By Michael Williams
Laurel Falls is the most popular hiking trail in the Smokies. During peak season, as many as 1,500 visitors hike the trail daily. Their destination is a magnificent 80 foot waterfall cascading over rocks down into a pool at the base of the falls.
The hike to the trail is 1.2 miles on a paved track that is in dire need of repair. According to Mike Howard, a volunteer with the Great Smoky Mountain Park Service, the condition of the track has made the hike difficult for people in wheelchairs and hikers pushing a stroller.
The trail hugs the mountain on one side and has steep drop-offs to the other side. Unusual rock formations and oddly shaped trees, carved by water erosion over the millennia, dot the trail leading to the falls.
The trail is ideal for photographers who will be mesmerized by the scenic beauty of the mountain vistas. Hikers may catch a fleeting glimpse of various wildlife, including deer, turkey, rabbits and bears. Howard warns hikers not to approach the wildlife, but rather to admire them from afar. Bears typically avoid confrontations with humans, but can become aggressive if humans get too close and attempt to come in contact with them.
The waterfall is actually two parts, each measuring 40 feet in length. From the trail hikers can look up at the upper half. They can access the lower half of the falls by climbing down some rocks and down a treacherous trail. Park officials discourage taking the lower trail because of the dangers involved.
“There is poison ivy down there as well as snakes and scorpions,” said Howard. “We can’t stop people from taking the trail but we don’t suggest it.”
Howard said the trail is less crowded in the winter and more magnificent to behold with the snow on the trail and the icicles that form along the bridge and the rocks. But, Howard cautions that hikers should take special precautions during the winter months.