A quiet Smoky Mountain backcountry trek, the Grapeyard Ridge Trail rambles up ridges and down ravines as it links the Greenbrier area in the east with the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail in the west. History buffs will love the numerous old homesteads and other heritage sites scattered along the route. Indeed, this is one of the most historically interesting walkabouts in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We’ll take a look at the trail as an east-to-west hike: i.e., from Greenbrier to Roaring Fork.
The Grapeyard Ridge Trail kicks off in the former community of Greenbrier, home to many mountain residents prior to Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s establishment. The trailhead lies near the headwaters confluence of the Little Pigeon River.
The historic pathway you follow out of the Greenbrier lowlands shortly skirts an old burial ground: the Whaley Cemetery, also called the Friendship Baptist Church Cemetery. Other signs of the region’s former inhabitants include rock walls and a vintage chimney.
You’ll pop over a divide and drop into the valley of Rhododendron Creek, replete with settler homesteads and throughways, plus another pioneer cemetery. Your passage up the drainage involves numerous crossings of the creek. About two miles in, you’ll head uphill to James Gap at the southwest end of James Ridge, then descend into another basin: Injun Creek.
You might think the creek’s name is a derogatory reference to American Indians, but actually it’s a cartographic misspelling: “Injun” is a corruption of “Engine,” as the stream includes the ruins of a steam engine—another defining landmark of the Grapeyard Ridge Trail. The machine, used to haul timber, toppled into the canyon back in the 1920s.
If you are wanting to stick to the standard 5.8 mile roundtrip hike, the steam-powered engine in the creek bed marks your turn-around point.
Bonus Hike: 7.6 mile one-way, 15.2 mile roundtrip
Looking for a longer hike? After passing the turnoff to the Injun Creek Backcountry Campsite amid the old Tom Rayfield farm, the Grapeyard Ridge Trail switchbacks up its namesake landform. Grapeyard Ridge gets its label from the heavy grapevines entwined in its hemlocks, red oaks, and other trees.
Surmounting Grapeyard Ridge, the trail then descends to the cove hardwood forests of Dudley Creek—passing through another historic property, the Levi Ogle farm—and starts rounding the northern flanks of Mount Winnesoka. After edging the upper reaches of Indian Camp Branch, the route makes its final downhill run into the Roaring Fork drainage.
Almost to the Grapeyard Ridge Trail’s western trailhead, you’ll pass the striking Jim Bales Place, with its barn, corncrib, cabin, and split-rail fence.
If you decide to take the longer route, you can choose between a one-way 7.6-mile shuttle hike of the Grapeyard Ridge Trail, or conceivably tackle it as a big 15.2-mile out-and-back. Of course, you can also bite off a smaller chunk of the trail by selecting one of any number of along-the-way destinations. The vast majority of hikers choose to turnaround at the old engine (5.8 mile roundtrip hike).
Directions to the Trailhead:
From Light #3 in downtown Gatlinburg, which is located at the intersection of Parkway and 321, head East on 321 out of town. You will drive east on 321 for approximately 6 miles. When you see a Hungry Bear BBQ restaurant on the left, prepare to turn right. The entrance to Greenbrier is marked by a Great Smoky Mountain National Park entrance sign on the right, but it is easy to miss.
After making the turn off of 321 on Greenbrier Road, you will drive approximately 3.1 miles and reach the trailhead.
-Usually the multiple fords of Rhododendron Creek are no trouble, but during periods of high flow crossing can be a bit more challenging.
Its 19th century homesteads, old cemeteries, crumbling rock walls, and other historical sites make the Grapeyard Ridge Trail a worthwhile endeavor. So does the solitude often available along its remote way.