Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park - The Laurel Falls Trail

February 22, 2014

I like to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park at least two or three times a year for some hiking and general sightseeing. Normally I prefer the high country of the Smokies since they are among the tallest mountains east of the Rockies, but in the winter the higher elevations tend to get into a snowy and/or icy state that makes hiking on steep, treacherous trails difficult, so I searched for some low elevation options good for a late-February Staturday. I turned up one of the hikes that I have wanted to do for some time but have never gotten to yet, the Laurel Falls trail.

Laurel Falls is easily accessible from Little River Road on the north side of the park and is only a 1.3 mile hike from the road. That is part of the problem. It has a reputation for having too many visitors. The trail head is located in a small gap that has inadequate parking, resulting in the presence of large overflow parking some distance down the road in both directions. It ended up being an unseasonably warm day for late February so it was pretty crowded but we got lucky and I scored a parking place in the gap.
There are some nice views after you climb around the shoulder of a ridge. The trail drops off very steeply in this area so watch your step. There are signs warning that fatalities have occurred in the past.

The trail is completely paved nowadays, providing wheel chair accessibility to the falls, although we only saw strollers making the trek in addition to the normal foot traffic. The trail mostly ascends to the waterfall so it's not quite an easy trail but the short length and paved surface guarantee that you will still experience heavy traffic unless you go at some very unusual time or a day with bad weather. I've considered going to Laurel before and received nothing but discouragement from my acquaintances due to the crowding, but I was determined to put up with the crowds just to make sure I could check the waterfall off my list.
The pavement is a bit broken up on the approach trail, which looks wide here but is carved right out of the rock and featured a sheer drop in one stretch that must be well over a hundred feet straight down. Be careful passing oncoming foot traffic, of which there will be a lot.
the lower part of the falls, with people next to the footbridge for scale. The drop must be so much more impressive from down below in the gorge.
The upper set of falls above the footbridge where the trail crosses - beautiful cascade!

Laurel Falls is pretty but would be much better if the park service routed the trail to the bottom of the waterfall instead of over a bridge that is right in the middle of the drop. While interesting and fun to be essentially in the middle of a waterfall, it would be much easier to view if you could stand back a bit. There is little chance to appreciate the full length of the drop without some truly sketchy bushwhacking off trail down a very steep slope. Normally I probably would have gone for it but there were so many people there that it would have made the view less worthwhile. In addition, my companions were not likely to want to try to slope so would have been waiting on me. I decided to stick to the trail. We ate lunch on the rocks and the place got steadily more crowded until it was literally standing room only.

Somehow I managed to capture this short video of the upper drop of the falls without getting a human in the picture, although you can certainly hear them. There is more below the bridge but no easy way to get down to where you can photograph it.


I understand that Laurel Falls is considered one of the jewels of the park but it definitely could be a much better experience and I'm surprised the tourism literature and guide books talk it up as much as they do considering how poorly designed the trail is and the chronic overcrowding. Nonetheless I can now check it off my list. I've now knocked off most of the very highly visited attractions of the park so I can resume my exploration of the less visited spots and not have to put up with paved trails and crowds as much, although you never truly get away from that issue in GSMNP. Still, it's a beautiful place and any day in the park is a good day. Since it was a short hike, I had planned on a visit to another short trail that would be less traveled - story to come in a future post!

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