Appalachian Dialect

Laurel Hells

Laurel thicket

laurel hell noun A dense growth of laurel (i.e. rhododendron)
1977 Hamilton Mountain Memories 48 Far back in the big mountains were the infamous “laurel hells” where our tall laurel grew so thick with twisted branches, that a man venturing in there might never find his way out. c1980 Campbell Memories of Smoky 220 They soon learn, often with sore muscles as a lingering reminder, that the so-called “laurel slicks” of the Smokies are far from being “slick” and that “laurel hells” make a much more accurate or descriptive name for what the botanists know as “heath balds.”

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English

I’ve heard about laurel hells all my life and heard many a tall tale about men and hunting dogs getting lost in them never to be seen again. If you’ve ever found yourself in a thicket of laurel and or ivy you can easily understand why they are call hells. On our recent hike we saw a dandy laurel hell going up the side of a steep creek bank. Of course The Deer Hunter had to wade into it to see if he saw any animal sign. I teased him that going in a laurel hell like that he might get lost never be seen again 🙂


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  • Reply
    January 31, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    Thanks for the explanation and the anecdotes! Lots of Mitski fans will probably be passing through here teehee

  • Reply
    Susanna Holstein
    May 22, 2020 at 8:16 am

    I have never heard the term but the stories in the comments are great! I’ve always just called them thickets but like your name better.

  • Reply
    May 21, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    Tipper, im sorry i hadnt been on here but I’ve been under the sorta say weather. I just got to have my surgery yesterday. I ve put with 3 broken bones for4 days. Had alot of pain. We cut trees down and i was pulling on branches and one broke with me and i tried to catch myself with my hand and broke my wrist.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    May 21, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    One time The Deer Hunter came by my shop to help me install a plastic reservoir. Tipper had told me that her Husband could do most anything, and had a four-wheel drive vehicle. The Deer Hunter and I loaded the Reservoir and Headed for Topton, where I lived. Matt and I surveyed what needed to be done and went to work. I wasn’t worth much. I had told Matt about me passing out in a Laurel Hell a few days earlier. Matt said “as steep as it is, you probably fell for thirty minutes before you hit the ground.” My little dog was wrapped around my head when I woke up. He had never seen me in this condition. I had rubber boots on so the Cold Creek wouldn’t bother me by playing in the water.

    Matt asked if I had any tape, and I had picked up a roll at the shop, just in case. He sized up the difference between the Flarred Pipe coming out of the Ground and the part hanging out of the plastic reservoir to be installed and put Just enough tape on it to fit perfectly. After he finished, I went up the hill and turned the water on. What an evening for a couple of Mountain Men! …Ken

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    May 21, 2020 at 11:13 am

    Tipper–Hells are aptly named. Pretty much anyone who has spent appreciable time off trail in the southern Appalachian backcountry has had some unpleasant experiences in these places. Probably the best known one in the region is Huggins Hell in the Park. Another one, this time shrouded in considerable mystery, is Jeffreys Hell in the Citico Wilderness Area. Hells are tough in any kind of circumstances, but they are particularly demanding in steep terrain.

    Those of your readers familiar with Sam Hunnicutt’s classic book, “Twenty Years Hunting and Fishing in the Great Smokies,” and the setting for most of his stories (the Deep Creek drainage in the Park) have to be absolutely amazed at the kind of terrain, including plenty of hells, old Sam and companions such as Mark Cathey and O. P. Williams, not only braved but mastered. They were a tough breed of men.

    I’ve only had one really bad experience in a hell. It was on the Left Fork of Deep Creek, where there are no maintained trails, and with two other fishermen I made a major mistake in trying to climb up from the creek to the Fork Ridge Trail which marks the edge of the Left Fork drainage. We eventually got out but I was about as tired and bedraggled as I’ve ever been.

    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Margie Goldstein
    May 21, 2020 at 8:43 am

    I know deer stay in the mountain laurel a lot. I know it is beautiful but to get into the thick of it seems not to be a great idea to me. I’m a bit shy based on recent poison ivy experiences over these recent years which drove me “ up a wall!” Who needs to develop methods of ways to torture people when poison ivy or oak or sumac exist? Once I brought a mountain laurel plant to my dad I “ found” in a national forest- he became unhinged and read me the riot act over taking anything out of a National forest so to this day, I leave all that’s in the woods in the woods. My best friend ( who is gone to heaven now) found a kitten in a grove of mountain laurel fishing for its life from a stream therein. I’m starting to wonder if that laurel could talk what it would tell….

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    May 21, 2020 at 8:32 am

    I know someone whose Grandpa went walking in the woods, using two walking sticks, and never returned. An intensive search did not find him. Over a year later his remains were found in a small open spot inside a rhododendron thicket.

    There is an astonishing area covered with rhododendron, mountain laurel or both in the southern Appalachians. The estimated area is in the millions of acres. An odd thing about both rhododendron and laurel is that small seedlings are very uncommon in the woods. Something has changed greatly since those ‘slicks’ got their start.

    Down in the coastal swamp country they have their own versions of ‘hells’. One near the GA/FL line is called Tate’s Hell. The story is Tate was lost in there for several days be fore coming out the other side. But, those kinds of places made good hideouts, such as for the moonshiners.

    • Reply
      Ed Ammons
      May 21, 2020 at 9:20 am

      I don’t think have ever seen a laurel or rhododendron seedling. I have seen many examples of limbs that have taken root after being pushed down on the ground. Most of the time when I have dug them, there are one or more roots attached to a neighboring plants. Maybe seeds are not their primary means of reproduction.

  • Reply
    Leon Pantenburg
    May 21, 2020 at 8:08 am

    We have thickets like that in Mississippi. There are some where you must literally chop your way with a machete.
    This post shows one of those thickets at .28.
    The deer hunter and I must have the same philosophy: The best place to find a trophy buck is the last place you’d want to pack one out of!

  • Reply
    aw griff
    May 21, 2020 at 8:01 am

    Yes my Wife and I walked through one for about a mile to get to a good fishing spot. The creek was so cold and we didn’t want to get in the cold water to get to the trail so we chose the mountain laurel. Not knowing the thicket went on forever we fought our way through until we came to another riffle. Got out of that mountain laurel and got wet after all. We got so cold we didn’t do much fishing and walked back the easy way. If anyone wants some hard exercise try the mountain laurel. You will be bending, stretching, pulling, ducking, etc.
    TMC walked over 5 miles in that stuff. If I had to do that I may have never bought a hunting or fishing license again either.

  • Reply
    Jim k
    May 21, 2020 at 7:48 am

    Here in East TN, we are all to familiar with your description. For my friends that bear hunt that is their worst nightmare when the dogs have the bear in a laurel thicket.

  • Reply
    May 21, 2020 at 6:23 am

    Did it one-time turkey hunting, Buddy of mine knew or thought he knew a shorter way back to the Truck, yea right, after about a couple of hours walking found ourselves in a deep holler Mountain Laurel growing up both sides, me telling him Dude you are going the wrong way, to get out of this mess it was either climb up out of there using the laurel or go back 5 miles or so. Well, I pointed the direction and we unloaded our guns and began to climb, it was tough but when we got to the top a short walk across the ridge and we came out to the highway 5 miles below where we parked the truck but level blacktop to walk instead of steep slick trails, last hunting trip I went with him, that was back in 2004, actually haven’t bought a huntin License since.

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