When it comes to adventures in Western North Carolina, there are few things more inspiring than reaching a beautiful waterfall tucked away in a dense forest.
Whether it’s enjoying the solitude of a quiet hike through a beautiful forest or witnessing the sheer beauty of whitewater cascading over a rock outcropping as it falls into a pool of clear, cold water below, there’s something for nearly everyone to enjoy at the many waterfalls in Western North Carolina.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he mountains of North Carolina are blessed with an abundance of water and, in turn, a high concentration of beautiful waterfalls. In Transylvania County, a place known as “The Land of Waterfalls,” that abundance of water is exceedingly clear. Certain areas within the county receive over 90 inches of rain on average per year, which makes it one of the rainiest places in the United States. Combined with the steep topography of the county, the numerous creeks and tributaries form over 250 waterfalls, giving the area the distinction of having one of the highest concentrations of waterfalls in the country.
But “The Land of Waterfalls” isn’t the only place in Western North Carolina with spectacular sightseeing opportunities for waterfall chasers. In total, the region has around 500 named waterfalls spread throughout, which makes nearly every town and city in Western North Carolina a great destination for those in search of a tumbling cataract. To make it easier for you to discover for yourself what we consider some of the best waterfall hikes in the region, we’ve put together a mini-guide with 15 of our favorite waterfalls found in Western North Carolina.
Pisgah National Forest
The 60-foot-tall Courthouse Falls has been drawing crowds deep into the Pisgah National Forest for years. One look at the waterfall and it’s easy to see why. The tall, slender sliver of silver water flows between two large, moss-covered granite outcrops into a deep pool of water that makes an ideal swimming hole on warm summer days. The waterfall is part of Courthouse Creek, which flows through the Pisgah National Forest near the Devil’s Courthouse, a large outcrop that was long considered a sacred area of the Cherokee Indians who inhabited the region for centuries. While the drive to access the falls is long and windy, the actual hike is a short, quarter-mile walk on mostly flat terrain. While the trail to the waterfall is fairly easy to navigate, getting to the trailhead is a large part of the adventure. To reach the falls, head down N.C. Highway 215 for 6.5 miles south from the Blue Ridge Parkway and turn left onto Forest Road 140 (Courthouse Creek Road). Go three miles down the road and park on the right just after crossing the bridge over Courthouse Creek. Follow the marked trail for .36 miles to the falls, which will be on the left. Afterward, head north to the Blue Ridge Parkway via highway 215 stopping at a large pullout with great views of the Devil’s Courthouse before reaching the Parkway where a short drive will take visitors to the Devil’s Courthouse pulloff. The actual rock summit can be reached via a short hike.
Pisgah National Forest
One of Western North Carolina’s most popular attractions is the 60-foot-long Sliding Rock in Pisgah National Forest. Thousands of visitors each week take a trip down the smooth rock slide on Looking Glass Creek before they take the final plunge into a large, deep pool at the bottom.
For years, visitors to Brevard and Pisgah National Forest have cooled off by taking a dip in the cool water of the natural rock water slide. In recent years, the area was developed by the U.S. Forest Service into a popular recreation area. Parking is available in a large lot above the rock and beside U.S. Highway 276. There are two viewing platforms, steps down to the pool and railings to help climb the rocks on the left side before sliding down. A restroom and changing room is provided and a lifeguard is periodically on duty especially during summer weekends. At other times, sliding down the waterfall is done at a visitor’s own risk. Children must be of a certain size to slide alone, otherwise, they may slide in the lap of an adult.
A $1.00 per person fee is charged by the Forest Service to use the area between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, when lifeguards and rangers are on duty. The rock is closed to sliders during times of high water or when lightning is detected in the area.
To get to the recreation area and the falls, travel north from the intersection of U.S. Highway 276, approximately 7.7 miles north of the intersection of 276, U.S. Highway 64, and N.C. Highway 280 in Brevard, North Carolina. En route, you will pass Looking Glass Falls and the parking area for Moore Cove Falls.
Looking Glass Falls
Pisgah National Forest
One of the most popular and highly visited waterfalls in North Carolina, Looking Glass Falls, which takes its name from nearby Looking Glass Rock, is an 80-foot-tall cascade located only a few hundred feet from U.S. 276.
Looking Glass Falls are open year round, free of charge, just minutes from Brevard, North Carolina. With its ease of access thanks to the roadside location, the waterfall is very popular and often draws large crowds during summer months. As a result, there are frequently injuries and even deaths at the 80-foot-tall waterfall. As with any waterfall, visitors should use the utmost caution when approaching the river due to slick, moss-covered rocks.
The waterfall has been successfully kayaked on several occasions.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Graveyard Fields is home to three beautiful cascades located in one of the most scenic sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The high elevation balds of Shining Rock Wilderness area make for unique vistas unlike anything else in the Southern Highlands region. The 60-foot-tall Second Falls can be seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Graveyard Fields Overlook, but visitors should opt to take a closer look by taking the short hike from the Graveyard Fields parking area down to the overlook. Along the way, hikers will cross Yellowstone Prong before ambling down a set of stairs to the viewing area. Upstream of Second Falls is First Falls, which can be accessed by a roughly 7-mile-long round trip hike (difficult). The access area for both waterfalls is located between Mileposts 418 and 419 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
DuPont State Recreational Forest
At 15 feet tall, Hooker Falls isn’t one of the tallest of the many North Carolina waterfalls, but it is one of the most popular and highly-visited falls in the entire state.
Hooker Falls has been known for years to local residents and was named for Edmund Hooker, who operated a mill below the falls in the late 1800s. At the time, it was named Mill Shoals Falls. In recent years, visitors have flocked to the falls during summer months to swim in Cascade Lake at the base of the falls. While jumping from the falls is illegal, occasionally daring visitors can be seen leaping from the center of the waterfall into a small, deep pool below.
The waterfall also gained notoriety for its role in a scene in the movie Last of the Mohicans when the characters run the waterfall in canoes. As a kayaking destination, the waterfall is the final drop in a series of steep waterfalls and slides along the Little River renown as a top whitewater paddling river when water levels rise following heavy rains.
Visitors may park at the Hooker Falls parking area, and then hike the short Hooker Falls Trail for roughly ¼ mile. There are two views of the falls, the first overlooking the falls from above, and a second view from across the plunge pool that lets you view the entire falls.
DuPont State Forest may also allow access to the falls to handicapped persons. Contact the DuPont State Forest for more information.
High Falls & Triple Falls
DuPont State Recreational Forest
High Falls is located on the Little River in the DuPont State Forest. It is one of four major waterfalls on the Little River in this area, the others being Triple Falls, Hooker Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. Above the falls itself, the river is level and calm. The falls consists of a wide, ever-steepening slide over granite, and the water generally stays on the rock the whole way down. In some places, the water free-falls for a few feet or jumps off the rock face, but it is not possible to get behind the falls anywhere.
High Falls has been known for years to local residents. In the 1990s, DuPont Forest was sold to the State of North Carolina, and as DuPont has completed cleanup of various areas, those areas have been made open to the public as a part of the 10,000+ acre DuPont State Forest.
Visitors may park at the Hooker Falls parking area, and then hike the Triple Falls / High Falls Trail for roughly one mile (past the spectacular view of aptly named Triple Falls). Alternately, the High Falls Parking Area offers visitors a chance to access the falls through a scenic trail near the Visitors Center. The handicap-accessible High Falls Trail takes visitors to a pavilion with a view of the falls from above, after which hikers can head down the stairs to the base of the falls for a closer look.
Pisgah National Forest
Rainbow Falls is a waterfall in Western North Carolina, located near Brevard. The falls is located on the Horsepasture River. It is on Pisgah National Forest land just outside Gorges State Park.
According to wikipedia.com, a proposal to route the flow of the river around the falls in the mid 1980s for a hydroelectric power plant was thwarted by public opposition. On October 27, 1986, the Horsepasture River was designated a national Wild and Scenic River, protecting the falls from future development.
The rock face over which the river flows is not vertical, but the large volume of water during normal river flows causes it to leap many feet out from the rock and creates a deep plunge pool at the bottom of the falls. It creates large amounts of wind and mist that race up the hillside opposite the falls. If the sun is in the right position, a rainbow is easily observed here, giving the falls its name.
As of 2011, there is a new three mile round-trip trail to Rainbow Falls through Gorges State Park. From the parking lot, follow the trail for five minutes, bearing right at the intersection. 20 minutes further, the trail enters the Nantahala National Forest, with a side trail to the left that heads to Stairway Falls. Bearing right takes you to Rainbow Falls in about 20 more minutes. Hikers can then go further up the trail to Turtleback Falls.
Prior to the opening of the park, the only path to the falls was through an unofficial trail on National Forest property.
Nantahala National Forest
Turtleback Falls, also called Umbrella Falls, is a waterfall in Western North Carolina, located near Brevard. The falls is located on the Horsepasture River in the Nantahala National Forest land just outside Gorges State Park.
The falls has a large, deep pool at the bottom commonly known as the “Chug Hole.” The river flows over a large, sloping slab of rock before curving steeper and finally dropping into the pool. The appearance of the rock, similar to a turtle’s shell, gives the falls its name.
To access the falls, take a short hike starting in Gorges State Park before passing through Pisgah National Forest property into the Nantahala National Forest. The 20-minute-long hike takes visitors to Rainbow Falls before heading further upstream to reach Turtle Back Falls. The area is a popular place for swimming and people frequently slide over the falls into the Chug Hole during low water; however, the currents can be dangerous in higher flows and people have drowned at Turtleback or have been swept downriver and over the 125-foot-high Rainbow Falls.
Linville Gorge Wilderness Area
Located just a short drive from Linville, North Carolina, Linville Falls features several different drops that begin in a twin set of upper falls before moving down a small gorge and culminating in a high-volume 45-foot drop.
The name of the Linville Gorge and the falls themselves comes from an ill-fated expedition into the gorge by the Linville brothers that ended when two out of three members of the expedition were killed by local Native Americans. Until August of 2010, it was believed that no one had survived a trip down the Linville Falls. However, Pat Keller, of Asheville, changed that when he bombed the three-tiered waterfall in a kayak.
The triple-tiered waterfall had been eyed by many experienced kayakers over the years, but the intimidating upper drop had been, until Keller’s descent, thought to be un-runnable. During Keller’s successful drop of the upper waterfall, the upper falls proved to be the most difficult section.
The falls are owned by the National Park Service, which operates a visitor center and several miles of non-handicapped accessible trails with four overlooks for the falls. The 0.5-mile (0.80 km) Upper Falls trail leads to the top of the falls, where visitors can see the small twin upper falls and the water spiraling through a small canyon on its way to the main falls. The Erwin’s View trail leads to two overlooks, the Chimney View overlook (0.7 miles/1.1 km) and the Erwin’s View overlook (0.8 miles/1.1 km ). The 0.5-mile (0.80 km) Plunge Basin Trail leads to the Plunge Basin Overlook, which provides a view of the falls from the other side of the river. Finally, the 0.7-mile (1.1 km) Gorge Trail, which branches off from the Plunge Basin trail, leads to an area near the foot of the falls. Swimming is prohibited at all areas of Linville Falls, as many deaths have occurred.
Upper Creek Falls
Wilson Creek Wild & Scenic River Area
Located on Highway 181 near the entrance to the Linville Gorge, Upper Creek Falls is renown as one of the most unique and popular swimming holes in the area thanks to the natural waterslides located along Upper Creek. The trail begins on the left side of the parking lot and descends into the gorge by way of a series of switchbacks (please remain on trail to prevent erosion). Once at the water’s edge, exploration both upstream and downstream presents the adventurer with beautiful waterfalls and perfect swimming holes. The trail heads downstream to Lower Falls where one of the area’s most incredible natural waterslides can be found. Head back to the parking lot by crossing the creek and following the well-traveled trail uphill past rocky outcrops and large boulders.
Big Ivy Wilderness
With two ways to access Douglas Falls, the route one takes could mean the difference between a difficult 4-mile-long approach to the 80-foot-tall waterfall or a nice, gentle walk of just a quarter of a mile. Both make for excellent adventures, but if an easy approach suits your style, we recommend heading into the Big Ivy Wilderness in Barnardsville and following the long, winding gravel road to a small parking lot at the end of the road. From there, a short hike takes visitors to the base of Douglas Falls.
Blue Ridge Parkway
History holds that the Cherokee used Soco Gap and Soco Falls as a hideout and as a way to ambush their enemies. These days, Soco Falls is a popular tourist destination in large part because of the spectacular waterfalls that are easily accessed and viewed from the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. The falls are located about 11 miles east of Cherokee on U.S. 19 while driving toward Maggie Valley. Waterfall hunters should be on the lookout for a small unmarked pull-off where a short walk leads you to a viewing platform for Soco Falls and another smaller falls.
Hickory Nut Falls
Chimney Rock State Park
At over 400 feet in height, Hickory Nut Falls is one of the tallest of the waterfalls in North Carolina, as well as one of the most famous as it was featured in the final climactic battle of the film, The Last of the Mohicans. While it’s possible to view this towering and beautiful waterfall from Highway 64 in the town of Chimney Rock, we recommend getting an up-close view of the waterfall from Chimney Rock Park by hiking one of several trails that lead to both the base and to the top of Hickory Nut Falls.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Walker Falls is an enormous 45-foot cascading waterfall located near Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina, in Buncombe County. It is very easy to get to, making it highly popular among those that are searching for waterfalls. Walker Falls is located in the Pisgah National Forest near Barnardsville on Walker Branch, which is right off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Hwy N.C. 197 accesses the secondary roads that lead to this waterfall, as well. You can enjoy driving the Blue Ridge Parkway to get to this amazing waterfall.
Tom’s Creek Falls
Pisgah National Forest
The 60-foot Tom’s Creek Falls are a great attraction for people near Marion in Western North Carolina. Tom’s Creek flows over several cascading upper sections of bedrock into a near-vertical lower cascade, ending in a small scoop in the rocks. A wide, flat pool area is at the base, located in a gully that has large amounts of mica embedded in the rock.
To access the falls, follow the mostly easy 0.4-mile-long trail to a short, but steep climb before scrambling down to the base of the falls. For years visitors had to ford a small creek, but in recent years a bridge was built over the creek that allows hikers to keep their feet dry if they want to.
Tom’s Creek Falls is located seven miles north of Marion, just off of U.S. 221. Turn left at Huskins Branch Road, just before Woodlawn Motel. Go approximately 1.5 miles. Park on the right hand side of the road at the gravel lot before the small bridge. The trail begins on the right of the parking lot. When the trail forks, follow the left fork along the creek. Trail distance is an easy 2-mile loop.
Watch Your Step – Unfortunately every year tourists and locals alike go on adventures and ignore simple precautions and injure themselves unnecesarily. Please remember to proceed with caution when exploring any new territory, especially on slippery rocks, cliffs, and especially when near the top of waterfalls.