Grotto Water Hikes in the U.S.

Throughout the U.S., from the Great Smoky Mountains to the coast of Hawaii, you can hike to a grotto for some exploring and maybe even a dip in the water.

By Courtney Johnson
Explore Ambassador

A grotto is a cave that is formed naturally or artificially. Many grottos have been used by humans throughout history to store food, create gardens, and more. Throughout the U.S., from the Great Smoky Mountains to the coast of Hawaii, you can hike to a grotto for some exploring and maybe even a dip in the water. Here are some grotto hikes featuring water throughout the U.S.

Fern Grotto — Kauai, Hawaii

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

An out-and-back hike located in Wailua River State Park, the Fern Grotto hike features two treats in one if you are up for a little adventure. Not only does it take you past a lush cave where ferns are making a comeback, you can also take a muddy hike to a 100-foot waterfall known as Secret Falls by the locals. Uluwehi Falls (as it is formally called) is a waterfall where you can actually enter the pool if you can handle the cold temperature. Be prepared for some unstable hiking conditions and even a river crossing (there is a rope to help stabilize you). 

The best part of this hike is that you need a kayak or SUP to get to the trailhead. You can rent your own or use an outfitter like Kayak Kaua‘i (who we used) to take you on this adventure. The trip is about 6.1 miles round-trip, including paddling.

Fox Creek Grotto — Allenspark, Colorado 

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

The trail to the Fox Creek Grotto is 3.6 miles round-trip as an out-and-back from the grotto, or you can do a loop that is roughly 6 miles. With views of Mt. Meeker, an abandoned mine, shade and solitude, this is a gem of a hike. 

The abandoned mine area that the trail passes by is a great place for rock hounds to explore, but you should never enter a mine because of the potential for collapse. Shy of 700 feet of climbing, the uphill back is fairly gradual, just as the hike down to the grotto isn’t too steep. From a hike viewpoint, the Fox Creek Grotto looks more like a tiered waterfall than a grotto. The cave itself is said to be hidden from view. 

Leashed dogs may enjoy this hike and will like the chance to cool off in the water. Be aware that ticks are common in the area during late spring through fall. There is no bathroom or access to water. You must park along Highway 7 before you pass the Old Gallery and hike up the private road, where the trailhead will be on the left-hand side. 

Grotto Falls — Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Take the Trillium Gap Trail through an eastern hemlock forest for 3 miles round-trip past the 25-foot Grotto Falls. With a total elevation gain of 585 feet, the trail is fairly easy. One unique aspect of this hike is the two-sided waterfall view. You will encounter the upfront view of the falls, which is just beautiful, against the lush forest. However, the trail actually meanders behind the waterfall for a second and different view. It is the only waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that you can walk behind.

To get to the trailhead, you must take an access trail from stop 5 on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail for 0.15 miles, where you will meet up with the Trillium Gap Trail. Be on the lookout for wildflowers, from trillium to violets, and salamanders who love the wet environment. Depending on the time of year and recent weather, you may have a few stream crossings. 

Continue on to the summit of Brushy Mountain (another 2 miles) or, for a longer day hike, head to the summit of Mt. LeConte for an additional 5.6 miles. Winter access for the trail is only from the Rainbow Falls Trailhead that adds another 3.4 miles to this hike round-trip. No dogs are allowed on the trail. Black bears are active in the area. There is no access to water or restrooms, but the parking lot is large. 

Grotto Falls Trail — Emigrant, Montana

A mix of dirt and gravel, this 2.4-mile out-and-back is a popular family hike within the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The elevation change is about 250 feet round-trip. Several watering holes and the cool-down spray from the falls make this a popular destination for summer days. 

There is a picnic table at the falls for enjoying a meal or snack if you plan to extend your hike along the Hyalite Creek Trail. A bit over 5 miles to Hyalite Lake, the trail will take you past 11 waterfalls. Wildflowers bloom along the trail during early spring and summer. It’s important to note that some waterfalls do dry up toward the end of the summer. 

Because this trail is rated easy, many choose to adventure out to see the frozen falls in the winter. Leashed dogs can enjoy this hike, too.

Grotto Falls Trail — Idleyld Park, Oregon

Featuring a 100-foot, double-cascade waterfall and cavern, the Grotto Falls Trail can be found in the Umpqua National Forest. This 0.5-mile round-trip hike is perfect for families, and your leashed pup can enjoy it, too. 

With less than 190 feet of climbing, one unique thing is that you can view the waterfall from the front and back as the trail leads behind the spray. Grotto Falls flows into Emile Creek, named after French settler Emile Shivigny, who homesteaded in the area in 1875.

A vault toilet and picnic table can be found at the trailhead. Check road and trail conditions beforehand as this trail is subject to closure because of fire danger. Downed trees are also a common occurrence in the forest. 

Grotto Falls — Payson, Utah

The hike to Grotto Falls is a mere 0.6 miles out and back. With less than 200 feet of elevation gain, it also makes it a great kid hike. What this hike lacks in distance, it makes up for in scenery as the trail makes its way through Payson Canyon. 

Be aware that log bridges (seven) are typically in place by the forest service. However, from time to time, the log bridges may not be in place because of weather or other circumstances. This means there may be water crossings that little ones will need help navigating. 

The trailhead is along the Nebo Loop Scenic Drive. Wildflowers bloom in late spring and summer. Autumn brings gorgeous color to the area, and the falls are quite a sight to see in the winter while frozen. With a seasonal road closure, the hike changes to 5.5 miles round-trip. Dogs can enjoy the spray from the falls, too, and a little exploration of a cave at the end.

Grottos Trail — Aspen, Colorado 

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

Before you reach the town of Aspen off Independence Pass, there is the 0.6-mile Grottos Trail. The short trail is good for all ages, with multiple stops along the way, including the erratics: Two boulders that are trapped on a knoll of granite. These large stones were left behind by a glacier that melted about 18,000 years ago. The cascades of the Roaring Fork River are an additional stop along the trail. Enjoy the sound of the rushing water before making your way back to the trailhead. 

The ice caves contain ice year-round and require a rocky descent into the grotto. The walls are smooth, while the floor of the cave may be icy depending on recent thawing and weather. If visiting in late spring or summer, expect to get wet as the ice melts around you. The grotto was once used by the Utes for storing food in a cold environment. Your leashed pup can enjoy this hike. There is a small parking lot that gets crowded, especially on the weekends.

The Grotto — Santa Monica Mountains, California

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

Beginning at the Circle X Ranch Visitor Center at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the Grotto is a 3-mile round-trip hike. The trail out to the Grotto descends gradually deeper into the Santa Monica Mountains. This is a 3-mile total out-and-back, meaning you will have to tackle the 475 feet of loss to climb back out of the canyon. 

The trail will abruptly end as it hits a creek known as the West Fork of the Arroyo Sequit. You will need to continue hiking downstream and over the rocks. Passages allow you to explore the Grotto and feel the spray of the waterfall. This part of the hike can be a bit challenging for those not comfortable with steep descents and scrambling. 

The flow here is very seasonal and is short-lived in the winter and early spring if it has been a dry season. After a solid rainfall, the Grotto will also flow. Wildflowers are abundant during the spring flow time, making it a perfect time to try this hike. Leashed dogs are allowed for the first part of the hike, but they aren’t allowed in the water and Grotto area. 

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