Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a series of five hikes that are available around our region. Hiking is a fun, safe way to get outdoors and get some exercise, especially during this time of social distancing.
If you’ve been following along with this series for the past month, you’ve now reached the end of the proverbial trail.
Or have you? For many folks, Laurel Fork Falls is the final destination at the end of a relatively short journey. As popular as this waterfall is, however, there is much more to see for those who are willing to continue upstream.
If you choose Upper Laurel Fork Falls as your destination, you’ll pass through a lovely series of meadows and end up at a secluded spot where water pours out of a cleft in the rocks. And there’s always the option to go even further into the quiet wilderness that lie beyond the roaring water.
The description below is not exhaustive. A couple good resources to learn more include www.alltrails.com, and a local site by former Milligan College professor Mark Peacock, www.appalachiantreks.blogspot.com. Alltrails includes a free app that provides detailed maps and has articles on most hikes in this region, and Appalachian Treks’ descriptions, including directions, are excellent as well. And be sure to look up the “10 essentials” so you can hit the trail prepared.
Upper Laurel Falls
(Carter County, TN)
Getting There: Take U.S. 19-E from Elizabethton toward Roan Mountain. Turn left on U.S. 321 at Hampton, then turn right on Dennis Cove Road. Climb steeply then descend into Dennis Cove. Pass the Dennis Cove Campground on the right and continue until the road becomes gravel. At 1.1 miles after the gravel begins, at the top of a hill, turn right on a gated forest service road. Proceed 2.2 miles (it will seem longer) to the dead end turnaround and park. Not recommended for low-clearance vehicles.
Distance: About 1.3 miles to falls. But the blue-blazed “Trail 39” continues upstream for another 3.6 miles to Walnut Mountain Road.
How Strenuous: Moderate (easy if not for numerous creek crossings).
Parking: Space is available for a number of cars near the trailhead and also along the road leading to it. Parking is rarely full.
Special Considerations: Numerous creek crossings. Prepare for wet feet or bring waterproof boots. During low water in fall most or all crossings can be rock-hopped.
This relatively easy hike is a hidden gem. Laurel Fork is the Doe River’s main tributary and cuts through some beautiful, rugged, remote country before joining the Doe at Hampton. It also boasts one of the region’s most iconic, most visited waterfalls.
Upstream of Laurel Fork Falls, though, upstream of Dennis Cove Campground, upstream of the mysteriously named series of meadows “Frog Level” – past probably 95 percent of the stream’s hiking traffic, in other words – lies “Upper Laurel Fork.”
For those willing to drive some rough forest service roads and cross the stream a few times, Upper Laurel Fork offers unmatched solitude. Start out where Firescald Branch tumbles down toward its confluence with Laurel Fork. Take a short side trip up the left side of the branch to see several pretty falls and cataracts tumbling down what appears to be a bed of granite.
After three stream crossings, Laurel Fork appears on the right. A sign leads hikers left toward the Lacy Trap Trail and also upstream on the Laurel Fork Trail. Turn left and spend a quarter mile or more passing through the Frog Level meadows. Goldfinches may swoop overhead, and Joe Pye and Ironweed abound in late summer and early fall. Leave the meadow just past the Lacy Trap junction and enter a rhododendron tunnel with the creek on the right.
The watershed is broad here but the woods are deep, with birch, poplar, maple and other hardwoods forming a colorful canopy. After a wide crossing about one mile from the parking area, the trail climbs slightly, leaving the creek below where it rushes noisily through a small gorge.
The payoff: At the end of the gorge the water gets loudest and Upper Laurel Fork Falls tumbles through a cleft in the rock. Hikers will have exerted themselves minimally for this treat. Be careful clambering down the short bank to get the best view as the rocks tend to be slick. The Firescald Branch spur trail is well worth it, too. The trail continues to be lovely, quiet and inviting in the miles upstream of the falls, with almost no climbing.