A Hidden Gem of Northeast Tennessee: Laurel Fork Falls on the Appalachian Trail

Along the Appalachian Trail near Watauga Lake, Laurel Fork Falls is a stunning waterfall to view but the hike to get there is gonna challenge your fitness.

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
April 30, 2012
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Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
April 30th, 2012
Share story

At Mile 413.8 on the Appalachian Trail, the waters of the Laurel Fork River spill over a 55′ drop into a shallow, calm pool at the bottom. This beautiful, serene hidden gem is located deep in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee near Elizabethton and Watauga Lake. It is fairly easy to access, but mostly left undiscovered to hordes of visitors. The big question is: will you make the journey to see this majestic beauty?

You can hike to Laurel Fork Falls from two locations: Dennis Cove Road or Watauga Lake. Each will have a great level of difficulty and will require a person in pretty good shape to successfully finish this hike, although hiking from Dennis Cove Road is the easiest of the two options. Both of these access points are about 10 minutes from Hampton, 25 minutes from Elizabethton, and 45 minutes from the Tri-Cities region of Northeast Tennessee.

You can access the waterfall from a small parking area along Highway 321 at Watauga Lake. This parking area is fairly large, but even if this area is full during peak hiking seasons you can also park across the highway next to the lake. From this parking area you will face a rigorous 7.7-mile hike to the waterfall. This hike begins with a climb of about 1,800′ in the first three miles to cross a mountain top before dipping down almost 2,000′ toward the waterfall. If you are in good shape and carrying little weight, this 15-mile roundtrip trek will take a full day.

A wooden bridge crosses the Laurel Forks River facing a towering rock wall near Mile 413 on the Appalachian Trail near the Laurel Gorge in TN on Friday, April 27, 2012. Copyright 2012 Jason Barnette

This may look a bit rickety (or a lot) but it’s solid and fun to cross over the Laurel Fork River!

The easier way to access the waterfall is from Dennis Cove Road. As you drive through Hampton on Highway 321, look for a small two-lane road to break off to the right (Dennis Cove Road). Follow this narrow road along a curvy and mountainous path for a few miles. You will come across a small parking area on the left that provides you access to the AT. From here, it is a short 1.2-mile hike to the waterfall. At first, the AT follows the path of an old railroad line so the trail is flat, wide, and easy to walk. You’ll cross a beautiful (albeit rickety) footbridge crossing the Laurel Fork River, pass through a narrow rocky area strewn with boulders, and finally hear the raging waterfall far below. This is the tricky part: you will find yourself at the top of a massive, long flight of stone stairs created with boulders and large rocks. You have to climb down about 300′ in elevation in a very short distance before reaching the bottom of the Laurel Fork Falls. The climb down can be slippery (I slipped once, snapped a trekking pole in half, but fortunately only skinned my shins). The worst part is the climb back up; this part along took me 45 minutes (the entire trip from Dennis Cove takes about 1-3 hours).

Whichever way you decide to hike, you will eventually be rewarded with a view of the massive Laurel Fork Falls. If you really want to catch this site at a good time, wait until about a week after some heavy thunderstorms roll through the area. This will ensure a massive amount of water spilling over the falls. The area at the bottom is very wide, flat, and offers a few places for people to catch their breath, enjoy a snack or full-blown picnic, and even let the dogs loose!

Laurel Fork Falls is a beautiful site, a fantastic hidden gem, one of the many splendid wonders of Northeast Tennessee. It is a vigorous outdoor challenge to get here which, at the very least, will give you a sense of personal pride once you return home and your lungs, legs, and feet stop aching. It is quiet. Nature is in abundance. It is something not everyone will see. Will you?

If you want to view more photos of Laurel Fork Falls and the Appalachian Trail, please visit my photography website at http://photography.southeasterntraveler.com/National-Parks/Appalachian-Trail/

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