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.
Upper Catawba Falls
Hurricane Sandy is all but a memory here in NC. After dumping close to a foot of snow in some parts of our mountains, I had to be careful of the location I chose to hike today. As I pulled out, I was uncertain of any location except that I was heading southwest. Less snow, warmer temps and sunshine were key as our northern mountains continued to get hit with snow showers. I was approaching the Black Mountains along I-40 heading west. I knew of a location near Old Fort at exit 73, that I had yet to fully explore. The Catawba Falls Trail, home to 2 super waterfalls, at the base of the storied Black Mountains, seemed to catch my interest on this day. I could see snow on the peaks at the top, so staying low, at the 2000 ft elevation seemed like a pretty good idea on this day. I really am not quite ready for winter just yet.
I first visited Catawba Falls nearly 2 years ago. Parking was along the side of the road, and stepping one foot off the trail meant you were on private property, for a short stretch. There were some very uninviting signs along the way. The main disappointment though was the waterfalls: it was summer and the 100 ft Catawba Falls was all but hidden in the trees, making it nothing special, plus the waterfall I really wanted to see, Upper Catawba Falls , was closed off by a big red sign. It was not a very special visit. I was hesitant to go back, but I keep reading such great things, and I was determined to see Upper Catawba, one of the waterfalls that has seemed to be elusive to me. Big Falls on the Thompson River is another.
I have read that the once private property has now been purchased, and is now all part of the Pisgah National Forest. This was very promising news. Once there, there was no more parking on the side of the main road. A brand new, large parking area, with spaces for buses, and restrooms caught me by surprise. This is a big improvement. The trailhead is just beyond the restrooms and starts off pretty flat on the remains of what used to be roads. The first challenge this trail provides is crossing the Catawba River.
Now this isn't the mighty Catawba that you cross while driving along I-40 that seems large enough for barges to pass. It is the headwaters of this mighty river, and is more of a large creek here at this point. It has many creeks to collect, along with the Linville River and Wilson Creek to collect before forming the chain of lakes that include Lake Jame, Lake Norman, And Lake Wylie to name a few. This being said, crossing it dryly could be an issue for some. Rocks are placed to walk across and today the water was low. If you plan to see these falls in high water, plan on getting wet here. Word is that a bridge is in the works and part of the plans to spruce this place up.
Once across, the trail pretty much follows the river upstream, slowly climbing steeper as it goes, but nothing strenuous yet. There are some small waterfalls on the river and tributary streams that make the trip nice. There are also some old building remains and even the remains of a dam from the early 1900's. Every site says not to cross this dam as it is unstable, so I will say it here….Do not cross or get on the dam.
Shortly upstream from the dam, the wide trail narrows and begins navigating some rocks, fallen trees and crosses a fairly wide tributary stream. This is tricky, but easier than the first river crossing downstream. Shortly, you will come to an opening and there you are at the base of Catawba Falls!
This waterfall is much prettier in person than the picture shows. It is 100 feet tall, and cascades all over the place as it falls. If you want to see the full waterfall……Come when the leaves are fallen, or you will walk away disappointed. The distance to here was about 1.3 miles.
Then comes decision time…..most people should enjoy this waterfall and make their way back to the trailhead. The trail does however continue along the right side of the river. It goes up, way up, way way up to the top of Catawba Falls. This is no easy climb. Luckily there are plenty of roots, rocks, and trees to help pull yourself up. It is a fairly long climb, plus there will be a section that requires rope to help pull yourself up and get down.
There is a key part of this climb that can really mess things up for you. There is a point where it appears the trail climbs away from the river, and it does. This is not your trail. Waterfall Rich describes this well on his very popular resourceful site http://www.ncwaterfalls.com. He says not to take it, but I did anyway, not recognizing the split in trails. What is up there? I don’t know, it kept climbing, steeper than below, and I was beginning to get fatigued, which is not good on this climb, where places to rest are prime real estate. I did notice I was a good ways from the river and something did not seem right. Luckily, I had cell connection and was able to download somebody’s map of their hike to Upper Catawba Falls. I could see immediately that I was way off track. So I had to turn around and head down. This was harder than going up. I spent most of the descent on my butt, inching my way down slowly, carefully and methodically. Another hazard up here was all the fallen leaves. They are extremely slippery and I found my feet giving way several times, going up and down. Once I got back to the river, I rechecked the map and I was back where I should be. I restarted and went left over some rocks and the trail continued, much less steep I might add. From here it was some level ground, and a few more minor climbs (comparably), and then…..the waterfall I have wanted to see for 2 years!!!
Unfortunately, here is where the low water was a real downer. The waterfall is much wider in pictures I have seen. As it turns out, Hurricane Sandy really did not provide much moisture in Southwest NC. It was still a beautiful, magical, 50 ft waterfall in a very pristine setting. The trail crosses the small river again up here, then goes up the left side to the base. Here, you can easily maneuver around for a variety of photo ops. It was totally worth the climb!!
After a 30 minute rest here, the descent begins. After what I experienced from my wrong turn debacle, the remaining climb down was fairly uneventful. Along the trail going back, I noticed several large piles of bear poo, with large muscadines in them. This made me stop and look around, but this is bear country..
As I was walking back, the sun made a brilliant, warm, and welcome appearance. It was 50 degrees out here. I was totally soaked after that climb, even with this cool air. The sun, blue sky, and what was left of the leaves made some beautiful scenery heading back.
I finished this day with a 3.2 mile hike that seemed much longer. It took me 2 /2 hours which is about half the speed I usually hike. This shows the level of climbing involved here. I can only compare this climb with maybe Compression Falls in Tennessee, or something at Grandfather Mountain. I am convinced after today that I must be part mountain goat!! For those unable or unwilling (or smarter than some of us) to attempt this direct climb between waterfalls, a safer way to reach Upper Catawba Falls is in the works, no idea of when or how or difficulty.