It’s late November now and all the leaves have all fallen. The beautiful, brilliantly colored landscapes of a few weeks past have become a dull brown & gray, symbolic of winter. Thanks to some early season “Polar Vortex” action, it has also felt more like the middle of January. There won’t be many more waterfall hikes in 2014 for me. Looking back, I realized that I have not visited Catawba Falls this year. Being one of my favorites, this became today’s destination. This hike follows the mighty Catawba River way up near its headwaters. This river, really a creek at this stage is the same river seen for about the next 80 miles heading east along I-40, where it is channeling from lake to lake and getting much wider. Of course by this time, it has picked up tons of water from some notable mountain streams such as, the Linville River, the Johns River, and Wilson Creek to name a few.
The first step to finding Catawba Falls, whether coming in from the east or west, is to find exit 73 along I-40. This exit is near the bottom of the steep mountain that I-40 climbs, at the town of Old Fort. Once off the interstate, find Catawba River Rd, which runs right along side I-40 on the east bound side. Follow this road for several miles as it bears left away from I-40, until it dead ends. About 2 years ago, there was a nice new parking area with nice new restrooms. Well, they are still there, but the bridge that once crossed the Catawba here is not. Cars now can not reach this lot. Parking, just like the old days is once again along the Catawba River Rd. Follow the construction signs to the temporary bridge, then onto the trailhead. Here is what the Catawba construction looks like. Hopefully this will be done sooner than later…..
The extra walk adds about 1/4 mile each way, but it is totally flat. That can not be said about parts of this trail later encountered. The trail itself also starts out flat meandering through the woods, as the construction sounds get more and more distant. The first challenge of this trail is crossing the Catawba River. The rocks have been placed to make a rock hop pretty easy, but the river is fairly wide here. It the water is up, there is no dry way accross.
Once on the right side of the river, it is easy to see some of the history here. There are some remnant structures of days gone by here. A side trail leads to a nice rock wall along the river, and a little further up, across the river, an old concrete structure still standing.
Just past the “history”, the trail begins to climb and the river begins to make some noise. The trail climbs more and more and will soon be well above the river. The Chestnutt Branch will need to be crossed , but is fairly easy. There are some nice cascades on this as it makes its way to the Catawba. The trail soon reaches the old dam.
Just below the old dam is a nice cascade followed by a nice waterfall. With the energy required to see the upper falls, I keep bypassing this dam waterfall. It is worthy of further exploration though and a side path is available down to the river here. After the dam, the trail comes to another stream, and gets a tad confusing. The river bears off to the left, while the side stream goes to the right. Follow the side stream to a point where a large tree has fallen and cross the stream just above the tree. The trail picks back up and Catawba Falls is just around the corner.
Catawba Falls is 100 foot plus waterfall, that breaks up into many smaller falls. If you come see it when the leaves are on the trees, the view will be greatly diminished. This is one of the hardest waterfalls to get a good photo of all the ones I have been to. The hike to this point and back will be about 3 miles….
Then there is that upper waterfall. Upper Falls or Upper Catawba Falls, I often see it named. This is a very difficult waterfall to reach and I am not encouraging everyone to try this. There is a trail from the bottom of Catawba Falls heading up on the right side of the river. It is steep, very steep. While it is right next the the waterfall for the entire climb, the trail is safely far enough away from the river. Once up a little ways, it gets even steeper. Several ropes have been in place for a long time now to help hikers manage this section.
The rope has aged a bit, I sure wouldn’t try putting all my weight on it. The rocks have places to grip and climb, they just are not very big. The rope adds some security if your foot or hand was to “slip”. Notice the leaves covering the ground. This made for another slip hazard. After 3 very tight and technical rope assisted sections of this trail, it comes to a large rock and and a place to rest and catch your breath. This section is mentally and physically tough. One of the often unmentioned benefits of this mountain goat climb is the many beautiful and up close views of the different sections of Catawba Falls. Unfortunately, while I am hanging on for dear life, I never think to pull the camera out.
Anyway, once at this large rock, the trail seems to go to the right of it and continue to climb. I did this my first time here and realized I was getting further and further from the river. I carefully went back down to see that a smaller trail went to the left of the rock and kept going up the river. This is the one to take. All three times I have been here now, either I was confused or I am helping someone avoid some unnecessary very strenuous climbing. However, I did pass a party of 4 on there way back, who did take the “wrong” trail and said that some how it got them there…I will have to research that I guess. Anyway the trail along the river now above Catawba Falls, is still intense. While no longer a slip away from death, it is still a very narrow, eroded path going steeply up and down now some, with a few “squeezes” through rhododendron. After a short hike of this, the trail comes back to the river for a final crossing and yes!!! There it is, Upper Catawba Falls. Beautiful, elegant, and one of the hardest waterfalls to reach that I have been to. It is worth it it though. There are a number of good spots to sit back and relax awhile, to get some good, different photo views. I encourage this for those that make it this far, because the trek down is twice as difficult , technical as it was going up. Going down, uses all different muscles. The slippery, near vertical sections are tough to manage. You must go slow, make sure your footing is as secure as possible and hold the rope tightly just in case. Once past the ropes the leaves are a bigger hazard going down as well. Most people should simply return to their vehicles after the lower falls. Some will not…obviously…lol. If you do attempt this, please be very careful!
As you can see, Upper Catawba Falls is absolutely gorgeous. The early season ice was a treat as well. Here is one last shot, putting a visual on the “trek down”.