Laurel Mountain Lower Loop Hike Route Map

Laurel Mountain Trail - Lower Loop

The Laurel Mountain Trail is one of the Pisgah Ranger Districts longer trails, at around 7.4-miles in length. Running from the Blue Ridge Parkway in the north to Yellow Gap in the south the trail also sports an impressive 2,400 feet of elevation change over that distance. The trail is extremely popular with bikers, less so with hikers. This is likely due to a couple of factors. First, the trail has very limited trail connections (at least official ones…I’ll explain more on this shortly) meaning that including all or a portion of it in as loop is tricky. Secondly, and probably more importantly, nowhere on its entire length is there a view to be had or really any other unique natural feature to speak of. It’s simply a 7.4-mile hike of ridge top forests and mountain laurel tunnels. At first I contemplated doing the trail all in one shot, as a point-to-point hike from the Parkway. Unfortunately, it would prove difficult to find someone to shuttle me for this type of hike so I had to come up with a Plan B. This is where my addendum on “official trail connections” comes into play. In studying a few maps and reading a few trip reports I discovered that, in fact, at least two reportedly well-trodden but unofficial footpaths led north and south from the upper half of the trail. If these reports proved to be true this would allow me to knock off the Laurel Mountain Trail in two long loop hikes…no shuttle required. This particular hike would utilize the path connecting the Laurel Mountain Trail with the Pilot Rock-Slate Cove Trail to the south. I’d ascend the PR-SCT from Yellow Gap Road, hopefully use the unofficial connector path for a short steep climb to the ridge, then I would follow the Laurel Mountain Trail back down to Yellow Gap Road where a 1.5-mile road walk would return me to my car. It’d be a lengthy hike, to be sure, and one that didn’t promise a whole lot of visual stimulation. Even so I was looking forward to this one…and it turned out to be as enjoyable as I hoped.

The hike would begin from the eastern trailhead for the Pilot Cove-Slate Rock Trail along Yellow Gap Road (Forest Service Road 1206). The first 2.6-miles would be on familiar trail, as I had hiked all or portions of the PC-SRT numerous times in the past. Even though it was a repeat footpath it was still enjoyable…primarily as the scenery provided by the energetic Slate Rock Creek would be my visual highlight for the day. At around the 1-mile mark the pretty Slate Rock Creek Falls is passed (which is definitely worth the short scramble down to the creek to see) after-which the trail continues on a moderate climb to the first and only spot where it crosses the aforementioned Slate Rock Creek. On my visit there was ribbon strung around a large tree to the right just before the crossing, this isn’t something to count on for future visits however. Just beyond the large tree (before crossing!) the unofficial connector path up to the Laurel Mountain Trail begins, following the same side of the creek farther upstream. At first the path remains fairly flat but that doesn’t last long. When it shortly turns to attack the ridge it does it with a purpose. Over the next 4/10-mile the path climbs an almost silly 500 vertical feet to the top of the ridge. There’s no switchback here to help either. It’s just a straight shot up the muddy, root-covered slope. On the positive side I found this little connector path to be quite easy to follow, despite its unofficial designation. I read later that the USFS might have plans in the future to improve and maintain it but, for now, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Upon completing the climb of the connector I was now on the Laurel Mountain Trail itself, just south of a spot known as Sassafras Gap. It was at this point, you’ll discover in the album, which I embarked on a short spur hike UP the ridge to a spot known as Good Enough Gap. This is a completely optional portion of the hike…an extra 1-mile round-trip I included because this short section of the Laurel Mountain Trail needed to be completed in my ongoing quest to hike all the trails in the District. After the side-trip I then set my sights for the long journey down the ridge. The distance from Sassafras Gap to the lower trailhead at Yellow Gap is about five miles, over which the Laurel Mountain Trail drops a bit over 1,000-feet. Starting south it didn’t take long to figure out how the trail got its name…laurel tunnels are the rule not an exception up here. The route meanders lazily down the south side of the ridge, loosing elevation only gradually for the most part. The ¾-mile between Sassafras Gap and Johnson Gap is unremarkable and easy, passing through surroundings which will remain familiar the remainder of the hike. Below Johnson Gap, along the 2-ish miles between it and Rich Gap, the terrain gets a bit more interesting with a couple large rock outcrops to mix things up as the route follows along the side of the ridge which grows increasingly steep. Don’t let outcrops make you think views, however, your surrounding remain thickly forested. At Rich Gap the forest reaches, in my opinion, the pinnacle of its beauty on this hike. Surrounding the gap trees of enormous size reach for the canopy far above. It’s one of the more impressive cove forests I’ve seen anywhere in the area. Trust me, the pictures you’ll see in the album don’t come close to doing justice to the scale of what you see here. Beyond Rich Gap the trail returns to its routine of passing in and out of countless laurel tunnels while traversing steep forested slopes. There’s just under three miles of walking between Rich Gap and Yellow Gap, most of which remains easy going. The only exception to this is in the final ¾-mile as the trail finally gets serious about leaving the ridge and drops a final 500-vertical feet all at once before reaching its southern terminus at Yellow Gap Road. After that it was an easy, mostly downhill and enjoyably scenic, 1.7-mile walk along the road back to the car.

Overall I found this to be a very enjoyable hike…though admittedly most are not likely to find it so. It’s long, it’s tough in places, and to some it’d probably be monotonous. I won’t argue, it is indeed all those things. Still though there is an aura of wildness in this section of the forest that really spoke to that part of me which enjoys visiting lesser-known corners of the natural world. If you can appreciate long walks through pristine Appalachian forests…and you’d like a little challenge along with it…then I think you’ll find this as rewarding a hike as I did. Per usual, however, I’ll let you be the judge via this album. So, without further ado, I present a hike of what I’m calling the Laurel Mountain Trail Lower Loop…and as always I hope you ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.385264, -82.691956

Route Type:  Loop                      Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  14.40 )

Hike Length:  11.2 miles               Hike Duration:  4:15

Trailhead Temp:  75'F                 Trail Traffic:  10-25 people

Min. Elevation:  2,750'                  Max. Elevation:  4,250'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,600'           Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  143'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Laurel Mountain (blue), Pilot Cove-Slate Rock (blue), Slate Rock-Laurel Mountain Connector (unblazed)


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