Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers more than 800 square miles through the scenic forests, rolling valleys and rugged ridges of the Southern Appalachians along the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, with elevations that range from 875 feet to 6,643 feet above sea level. Smoky Mountains, America's most visited national park, is home to 150 hiking trails and more than 10 major waterfalls, and you can combine both experiences on a short hike along the park's Laurel Falls Trail, less than 7 miles southwest of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
About Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls, one of the more popular attractions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is an 80-foot-high waterfall accessible only via the Laurel Falls Trail. The falls -- named for the mountain laurel shrub that typically blooms along the trail in spring -- has upper and lower sections that tumble down from Laurel Branch, a mountain stream. A walkway crosses the stream between the two cascades, near the bottom of the upper falls. The trailhead for the Laurel Falls Trail and a limited parking area is just off Little River Road, approximately 3.5 miles west of the park's Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Laurel Falls Trail
The Laurel Falls Trail is 2.6 miles round trip, so plan on approximately two hours to hike to the falls and back. Considered moderate in difficulty, the paved trail features steep sections and other portions with steep drop-offs. Of the more than 800 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, less than 3 miles are paved, and the Laurel Falls Trail is the longest of four paved trails. Blazed in 1932 to allow firefighters access to the Cove Mountain area, the heavily used section of trail leading to the falls was paved in 1963 to stop erosion. The Laurel Falls Trail is not paved past the falls but continues for roughly 2.5 miles, climbing in elevation before dead-ending into the Cove Mountain Trail near an old fire tower.
Cautions and Considerations
Because the pavement on the Laurel Falls Trail is rough and uneven in spots and its steep portions can be slippery in wet weather, the trail is not suitable for wheelchairs or children's strollers. Bicycles and pets are prohibited. Carry drinking water and supervise children closely. Once at the waterfall, do not climb on the rocks near the cascades, as they can be slippery. One final caution: Keep an eye out for black bears, which can be active in the trail area, and do not feed or approach them. An estimated 1,500 black bears live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a hiker on the Laurel Falls Trail suffered minor injuries in 2010 after being bit by a bear, which was euthanized.
Other Nearby Trails/Accommodations
During your visit, you might want to explore other park trails near the Laurel Falls Trail. The Fighting Creek Nature Trail, a self-guided interpretive trail behind the Sugarland Visitors Center, is a 1.2-mile loop that winds along a small creek and includes a historic cabin and a short connecting trail that provides a view of a small waterfall, Cataract Falls. Another path that branches off Laurel Falls Trail is the 4.3-mile Little Greenbrier Trail, which offers hikers scenic views of Blanket Mountain, Cove Mountain and Wear Valley. If you'd like to stay overnight, the Elkmont Campground is the national park's largest, with 220 sites less than 2 miles southwest of Laurel Falls. Gatlinburg, just 2 miles north of Sugarland Visitor Center, has a variety of accommodations, including hotels, bed-and-breakfast inns, cabins and chalets.
- National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Waterfalls
- National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Nature & Science
- National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Laurel Falls
- Hiking in the Smokys: Cove Mountain
- Southern Hiker: Fighting Creek Nature Trail -- Gatlinburg, TN
- Knoxville News: Hike of the Month -- 7.4-mile Hike to Laurel Falls and Beyond Works Best in the Winter
- National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Frontcountry Camping
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images
- National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Hiking Safety
- National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Trail Map
- National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Park Map
- National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Elkmont Campground Map
- Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau: Plan Your Stay