautiful streams and waterfalls, it’s a fool’s errand to try to anoint the best, but a strong argument can be made for the almost-hidden Greenbrier area on the northern side of the park. Here lovely rock-strewn streams come together to send water rushing past the park boundary and on to the Atlantic, and trails lead to some of the park’s most pleasing visuals. 

NPS photo by Andrea Walton
Porters Creek Trail in the Greenbrier section of GSMNP. NPS photo by Andrea Walton.

On a hot summer day, Greenbrier is a cool, green swath of relief, and in the fall, it showcases the colors of autumn at their most splendid. Along the Little Pigeon River, pools of placid water invite swimmers and splashers, and faster water attracts those with tubes. Cascading waters are a visual delight up and down the river valley, and the occasional heron glides along in search of lunch.

Soon the visitor experience at Greenbrier will be enhanced. Parts of the Greenbrier section are closed through late March because crews are replacing the Ramsey Prong Road bridge in the area. The work also will include upgrades on the road leading to the Porters Creek trailhead. During the construction, Greenbrier Road and Ramsey Prong Road past the popular Greenbrier picnic area are closed to motorists and pedestrians. The picnic area remains open. The closures include the Ramsey Cascades Trail, Porters Creek Trail, and backcountry campsite 31 because access to the trailheads is not available.

Known as Greenbrier Cove, Greenbrier Creek, and Greenbrier Pinnacle through the years, the area was once home to a thriving community. Remnants of homesteads can still be seen deep in the Greenbrier woods, and moonshine stills were targets of authorities in the area as late as the mid-1930s as the transformation to the national park began.

William “Bill” Hart Jr., who has hiked more than 3,000 miles in the park, has special memories of days in Greenbrier. In 1978 he hiked there along with his wife Alice, their two children, and Anne Broome, the widow of noted conservationist Harvey Broome. He said Anne shared memories of the Greenbrier Hotel, Engine Creek, and the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club cabin in the area.

Two years earlier, Bill and Alice had hiked the Ramsey Cascades Trail, long a park favorite. “Eventually, we came in sight of the massive stone face of the cascade and gazed in wonder at the sparkling crystal water that plummeted to its base,” Bill said. On the way home, the skies poured rain. “Although drenched, we savored the experience of the rain on our skin on a warm August afternoon,” he said. “This experience remains as a cherished shared memory.”

Greenbrier is that sort of place. Rain or shine. No matter the season.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.


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