The breathtaking view of a 80-foot waterfall framed by the rugged mountain landscape of the Jocassee Gorges is ample reason to make the strenuous hike to Laurel Fork Falls in Pickens County.
But the trail itself offers its own rewards. Winding through the historic Horsepasture wilderness, it follows the path of Laurel Fork Creek as it gently descends through the forest before spilling into Lake Jocassee.
Part of the 76-mile Foothills Trail, the 8.1-mile Laurel Valley-to-Laurel Fork Falls trek can be shortened to about four miles one way by starting at Laurel Fork Gap on Horsepasture Road. Park off the gravel road in a small cleared section across from a map of Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve. By beginning your hike here, you also avoid the most difficult section of the trail.
You'll start off walking on Laurel Fork Creek Road, an old logging road closed to vehicles. About a mile in, the road intersects with the Foothills Trail where it begins shadowing the creek.
Once home to American settlers, the Laurel Valley still features vestiges from early life in the Southern Appalachians. Rusty narrow-gauge railroad rails used to haul timber lie buried under heavy layers of leaves. Hidden walnut groves and remains of liquor stills also can be found in the hollows.
As you make your way along the Foothills Trail, you'll crisscross Laurel Fork Creek a number of times. The interesting mix of footbridges includes several with railings handcrafted from tree limbs found in the valley.
Teaming with small fish and salamanders, the scenic stream is one of the few areas in the world where you'll find the Oconee Bell, a rare and endangered plant that blooms in the spring. Wide expanses of the white-flowered, low-growing plant line the creek.
You'll enjoy the sound of water rippling over rocks on most of your trek through the valley. When you pass a large designated campsite used by backpackers, you're less than a mile from the top of the falls. Continue another .2 miles to the overlook offering a fantastic view of the falls tumbling over mossy granite ledges.
A 900-foot spur trail to the left takes you down to the shores of Lake Jocassee and the Laurel Fork boat access point.
Located in a narrow cove at the end of a northeast finger of the lake, Laurel Fork Falls also can be viewed from the water. Bring your own boat and launch from the main ramp at Devils Fork State Park or book a trip with one of the local outfitters.
If you travel by boat, you'll catch your first glimpse of the falls upon entering the Laurel Fork Creek cove. But an even better view awaits behind the rocky tower in the cove. Inside the crescent-shaped grotto you can watch the cascades flare out into mid air before plunging into the lake.
For directions to the Foothills Trail's Laurel Valley parking area, click here.