Laurel Falls - Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Laurel Falls is one of the visited waterfalls in the national park.
Length: 4 miles; Laurel Falls 1.3 miles
Level of difficulty: Moderate
Elevations Start 2,250 feet; end 4,000 feet
Connections: Sugarland Mountain, Little Greenbrier, Cove Mountain
Map: USGS quad 156NE, Gatlinburg
Finding the trailhead: From I-40 east exit onto Hwy 66 at the signs for the park. Continue south on Hwy 66 through Sevierville, then join U.S. Highway 441 and pass through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. A Gatlinburg bypass will take you straight to Sugarlands Visitor Center without passing through Gatlinburg. From the visitor center at the junction of the Little River Road and Newfound Gap Road, head west on Little River Rd. and drive 3.7 miles to the parking area at Fighting Creek Gap.
The Laurel Falls Trail was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. The trail begins on the north side of the road, bearing off to the left around the side of the ridge toward Laurel Falls. This trail is very heavily traveled, and its length makes it appropriate for families with children or less ambitious hikers. It has been paved to prevent erosion because of the heavy traffic. Although it is smooth enough for a baby stroller, it may be challenging in a wheelchair, because the trail is rough and slightly eroded in spots. The trail winds along the side of the mountain at a consistent grade that is fairly steep at times, and you are likely to see hikers who are not accustomed to this type of exercise stopping frequently to take a breather along the way.
The trail passes initially through a forest of pine, maple, mountain laurel, and dogwood, with the face of the steep mountain on the right and the ground dropping off more and more steeply to the left as you climb. In February or March you can catch trailing arbutus in bloom, with little pink flowers, and in July you will see the small white galax flowers, with their shiny leaves, less than a foot off the ground. Also along the rock walls you might find both the lampshade spider and the funnel web spider, both named for the shape of their web and found under rock overhangs.
There is a particularly nice stopping point with a long view down the Laurel Creek and Little River valleys where the trail makes its last big curve to the right, before it levels slightly and winds it way on to Laurel Falls. As the trail rises, you will note oak and tuliptrees between the maples and dogwoods.
At 1.3 miles Laurel Falls cascades from above the trail on the right, crosses the trail, and cascades down the valley below it. A bridge over Laurel Branch was installed in the spring of 1995 because so many people had slipped or fallen on the rocks at the crossing. The falls are 75 feet high, and a pool at the base of the upper falls is a popular place to cool your feet. In fact, I saw one person slip on the slick rocks and inadvertently cool her whole body, much to the delight of her children.
Beyond the falls the crowds disappear, and the trail is no longer paved, becoming rocky and rough. The trail ascends gradually in a couple of switchbacks through rhododendron and laurel. At 2 miles the trail enters a forest of giant tulip poplar and hemlock and becomes smoother. Here you will also find basswoods, Fraser magnolias, and big buckeyes.
As you climb you enter a virgin forest, because the loggers never came up this high. The trail passes through an area of old-growth oaks and red maple with silverbell, a tree that has white bell-shaped flowers in spring, interspersed among them. The trail then turns away from the valley and starts up a ridge.
At 3.1 miles the trail comes to the junction with the Little. Greenbrier Trail, coming in from the left, which runs for 4.3 miles to Wear Cove Gap. Keep straight at this junction, and the trail will climb Chinquapin Ridge, where you will find no chinquapin oak, but will find striped maples and Dutchman's pipe vines. The trail climbs to the crest of Cove Mountain at 4 miles. You'll find a junction with the Cove Mountain Trail, which runs along the park boundary to the right (east) and leads 8.6 miles to the park headquarters and the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Turn left and follow the jeep road. In a little more than a hundred yards you'll find the Cove Mountain fire tower, which has been converted to an air quality monitoring station. The Cove Mountain fire tower is one of the last four remaining in the park. The other three are atop Mount Cammerer, Mount Sterling, and the Shuckstack on the North Carolina side of the park. Once there were fire towers on Spruce Mountain, Greenbrier Pinnacle, High Rocks, Bunker Hill, Rich Mountain, and Blanket Mountain. The Mount Cammerer tower, an unusual one sitting on a rock outcropping, has been restored as an historical structure and is now open to The other three are closed to the public.