Laurel Falls – January Thaw 2014 Hike


Here is some good advice. If a rare photo opportunity becomes available, take it. In fact, jump all over it. This past week, most of the eastern US suffered through the frigid, bone chilling effects of what has become known as the 2014 Polar Vortex. This rare event occurs when part of the extreme cold air circulating around the North Pole breaks off and heads south and east via strong jet stream winds. The end result is some of the coldest air in at least 20 years. Just 5 days ago in the small town of Elk Park, NC, the location of Elk River Falls, the temperature dipped to -14 degrees. The entire area was sitting between -10 and -14, just amazingly cold temperatures for this far south. Pictures of frozen waterfalls began to appear all over the social media scene. Unfortunately for me, work would not allow me to break away for a short while.

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Laurel Falls – One of Eastern Tennessee’s Finest


It is now the middle of October, and I am in the mountains to see some color. Leaving the triad on US 421, it is painfully obvious that many others have this same idea. Once we got to Boone, it seemed everyone kind of dispersed and went their own way. I wanted to visit the Roan Mountain area, so I chose a route that used US 421 to Boone and then US 321 to cross into Tennessee and then to Hampton. Between Boone and Hampton, are 3 fine waterfalls that I know of: Trash Can Falls on the NC side, Compression Falls off of Poga Rd, and finally Laurel Falls in the Hampton area. The first stop is Trash Can Falls. This one is very easy to miss, as there are no signs. As US 321 runs north with the Watauga river to it’s right, there is a large pull off to the right. At the far north end of the pull-out is a small path that begins on the other side of the highway. This leads you maybe 1/10 of a mile just up a small creek and gorge to the waterfall and pool known as Trash Can Falls. Trashy name, nice waterfall, and a local favorite swimming hole in the summer.

After this short pit stop, the road twists and turns into Tennessee. Not far into the state, you will cross the Elk River and Poga Rd. I did not visit it on this day, but a few miles up Poga, is a barn that you park at to see Compression Falls. This is one of my favorites, but a beast to get to, even though it is only 0.7 miles. The descent down the river bank and gorge is unmatched as far as difficulty. More people get injured at this one than any others in the area. Here is a shot from a previous trip.

Anyway, the next thing you will notice is the beautiful Watauga Lake, fed by the Elk and Watauga Rivers. With the colors at their peaks, it was a pretty drive along the lake. Once past the Lake, the Hampton area is soon up. As you pull into Hampton, there is a pull off and parking area for Laurel Falls. Drive right on pas it. There is a shorter, flatter, alternate way. About 1/4 past this, is Dennis Cove Rd, a narrow, newly paved road. Take this left, it will twist and climb about 4 miles to the Appalachian Trail Crossing. This is the parking area. The trailhead for the waterfall starts here. Just follow the white rectangular blazed AT about 1.3 miles, right to the waterfall. The first mile or so is about as flat as a mountain trail can be. I later learned that this used to be a railroad track, kind of explains the flatness. After crossing a neat footbridge, the trail winds a short ways through some rock passages and then the sign….

From here, the AT makes a long descent down into the gorge. The trail is largely rock steps, but big ones. It is a pain to get down and some good huffing and puffing back out. Once down there, you are at one of Eastern Tennesse’s better waterfalls, Laurel Falls, 55 feet high.

If you look close enough, you can see 3 people who were unwisely playing around on the top. This is how people fall and get seriously injured or worse, die. The water was fairly low on this day and the whole gorge was in shade. Here is a shot from my last trip here when the water was significantly higher..

It was beautiful on both days, I would say go early for better lighting and preferably after recent rain. After the tough climb out, it was a nice flat walk back and off to Roan Mountain we went, only to learn that Roan High Bluff closed on October 1, and we did not have the time to make the long hike. That is how it goes sometimes, so we headed back into NC and caught a few shots of Grandfather Mountain before heading home.

Here is the EveryTrail Map of the Laurel Falls Hike, total was 2.6 miles out and back.

Cool Footbridge with some nice fall colors

Nice flat trail, following an old railroad bed

Looks like they will need a new tree to paint the AT Blaze on!

Laurel Falls & The Coldest Day In June I Have Ever Spent

Laurel Falls by waterfallshiker
Laurel Falls, a photo by waterfallshiker on Flickr.
The day was set to photograph and hike the Balds of Roan Mountain. It is Rhododendron time and there is no finer place to view the Catawba Rhododendrons than Roan Mountain in early June. I had it from a good source that they had been blooming and were ready. Little did I know that the cold front passing through on Friday night would leave Roan Mountain with temps in the upper 30’s for Saturday morning, along with winds easily in the 30-40 mph zone and a thick fog to top things off. On top of that, the rhododendrons are not peaked as of June 2. They are beautiful, stunning in a few areas , but still a week from peak.
The forecast for Roan Mountain on this day was sunshine and a high of about 67. This a cool day for this time of year. Little did I know that this forecast applied to the town of Roan Mountain at about 3000 feet, not the peaks of Roan Mountain at 6200 ft where the temps never climbed out of the mid 40’s. This required winter gear in June. I wasn’t quite ready for that. With this mind, I decided to abort my sunrise hike and opt for some hot breakfast and coffee. I decided that the cloudy morning would be better suited for waterfalls viewing, at lower, warmer elevations. I was within moments of Elk Falls, a waterfall I have spent considerable time at. I have been exploring other waterfalls in East Tennessee recently and one called Laurel Falls was on the short list? When I saw how close it was, It was a no-brainer.
There are two options of getting to this waterfall, one is right along Hwy 321 just out of Hampton. The other, the one I took, was a 4 mile ride up a very twisty, curvy Dennis Cove Rd. The parking is on the left , and the Appalachian Trail crosses the road here. The trail to the falls follows the AT the entire 1.2miles with the first mile being nearly flat. It follows along the Laurel Fork most of the way and there is a really cool half foot bridge that crosses it.
Then comes the sign with the white squares and a left arrow. Here is where the trail goes down and the workout begins. It is fairly steep for quite a distance, but rocks are placed in steps to make it as easy as possible. The real fun is coming back up……need I say more?
Once at the waterfall, I was taken away by the beauty and size of this thing. There is a high mountain peak directly behind the waterfall straight up. With the sun going in and out, I had difficulty photographing this one. For the icing on the cake, all of my photos on my DSLR got lost while transferring to my iPad. All I have to go on now are the few shots I took with my Iphone for EveryTrail. I did stay at the falls and enjoyed of the waterfall, which had a nice, full water flow to it today. I had a great conversation with a thru-hiker named “Tumbleweed”. He, at age 74 reminded me that at my young age of 42, I still had time to hike it. He was quite a character.
In closing, nothing really went according to plan today. It was the absolute coldest day I have ever lived through in the month of June. I lost over 100 photos from the waterfall and Roan High Bluff, and the Balds. With this in mind, I still had an excellent day, hiked around 8 miles and can not wait to go back. The rhododendrons should be 100% blooming next week?