Laurel Fork Falls 7-17-17
7-17-17 Laurel Fork is a beautiful stream in the Pisgah National Forest that gets very little visitation even though it's very close to the Daniel Ridge area. There are 2 major waterfalls about a mile from the parking area - one on Laurel Fork and the other on a tributary of Laurel Fork - but there's no trail to either one of them. If you plan on seeing both of them, add another difficult 1/2 mile to the trek. The bushwhacks to these waterfalls are very difficult and should only be attempted by people with off trail experience. This should not be your first attempt at finding an off trail waterfall! If you get hurt at either of these waterfalls, help is many hours away and you have now put the lives of rescuers in extreme danger. There's also a Lower Laurel Fork Falls that is a bit easier to get to by following an unofficial trail that leads up part of the creek. Seeing it still requires a scramble down to the creek below the falls, then climbing up the rocks for a better view. I first visited the 2 larger waterfalls back in 2003, but at the time I wasn't adding off trail waterfalls to the site. More and more people are deciding to explore off trail these days, so I decided to revisit them to check difficulty and shed some different light on their location. Kevin Adams has them listed - along with many others I don't have on this site - in the latest edition of his North Carolina Waterfalls guide book. You can order the book directly from Kevin by clicking here.
Directions: From the intersection of NC280 / US64 / US276 near Brevard, drive 5.2 miles north on US276 and turn left on the paved FR475 towards the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education / Fish Hatchery. Drive 4.8 miles, cross the concrete bridge over Laurel Fork and park on the left. There's only room for 2 vehicles here. FR475 turns to gravel after Cove Creek Group Campground at 3.2 miles and the gravel road can have a lot of potholes if it hasn't been scraped lately.
The unofficial trail begins back on the other side of the bridge and heads up the right side of Laurel Fork. You'll notice a trail leading from the back side of the parking area, but that's not the trail you want. Walk back over the bridge and look for a faint trail on the left. There's one immediately after the bridge, but don't take it. Go about 5-10 steps farther and look for another one. In the summer the first part may be grown up with weeds. Before you begin the hike, look at the water level in the creek. If it's way down, the waterfalls will be also and you will have wasted a lot of energy for nothing. On this most recent trip, the trail was somewhat overgrown, but still obvious. It is probably even a bit more obvious in the winter and early spring before the foliage comes back out. The first part of the trail is easy and heads away from the creek, so don't be alarmed! At about 0.1 - 0.2 miles, it heads back to the creek, so you'll know you're on the right path. Even if you aren't up for seeing the waterfalls, this is a really pretty area with spring wildflowers and you'll find small cascades along the creek you might find interesting to shoot.
The trail will begin to gain elevation and at about 0.4 miles in, there's a rock ledge you have to deal with. It's not that high, but it might be high enough to give you problems. It's also a seepage area and will be slippery if it's wet. You either have to get up on that rock or figure out a way to by-pass it from below, because the trail continues up once you cross that rock. If this gives you problems, you should turn around here because the trek to the 2 main waterfalls is many times more difficult than this. Lower Laurel Fork Falls is maybe 100 yards past this point, but to get to it safely you have to go down to the creek just before you get to the wall. You will have already stepped or crawled over a few downed logs up to this point. There's one big one really close to the wall that short legged people will have a tough time with. Cross that one, then head at an angle down to the creek before you get to the next smaller log which is right before the wall. The bank isn't as steep in this area, but you'll still be walking side hill before you get to the creek. This will put you just below the falls and you'll have to scramble up for a better view.
Lower Laurel Fork Falls
If you plan to continue up the trail to one or both of the main waterfalls, retrace your steps back to the trail. Please do not climb the mossy rocks! It took this moss many years to grow and it only takes a few uncaring people to ruin it all. Once you are back on the trail, continue up creek. In about 0.1 miles, the trail begins bearing to the right and comes to the lower flowing tributary of Laurel Fork. In the summer, you won't see the point where the 2 creeks meet - and you might not in the winter either. If you plan on trying to find Gemini Falls first, it's on this tributary. It's about 0.3 miles up the creek, but there's a gain of between 350 and 400' and most of it is near the end. The trail you have been following up to this point crosses the creek and for the most part disappears. You want to stay on the right side of the tributary going up and just follow the path of least resistance. It's not too bad at first and you might pick up signs where a very few have come before you. It's either that or a squatch trail. You are better off staying away from the creek in the open woods. Once the going gets really steep, you'll need to head to higher ground to the right. You won't be able to climb the rocks in the creek to get up to the waterfall! Be prepared for briars and stinging nettle in the summer months. Once you see a rock wall, stay along the base of it and you should come out at the base of Gemini Falls. My GPS had it at the 3680' elevation level. I'm guessing the waterfall is about 75' high with lots of clutter filled cascades below. There's also a lot of clutter at the base, but it doesn't take away the beauty you see before you. There's a safe place at the base to stand and shoot, but don't try to climb up for a better view - it's not worth risking your life over. The first picture below is from the safe shooting spot. The second picture is zoomed in to the top section of the waterfall from the same spot.
If you made it to this waterfall, but found it to be one of the more difficult 'hikes' you've ever done, you'll probably want to save Laurel Fork Falls for another day. I think it's even more difficult to get to that waterfall. If you have the time, energy, and skills - or are skipping Gemini Falls to go to Laurel Fork Falls, continue reading. From Gemini Falls, retrace your track back down to where the lay of the land isn't as steep, but before you get back down to the trail. Look across the tributary and you can see where the land over there is really steep and less steep the closer you get to Laurel Fork. Pick a spot to cross the tributary and cut diagonally towards Laurel Fork. If you didn't go to Gemini Falls, find where the trail crosses the tributary and see if you can pick up any signs of a trail heading up Laurel Fork. I didn't spot any real trail, but there were sections where it looked like that squatch had passed through. The rhododendron is really thick near the creek, so it's best to stay up the hill a bit in the more open woods on the right side of the creek (river left). My GPS had Laurel Fork Falls at the 3900' elevation mark. Where the 2 creeks meet is 3300', so you have some climbing to do in the next 1/2 mile or so. As you get closer to the falls, it gets really steep and there are a lot of large boulders with some really thick vegetation around them. Be really careful in this area as the vegetation can hide some deep holes between some of the rocks. You could easily step in one of these and snap your leg in half. The best advice I can give you is to avoid the creek even if you think you hear a waterfall down below. I made that mistake a couple of times, couldn't climb up the creek from where I was, and had to go back up to where I should have stayed up to begin with. There are some additional cascades and smaller falls down there if you care to go down for a look. When you get really close to the falls, the walls of this little gorge will have closed in so much that you can't safely go up any more and Laurel Fork Falls will be to your left and just out of sight. Once you get to a view of the falls from the woods, you still have to drop down through thick dog hobble into the pool below the falls to get a good view. There's a steep drop off just below that, so your margin for error is very thin at this point. The waterfall is about 50' high and has a lot of clutter at the base including a large dead hemlock, but is a beautiful sight. There are several other dead hemlocks still standing that will eventually fall, so go sooner than later if you can! Below are a couple of shots from my most recent visit in July 2017, then a video of Gemini and Laurel Fork Falls. When I get back to Lower Laurel Fork Falls, I'll redo the video with it included.
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