Last Updated on February 28, 2022 by Maggie McKneely
Looking for a short, easy, but rewarding trek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? You should check out the Laurel Falls Hike!
Laurel Falls Hike
Great Smoky Mountains National Park receives more visitors per year than any other park in the United States (yes, beating out both Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon!). But there’s good reason for that – with its gushing waterfalls, lush green forests, abundant animal life (including bears, deer, bobcats, and one of the few elk herds on the east coast), preserved early American homesteads, and over 850 miles of hiking trails, there’s something for everyone of all ages to appreciate.
One of those things that can, literally, be appreciated by everyone is Laurel Falls Hike. It’s perfect for families with kids, people short on time, and those who don’t love hiking but would be up for doing just a little bit.
This short, paved trail leads to an impressive 80ft waterfall. It’s one of the park’s most popular trails which, unfortunately, means that in peak season and good weather, it can be absolutely packed. But if you are visiting during the week or on a rainy day, it’s a beautiful and relatively easy walk to one of the gems of the Smokies.
Things to Know about the Laurel Falls Hike:
- Length: 2.6 miles roundtrip
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate
- Hiking Time: 1-2 hours
- Elevation gain: 314ft
What to Pack:
- Sturdy shoes – while the trail is paved, some of the pavement has been washed away in places and is rough and uneven in others. And near the falls, the rocks are very wet and slippery.
- Camera (this particular waterfall offers great photo opportunities!)
- Bug spray – the Smokies damp climate makes it a haven for mosquitoes and gnats in warm weather season
Laurel Falls Trailhead:
From the Sugarlands Visitor Center, turn right onto Little River Road in the direction of Cades Cove. In 3.5 miles, you’ll see a parking area on both sides of the road; the trailhead is on the right side.
During peak season and weekends, this trail is absolutely PACKED. People park as far away as a mile up the road from the trailhead. So my best piece of advice in this whole post: don’t attempt this hike during those times. Visit during the week or on a rainy day (the forest and the falls are beautiful in the fog!). If you are absolutely determined to hike during the busy season, be prepared to arrive at the trailhead very early in the morning.
Laurel Falls Hike
The first mile of the trail gently winds through the ancient, green forest that the Smokies are famous for. You’ll pass thick groves of rhododendron and mountain laurel (for which the falls are named). I first did this trail in August, but I can only imagine how stunning it must be in May when both flowers are in bloom!
The trail was originally built in the 1930s to provide fire crews with access to the Cades Cove area. By the 1960s, it had become a popular hiking destination and the trail had begun to erode. To prevent any further damage, the trail was paved, and today it’s one of only 3 paved trails in the entire park (another being Clingmans Dome).
At about the halfway point, you’ll see evidence where a small landslide washed the pavement off of the mountainside and that, as of 2020, has not been fixed. Because of the soft soil and the amount of rain that the Smokies receive every year, landslides are a common event. But, just in case you thought that because the trail is paved must mean that it is handicap accessible, it’s not.
While the incline is very gentle most of the way, (the total elevation gain is only a whopping 314ft), as you get closer to the waterfall it gets a little bit steeper. The drop-offs along the trail also become more dramatic, so if you’re hiking with kids, be sure to keep an eye on them!
As you get higher up, you’ll also be treated to a few vistas of the Smoky Mountains peeking through the trees.
As you approach the falls, you’ll begin seeing warning signs about the slippery rocks and cliffs and impending doom and don’t let go of your pets and children and such. I tend to take these types of signs pretty lightly (as my previous hiking adventures prove, like on the Isle of Skye), but I will admit that they’re not joking about the slippery rocks, as you’ll see!
One of the best parts about the Laurel Falls hike is that the trail ends at the literal base of the falls. The falls are separated into a lower and upper section, bisected by Laurel Branch Run. A short, one-way footbridge crosses the stream before depositing hikers onto the rock shelf that Laurel Falls spills onto.
Typically, this is packed with people trying to take pictures of the falls, with the falls, in the falls, and it would be pretty easy for someone to just slip right off of the rock into the lower falls themselves. But if you picked a calm day to do the Laurel Falls hike and have the spot to yourself, like my family, fortunately, did, it’s a very cool place!
The Laurel Falls hike may be short and fairly easy, but it’s very rewarding and can appeal to just about everyone. A worthwhile addition to any Great Smoky Mountains itinerary!
For more hikes to do in the Smokies, be sure to check out my post on the best hikes near Pigeon Forge.
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