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 Rainbow Falls Hikers

Hiking the Smokies:
Cove Mountain Fire Tower Day Hike

Length: 8.0 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Medium to Strenuous
Highlights: Laurel Falls and the Air Quality Monitoring Station
Caution: Slick rocks occur around Laurel Falls
Note: Best hiked early in the day or off-season to avoid crowds

Hike to Cove Mountain Fire Tower

The quickest route to the Cove Mountain fire tower is to begin on the Laurel Falls Trail. The Laurel Falls trailhead is located in Fighting Creek Gap, between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont Campground on Little River Road. A painted pedestrian crosswalk traverses the road at this location, making it easier to spot the parking area.

In order to get the best parking space and have the most solitude, arrive at the trailhead very early in the morning. The Laurel Falls Trail is perhaps the most heavily used trail in the park. While I’m still doing some research, I believe the name Fighting Creek Gap might have been coined after someone saw two cars battle for a parking space on a summer afternoon.

The Laurel Falls Trail begins as an easy climb on a paved trail. Pavement is necessary to prevent erosion from the heavy amount of foot traffic the trail receives. You’ll soon see why this is such a popular route for day hikers. At just over one and a quarter miles, you’ll see Laurel Falls, a beautiful seventy-five foot waterfall. Cross the footbridge over the clear, cool mountain pool and continue up the trail. You’ll leave the pavement, as well as most of the hikers, behind you at the falls.

The trail becomes a bit steeper as you move through a variety of virgin timber. You’ll pass a junction with the Little Greenbrier Trail at about three miles. Continue on the Laurel Falls Trail. Within a mile, you will join with the Cove Mountain Trail. Take a left and you’ll soon encounter a grassy clearing and the Cove Mountain fire tower.

Unlike the other three fire towers in the park, the Cove Mountain fire tower doesn’t afford much of a view. The third tier of the tower has been transformed into an air quality monitoring station, part of a joint venture between the National Park Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Unfortunately, ground-level ozone is contributing to unhealthy air and decreased visibility in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding area. By monitoring the amount of ground-level ozone present in the air, park officials can better inform the park’s employees and visitors, especially those individuals who are run an increased risk of suffering the effects of ground-level ozone. Children and asthmatics are the first to feel the effects of such pollution, though healthy adults may experience a fifteen to twenty percent reduction in lung function from exposure to low levels of ozone over several hours. Ground-level ozone takes a toll on the environment as well, interfering with the health of plants and wildlife.

After exploring the area, return to your car via the same route.

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General Tips for Enjoying Hikes in the Smokies

he hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on some hikes can be 10 degrees cooler than when you leave lower elevations. Combine this with the fact that the Smokies are also the wettest place in the South, and you have the possibility for great discomfort in the event of a sudden storm. The higher elevations in the park can receive upwards of 90 inches of precipitation a year.

Don't judge the complete day by the morning sky. In summer the days usually start out clear, but as the day heats up, clouds can build up, resulting in a heavy shower. Winter is a great time to be in the Smokies, but also represents the most challenging time as well. Frontal systems sweep through the region, with alternately cloudy and sunny days, though cloudy days are most frequent in winter.

When traveling in the Smokies, it's a good idea to carry clothes for all weather conditions.

Footwear should be chosen with care. Though tennis shoes may be generally appropriate for some day hikes, boots should be worn on the uneven trails in the Park. They support the ankles from sprains and the foot from cuts and abrasions.

Stay on the designated trail, because most hikers who get lost do so when they leave the path. If you get temporarily lost, try to retrace your steps until you cross the trail again. Then its just a matter of guessing which way you were headed when you left the trail. You will either continue the way you were headed or go back to your starting point--either way, no harm is done.

Always bring rain gear and a wool sweater. They don't weigh much and might make the difference between being miserable or not in the event it rains. As mentioned earlier, the Smokies get approximately 90 inches of rain a year. This is good. Its what makes the Smokies such a wonderful place to be. Don't start a hike if thunderstorms threaten--some of the most devastating damage ever to the Park has been from great storms which can be upon you with little warning.

Cross streams carefully. Getting wet, even in summer, could lead to hypothermia, which leads ultimately to disorientation, poor decision making and, in extreme circumstances, death. Having said that, don't let a fear of hypothermia, getting lost, or bears prevent you from the enjoyment to be had by trekking the trails of the Park.

There is no record of anyone ever being killed by a bear in the Smokies. When we questioned a Park Ranger about how to react to meeting a bear on the trail, he smilingly told us the most likely sighting of a bear will be its tail disappearing over a ridge. Most "incidents" occur when an ignorant visitor feeds or otherwise harasses a bear. My own experiences with bears have proven this to be true.

To avoid crowds, hike during the week; avoid holidays; go during the "off" season. Also, go in the morning before most folks are through eating breakfast; this is a good time to see wildlife and morning light is great for photography! You can also avoid crowds by using the outlying trailheads such as those found at the Cosby and Wears Valley entrances. I'm embarrassed to say we didn't know these existed for our first 18 visits to the Smokies. But to our delight, we found new vistas, trails, and landscapes to "discover for the first time".

ith a little care and planning, your trip to the Smokies can be much more rewarding and repay you with more great memories. You can enjoy not only the visual splendor of the Park, you can view it without counting out-of-state license plates, and you can get more fit in the bargain.

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