A Day Trip to Laurel Falls

Hiking to Dayton’s Laurel Falls

A gorge cut deep into the eastern face of Walden Ridge on the outskirts of Dayton is the site of a popular hike to the 80-foot Laurel Falls. Once a Bowater Pocket Wilderness, the trail is now a part of the 2,259-acre Laurel-Snow State Natural Area, which is a unit of the Cumberland Trail State Park. The area is home to converging steep gorges carved by Polebridge, Morgan, Henderson, Laurel, and Richland Creeks, as well as a wide variety of plant and animal life. The Laurel-Snow Trail was the first trail in Tennessee to be designated a National Recreation Trail. It is considered a part of the Cumberland Trail system, though currently, this trailhead is its only access point.

Overall, the natural area contains 10.5 miles of hiking trails, but Laurel Falls can be reached with a moderate 4.8-mile round-trip hike. From the trailhead, reached after driving a short distance on a gravel road, the trail is fairly level and wide as it runs alongside Richland Creek on an old railroad bed, a reminder of the area’s coal mining history. Mining took place in the area primarily in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After passing some historic stone walls, at 0.2 miles, there is an old mine entrance on the right side of the trail. While ungated, it is not considered safe to enter the mine. Farther along the trail, the concrete pillars which once supported a bridge can be seen in the creek. As Richland Creek parallels the trail it features a number of popular summer swimming holes.   

At 1.2 miles, the trail becomes more narrow and rugged as it turns right and climbs a bit steeply in elevation. At this point, a short spur trail continues along the creek to the old Dayton Reservoir. Basically a pond created by a low concrete dam, it was once the town of Dayton’s water supply. You will have likely noticed the large iron pipe occasionally surfacing from underneath the trail.

Continuing along the main trail, at mile 1.7 the trail crosses a metal bridge over Laurel Creek, just after which it reaches an intersection. Turning left would take you past Henderson Creek Campsite, to a 150-foot bridge across Henderson Creek, and eventually to the top of the mountain and spur trail options to Dunn Overlook, Morgan Creek Campsite, the 35-foot Snow Falls, and Buzzard Point Overlook, with its spectacular view through the gorge and across the Tennessee Valley. Find a map and a detailed description of this section of trail here

But to reach Laurel Falls, turn right after crossing the bridge. The trail follows Laurel Creek for a bit, at one point going through an interesting cave-like hole under a large boulder. You can potentially detour around this, but it isn’t necessarily easier.  As the trail works its way back into Laurel Gorge, it gains significant elevation with a series of switchbacks. Avoid the temptation to use some of the visible shortcuts, as it won’t make the climb easier. In 0.7 miles, or 2.4 since starting the hike, you reach the base of Laurel Falls. Shortly before reaching the falls, the main trail turns left. If you elect to continue on it, you’ll do a bit more climbing, pass Laurel Creek Campsite, ford Laurel Creek above the falls, pass the Laurel Creek Overlook, and in 0.9 miles, or 3.3 from the trailhead, reach Bryan Overlook, the end of the trail. Click here for a map and detailed description of this section.

During drier times, Laurel Falls may contain a disappointing amount of water, considering its 80-foot drop, but the impressive rock face and gigantic boulders jumbled in the ravine below still make it a worthwhile destination. If it’s a hot summer day, you may wish to take advantage of some of the wading or swimming opportunities presented by Richland Creek on the hike out. 

Laurel-Snow State Natural Area is open daily 8am – 7pm Eastern Time.

Overnight camping permits can be obtained through the Friends of the Cumberland Trail website.

During summer months the trailhead parking area can get crowded, so it’s recommended to go early in the day or perhaps on a weekday.

GPS coordinates for the trailhead: 35.526297.-85.021888.

Find more information, including a trail map and descriptions, and a map and directions to the trailhead, here

Click here to view an interactive GIS map of the entire Cumberland Trail system, including the Laurel-Snow Trail.  

Article By Bob Butters

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