The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

By Lorene Lambert © 1987

Issue: June, 1987

A scene along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.A scene along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.GATLINBURG, Tennessee – Climbing along the steep slopes of Mt. LeConte, less than three miles from the center of the Smoky Mountain resort city of Gatlinburg, is a spectacular area of tumbling creeks and waterfalls, tall forests and dense thickest of mountain laurel known as the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

The five–mile Roaring Fork Trail encompasses what was once a thriving pioneer community. The pastures and cornfields of the tough and vibrant people who originally settled these mountain hollows have been reclaimed now by hemlock and poplar forests, but some of their buildings remain, preserved by the National Park Service as a part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Named for the rock and boulder choked stream that gushes down the mountain, the community of Roaring Fork was settled in the 1830's. From the original two or three families, Roaring Fork's population grew to about 40 families in 1900, enough to support a general store. With the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930's, the stores and most of the houses were dismantled.

One of the early log homes still remaining was the home of Ephraim Bales. The two–room, dogtrot cabin was built about 1865 and housed Ephraim, his wife, and nine children. Further down the road, the mill of Alfred Reagan sits perched above the creek bed, its flume still carrying water from the cold mountain stream. The mill was just one way Reagan made his living in the community. He also dressed timber, ran the store, and made coffins when needed.

According to 75 year old Herb Clabo, a one time resident of Roaring Fork, life in the mountains was hard but not without its good times.

"We made our living farming the rocky fields, trapping wildlife, laboring in the sawmills or gathering herbs for the doctor. Everyone worked everyday except Sundays. For entertainment we went to church meetings, played music or visited with friends. When folks like me talk about the 'good old days' we aren't talking about the hard work; we're talking about the way we had time to sit on the front porch, share our food or help our neighbors build a corncrib."

Aside from the physical remnants of the community that Herb Clabo called home, the motor trail winds past waterfalls and hiking trails. A cornfield has become a parking area for Grotto Falls and the Trillium Gap Trail. Although the trail climbs 3,400 feet to the top of Mt. LeConte, the walk to the falls rises only 520 feet. Another scenic spot is "The Place of a Thousand Drips" where cascading rivulets of water are slowly carving a canyon in the mountainside.

In the spring and summer the trails and roadside are a riot of pink, yellow, white and blue as wildflowers burst from the forest floor. Every twist of the road gives a different view of the ever–tumbling Roaring Fork Stream.

The best way to explore the trail is with air conditioning turned off and the car windows rolled down. The rich smells of wild mint, moss and mulch; the melodious songs of birds flitting through the trees; and the rustle of small animals in the underbrush are a major part of the enjoyment of the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. Near the trail's end, the temperature drops several degrees as the road descends down the mountain hollows.

Motorists emerging from the motor trail discover a modern day homestead built around Andrew Ely's 1920's water powered mill. A yellow sign at the national park boundary cautions motorists to watch for goats, chickens and "George," the large black watchdog whose only movement during the day may be the wag of a tail. The gigantic 30 foot waterwheel is silent, but according to Ruth Wellborn, Ely's granddaughter and owner of the mill, plans are in the works to get the wheel in operation again.

Andrew Ely was known among his neighbors as a man of sharp tongued honesty who put to use everything he found, as is evidenced by the sprawling buildings of the mill complex.

"He collected junk before it was fashionable," remarked Ruth. "And he had an eye for antiques. He was educated as a printer and lawyer. In the '20s he began a furniture shop, and during the Depression employed local people as wood–workers and weavers, producing crafts that would eventually bring income and tourists to the region."

Today Ely's Mill is home to Ruth and her husband Paul. An assortment of livestock browses around the mill where the Welborns run a gift shop featuring local crafts and Ruth's own woven piece goods. Its location at the end of the Roaring Fork Motor Trail makes a less jarring transition back to the resort atmosphere of Gatlinburg.

To find the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, turn on Airport Road at traffic light #8 in downtown Gatlinburg and follow the brown signs along the Cherokee Orchard Nature Motor Trail. Travel trailers and RV's are prohibited.

Ely's Mill at the end of the Roaring Fork Trail can also be reached by taking Highway 321 to Roaring Fork Road.

For more information about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg, contact the Department of Tourist Development, Room T, Box 23170, Nashville, TN 37202.