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Hiking to Laurel Fork Falls on the Appalachian Trail in Northeast Tennessee

Learn about hiking to Laurel Fork Falls, a spectacular waterfall on the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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Hidden in a small gorge an hour from Johnson City, water crashes over the 40′-tall, 50′-wide Laurel Fork Falls. It’s easy to hike to the waterfall – and you have two options. The easiest route is the longest, and the shortest route features a rickety footbridge carved from a fallen tree.

Which way will you go?

Laurel Fork Falls – interchangeably called Laurel Falls – is about a 2-hour day trip excursion on the Appalachian Trail. But with a nearby shelter, it could easily become a weekend getaway and a chance to sit at the base of a thunderous waterfall. You’ll likely have the entire place to yourself.

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Packing Essentials

Before hitting the Appalachian Trail to Laurel Fork Falls, consider packing these essential items to make the most of your trip:


Parking at the Laurel Fork Falls Trailhead

Hiking to Laurel Fork Falls is an exciting day trip adventure. But first, you must find the waterfall.

The drive begins at Exit 24 on Interstate 26 in Johnson City. Take U.S. Highway 321 toward Elizabethton – a small mountain city with roots in the American Revolution as the Overmountain Men marched toward Kings Mountain and one of the most significant battles of the Revolutionary War.

After passing through the town – keep an eye out for the 134-foot Elizabethton Covered Bridge over the Doe River – take U.S. Highway 321/19E toward Roan Mountain. After a few minutes, turn left to continue on 321 in Hampton.

READ MORE: 10 Places for Epic Adventures in Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee

Continue just a few minutes along the two-lane road. You’re almost there as soon as you see more trees along the road than houses. The small gravel parking area is wonderfully covered in shade, making it easy to miss. If you see Watauga Lake on the left – and especially if you see the Shook Branch Picnic Area – you’ve gone too far.

The Laurel Fork Falls Trailhead begins at the edge of the gravel parking lot. It’s a short spur trail connecting to the Appalachian Trail and continuing to Laurel Fork Falls. Parking is free and relatively safe – but don’t leave any valuables in your car.


Parking at the Dennis Cove Trailhead

Following the same route from the interstate to Hampton, turn right onto Dennis Cove Road beside a bank. The two-lane road winds and twists along the slope of Black Mountain. It will take about 10-15 minutes to drive the 4 miles to the gravel parking area on the left side of the road.

This parking area is much smaller than the one at the Laurel Fork Falls Trailhead. There is space for maybe 4 cars to park at once.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail to Laurel Fork Falls

Hiking the Appalachian Trail to Laurel Fork Falls is like a Choose Your Own Adventure children’s book: do you hike from the top or the bottom to the waterfall?

The 4.6-mile out-and-back hike from the Laurel Fork Falls Trailhead is the longer option but also the easiest. The trail ascends into the Laurel Gorge from the parking area with about 600′ of elevation change. The most difficult part of the trail is a quick one-hundred-foot descent after crossing a knob.

The 2.5-mile out-and-back hike from Dennis Cove is mostly level, convincing you it will be an easy hike, but suddenly you have a 300-foot descent in the last quarter mile. There is an old saying about hiking the Appalachian Trail, “What goes down must go back up again.”


READ MORE: 20 Things to Do in Johnson City – The Hub of Northeast Tennessee

The hike from Dennis Cover features something – terrifyingly exciting. The trail parallels Laurel Fork Creek most of the way. About two-thirds of the way to the waterfall, the Appalachian Trail crosses the creek along a three-section rickety wooden footbridge. The end sections are carved from fallen trees and sport railings unlikely to support anyone if they slip. The center section is milled lumber and is certainly the more stable. Each section is supported in the middle by two towers of river stone and mortar built long ago by a trail crew.

Both routes meet on the Appalachian Trail high above Laurel Fork Falls. The final descent is along a series of stone steps on the gorge’s wall to the waterfall’s base. The tall, wide, thundering Laurel Fork Falls. Suddenly, whichever route you took, the hike didn’t seem all that bad.

Just remember that on the way back to your car.


Spending Time at Laurel Fork Falls

The gravest mistake of many adventurers is not spending enough time at their destination. Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have a mission to accomplish and a set number of miles to hike before sunset. But if you’re a weekend adventurer out for a day hike, take some time to enjoy the splendor of Laurel Fork Falls.

Take a camping chair if you dare to carry the extra weight. A Coleman Portable Camping Chair can work in a pinch, but you’ll have to lug the 8.2 pounds on some steep climbs. The best option for a chair is the Helinox Ultralight – the chair folds down to just 14 inches tall and weighs only 1 pound, 2 ounces.

READ MORE: Appalachian Trail Days Festival in Damascus, Virginia

Even better – take an ENO SingleNest Hammock. The packable nylon hammock weighs just 16 ounces and requires about as much room in a backpack as a water bottle. There are plenty of trees to set up a hammock along the edge of the river below the waterfall.

If you decide to hike without chairs or a hammock, there are plenty of places to sit and enjoy the waterfall. The river is wide and shallow at the base of the falls. Mossy areas and smooth river stones offer lots of natural seats.


Camping at the Laurel Fork Shelter

The Laurel Fork Shelter is about three-quarters of a mile north on the Appalachian Trail from Laurel Fork Falls. It’s a typical AT lean-to shelter with three stone walls supporting a sloped metal roof and one large sleeping platform.

READ MORE: The Stunning Beauty Spot on the Appalachian Trail

Around early May, thru-hikers from Georgia begin passing through the area. They get priority placement in the shelters since many do not carry a tent, hammock, or sleeping bag on the long-distance hike.

The area around the shelter is okay for small tents – but only okay. Rocks and trees don’t leave much room for comfortably spreading out on the ground.

But at least you’ll have plenty of water nearby.


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