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Laurel Falls

June 11, 2012

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This paved, easy 2.6 mile (round-trip) walk leads to Laurel Falls.  The 80-foot tall cascade is one of the Smokies most popular waterfalls.

Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls is easily accessed and one of the park’s prettiest waterfalls.

Christine Says…

If there is a trail most everyone does when visiting the Smokies,  it’s Laurel Falls.  This hike is popular for a number of reasons: 1) the falls are gorgeous 2) the trail is short, paved and not very steep and 3) the trailhead is close and easily accessed from Gatlinburg.

Adam and I always enjoy solitude when we hike, so we cooked up a plan to eat breakfast early and get to the falls before the crowds.  However, it turns out it’s very hard to find breakfast in Gatlinburg that starts serving before 7:00 a.m.  Even the free breakfast at our hotel wasn’t put out until 7:00.

We decided we would have to go with the flow and hope that most people would have a 9:00 a.m. breakfast and take their time starting their activities for the day. It turned out to be a great decision because we had an amazing breakfast at the Pancake Pantry.  Let’s just say, I was still very full on strawberry crepes and bacon when we got to the Laurel Falls trailhead.

I guess most people do prefer a more leisurely start to their day, because there were only a few cars in the lot when we arrived.  The trail climbs several hundred feet over the course of 1.3 miles.  The entire path is paved, making this trail ideal for families with children in strollers.  A person might be able to get a wheelchair up the trail, but the paving is not smooth and while the grade is gentle, it’s still all uphill until the very end.

Laurel Falls Trailhead

The hike begins with distance markers, interpretive brochures and bear warnings. Below: These Pancake Pantry pancakes are too yummy not to share, and they made a perfect pre-hike breakfast!

Pancake Pantry

There really isn’t much to say about the actual hike to the falls.  It was typical Smoky Mountain forest with a few glimpses of bigger mountains through the trees.  I imagine most people would be able to cover the distance in about 30 minutes.

The falls are spectacular and tumble down over several rocky tiers.  The upper falls are accessed directly by the trail.  Viewing the lower half of the falls requires a short boulder hop downhill off the trail.  Both parts of the falls are well worth visiting up close, so if you feel confident doing a little rock scrambling, do take the time to climb down.

We were lucky enough to have the falls mostly to ourselves.  A few people came by while we were there, but no one stayed long.  The heavier traffic started rolling in on our walk back down.  We passed so many people – dozens and dozens – making their way up the trail by 9:00 a.m.

In short, Laurel Falls is definitely worth a visit, but I recommend arriving early.  If you’re a photographer and want to take long exposures on the waterfall, the area is completely in the shade in the early morning, but I’m pretty sure sun would hit the falls by mid-day.

Adam Says…

We have just started to purchase art prints from all of the national parks we have visited.  The ones we have been buying are produced by Lantern Press and are for sale in the national park visitors centers.  We are hoping to one day frame and hang them in an area of our house.  When we were deciding which one we would get to represent the Smokies, we decided on the Laurel Falls print.  So, we definitely had to hike this one since we had the iconic image.

Christine Hiking the Paved Trail

Christine hikes along the paved path to Laurel Falls. She carried her big, heavy-duty tripod on this outing. Below: Christine jumped in the photo to add a sense of scale to Laurel Falls.

Laurel Falls and Christine

As Christine said, the hike just to the waterfall stays on the concrete path and it is uphill almost all of the way.  We saw several families on the way back that were not in the best of shape that were huffing and puffing their way to the falls and asking how much further.  However, I do think that most people should be able to make the hike.

If you are interested in making this a longer hike, you can continue past the falls to the top of Cove Mountain, making it a 8.0 mile out-and-back hike.  The trail after the falls isn’t paved and you would be looking at 2300 feet of elevation gain in the remaining 2.7 miles.  At the top of the mountain is a tower, but from what I have read part of the tower has been blocked off for a weather station and the views are not that remarkable.

Lower Laurel Falls

Accessing the lower falls requires a short, simple scramble from the trail.

There is a reason that this waterfall is so popular – it is one of the prettiest you will see.  The upper falls drop down 75 feet over three tiers.  The water running down is the Laurel Branch that is coming down from Cove Mountain and it will eventually feed into Little River.  I would encourage you to go after some rain has hit the Smokies to get the most water flowing through.  The lower part of the falls does take careful navigation to get down to the bottom, but if you want to venture down below, backtrack about 50 feet and you will see a common path to reach the bottom.  We witnessed a couple that tried to hike down to the bottom another way and the man fell hard on his way back up.

We had the falls for a few minutes by ourselves (it does pay to start early), but we soon met a newlywed couple.  Christine showed the wife how to do some long exposure pictures and then we went on our way.  We saw the hoards of visitors coming up the path and I could tell it was going to be a busy day at this popular spot.

Trail Notes

  • Distance2.6 miles
  • Elevation Change – about 300 feet
  • Difficulty –  1.  This is a short, easy hike with not much elevation change.
  • Trail Conditions – 5. The trail is paved and is suitable for strollers.
  • Views1.  A couple peeks through the trees.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  The falls are gorgeous!
  • Wildlife – 2.  Because of the popularity of this hike, I would guess a lot of animals are scared away.  Although… bear warnings are posted in the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.   Very simple – just follow the path and you can’t get lost.  The trail continues past the falls, but we didn’t go that far.
  • Solitude – 0.  Expect to see masses of people!

Directions to trailhead:  Past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, take the Little River Road for 3.5 miles until you see signs for the falls.  Parking was available on both sides of the road.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Vickie Akers permalink
    August 9, 2012 7:01 am

    I’ve hiked to Laurel Falls. It was a moderate hike and well worth the time it took to get there. There were narrow paths on the way….and also a mama bear with 3 cubs. I look forward to going again.

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