How long does it take to hike to Laurel Falls? Do you have to pay?

Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies (Weidman Photography/shutterstock)

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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 which 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 originally created to allow access to build a fire tower on Cove Mountain in the early 1930s. Due to erosion on the popular trail, the trail was graded and paved in 1963.

Read Also: The 5 best kept secret waterfall spots in the Smoky Mountains

The trail is paved at the trailhead, but does not extend the entire trail. Laurel Falls is considered to be a moderate hike and is not suitable for wheelchairs or strollers (Janet S. Robbins/shutterstock)

Is Laurel Falls an easy hike?

“It’s graded and paved? Sounds easy,” you 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 the pavement is rough and uneven and 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.

The Park Service grades it as moderate in difficulty. And there is a 314 feet of elevation gain. 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. 

The Laurel Falls trailhead is located near the Sugarlands Visitor Center and runs 1.3 miles long each way (Klynn6714/shutterstock)

How long does it take to hike to Laurel Falls?

If you’re just going to the falls and back, as most people do, it’s about 2.6 miles (1.3 miles each way) and is a roughly 2-hour long round trip.

The trail does continue past the falls up Cove Mountain, but most hikers don’t venture past the falls. 

Will I see bears on the Laurel Falls trail?

Absolutely, 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. 

Read Also: What to do if you see a black bear: These 3 tips might surprise you

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, 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?

Speaking of which, are there bathrooms at Laurel Falls?

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.  

You are not supposed to swim at Laurel Falls (Ryhor M Zasinets/shutterstock)

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. 

“Over the years, several people have fallen to their deaths and many others have suffered serious injuries from climbing on rocks near waterfalls or along the riverbanks,” according to the Park Service. “These rocks are slippery due to mist and algae.”

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. Parking is available near the trailhead but is limited.

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

At the time of this writing, you do not have to pay to go to Laurel Falls, reservations are not required and parking is free.

Last fall, from Sept. 7 to Oct. 3, 2021 the National Park Service conducted a pilot program at the site to limit congestion. The program limited on-site parking to only those who made reservations through www.recreation.gov.

Shuttles were also available from Gatlinburg to the trailhead – for a fee.

The program has since ended. And there is currently no word about whether or not they will bring it back.

Have you been to Laurel Falls? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at info@thesmokies.com for questions or comments.

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5 thoughts on “How long does it take to hike to Laurel Falls? Do you have to pay?”

  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’m a two time Widowmaker heart survivor, and enjoyed this hike very much with family.

  4. 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?

  5. Hi Bill, that is a great question. Recreation.gov only says, “Vehicles must exit the parking lot 2 hours after the start time shown on the reservation.” However, if you take a ride with Rocky Top Tours, they offer rides every 30 minutes, which may offer you a little more flexibility. You can make a reservation online, and if you go the day of, note that it is cash only. You can find more information here: https://www.rockytoptours.com/shuttles-to-laurel-falls-smoky-mountains/

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