One of the more popular local hiking trails runs through an Appalachian gorge carved out by the swift waters of Laurel Fork. Laurel Fork empties into the Doe River in Hampton. The Doe River has carved out multiple gorges on its journey from Roan Mountain to the Watauga River in Elizabethton.
The trail runs from Hampton, then merges with the Appalachian Trail which continues on through Dennis Cove. Laurel Falls is a large waterfall along the trail. The Appalachian Trail runs most of the length of this hike and forks off to Watauga Lake between the falls and the Hampton trailhead. There are gravel parking lots at the Hampton trailhead and in Dennis Cove, but they are often full at peak times.
Parts of the trail run on an old narrow gauge railroad bed. Most of the Dennis Cove trail end runs on the old railway and passes through many excavated cuts in the rock. The falls are closer to the Dennis Cove end but requires a descent down a rock staircase to reach the lower trail. In some places there are two parallel trails, the high water trail and the lower trail. The lower trail ascends and descends a couple ridges between Hampton and the waterfall, so it does leave the stream bank in places. If you run into a sheer cliff wall while nearing the falls from the Hampton end, you might have missed the fork upward.
The Laurel Fork trail shelter is located on the high water trail downstream from the falls. Allow over an hour of moderate walking time to reach Laurel Falls from Hampton, less time from the Dennis Cove trailhead. Power walkers can reach the falls in under an hour, but there is a lot to see. Sometimes the journey is as important as the destination and we take our time to observe nature along the way.
For a topographic map try Topoquest here. The falls are located at coordinates 36° 16.37'N, 82° 8.11'W or UTM 17 398037E 4014819N. The parking lot for the Hampton trailhead is along Hwy 321about a mile off 19E at the edge of the Hampton community on the way to Watauga Lake. The gravel lot is on the right just past a small concrete bridge.
Let's take a hike! We are going from the Hampton trailhead to Laurel Falls and back. It's a sunny September day. There has been a period of drought this summer so the trail should be dry and the bugs few. Since it has been so dry the stream water levels are lower than usual. In times of snow melt or high precipitation Laurel Fork has the potential for rapid flooding. The weather looks fine today. It should be a good day to walk. We have a small backpack with water, a few snacks, basic first aid items, and a camera. We have a cell phone but it may not work in many of the places we'll be. We take heed of the warnings at the trail info sign. Avoid getting in the water below the falls and climbing on the falls. There have been fatalities there.
The trail starts out level for some distance. Rocks filled with holes appear along the left of the trail. This mountain side contains a network of caverns. At some of the holes along the trail, cool cave air spills out. Take a moment to feel some pure mountain natural air conditioning. Then we move onward through the Tennessee summer.
After walking the the first flat trail section, you come upon an incline. After getting up the hill, the path turns rocky and crosses a power line right of way. Shortly there is a fork. In this case, the upper fork is a shortcut and the right one leads down to the creek. We take the path down and walk along the water. There is a high rock wall where the stream has made some pools and small beaches. It's a good spot for a picture or two, maybe stop and soak the feet here on the return. We can't linger as there is a long way to go yet. We hike past large eastern hemlocks, rhododendron, sycamore trees and a wide range of Appalachian plant life.
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