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Bushwhack to Mill Creek Falls December 13, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The falls is between 2850 and 3000 feet elevation. Go to the purple dot (the map center) and then follow the line of Mill Creek upstream. An old trail shown on this 1931 map goes as far as 2200 feet, but it's probably pretty hard to follow.

Due to a meteorological collision between a cold front and a high-pressure holiday activity system, I haven’t been able to hike the past few weeks. So I offer my loyal readers a blast from the past, a writeup I did in 1987 of a solo bushwhack to Mill Creek Falls in March of that year.  Sorry, I have no photos of my own, just a couple of generic ones from Wikimedia Commons.

You find the Mill Creek waterfall at the head of a secluded valley, about three miles upstream from where the creek runs into Cable Mill at Cades Cove. You have to follow overgrown trails, make many stream crossings, and fight through some brush before you reach this basin of open woods with the waterfall tumbling down in a long white ribbon at the end of it.

Cable Mill in Cades Cove---where Mill Creek gets its name

If you climb all the way up above the waterfall, working around the bluffs next to it, you will see how the upper creek runs between banks packed with glistening rhododendron before it swoops down over the top of the falls. So the waterfall marks a boundary between dense brush above and the stately wide-spaced trees of the valley below.

This place is not well known, even though the waterfall is over 150 feet high, making it one of the highest in the Smokies. When you have been climbing along the stream for a long time and you suddenly look up and see the white water tumbling down and down and down over the lip of the valley, you know you have found a magical place. There is an extravagance in the way this waterfall flows all the time with hardly ever anyone there to see it.

When I came up along Mill Creek alone, I only knew I’d find a waterfall somewhere up the stream but I didn’t know exactly how far I had to go. I stayed right in the creek because I was afraid of missing it if I got off in the brush to the side. Silly fear! I had no idea how big it was. I made my way along a tawny, dappled section of stream where the shallow water flowed between meandering banks. Then the sides steepened, the woods opened up, and I climbed in the creek with high slopes on both sides that came down to form a sharp V.

I waded and scrambled and bushwhacked far enough that I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn, before I looked up and saw the water floating down from high, high above me. I was drawn right away toward the top of this moving white column. I climbed up past old mossy logs that had fallen and rotted across the stream, past heaped-up boulders, past severe blackened bluffs where the spray dampened everything. When I worked my way up beside the waterfall, I had to keep edging outward to stay away from small cliffs that would have gotten me into trouble. The water roared in my ears. At last I clambered up to where the water curls over the brink and suddenly drops through space. Having seen exactly the crucial spot where the creek changes into a waterfall, I felt that I could rest. I downclimbed a bit and found a good spot in the sun to have lunch.

I sat on a squarish bluff overlooking a middle section of the falls. The ground around me had become a small garden that sprouted delicate red-striped spring beauties. After I ate my peanut butter sandwich and apple, I lay back in the sun and closed my eyes.

The early spring warmth enfolded me. I began to doze off. At moments as my thoughts started to drift into that nonsensical half-asleep state, I would open my eyes again and rediscover the wonderful place I was in. The water sang peacefully as it journeyed from the waterfall’s lip to the first set of boulders, then leapt downward again and again in several stages. At last it was time to return to the real world.

The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club has done this hike several different ways, sometimes just staying with the stream going up and back and sometimes climbing over the ridge to the north and following the old trail down Sugar Cove Branch. By the way, this Sugar Cove is not to be confused with the Sugar Cove I wrote about a few weeks ago, even though both are on the southern side of Cades Cove.

Barn at Cable Mill



1. Gary - December 13, 2010

Sounds like a pretty place ..

Jenny - December 13, 2010

Yes, it really is. There is something very surprising about finding such a high waterfall in this place, surrounded by anonymous mountain slopes rather than something dramatic like a Linville or Cumberland Mountain type gorge area. It is really something.

2. Reid Adair - December 14, 2010

Jenny, thanks for the link – and the information on the falls. I wonder how thick the brush is in late fall/winter?

Jenny - December 14, 2010

I think it would be better than in summer, with less in the way of nettles and witch hobble, but still might be somewhat thick with dog hobble and rhodo. But definitely worth the trip!

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