Laurel Falls#9 in Best Things To Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Named for the mountain laurel (an evergreen shrub) that blooms throughout the park, Laurel Falls is one of the most popular trails in the park. The path has an upper and a lower section, divided by a walkway that crosses a stream at the base of the upper falls (which measure 80 feet in height). Although the round-trip hike is only 2.6 miles, it takes about 2 hours, due to the rough and uneven pavement and steep incline. Because of its popularity, the trail is busy year-round, especially on weekends and during the peak summer season.
Some recent hikers thought the trail was difficult and somewhat dangerous, mentioning steep drop-offs with no handrails and the rocky nature of the trail itself, while other more experienced hikers found it easy. All agreed that it was incredibly scenic and a great location for photos, especially in May and June, when the laurel is in bloom. Many advised that the lack of ample parking required some extra walking to reach the trailhead and noted that the area is known for its bear population, cautioning visitors to carry bear spray and refrain from discarding food along the trail.
The Laurel Falls Trail is a 3½-mile drive from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, off Little River Road. There are parking areas on both sides of the road, but these fill up quickly during peak visitor season and on weekends year-round. Pets and bicycles are not allowed on the trail. Access to Laurel Falls is free. For more information about the trail, visit the NPS website.
More Best Things To Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
#1 Newfound Gap Road
Also known as notches or passes, gaps are the low points in a mountain ridge. The Newfound Gap, which sits at an elevation of 5,046 feet, is the lowest drivable pass in the park. The 31-mile, scenic Newfound Gap Road – U.S. Route 441 – runs through the center of the park from the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, over the mountains and into Cherokee, North Carolina. Mile markers denote several interesting attractions along the way, including the Newfound Gap, Mingus Mill, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum, and the Smokemont Campground and Nature Trail.
Recent travelers who drove along this route raved about the mountain views and photo ops, although some called the twisting mountain road "an automotive roller coaster." Many recommended the Newfound Gap visitor area for its quality facilities and access to trailheads, noting that the Appalachian Trail also crosses here. If you're visiting on a holiday weekend, prepare for crowds: some travelers said they were unable to find parking at many of the stops.
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