My last two Saturdays have been spent exploring the many acres of the Laurel-Snow State Natural Area. I like coming here because not only is it close to Knoxville, but it’s a great hike that’s not in the Smokies. Don’t get me wrong, I love my proximity to the Smokies, but this is a refreshing change of scenery. Laurel-Snow is in Rhea County, a few miles outside of Dayton, TN, where the famous Scopes Monkey Trial was held (in fact, one of the overlooks in Laurel-Snow is named Bryan Overlook after William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and one of the lawyers in the court case).
Laurel-Snow rests on Walden Ridge, the eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau that divides the Appalachian Plateau and Ridge-and-Valley provinces of the Appalachians. There are so many interesting features in the natural area that it’s very difficult to see them all in one day. Cascades and waterfalls dot multiple large creeks that the trails follow and offer class IV rapids to kayakers. The two main waterfalls, Laurel and Snow Falls, give the park its name and occur along the main hiking trails. Laurel Falls is the larger and more popular of the two falls and falls on Laurel Creek and is my go-to hike.
Along the trail to Laurel Falls is an abandoned coal mine from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that was operated by the Dayton Coal and Iron Company. It’s possible to enter the large mine that once employed 450 men, but it frequently floods and, being an old mine, is unsafe in general. The coal bed that was mined is visible upon entry into the mine and also crops out at a couple spots along the trail. Another relic of the coal operations are a series of coke ovens near the trailhead. Coke is a pure, carbon fuel that is made from the distillation of bituminous coal. The coal is loaded into the oven and cooked in low-oxygen conditions until the impurities have been removed in the form of slag. This slag can be found in abundance around the trail and is identified by its vessicular (cratered) texture.
The hike to Laurel Falls is only 5 miles roundtrip but is steep at times as well as rocky. It’s a fun hike, though. “Fat Man’s Squeeze” is a small hole between boulders that can be navigated on the path to the falls. The Dayton Reservoir that used to supply water to the town can be hiked to or can be seen from above on the main trail, and the large iron pipes that transported this water crop out at several places on the trail. Evidence for an old dam, railroad bridges, and the ruins of stone buildings add to the number of historic structures on the trail.
There are also many geologic sights too. Boulders the size of double-wides rest in Richland Creek, cross bedding is visible in sandstone beds, and small folds occur in various rock layers. Laurel-Snow is also popular for swimming in the summer (and even the winter as was proven by one of my braver friends) at calm spots along the creeks. However, as is typical for Tennessee, the only rocks you will see are sedimentary.
While the falls are a magnificent destination, it’s also worthwhile to go the extra mile (literally) to Bryan Overlook that gives a panoramic view of Laurel-Snow. I highly recommend this hike for a taste of Tennessee/Appalachian history, an eyeful of beautiful scenery, and of course more geology and wildlife than you can shake a stick at.
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