LAUREL FORK FALLS
One of the most majestic waterfalls the Fat Bald White Guy has visited is the Laurel Fork Falls near Hampton, Tennessee. We ventured there on a hot day at the end of July and found a truly idyllic natural portrait unveiled before our eyes. Previously in the week, I was attracted to the observations of Barbara Brown Taylor in her book An Altar in the World; A Geography of Faith.
There she wrote: Earth is so thick with divine possibility, it is a wonder that we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars. Well the Fat Bald White Guy and his Faithful Hiking Companion sure do have bruised shins from this hike.
Where is Laurel Fork Falls? It is located in eastern Tennessee, forty miles west of Boone near the picturesque Lake Watauga. I had never visited this area before. Lake Watauga is a hidden gem! Beautiful man made reservoir at the head waters of the Watauga River. There are plenty of various water sports opportunities there as well a very nice public beach. If you vacation in Boone, take a day trip to this lake.
To get to the falls, you follow Laurel Fork which appears to flow into Watauga Lake. The trailhead is a popular spot located on Highway 321 just west of Lake Watauga on the outskirts of Hampton, Tennessee. A small parking lot on the left accommodates about 15 vehicles and provides a very nice map.
The trail is a less than six mile round trip and is rated moderate. There is one short steep climb to the top of the river bluff in one bend of the river. It is a thumper of a climb but not something too hard for most people to handle. The trail is mostly smooth and flat with occasional slippery rocks to manage. The constant views of this mountain stream keeps your interest all the way to the falls.
Early in the hike the stream hugs a rock wall that must be over a hundred feet tall. It makes you appreciate the power of the water as you understand that each line in this rock wall was caused by a hundreds of years of flow of this ancient river. You also get used to the constant roar of the water clashing with the rocks which only increases as you get closer to the falls.
The Laurel Fork Trail is a blue blazed trail that is easy to follow as it snakes along the riverbank. A little over a mile into the trail it merges with the Appalachian Trail and becomes a white blazed trail to the falls. This sign indicates the merger of the trail and directed us toward the falls.
Near the 1.5 mark, the trail crosses the river. You are tempted by the trail to ford the river but just past this ford is the first of two really nice bridges.
The bridge offered a few photographic opportunities that I gladly took up. The rustic wooden structure contrasting with the wilderness was not quite the same as the lamppost from the Chronicles of Narnia, but was "kinda but different".
I can't overstate the obvious pleasure I enjoyed as I hiked along the river's edge. Scene after scene of fast flowing mountain stream over rocks and around lush green foliage was a constant sensory delight.
Another bridge crossing provided us a nice place to take a break. The day was hot and humid and hydration was required. As we paused, I got to reflect on the beauty of the view from the middle of the bridge.
Not far from the second bridge, we encountered a fork in the trail. The green moss covered logs are a good place to rest your dawgs and take a drink of fluids as the white blazed trail takes you up a steep climb to a river bluff, some 300 feet above the stream. The hollow log reminded me of an old bluegrass tune Doc Watson would sing about catching a rabbit with a brier hiding in a hollow log. Doc Watson and Bill Monroe "Feast Here Tonight"
From the top of the river bluff, the trail snakes along the rocky ridge. While foliage limits the view of the water below, the ever present roar of the stream can still be heard and occasional forest windows open up for a view.
Another helpful sign is erected on the bluff again indicating the direction of the falls. At this point there is a steep decline down to the river. The sign is about at the 2.0 mile mark.
The falls are less than a mile from this point and for us there was one more obstacle to overcome to get there. The river edge trail seemed to me to end on a rocky outcropping beside the stream. The rock was clearly marked by a white blaze. It appeared to me that it directed the trail over the rock as it did not seem to be a way around the rock. So I instructed to my Faithful Hiking Companion to take a muddy bypass while I climbed the slippery rock face. Some "moderate trail" I mused?! After climbing hand over hand halfway up the river bluff, I realize that the trail did not lead over the rock and I had missed the trail around the rock...yep...most times when your trail leads to a dead end, the Lord provides a simple path around the obstacle...if you are patient and observant that is.
The path indeed leads around the rock outcropping and a rather rocky path leads to the foot of the falls.
The falls are nearly 100 feet tall and pour over the rocky cliff with great intensity. The roar of the falls makes it impossible to talk except by shouting. A couple and their two dogs were swimming in the pool beneath the falls and a rock cairn adorned the stream.
I waded out the cairn and was joined by one of the dogs accompanying the young folks swimming. I believe her name was "Kono". She was reluctant to jump in but the male Labrador was an eager swimmer.
Behind the falls rises a rather impressive promontory. I wondered what the path was like to that peak. Also the path leads to the top of the falls but since I had already climbed a rocky bluff I was not interested in another excursion.
The rock cairn is always a reminder to me of the majesty of God's creation and again the words of Barbara Brown Taylor echoed in my mind: "People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwind, starry skies, burning bushes and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for pay. Whoever wrote this stuff believed that people could learn as much about the ways of God from paying attention to the world as they could from paying attention to scripture?