By Jeremy Patton
Laurel Falls is located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Sevier County, Tennessee.
From Gatlinburg, drive south on U.S. 441 for about 1.5 miles then turn right onto Fighting Creek Gap Road. Continue for about 3.5 miles then park at the Laurel Falls Trailhead. It is adequately marked and ample parking is available.
Before describing the hike, I will give you the most important information first (other than safety information): This is a heavily visited waterfall. Go early, at dawn if possible. If you wait too late, you will encounter hundreds of people.
Shane, Angie and I waited too late on 6/11/17. We decided to spend the early hours in Cades Cove (which turned out to be my least favorite destination). We knew that the trail would be packed at midday, but we could only do so much in one morning.
The waterfall was clogged with tourists, about 50-100 at any given time. Screaming kids were everywhere. It was hard to find a spot to relax without someone being on top of you. It was impossible to enjoy.
When we drove by the trailhead on our way to Cades Cove, before 10:00 a.m., we only saw five vehicles. When we returned that evening, the parking lot was full and vehicles overflowed to the roadside.
Timing is crucial.
The trail is 2.6 miles round-trip. It is moderately difficult due to a steady incline. Thanks to the high elevation, several jaw-dropping overlooks are visible, even during summer. The entire path is paved to reduce erosion.
Laurel Falls Trail is dangerous. As you get closer to the waterfall, Laurel Branch carves a steep gorge, perhaps a few hundred feet high in sections. The trail hugs the cliff and the drop-offs are sheer. In my opinion, this is not a safe place for children (fatalities have occurred). Taking strollers or wheelchairs here would also be a terrible idea.
Several unofficial paths were worn on the hillsides, created by inconsiderate hikers who took shortcuts. Please do not go off-trail in this area. The herds have trampled plant life and created a barren, muddy mess.
According to the park service, Laurel Falls is 80 feet high. It has an upper and lower tier, with a footbridge splitting it in the middle.
In an attempt to get some peace, we boulder-hopped farther downstream. A few pretty cascades lived there, but I do not recommend it because the boulders are slick. Explore carefully.
Laurel Falls is beautiful and worth the effort. But again, timing will determine if you enjoy your experience. The ideal time would be in the morning, on a weekday, during winter.