Getting started with the scenic hike to Cove Mountain begins with an easy jaunt along a 1.3 mile paved trail to Laurel Falls (Laurel Falls Trail guide here). Keep in mind that the first leg of your hike, the Laurel Falls portion, is easy and equally crowded. There is a manmade, concrete bridge in front of the falls. While it’s not the most attractive bridge, it is super popular among photographers whom you will need to maneuver around while hiking.
Don’t worry, though, as you’ll have plenty of space and rugged experience on your way up to Cove Mountain. The Laurel Falls portion of the trail is an uphill climb of 315 feet leading up to the 80-feet-high Laurel Falls waterscape. The Cove Mountain trail continues, and at 2.8 miles the junction branches off to the Little Greenbriar Trail. Go straight ahead to lead to Cove Mountain. Cove Mountain Trail dead-ends at 3.7 miles, after which you will walk about a tenth of a mile to the fire tower at the zenith of Cove Mountain.
This hike features a round trip distance of 7.7 miles. To get to the waterfall, the hike is easy-to-moderate in intensity. It will take you about an hour just to reach the falls. For the remainder of the hike, expect a gently graded, grassy path along an old road that is easy in intensity. The trailhead elevation is at 2,400 feet, while the top elevation for the hike is 4,139 feet. This hike will take a full day. For planning purposes, plan to start by 9 am and return around mid-afternoon.
Along the trail you’ll catch sight of a wild variety of animals and plants thanks to the old growth forest surrounding this hiking trail. This is your prime opportunity to snap some photos or sketch in your hiking journal. While the majority of the grand eastern hemlocks have succumbed to a pest infestation, you can spot a few arbors standing tall.
Other massive tree species to account for here include yellow poplars aka tulip trees, basswood and buckeye. Within earshot is the Jay Bird Branch that affords a peaceful water sound, although you won’t be able to spot it due to the dense forest. After all, once you reach the summit of Cove Mountain, your view is just so-so.
There is the old fire tower that is neat to look at, although you won’t be able to climb this haphazard structure. Surrounding you will be plenty of old growth forest, which means you won’t have much in terms of expansive mountain views. However, if you look out toward Wear Cove, a power-line clearing offers a slight view beyond the tree line.
-Expect Laurel Falls to be flowing in full stream following rainstorms and spring snow melts. At this time the hiking trail will also be most populated from people snapping photos.
-Spring and summer are optimal times to view the native flora along the old growth woods of Cove Mountain. Early spring wildflowers are especially abundant, covering the forest floor.
-Summer is ideal for mushroom scouts interested in identifying and hunting local fungi.
From downtown Gatlinburg, drive towards the National Park. When you see the Sugarlands Visitor Center on your right-side, make a right turn on Little River Road. After turning right, you will drive approximately 3.5 miles to the trailhead. The trailhead is easily identifiable with parking lots on either side of the road and identifying signage.
-If you want to avoid backtracking, or you are short on time, consider parking a second vehicle at either Wear Gap or Smoky Mountain park headquarters near Gatlinburg. Then you could hike back to the junction at the 2.8 mile marker and go along the Greenbrier Trail to Wear Gap. Alternatively you could hike the ridge line along Cove Mountain to the Gatlinburg park headquarters. If you choose this latter option consider that you will be within view of the bustling city of Gatlinburg, which might put a damper on your nature hike experience.
-Consider stopping off at Laurel Falls for a picnic or break before making your ascent up to Cove Mountain. Laurel Falls offers a pleasant albeit popular place for wading, picnicking and lounging. Along the rest of the hike you won’t find such facilities.