Driving DirectionsUpper Trailhead
Drive north on NC 215 from the junction with the Blue Ridge Parkway at Beech Gap. It is 0.85 mile to a gravel drive on the right (east) side of the road. The drive is 17.05 miles south from US 276.Lower Trailhead
From the upper trailhead, drive 2.45 miles farther north on NC 215 to Triple Arch Bridge over West Fork Pigeon River There is a small parking area on the east side of the bridge.
Before you explore the creek, you’ll have to decide whether you want to go downstream or upstream. I usually find it easier and safer to go upstream. There are some tricky spots on this creek where gravity can get you into trouble when you’re descending. Yes, you could do this hike as an out-and-back, but I don’t recommend it, as it involves a good 0.75 mile of intense scrambling. You’ll be worn out when you finish and looking for the nearest car. I recommend bringing a friend and doing this as a shuttle hike, so you don’t have to backtrack along the creek. If you’re a photographer, you’ll definitely want to do this trip as a shuttle hike because it will take you all day to go one way, considering all the time you’ll spend making photos.
With that said, I have done this hike three times by myself as a long loop. I started at the bottom and followed the creek up to the upper trail access, followed the trail back to NC 215, then walked NC 215 the 2.5 miles back to the car. These were long, tiring days.
Actually, the first decision you should make is whether you want to make the trip at all. Experienced off-trail waterfallers may find it challenging but should make it through unscathed. But if you haven’t done a lot of creek walking, wading, and boulder scrambling, you should forget this one.
Another consideration is the water level. You have to do a lot of wading and crisscrossing the creek and if the water is up much, it simply won’t be safe to do so, if it’s even possible. That’s another good reason for starting at the bottom. You can reach the creek in only a quarter-mile and make the determination.
To reach the upper creek access from the upper trailhead, follow the old logging railroad grade and descend less than 0.1 mile to cross Bubbling Spring Branch, which is usually easy to rockhop. Beyond the crossing, it is a little over 0.1 mile to another creek, which is a dry crossing in all but high water. Look upstream from this crossing to see a scenic little waterfall. The railroad grade continues another 0.5 mile to an out-of-character concrete bridge at the base of Wildcat Falls.
From Wildcat Falls, continue on the easy grade for about 1.1 miles to where the trail swings to the right and enters the Flat Laurel Creek drainage. You’ll soon come to an obvious path on the left at N35.32520, W-82.89838 . Less than 100 yards farther you’ll come to another side path (more like a gully) on the left at N35.32487, W-82.89767 . In another 135 yards, you’ll come to a third path on the left at N35.32445, W-82.89658 .
You can use either of these paths to reach the creek. The third one is only a few yards long and comes to the creek at the top of all the falling water. You won’t miss anything if you start there. The second is also short, but very steep and brings you to the creek at the base of the first cascade on the creek. This is probably the best starting point since you get to see the upper cascade but don’t have to walk down it.
The first path is much longer and also steep. Years ago, it was also very confusing as there were many paths branching off from it and it was easy to wander around not knowing where to go. Someone had told me that it eventually led down to the creek near the lower trailhead, bypassing all the waterfalls. That’s the info I put in the book. But when I hiked it recently, I didn’t find any obvious paths leading down to the bottom trailhead. The only obvious path leads down to the creek at the start of the main section of waterfalls. If you go this route, you’ll miss a little bit of falling water upstream, but you’ll see all of the bigger waterfalls, which are downstream.
To reach the lower creek access from the lower trailhead, follow the old logging grade on a level course to the creek. You can start the creek walk here, but the waterfalls don’t start until a little ways upstream. However, there are some nice views of the creek with little cascades before you reach the falls. You can bypass this section by following a series of faint paths on river right. You’ll have to look around to find them and stay on them.
Once you are in the creekbed, you’ll just want to follow the route of least resistance. In the lower section, you’ll be in or very near the creek at all times. In the upper section, you won’t be able to stay in the creek because the waterfalls are too big and dangerous to traverse. I’ve always bypassed this section on river right. The woods are relatively open and easy to walk through.
From the upper creek access, Flat Laurel Creek Trail continues following the railroad grade. In about 1.5 miles, it reaches the parking area at the end of FR 816. You can access the waterfalls from this trailhead or leave a shuttle vehicle here, but be advised that the Blue Ridge Parkway, from which FR 816 begins, often closes in winter.
In the second edition of North Carolina Waterfalls, I stated that there are no significant waterfalls along Flat Laurel Creek. Although the way I view waterfalls has changed over the past 10 years, I have no idea why I made that statement. I hiked the creek back then and saw all the falls. What was I thinking? I’ve hiked the creek three times since then, and each time I was impressed with the waterfalls and the scenery. Admittedly, there aren’t any big, powerful falls here, but I certainly consider some of them significant. And when you take the creek as a whole, well, this is about as good as it gets.
Photographers will love Flat Laurel Creek. There are great compositions everywhere you look. My favorite time to visit is in autumn, when the forest is ablaze. The peak period for fall color comes a little early at Flat Laurel Creek, typically between the first and second week of October. Besides the difficulty of the hike, the problem with visiting during peak fall color is that you might not be able photograph everything you want in a single trip.
I’ve never heard of any names for the waterfalls on Flat Laurel Creek and I do not intend to bestow any. Flat Laurel Creek is the poster child for the issues associated with determining where a waterfall begins and ends. In the minds of some people, there might be 20 waterfalls on the creek. For others, it might be 3 or 4, with one of them being a half-mile long. It’s important to understand that it makes no difference how anyone classifies it. Just enjoy it!
In the early 1900s, extensive logging occurred in all of the forest along Flat Laurel Creek and the surrounding area. The two approach trails you’ll use to reach the creek are along old logging railroad grades. You’ll see rusty steel cables in the creek, relics of the logging era.
You can see a lot of the falling water on Flat Laurel Creek from the open summit of Green Knob, across the gorge. Green Mountain Trail follows Fork Ridge from Mountains-to-Sea Trail on Mount Hardy all the way down to NC 215 at the junction of Middle Prong and West Fork Pigeon River. The first portion of the trail between Mount Hardy and Green Knob offers spectacular views, including an open view of Wildcat Falls and the waterfalls of Flat Laurel Creek. The map of Shining Rock and Middle Prong published by the Forest Service shows the trails in detail. The view of Wildcat Falls is at N35.31815, W-82.92255 . The view of the waterfalls on Flat Laurel Creek is at N35.33104, W-82.92145 . I highly recommend the hike to Green Knob. But if you’re thinking of continuing on Green Mountain Trail down to NC 215, I have some insight. There are few good views in this section, the trail is hard to follow, and it is insanely steep. This section is proof that there are trail builders who work for the devil.