Laurel Fork Trail


Upper Laurel Fork Falls

The Laurel Fork Trail is located just upstream from the very popular trek on the Appalachian Trail to Laurel Falls.  Designated as Cherokee National Forest Trail #39 this hike, however, is much more secluded, adventurous, and extremely remote. It requires numerous and often difficult stream fords, deep and muddy areas dammed up by beavers, some navigational skills (with limited blazing), and deteriorating trail conditions the further you go upstream … with numerous blowdowns and excessive vegetation.  But if you’re willing to get wet and tough it out, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most beautiful backcounty in east Tennessee, including four magnificent waterfalls.

I turned this hike into a over-night backpacking loop (about 19 miles total)… tying in the Laurel Fork Trail with a forest road walk, and then returning via the Appalachian Trail (across White Rocks Mountain) and the Coon Den Falls Trail (see the HIKE PLANNER below for specific directions).

Upper Dennis Cove Falls

Upper Dennis Cove Falls

Upper Laurel Fork Falls

Upper Laurel Fork Falls

Campbell Falls

Campbell Falls








The first waterfall on the Laurel Fork trail is Lower Dennis Cover Falls (older picture here), and soon after you’ll come to  Upper Dennis Cove Falls.  Both of these can be reached with good trail conditions and with potentially staying dry, but then the trail conditions and the stream fords become much more difficult.  After a tough ford though a beaver-dammed area, you’ll eventually reach Frog Level, which is a series of open fields… remnants of timber cutting back when the Laurel Fork Trail was the old Laurel Fork Railway, which was used to haul timber to the town of Hampton, Tennessee.  Following Frog Level, you will find Upper Laurel Fork Falls and Campbell Falls.  All waterfalls have short spur trails down to the stream.  On a side note, I carried my fishing pole and caught a few native trout, which are abundant in this stream.  If you decide to fish be aware of the regulations, such as only artificial and single-hook lures.

Vista from the A.T. - Day #1

Vista from the A.T. – Day #1

Campsite Near Moreland Gap Shelter

Campsite Near Moreland Gap Shelter

Beautiful Views the Following Morning

Beautiful Views the Following Morning








When the Laurel Fork Trail neared forest road 293, I took that over to the Appalachian Trail and went north.  I had a nice night near Moreland Gap Shelter.  The following morning I continued on the A.T. and came down the very steep Coon Den Falls Trail for a 5th and final waterfall.  A short road took me back to car and completed this awesome loop.

Coon Den Falls

Coon Den Falls

Note:  In high water conditions please use extreme caution on the Laurel Fork Trail.  See hike planner below for details and hazards.











Very adventurous one-night backpacking trip, with numerous stream crossings. Do it in low water conditions only (most likely the summer months).



Five waterfalls, old railroad grade, beaver dams, Appalachian Trail, A.T. Shelter, potential fishing.


Very difficult (this is a rating of of how strenuous the hike is by elevation gain).


Take Route 19E to the town of Hampton, TN. When in Hampton, go North onto Highway 321 toward Mountain City and Watauga Lake. In 0.8 miles take a right on Dennis Cove Road. Follow this road for 4.0 miles and you will come to the popular trailhead for Laurel Falls, which is also the Appalachian Trail. Continue past the Laurel Falls Trailhead for another 0.9 miles, and you’ll see a parking area on your left just before crossing the bridge. Park here.


From the parking area, walk to the bridge (and check the water level!), and you’ll see the trailhead next to the bridge marked with Cherokee National Forest sign (CNF Trail #39). Follow this blue-blazed trail (some places it is yellow-blazed). You will need to make three initial stream crossings. After the 3rd stream crossing, there is soon a spur trail that you will see leading down to the right. This goes to Lower Dennis Cove Falls. Return and continue on up the trail, where you will come to a rock outcropping with a small ledge. Almost immediately after this outcropping you will see another spur trail leading down to the right. This is the trail to Upper Dennis Cove Falls. This is at the 1.6 mile mark.  Continue on upstream where the fords become more difficult and the trail becomes more rugged.  Soon you will reach the open fields of “Frog Level”.  Blazes end at the open fields, and sometimes it’s difficult to see the trail.  Therefore, when the trail comes out to the first open field, continue in a straight line across the field, and you will see the trail continue into the forest near the far left corner.  At the second open field also continue in a straight line and the trail will resume again in the adjacent forest.  After a stream ford you will finally come to the third open field.  Again, just keep going straight… all the the to the end of the field where there is a junction with the Lacy Trap Trail.  Continue on the Laurel Fork Trail heading upstream where you continue to make numerous fords, and go through rugged areas.  You will soon come to Upper Laurel Fork Falls.  It will be on your immediate left, and has a short spur trail.  You will hear it!  Soon after that you will come to Campbell Falls.  It will again be on your left and you will hear it as well.  After approximately 7 miles on the Laurel Fork Trail, you will come to a junction WITH A SIGN.  The signs points left to Cherry Flats and right to Bitter End.  GO RIGHT toward Bitter End.  This will put you on a little grass covered forest road for a few hundred yards, and then you will pop out on a graveled forest road (#293).  There is no signage here…  You will need to go LEFT on this gravel road! After approximately .75 mile, you will see the Appalachian Trail crossing this road.  Keep an eye out for white blazes.  When you see the A.T., take a RIGHT on it… heading A.T. North.  From here there are numerous campsites, and springs usually flow well in this area, often crossing the A.T.  I hiked on to Moreland Gap Shelter and camped there, which was about 4.5 miles after I got on the A.T.  Following Moreland Gap Shelter, continue north on the A.T. for an additional 4.5 miles, and you will see a sign indicating the Coon Den Falls Trail, leave the A.T. and take a right at that sign.  WARNING:  The Coon Den Falls trail is VERY steep and can be slippery.  After about .8 miles you will reach the 100′ Coon Den Falls.  Continue on down the trail another .5 mile and you will come out on Dennis Cove Road.  Take a right, walk a couple tenths of a mile, and you will be back at your car.         


Gear & Tips:

Backpacking gear, and a map of the area showing trails and forest roads. Trekking poles help tremendously in making the stream crossing.  Optional fishing gear.  If fishing, only single-hook, artificial lures are allowed on the Laurel Fork Trail.


Approximately 18.5 miles.



2 days




Rating (1-5):



Rating (based on a 1-50 scale):

Lower Dennis Cove Falls: H(1) + F(7) + V(1) + W(2) + G(2+4+3) = 20

Upper Dennis Cove Falls: H(2) + F(7) + V(2) + W(2) + G(3+5+7) = 28

Upper Laurel Fork Falls: H(3) + F(7) + V(4) + W(1) + G(2+5+7) = 29

Campbell Falls: H(2) + F(7) + V(3) + W(1) + G(1+4+2) = 20

Coon Den Falls: H(8) + F(3) + V(3) + W(1) + G(1+3+3) = 22



Crossings (one way):

Very Difficult. NUMEROUS (I lost count but probably in the teens).  Plan on getting wet to knee deep or more.  These crossings can be dangerous in high water conditions.  At the trailhead, look at the stream under the bridge at Dennis Cove Road.  If it’s more than shin deep at that bridge, do NOT go on this hike.

Moderate.  A few short scrambles on the spur trails to the waterfalls, with steep and slippery slopes, and/or moderate climbing.  Some handholds required on the Coon Den Falls Trail.


Again… take extreme caution on the stream crossings and do not go on this hike if water levels are above shin deep at the bridge at the road.  I have heard the area dammed by the beavers can sometimes require a waist or chest-deep ford.  Use extreme caution!  There were also a couple of overgrown areas that tore up my legs with briars.  In addition, the upper end of the Coon Den Falls Trail is extremely steep, requiring hand holds and sure footing.  Be careful!





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Grayson Highlands Backpacking: A.T./Pine Mountain Loop

This is a loop hike in the Grayson Highlands that I tend to do about once per year, so I’ve posted it a couple times before, but not with all the snowy conditions that I experienced this time.

My daughter Taylor and her boyfriend Cameron joined me over their spring break around the end of March.  And the weather surprised us with with up to two feet of snow in many areas, with very icy conditions.  It made for some tough hiking to say the least.

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Iron Mtn Backpacking: TN91 to Wilbur Dam Road

Bill at Nick Grindstaff Monument

I finished up a small section of Appalachian Trail that I had not completed before, covering the Iron Mountain ridgeline from TN91  to Wilburn Dam Road.  This was a southbound 16 mile hike, spending one night.

About 3 miles into the hike my first stop was the Nick Grindstaff Monument.  This is very eerie place with a unique story…

Nick Grindstaff was born in 1851.  At the age of three he was orphaned.  Rumor has it that he later moved out west where he was robbed and severely beaten, along with suffering other financial difficulties.  He soon returned to Tennessee where he lived out the final 45 years of his life in total solitude (except for his dog “Panter”) in a very small cabin on Iron Mountain.  Supposedly, in 1923 a man went to visit Nick and found him dead in his cabin.  Some stories say that Panter watched over Nick’s dead body for days and had to be overpowered and tied to a tree so that his body could be buried.  Other stories say that Panter had to be killed and was buried alongside Nick in the chimney-shaped grave, which was once his cabin’s brick fireplace.  To this day many hikers that camp near this area report the spine-chilling howls of a dog late at night.  A few years ago I also had a scary encounter with dog near this very spot. Read more »

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Rocky Fork Backpacking

Located along the TN/NC border in Unicoi County, TN is the newly purchased U.S. Forest Service property known as Rocky Fork.  This 10,000 acre tract is very rugged, with unmarked trails and very limited trail maps.  My good friend Jimmy Humston and I decided to do some exploring along the northern-most sections of the tract with our ultimate goal being “Buzzard Rock”… a wonderful, but extremely well-earned vista at 4,600′ elevation that overlooks the majority of the property. Read more »

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Dennis Cove Falls

Upper Dennis Cove Falls

If you’re looking for a beautiful and adventurous hike, then check out out upper and lower Dennis Cove Falls in the Dennis Cove Recreational area.  This hike is not overly strenuous and the trail is well-marked, but it does require three creek crossings that can range from moderate to extremely dangerous… depending upon the water level in the Laurel Fork stream.  Staying dry can be a challenge. Read more »

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White Rocks and Sand Cave (Cumberland Gap)

On Top of the White Rocks Cliff

Near the Cumberland Gap, and located on the long Cumberland Mountain ridgeline, are two awesome formations known as White Rocks and Sand Cave.  Both of these can be visited in the same day with a strenuous, ~9 mile hike within the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park from the trailhead in the Thomas Walker Civic Park.  This is a tough hike with about 1700 feet in elevation gain, but the trails are well maintained and contain lots of switchbacks that make the climbing a little easier.

I decided to make a loop out of the hike, visiting Sand Cave first and then heading down the ridge to White Rocks.  If you use my route, review the trail directions below carefully.  The trails are in good shape and have signage at trail junctions, but they aren’t blazed, and  I found some of the sign posts uprooted, which could leave you a little unsure at times. Read more »

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Watauga Dam

Watauga Dam Vista

Watauga Dam was completed in 1949 by the Tennessee Valley Authority, creating a very beautiful lake at 2000′ elevation.  At the time of its construction, it was the highest elevation earthen dam in the world, and  today it still remains as the highest in the eastern United States.  What makes this area so picturesque is that much of the lake is surrounded by National Forest and the towering ridgelines of Iron and Pond mountains. Read more »

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Whitetop Mountain & Buzzard Rock

Buzzard Rock

Whitetop Mountain is the State of Virginia’s second highest peak at 5525′, along with having the highest maintained road in the state.  You can make this a very short and easy day-hike by taking this road all the way to the top of the mountain, but I decided to climb it on foot instead… starting at highway US600 at Elk Garden and heading south on the Appalachian Trail. Read more »

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Rocky Fork to Birchfield Camp Lake – Mtn Bike

Rocky Fork Trio Waterfall

A few months ago I found Birchfield Camp Lake (elevation 4000′) in the Rocky Fork Tract via the Higgins Creek route.   This time I decided to see if I could find it coming in from the main gate at Rocky Fork.  This is a longer route, and since my knee is still tender, I decided to give it a try on the mountain bike. Read more »

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Grassy Ridge

Sunrise from Jane Bald

Grassy Ridge is a prominent peak in the Roan Highlands sitting at 6180 feet in elevation.  This expansive Southern Appalachian Bald offers 360 degree, unobstructed views, which are undoubtedly some of the best in the eastern U.S.  This is also the highpoint of Avery County, NC.

I left the house very early in the morning and arrived at Carver’s Gap around 5:00 a.m.  I hiked by headlamp for the first mile, crossing the summits of Round Bald and Jane Bald, where I stopped to set up my photography equipment.  This happens to be my favorite spot for capturing sunrises in the east, and this morning’s sunrise did not disappoint me… Read more »

Categories: Apalachian Trail, Day-hike, NC County Highpoint, Rock Formations, Summits, Vistas, Wildflowers | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments