Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Laurel Falls, and others along Little River Road, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, near Gatlinburg, Tennessee

9/13/2016 -  Laurel Falls

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking Location:  35.67817   -83.58030,  2317 ft.
  Laurel Falls:  35.67770   -83.59320,  2648 ft.
  Mannis Branch Falls:  35.66220   -83.66030
  The Sinks:  35.66922   -83.66239
  Meigs Falls:  35.66890   -83.67501
  Upper Meigs Falls:  35.66001   -83.65964
  Cane Creek Twin Falls:  35.67450   -83.69261
  Meadow Branch Falls:  35.65216   -83.71312
  West Prong Falls:  35.65379   -83.70955
Pet Friendly: No, unfortunately, the NPS is anti-dog.  This area is within the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  Pets are allowed on only two trails within GSMNP, and this is not one of them. 

Motorcycle Friendly: Yes; the parking locations are right on the paved Little River Road, a very windy, very cool motorcycle road in its own right.  In fact, as popular as Laurel Falls is, the parking spaces are generally in use and it is much easier to find a slot for a motorcycle closer to the trailhead.

Hiking Statistics:  Laurel Falls is an easy hike, at least to the top of the falls.  It is 1.3 miles each way and the highest-to-lowest elevation change is only 360 feet.  Our actual hiking time was only about a half hour each way.  I would rate this an easy hike.  The climb to the base of the lower waterfall is a little iffy.  The other waterfalls are very short bushwhacks directly from the Little River Road.

GPS files (.gpx format) 
  Great Smokey Mountains National Park waypoints - contains waypoints for 89 waterfalls in and around the GSMNP.

Laurel Falls (80 ft)
The Great Smokey Mountains National Park (GSMNP) has over 150 maintained trails, with over 800 miles of trail.  All of it is beautiful scenery, but Bethany and I had a limited amount of time to spend in the park, so I naturally gravitated toward the waterfalls and caves.  When we went around the Roaring Fork Nature Loop it was raining, so we noted the trailheads for waterfall hikes and vowed to come back to them.  We did have good hiking weather when we explored the Little River Road and Cades Cove, so we stopped along the way to stretch our legs a little.  The Smokies have had a very dry summer, so we didn't know what to expect.  I had done my homework and mapped out oodles of waterfalls within the park.  The NPS only has ten waterfalls along hiking trails listed in the literature you can pick up at the visitor centers, but a little research turned up several dozen more.  Some of these require a little bushwhacking, but nothing a country boy from the Ozarks can't handle.  This has been a National Park since 1934, so the forest is very mature.  I just wasn't sure what kind of flow there would be on some of the minor tributaries, and whether it would be worth the hike this time of year.

Laurel Falls was the first stop for us.  We had driven by the trailhead yesterday on our way to Cades Cove and had noticed the very crowded parking on the side of the road.  Today, we arrived fairly early in the morning on a Tuesday during the 'slack' season and there were already a half-dozen vehicles parked at the trailhead.  To get there from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, go 3.8 miles down Little River Road toward Cades Cove.  There are a few parking spots on both sides of the road, but this is one of the most popular hikes in the park.  There was still plenty of parking when we got there, but by the time we returned people were having to park quite a ways down the road.

Really rough hiking here...
The hike to Laurel Falls is very easy and very pleasant.  This is such a popular hike, the NPS has paved the trail all the way to Laurel Falls.  We saw a couple of strollers being pushed on the hike back.  I know, I know - it's hard to maintain any 'trail cred' as an avid hiker when babies are being pushed down the trail you are on.  I was somewhat surprised at the number of people we passed on the way down that were huffing and puffing and asking "are we there yet?"  I'll still maintain that anyone can do this hike.  Little kids have no problem with it, and I saw one girl with a foot brace that was doing just fine.  The hike is only 2.5 miles round trip, and the 360-foot elevation gain is spaced out over most of the hike with few ups-and-downs in between.  It is uphill going to the waterfall, so you get to coast going back down.  Laurel Falls is beautiful, even with the lower than normal flow.  The trail goes to the upper half of the fall, and all of the folks that we saw there today only went that far.  Except me, of course.  I have to explore a little, so I worked my way down to the lower half of the waterfall as well.

The Laurel Falls Trail actually goes for four miles altogether.  After you cross the footbridge at the bottom of the upper waterfall, it continues for another 2.7 miles.  It is only paved to Laurel Falls, but the trail beyond that is maintained and is a heck of a lot better than my normal bushwhacks.  If you go .75 miles beyond the falls, you will be in one of only three areas of old growth forest within the park.  Mind you, the rest of the park has not been logged since well before 1934, so "old growth" means really old, really big trees.  Just a few yards beyond Laurel Falls on the trail, there is a spot where you can pick your way down to the base of the lower part of the falls.   Today, it was very nice, but I could envision how it would look with a full head of flow.  I'll definitely need to come back in wetter times.

The Sinks
Continuing down the Little River Road, we decided to skip Mannis Branch Falls since it was in a smaller tributary creek, and we headed directly to The Sinks.  I have no idea where the name came from, as a 'sink' is typically a depression that water flows into and drains down below.  The Sinks is right along Little River Road, 12 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center (8.2 miles from the Laurel Falls trailhead).  It is not very tall, only about a 12-foot drop, but it is right on Little River and will have the full flow of the river going over it.  It is a popular swimming hole, and a few yards downstream there is a deep hole that you can jump off the cliff into.  From the small parking lot, you can hike down to the base of the falls.  Watch your step as it is a somewhat steep and rugged climb.

Meigs Falls
Another mile west down Little River Road from The Sinks (13 miles from Sugarland), you will find another long parking pull-off on the left (south).  Park here for Meigs Falls.  This waterfall can be seen from Little River Road, but since the road takes all your attention with its winds and curves, it is easy to miss if you don't know it is there.  It is about 130 yards from the parking pull-off, on Meigs Creek.  Although Meigs Creek is another tributary to Little River, it is a fairly large one and had a decent amount of flow today.  It was not nearly as nice as photos I have seen of it, but still very nice.  Little River flows next to the road and you have to cross it to get to Meigs Falls.  Either wear water shoes or take your boots off when you cross.  I misjudged the depth of Little River and ended up in water knee deep with flooded boots.  

Small waterfall above Meigs Falls
To the right of Meigs Falls, there is a route to the top of the falls.  It is very steep and very treacherous, so be careful if you make the climb.  At the top of Meigs Falls are two smaller waterfalls.  There is another waterfall, Upper Meigs Falls, over a mile upstream from Meigs Falls.  I noticed it on the GPS while at Meigs Falls and remembered that this was one I wanted to check out - but not by bushwhacking upstream.  While you are at The Sinks, look for a trail leaving  the parking area called Meigs Creek Trail.  This will take you right past Upper Meigs Creek Falls.  Today, given that we had already been to The Sinks and flow wasn't all that good in the creek, we decided to forgo that hike this time and head on down the river.

West Prong Falls
Continuing downstream along the Little River Road, we stopped to check out Caney Creek Twin Falls and found its little tributary creek dry.  Further downstream, at the intersection of Highway 73, Little River Road turns into Cades Cove Road.  The Little River flows north along Highway 73, and Laurel Creek flows into Little River at this junction.  Cades Cove Road follows Laurel Creek upstream toward Cades Cove.  Don't be confused by the name;  Laurel Creek is several miles from Laurel Falls, which is on a creek called Laurel Branch.  Its seems like the pioneers that named creeks and hollows in the Ozarks learned from their cousins in the Smokies.  

Laurel Falls - with Rick and Bethany
About a half mile from the Highway 73 junction is a small waterfall right on Laurel Creek called West Prong Falls.  Laurel Creek is a fairly good sized creek, so it had some flow, but not a whole lot.  Further upstream another half mile, the Meadow Branch Cascade was basically dry.  At this point, we decided to call it quits on our waterfall chasing for the day.  While wetter conditions would have been nice, it is always great to get out in the woods and do a little hiking.  Great Smokey National Park is one of the prettiest parks in America.  It is by far the most visited of all our National Parks, with about 10 million plus visitors every year.  I can see why.  Bethany and I are already planning a return trip to take in fall colors next year, and hopefully some better-flowing waterfalls.

1 comment:

  1. Love seeing the posts from other areas too. I'm laughing at the paved trail comments though because hiking 8 miles on some of these pave NPS trails vs 8 miles of bushwhacking through Arkansas Wilderness is a completely different (although equally beautiful) experience.