A rails-to-trails favorite in Madison county that follows Big Laurel Creek up to the French Broad River.
Tucked away in the Pisgah National Forest section of Madison County of North Carolina is the “Rails to Trails” favorite – Laurel River Trail. This 3.6 mile one-way out and back hike is a great family hiking destination that can be enjoyed year round without hiking the entire 7.2 miles if you don’t want to. Paralleling Big Laurel Creek until it joins the French Broad River, this is a popular spot during the warm summer months due to the many swimming holes along the creek.
The Laurel River Trail is located at the intersection of highway 25/70 and highway 208 in the town of Hot Springs North Carolina. Parking for the trailhead is along the road and, while the area is somewhat large and takes up both sides of the road, this is a popular spot and it can get crowded at times. Your best bet is to arrive early. There are no public restroom facilities at the trailhead. The Laurel River Trail is about 40 minutes from Asheville North Carolina, 1 hour from Johnson City Tennessee, or 90 minutes from Knoxville Tennessee.
The trail starts at the far end of the parking area. There isn’t a sign for it but it is fairly obvious as it parallels highway 25. This trail is marked with yellow blazes, well maintained, and very easy to follow as it follows the creek with almost no elevation change.
Initially the trail cuts through some private lots so stay on the trail as you quickly work your way down to Big Laurel Creek. Once you are on the creek, you will have miles of beautiful river front hiking that becomes less crowded the farther you hike down the trail. You will likely encounter people fishing, swimming, camping, picnicking, and tubing along the creeks numerous access points. You could hike until you find your spot on the river or continue the full 3.6 miles to the French Broad River which is what we did.
Further down the trail are some rocky parts of the river with spectacular views and popular swimming holes. Near the end of the trail you will pass the remains of the old logging town of Runion that was once serviced by the railroad on the trail you are hiking. Shortly after this you will encounter an active rail line and the end of the trail at the French Broad River. The tracks are active so we recommend staying off the tracks and crossing under the bridge to reach the French Broad River.
The view of the French Broad is wonderful and is a great reward for the 3.6 trek required to get there. It is a great spot to relax at and maybe enjoy a picnic if you packed your lunch. There are a few folding chairs spread out at the river bank that someone left for you to just relax and enjoy the river view.
This is an out and back hike so when you are done enjoying where ever you ended your hike, return back to the parking area.