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Is the Laurel Falls Hike Easy? Here’s What You Should Know

laurel falls with bridge in the great smoky mountains

Laurel Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies (photo by Kelly vanDellen/shutterstock.com)

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Laurel Falls has always been one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail features a cascading waterfall with an upper and lower section divided by a walkway that crosses the Laurel Branch stream. Laurel Falls is a scenic destination perfect for those seeking a relatively quick hike out and back from the trailhead. The longest of the park’s four paved trails, the Laurel Falls trail was created to allow access to build a fire tower on Cove Mountain in the early 1930s. However, due to erosion on the popular trail, the trail was graded and paved in 1963. The falls are named for mountain laurel, which is an evergreen shrub that blooms along the trail and near the waterfall in the spring.


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Is Laurel Falls an easy hike?

“It’s graded and paved? Sounds easy,” you might say. “I’m bringing my bike and pets!” Not so fast. This is still a walk in the mountains. The trail is paved at the trailhead, but many portions of the trail are rough and uneven. The pavement does not extend the full length of the trail. In addition, there are short, steep sections and steep drop-offs that can become quite slippery.

a group walks along the path to laurel falls waterfall
The trail is paved at the trailhead but does not extend the entire length of the trail. Laurel Falls is considered to be a moderate hike and is not suitable for wheelchairs or strollers (photo by Janet S. Robbins/shutterstock.com)

How long does it take to hike Laurel Falls?

If you’re just going to the falls and back, as most people do, it’s about 2.6-mile roundtrip hike, or 1.3 miles each way. It is roughly a 2-hour long round trip. The trail does continue past the falls up Cove Mountain, but most hikers don’t venture past the falls. The Park Service grades it as moderate in difficulty. There is 314 feet of elevation gain. So, this ain’t doing laps at the mall. Inexperienced hikers should be prepared for a serious walk. And sorry to rain on your parade, but pets and bikes are expressly prohibited. Also, the trail to Laurel Falls is quite steep and is not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs. 

Does Cades Cove have waterfalls?

Yes, Laurel Falls is one of the waterfalls near Cades Cove. The other is Abrams Falls. Abrams Falls, by contrast, is a relatively short waterfall at 20 feet high. But it moves a massive amount of water. The turnoff for the trailhead is located past stop #10 on the Cades Cove Loop Road. It’s a five-mile round-trip hike to the falls and back. The hike to the falls takes a good three to four hours, so if you opt for Abrams, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time.

a sign for laurel falls trail
The Laurel Falls trailhead is located near the Sugarlands Visitor Center and runs 1.3 miles long each way (photo by Klynn6714/shutterstock.com)

Will I see bears on the Laurel Falls trail?

There are bears nearby. There’s no guarantee, of course, that you will run into a bear, but they are all over that part of the park. It is important to be prepared and follow proper guidelines if you encounter a bear along the trail. For example, in 2010, a bear that had been scavenging trash and food bits left along the trail lost its fear of humans and began to approach them for food. It’s unclear if anyone ever fed the bear directly, but it got used to human presence. Finally, it approached a visitor in search of a handout, and when it didn’t get what it wanted, it bit a hiker. The hiker’s injuries were minor, but the bear had to be put down. 

Is there a bathroom at Laurel Falls trail?

All this talk about bears has got me thinking about what they do in the woods. For us humans, are there bathrooms there? Sadly, the answer is no. There are no human bathrooms at Laurel Falls. It’s best to go beforehand or stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

right in front of laurel falls
You are not supposed to swim at the 80-foot waterfall (photo by Ryhor M Zasinets/shutterstock.com)

Can you swim at Laurel Falls? 

No. The pools are way too shallow for swimming at Laurel Falls. Even if you could, park policy generally warns against swimming near waterfalls. It’s too easy to get pulled under by currents. Park officials also warn against climbing on the falls. The rocks are slippery with mist and algae, so be sure to keep a close eye on children.

“Over the years, several people have [fatally] fallen and many others have suffered serious injuries from climbing on rocks near waterfalls or along the riverbanks,” according to the National Park Service.

Where is the Laurel Falls trailhead located?

From Gatlinburg, take U.S. Highway 441 to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, turning right towards Cades Cove on Little River Road. There are parking areas available near the trailhead, but space is limited.

large group of people in front of laurel falls waterfall
Overcrowding can be a problem at Laurel Falls (media photo courtesy of the NPS)

Do I need reservations for Laurel Falls?

No, not anymore. The NPS launched a pilot program in 2021 to ease congestion at the falls and briefly required a reservation. While that pilot program has ended, Laurel Falls remains one of the most popular trails in the park. The NPS encourages visitors to plan and choose less congested areas to visit during peak periods, which include weekends and holidays. And if you plan on parking at the trailhead, you will need a valid parking pass. The NPS continues to work to cut down on visitors parking on the sides of the road and has now also implemented a paid parking system.

Do I have to pay for Laurel Falls? How much does it cost?

The parking tags will cost $5 daily or $15 weekly. Parking tags will be available for purchase both online and onsite. Guests can also take advantage of shuttle services. Several local companies will offer shuttles to some of the park’s most popular locations in an effort to reduce traffic congestion.

Have you been to Laurel Falls? What did you think? Let us know in the comments. View the web story version of this article here.

5 thoughts on “Is the Laurel Falls Hike Easy? Here’s What You Should Know”

  1. I live close by so I’ve been many times to the falls and beyond. I think the price is too high to
    Pay. Yes the parking situation had got really bad. It’s sad they had to do this. If I wanted to hike again there I would go after October 3rd. They will be doing the other’s the same way too so if you want to hike Alum Cave, RAINBOW FALLS, Grotto FALLS do soon all are a beautiful hike and so is Mount Leconte!

  2. Why doesn’t the National Park invest in creating a bigger parking lot instead of instituting reservations and charging people. There has got to be better way.

  3. I have a “reservation” to park but….I am concerned about the 2 hour limit….due to health issues…I will definitely be taking breaks and moving slowly…What happens if I am not back within 2 hours?


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