Thursday, January 28, 2016

Paved trail heads to high, scenic waterfalls

Laurel Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, courtesy Wikipedia.
Topo map, Laurel Fall Trail.

Popular route sits in northcentral Great Smoky Mountains NP

A picturesque 80-foot waterfall awaits day hikers on the Laurel Falls Trail at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The easy-to-reach trail runs 2.6-miles round trip but gains 314 feet in elevation. During peak season, get to the trailhead early as the parking lot for the popular trail quickly fills up. For great photos, hike early morning or late in the day, as the shade from the nearby mountains will prevent the water in your pictures from being washed out as reflecting sunlight.

Mountain laurel
To reach the trailhead, from Gatlinburg, Tenn., take U.S. Hwy 441/Newfound Gap Road south. Turn left/west onto Fighting Creek Gap Road. Upon reaching Fighting Creek Gap, watch for a parking lot on right/north side. The trail leaves from the center of the lot's north side.

One of the reasons this trail remains popular is that the section leading to the impressive waterfalls is paved. Built during 1932 so fire crews could quickly reach the Cove Mountain area if needed, erosion quickly became a problem, and the trail was paved. Still, due to the steep grade and rough pavement, it’s not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs.

The trail heads through a pine-oak woods with hemlock and beech along the stream, making for a colorful walk in autumn. May also is impressive, as mountain laurel blooms along the trail and near the falls, which runs its highest that month.

Within short order, the trail crosses Pine Knot Branch then begins to parallel Laurel Branch. Wooden posts appear every 0.1 miles so that you know far you’ve come.

Laurel Falls
Deer, often with fawns, wood squirrels, and songbirds are common on the trail. Be aware that black bears do live in the area and sometimes can be seen from the walkway; don't litter – including tossing apple cores – along the trail, as this attracts the bears.

The waterfall on Laurel Branch is magnificent, consisting of an upper and a lower section. A wide walkway crosses the stream where the mist from the falls roils over her head.

Stay off the rocks near the falls, as they are slippery due to mist and algae. In addition, the trail sports steep drop-offs, especially close to the falls, so keep an eye on children.

For those with a little extra energy, the trail continues past the waterfall to an old fire tower on Cove Mountain's summit. The tower is 4-miles round trip from the parking lot.

Learn about other great trails at this national park in Best Sights to See at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.