foot trails

The hidden gems of Upper Laurel Fork

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If you’re an East Tennessee hiker, odds are you’ve visited the majestic Laurel Falls in Carter County. At 40 feet tall and 50 feet wide, it is one of the largest and most picturesque waterfalls this side of the Smokies. Given that it is also easily accessible via the Appalachian Trail, it gets thousands of visits per year, making it the most popular waterfall destination in the region.

But what most hikers are entirely unaware of is that just a few miles upstream from the famed Laurel Falls, there is an overabundance of beauty that few people rarely see. In the upper Laurel Fork valley, there are four more waterfalls, endless cascades, serene swimming holes, and beautiful open, mountain meadows — all in a large contrast of seclusion compared to the prominent hike downstream.

So why don’t people explore upper Laurel Fork more often?

The reason is simple…it is difficult and remote. There are no bridges on the trails, and the trekking requires numerous water crossings. At certain times of year, these crossings could be dangerous, or in extreme, wet weather, even impossible. With little foot traffic on these trails, they can also become overgrown with underbrush.

So this is not your typical Sunday-afternoon family hike. But if you’re adventurous and looking for something away from the crowds, this trek might be for you.

Water levels and water temperatures are a primary concern considering the numerous stream crossings. You will undoubtedly get your feet wet. With this being the case, late summer or early autumn is the perfect time to go. The stream should typically be at low levels, while warm enough to not be unpleasant.

GETTING THERE

From Route 67/321 in the town of Hampton, Tennessee, take Dennis Cove Road for 4.7 miles to a large, gravel parking lot on the left, which will accommodate multiple vehicles. This lot is immediately prior to the newly constructed John Paul Mathes Memorial Bridge, and the Dennis Cove Camp- ground.

Across the road you will see trail signage for Cherokee National Forest Trail No. 39. Follow this path, heading upstream on the grade that was once the historic Laurel Fork Railway, dating back to the early part of the 20th century.

TRAIL HIGHLIGHTS & DIRECTIONS

Note: Mileages include the spur trails

Mile 0.5 — You will make the first of three, back-to-back-to-back stream crossings. Trekking poles will help tremendously to stabilize you in the stream. These three fords are the most difficult of the entire hike, so if you are able to navigate the crossings here, everything upstream will be much easier. Between the second and third crossings, you will also pass through a beautiful ravine-like area carved out by the railroad.

Mile 1.0 — Notice a spur trail heading down toward the stream on your right. This is somewhat overgrown, but immediately leads to Lower Dennis Cove Falls — a small, cascading waterfall that spills into a beautiful swimming hole. Return from the spur trail and continue upstream, where you will come to a rock outcropping with a narrow ledge. There is some handhold hiking here with a small tree to grasp, but nothing overly hazardous.

Mile 1.2 — Almost immediately following the rock outcropping you will see another unmarked spur trail heading down to the right. This leads to Dennis Cove Falls. This 25-foot waterfall is a stunning, two-tiered display that empties from two separate locations into a large and scenic swimming hole. Huge boulders encompass the entire area, making it the perfect spot for a summer swim.

Mile 2.3 — Continue on upstream, where the numerous creek fords are less difficult, but the trail itself becomes more rugged and remote. Here, you will reach the first meadow at “Frog Level.” Blazes often disappear in these open fields, and sometimes it is not easy to make out the trail. So, when the trail emerges at the first open field, carry on in a straight line across the meadow, and you will see the path head into the forest near the far-left corner. At the second field, also progress in a straight line and the trail will resume again into the adjacent forest. After another stream ford, you will finally come to the third open meadow. Again, keep going straight, all the way to the end of the field, where there is a junction with the Lacy Trap Trail.

Mile 3.1 — The Lacy Trap Trail will join from the right at a small pond. Continue straight on the Laurel Fork Trail, leaving the meadows, and immediately making another stream crossing.

Mile 3.8 — Arrive at Upper Laurel Fork Falls. You will be able to hear the falling water on your left as you approach this area. There is a short trail leading down to the base of this spectacular 25-foot waterfall, but it requires caution as it is very steep and slippery.

Mile 4.4 — Campbell Falls is on your left and faces away from the trail, making it difficult to see without working your way across the muddy pool at its base. However, the trail extends to the top of the waterfall, offering a nice view from above.

In total, there are fourteen stream crossings (twenty-eight round-trip) if you make the nine-mile out-and-back from Dennis Cove Campground to Campbell Falls.

There is an option to cut this hike short by driving directly to Frog Level and setting out from there, but I definitely recommend a high clearance or AWD vehicle to do that.

In order to get to Frog Level by road, continue on Dennis Cove Road for another 1.75 miles past the campground (soon turning to gravel) where there will be an unmarked forest service road on your right. This is a gated road, but it is normally open in the summer/fall months. Take this gravel road another 2.1 miles to Frog Level, where there is a large parking area. From here you will see where the road crosses a small creek, but it is gated, so you will need to walk to the open meadows from this gate, where you will also meet up with the Laurel Fork Trail.

For mor information on hiking in the Upper Laurel Fork Valley, contact Bill Fuller at HikingBill.com.

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