Discover Greenbrier’s history in the Great Smoky Mountains

Long ago, before the national parks were established, communities were being built in the Great Smoky Mountains. Thriving communities in fact. Logging was a big enterprise, making even a hotel a necessity. Cemeteries were built as residents passed on, and barns were erected near houses to keep the livestock from wandering off.

Many of these communities went away once the National Parks were set up. Greenbrier was one such community.


Most modern day families and hikers head to Chimney Tops and Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains. Greenbrier is quieter, but still an easy hike for younger children who may not last more than a couple of miles. A two-mile hike after the road ends brings you through the old Greenbrier community that was once thriving in this area. You will see rock retaining walls that haven’t crumbled yet. At the top of your hike you can follow a path that is home to the last structures from the Greenbrier community. Here you will find a house, barn and stream house where the stream running through it kept butter and other products cool. Where hundreds used to live, now only one family’s former property stands.

Why did this happen? When the parks were set up they wanted to clear out civilization so Mother Nature could thrive, along with all of the animals that called the mountains home. It was an important part of our history that changed the landscape and gave us back the green spaces that were quickly being swallowed up by industrialization, logging and population growth.


There is also a Hiking Club cabin here. It was built after the national parks for hikers to enjoy, but has been unused for several decades now by the looks of it. Technically people aren’t supposed to sleep in there, but from time to time someone may take refuge from the elements. It has been left to preserve the history of the park.

History sneaks up on you in this little strip of land within this massive park system. While walking we came upon a cemetery. Families from the 1800s were buried there, some small babies who didn’t survive without modern medical care.

Caroll, my guide for the morning and a local historian, pointed out the local flora and fauna, where the old logging hotel used to stand (you would never know it was there. They didn’t even leave a plaque), and tales of how the park developed over time. We stopped at the Little Pigeon River that flows through this section of the park to take in the green spaces that politicians deemed worthy enough to save.


The most surprising, and beautiful, thing I saw in the park that day was butterflies. Never have I seen so many. They were so comfortable with human presence too, like they had no idea children would step on them without hesitation. I was able to get within inches of these beauties so I could photograph them. Black and yellow butterflies, blue butterflies, and even tiny pale blue butterflies that blended into the gravel path we were walking. They blended so well I almost stepped on a group of them. Thankfully they fluttered up into a beautiful swarm just before I reached them.

Farther up from the old homestead you can continue to a beautiful waterfall. It is a slightly more aggressive hike, but one I’m sure most kids would be able to handle. No matter how far your hike, you are sure to be in for a treat from Mother Nature, who’s beauty has been restored and will be protected for years to come.


Know before you go

  • Getting to Greenbrier: take US-321 six miles east of Gatlinburg to the entrance
  • Must see:
    • Butterflies: stop by the bathrooms near the river. Take the path down to the river and there you may just see butterflies. Be careful where you step though. You never know what might be underfoot.
    • Smoky Mountain Hiking Club Cabin
    • John Messer Barn
    • Parton Cemetary
    • Easy hike for families: Porters Creek Trail follows Porters Creek to Porters Flat, where it passes the Messer Barn site before ascending to a backcountry campsite
  • Strollers? No. A baby carrier is the way to go in this park. Strollers will only frustrate you, and many times not work at all on the paths.
  • Food: Picnic areas are available year round in the park. No food is sold in the park. You must bring your own.
  • Restrooms: Bathrooms are available near many picnic areas in the park, but not all. If you see a restroom, stop. It may be your last.

Many thanks to Sevierville for hosting me for 5 days to experience all of the family-friendly adventures and eats in the County. As always, opinions are my own; when they aren’t you will be the first to know. 

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