Upper Bear Creek Falls

Upper Bear Creek Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/11, 0.3 second, ISO 100, polarizing filter. This is the upper drop of the waterfall.

Beauty Rating:
Trail and bushwhack
Bear Creek
River Basin:
Little Tennessee
2,240 feet
Type and Height:
Long section of cascades and slides
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Noland Creek
Hike Distance:
About 5.1 miles
Hike Difficulty:
Photo Rating:
Waterfall GPS:
Trailhead GPS:
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Driving Directions

From US 19 in downtown Bryson City, turn north onto Everett Street (the main drag) and follow it out of town. Outside town, it’s called Fontana Road. When you enter the park, it’s called Lakeview Drive. If you just stay on the same road and don’t take any turns, you’ll get it right. From US 19, it is 8.7 miles to the end of the road at a parking area on the right. The trailhead is the same as for Bear Creek Falls.

Hike Description

The first 4.5 miles of this hike are the same as the hike to Bear Creek Falls. The hike begins on Lakeshore Trail, which is a continuation of the road. In about 0.1 mile, you’ll come to a tunnel. Yes, Lakeshore Trail passes through this 0.2-mile-long tunnel. See the Overview section for more information about it and the road. Beyond the tunnel, the roadbed changes to a trail. Tunnel Bypass Trail soon comes in from the left. Horses and claustrophobic hikers use the bypass. Mountain laurel is abundant here, as it is along the entire route. If you’re hiking in May or early June, its blooms are a special treat.

Shortly beyond Tunnel Bypass Trail, you’ll come to Goldmine Loop Trail on the left. Swing to the right around the ridge, remaining on Lakeshore Trail. After an easy section, you’ll ascend moderately for over 0.5 mile, cross a ridge, then descend for over 0.5 mile to a fork. Whiteoak Branch Trail goes right. Take the left fork, remaining on Lakeshore Trail. You’ll descend for about 0.1 mile to an old road. Turn sharply right on it and hike 50 yards to a bridge over Gray Wolf Creek. The road turns right beyond the bridge, while Lakeshore Trail, your route, goes straight ahead. The trail follows an easy course for about 0.25 mile, then makes a sharp right turn around a ridge and descends moderately for about 0.7 mile to a T junction at Forney Creek.

At the T, Lakeshore Trail goes left. Turn right and follow Forney Creek Trail upstream. In less than 0.4 mile, you’ll reach Bear Creek Trail, on the left. Take it. You’ll immediately cross Forney Creek on a wide auto bridge. In less than 0.2 mile, you’ll cross Bear Creek on an auto bridge. Beyond the bridge, the trail swings away from the creek and ascends moderately for 0.3 mile to a left switchback beside Welch Branch. A little footbridge spans the branch, but don’t cross it. You’ll need to turn left on the switchback to remain on Bear Creek Trail. You’ll soon swing back into the Bear Creek drainage.

At about 0.4 mile from the switchback, at a point where the trail turns right, you’ll hear Bear Creek Falls and barely glimpse it through the trees. In winter, you should see it without any trouble. GPS for this point is N35.47257, W-83.57304 .

To reach Upper Bear Creek Falls, continue on the trail for 0.4 mile. The point at which you’ll leave the trail is at a small ravine, just past where the trail makes a sharp right turn. The GPS reading for the ravine is N35.47136, W-83.57748 . A short distance beyond this ravine is another, deeper ravine that is filled with rhododendron. If you come to it, turn around and go back to the smaller ravine.

Follow the ravine down to the creek. You’ll come out close to the top of the falls. Cross the creek, which could be a wade if the water is up, and work your way downstream to see all of the drops. There is an old overgrown logging road a short distance up the bank on river right. Utilizing it might make it easier to work your way down, but it’s going to be a rhodo scramble no matter what.

By approaching the waterfall this way, from the top, you’ll take the easiest route down to the creek from the trail and you’ll avoid some small cliff areas on the river-left side. Once you reach the base of the falls, you might be tempted to climb back up to the trail from there, but it will be much easier to go back up to the top of the falls and climb back up in the ravine. See the Overview section for info about continuing downstream to see Bear Creek Falls.


If you’re coming only to see Upper Bear Creek Falls, you’ll likely be disappointed after hiking nearly 5 miles on humdrum trails and then bushwhacking down to the creek. The waterfall is scenic enough if you explore all of it, but most people wouldn’t consider it a just reward for the effort required. However, if you combine it with Bear Creek Falls downstream, it’ll make a fine outing for hard-core waterfallers.

Upper Bear Creek Falls consists of a long series of low cascading waterfalls. You can see only a small portion of it from any vantage point, so as mentioned din the hike description, you’re going to have to do some scrambling to see all of it.

If you follow the hike directions and start from the top of the falls, you might consider continuing to follow the creek downstream to reach Bear Creek Falls, rather than climbing back up to the trail and then bushwhacking back down. A look at the topo map shows that the two waterfalls are close enough together to make this seem the logical choice. It might be, depending on your appetite for creek walking. If you stay in the creek as much as possible, it won’t be too bad, but the rhodos will make life hell when you get out of the creek bed.

See the Bear Creek Falls listing for information about the tunnel at the start of the hike.

Upper Bear Creek Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 0.3 second, ISO 100, polarizing filter. This is the upper drop of the waterfall.

Upper Bear Creek Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/16, 0.4 second, ISO 100, polarizing filter. This is the bottom drop of the waterfall.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/16, 0.4 second, ISO 100, polarizing filter. This is the bottom drop of the waterfall.

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