Fire towers were a common sight across Appalachia for much of the 20th century, as they served a crucial role in the prevention of wildfires across the scarred landscape. Logging operations left piles of wood scraps known as slash which would often spark raging infernos. It was important to spot and stop these fires quickly before they could escape and cause damage to the old growth forests which still clung to many hillsides.
Fast-forward to today, and most fire tires are rickety ghosts of their former selves. Satellite imagery allows for fires to be pinpointed quickly and with incredible accuracy. The majority of forested areas are protected within national forests, national parks, and state parks; with new fire prevention policies in place, the need for these historic structures has diminished significantly.
Many have succumbed to the ravages of time and weather, forcing their removal due to the safety hazard they present to hikers. Others that have fallen into disrepair have been lovingly restored, such as the historic stone fire tower atop Mount Cammerer along the Appalachian Trail. Some parks such as the Smokies have repurposed the towers to combat a new kind of threat which our forests now face: air pollution. Our most recent Smokies trek introduced us to one such tower high atop Cove Mountain, which lies along the park’s northern border near Gatlinburg.
Laurel Falls is a staple hike for many who come to the park. The cascades are easily reached by the paved Laurel Falls Trail which begins just a few miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center. While the falls are beautiful and the subject of many a postcard, many miss the adventures which lie past the end of the asphalt. If you plan to hike this trail anytime outside of the winter season, it is best to arrive early (and that means before 9:00 A.M.), as the parking lot fills up extremely quickly. Or just leave the car at the visitor center or in Gatlinburg and catch one of the trolleys which has a stop here as well. Good hiking boots are a must, as portions of the trail past the falls are pretty rocky.
The first 1.3 miles of the trail are a gradual climb in and out along the finger ridges of Cove Mountain. Views across the valley of the Little River frame Blanket and Meigs Mountains, with the main crest of the Smokies rising beyond. This first portion of the trail is featured as a nature trail; don’t forget to pick up a guidebook at the trailhead!
A few more curves and you’ll soon reach the namesake of the trail, splashing down the rocky face and into a small pool. On most days, a dozen hikers may cluster around the iconic falls, while summer days can see lines waiting to take photos. Linger here as long as you like, and then press on to the solitude which welcomes you as you reenter the forest.
This upper segment passes through a rare old-growth oak forest. The gentle mountain slopes found here combined with the area’s close proximity to Gatlinburg make it a miracle that this forest was spared during the logging boom which erupted in the early 20’s. The white oak trees and tulip poplars reach massive proportions here. Several fantastic specimens lie just an arm’s reach from the trail and offer great photo opportunities.
Continuing on, Laurel Falls Trail turns left from a junction with Little Greenbrier Trail and begins its last steep climb to the top through a rhododendron tunnel. A junction with Cove Mountain Trail marks your arrival at the end of the trail as well as the national park’s northern boundary. Turning left, a short walk brings you to the peak of Cove Mountain, elevation 4,080 feet. It’s here that you will find the Cove Mountain Fire Tower.
Originally built in 1935, the tower served its purpose for years until it fell into disuse with the advent of satellites imagery, as mentioned before. Instead of removing the iconic structure, the National Park Service transformed it into an ultramodern air quality monitoring station. With its location as the highest point along the park’s Tennessee border, the station is ideally situated to sample air that is rising up from the valleys below. Air pollution from the Tennessee Valley and the rust belt in the Midwest reached critical levels several decades ago, but advances in technology and better regulation have led much cleaner air and better views across the park. There is still a long way to go, however, as the park has several days each year where the air quality is considered hazardous. Any outdoor activity within the park is highly discouraged during those times.
Visitors may climb the lower flights of the tower, but access to the observation area is prohibited due to the sensitive equipment which is housed inside. A somewhat limited view of Wears Valley is available nearby. Take a few moments to rest and enjoy the breezes which constantly seem to blow across the mountain.
The journey down is much faster than that coming up, and if you have time, you might want to return via Cove Mountain Trail. Stretching eight miles and ending at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, this trail follows the park border along Cove Mountain and Mount Harrison, allowing new views of Ober Gatlinburg and communities which were spared the recent wildfires. Great views of Mount LeConte across the valley are a highlight of this trail. Remember, if you decide to return via this route, you will either have to make use of the Gatlinburg trolley system or have a second vehicle parked near the visitor center. Total distance via this route is 12.8 miles, while returning via Laurel Falls Trail tallies a total mileage of 7.6 miles.
Directions: From U.S. 441 in Gatlinburg, drive south until you reach the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boundary. Continue two miles into the park, and then turn right onto Fighting Creek Gap Road. In 3.8 miles, the Laurel Falls Parking area will be on both sides of the road.
Photo: Hikers will see the Cove Mountain fire tower, now repurposed as a weather monitoring station for the park.