This past Saturday, I took time to revisit the river where my love for waterfalls began. This meant a trip to the North Carolina-Tennessee state line area, just south and west of Boone, NC. This was a visit to the Elk River. About 6 or 7 years ago, while visiting family in Newland, NC for Christmas, 2 of my younger cousins had a wonderful idea. It just happened to be a warm spell in Newland and the temperature on Christmas day was 50 degrees, a heat wave for Newland. I was asked if I wanted to ride to see a waterfall….my answer was…why not?? I was taken a few miles up US 19-E to a town called Elk Park and then down a crazy, twisting mountain road called Elk River Rd. The waterfall I saw was Elk River Falls and I have loved them ever since.
The first thing that strikes me about the Elk River is how common the word “Elk” is with it and the towns it flows from, through, and to. After forming near Grandfather Mountain, it runs though the mountain town of Banner Elk. It then runs along side NC 194 to the town of Elk Park. After It falls over Elk Falls, it flows though a steep gorge, over Twisting/Compression Falls and comes out in Tennessee at a town calls Elk Mills. It then joins Watauga Lake and becomes a part of the Wataugua River, another mountain river that forms near Grandfather Mountain. One thing I have never seen up here…is an Elk..lol
I have seen Elk Falls probably 20-25 times by now. There is another waterfall that is 4 miles downstream though. There is some debate over the name of it. I first learned it to be Twisting Falls, later to find out that it is actually called Compression Falls. Twisting Falls is supposedly just upstream. Getting to Compression Falls is quite the task so I will save the answer to this debate for another hike. I first went to Compression Falls in 2011, following some great advice and tips from the blog www.appalachiantreks.com and www.waterfall-picture-guide.com. Both sites warned that the hike was steep. I decided to go ahead with the hike and made the descent. Three things stand out from that day….1) How steep it was, straight down for a good .2 miles, 2) How stunningly beautiful the waterfall was, 3) How steep the climb out was and how thankful I was to see flat ground again. This hike created a memory that has yet to fade away.
I am not sure why I have not been back to this site, but this past weekend, with lots of rain approaching from the south, this area seemed to be the best bet to squeeze out a nice dry Saturday and get some good hiking and photo ops in. Compression Falls was first on my list on this day. Getting there from the piedmont of NC requires driving to Boone, then bearing off on US 321 towards Hampton, TN. About the time US 321 meets up with the Wataugua River, a small but nice waterfall is on the left called Trashcan Falls. A terrible name for such a nice waterfall. I did not stop on this day as I wanted to see Compression Falls before the weather moved in. Once in Tennessee and the small town of Elk Mills, I looked for Poga Rd and took a left. After a few miles up the mountain on a nice, paved road, I turned right onto Clawson Rd. After a short ways, there will be another right turn onto Dark Ridge Rd. This road starts out paved but turns to gravel. I followed it to a parking area near an old barn that had walls the last time I was there, but now is only a frame and roof.
Along the way up there, I ran into an interesting animal in a front yard, right next to the road…
I had an interesting encounter with a local while parking. Once I parked just off the road, an older gentleman came up the dirt road on his gator. He pulled up to me and just stared at me…I asked if it was ok to park here. There were 3 other cars there after all. He then let me know that they..the locals were tired of kids coming up there, partying, getting drunk and trashing their property. They had even closed off the field next to the barn where I parked last time. After I assured him that I was an older man only there to hike and view the falls, he kindly told me to have a nice day and be safe down there. I got his message loud and clear.. After this, my hike began.
It starts just off the other side of the road, opposite the old barn. It starts out pretty flat with just a slight descent. The defined trail comes out of the woods in just a short ways to an open clearing. There will be a tall powerline tower. The trail to Compression Falls takes a left turn here, straight down the mountain on a somewhat eroded dirt and loose rock trail. There are no switchbacks to make this task longer but easier. It is straight down. At this point, you can hear the waterfall way, way , way down below.
I am not sure if these photos gives you an idea of the steepness, but it was very steep. It is also long. The best advice here is to slow down, watch your footing, use the rocks, roots, trees, and tree limbs for leverage where needed. No special equipment is really needed here except common sense. It will seem like this hill never stops dropping, but it does. When it reaches the bottom, you will find yourself at the edge of the Elk River about .2 miles downstream from the falls. There will be some worn out rags tied to the trees here, look for them coming back so you know where to begin the long crazy climb back up.
Immediately, from the rivers edge, look upstream and there will already be a view of the falls. The first thought I had , was that this was going to be really good!! The path to the falls follows to river upstream, meandering on the river’s edge, onto the bank and then back to the edge. Some reasonable rocks will need to be maneuvered, climbed over or around. Once near the falls at the spray zone, the rocks are all wet, and a new hazard appears..wet slippery rocks. Once again, take your time and slow down. Near the end, the trail runs out of rock to maneuver and a dead tree is placed in the river to walk across. It seemed like this was the same tree 2 years ago, it has held up well.
While there, I was able to witness a few younger adults seek their thrills by jumping off of this 30 foot ledge. I wouldn’t do this or advise it…..but I also can’t stop it. So I got my camera , and enjoyed the show.
After about 45 minutes of rest on the long rock that sticks about 3/4 of the way into the river, I began my trek back. Knowing the climb I had ahead of me, I was not excited. With about 3 stops for rest, I finally made it back up. When climbing, the risk of slipping and falling is less than when going down the hill, but the huffing and puffing does become a factor. Once back to the powerline tower, the car is just minutes away. What a hike!!
After that, the drive to Elk River Falls begins. If you have enough time, as you pass though Hampton Tn, there are 2 trail heads for Laurel Falls. One directly on US 321 and one on Dennis Cove Rd in Hampton. This is a very nice waterfall and highly recommended. It is a 55 foot waterfall that requires hiking on the Appalachian Trail. On this day, I actually went on to the Blue Hole. I will write about that one separately.
In Hampton, I connected with US 19-E and headed east/south back into NC. Once in Elk Park, I took the familiar Elk River Rd 4 miles down to the river, which actually makes a dash back towards the Tennessee state line. Just before entering Tennessee, the road ends and there is Big Falls, aka Elk River Falls. The hike to this is short, coming out at the top. Be careful up here, people have fallen and jumped to their death.. There are now signs here saying “NO JUMPING”.
After taking in the view from the top, the trail goes down to the base, where just like Compression Falls, a long rock about 3/4 of the river long, provides a great place to sit, hang out, take pics, or to go swimming and sunbath. It’s a great spot with a very large amphitheater like pool.
After this, I headed back towards Boone via NC 194 and NC 184. This allowed me to follow the Elk River which runs roadside from Elk Park to Banner Elk where just beyond, it splits into little creeks. This is one fantastic mountain river with 2 wonderful waterfalls!