Catawba & Upper Catawba Falls – The Day After Sandy

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 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.



Rainbow Falls – Horsepasture River, North Carolina’s Finest Waterfall??

While I ponder where my next  waterfalls hike will be,  I would like to take a few minutes to share the best of what I have found so far in my travels.  In the southwest corner of NC, deep in the “Land of the Waterfalls”,  just outside of the fairly new Gorges State Park, lies the Horsepasture River.  This river is home to the finest waterfall I have seen in person, Rainbow Falls.  Rainbow Falls is a powerful waterfall, that falls 150 feet over a very wide open, large rock face.  This waterfall is on a river, so there is usually plenty of water flow, even in dry times.  When the water is up though, wow what a site!!

It is named Rainbow Falls for a special reason.  The size of this river and the large amounts of water going over the falls, creates a huge spray zone that usually makes a B-line right towards the spot where most people view and photograph this waterfall.  It will get you soaked if you stay there long enough, and it will surprise you because you are pretty high up with a good distance between yourself and the waterfall.  Anyway, when the sun is at the right angle, usually 9-10 in the morning from what I have found, the sun and the heavy waterfall mist create a huge rainbow that at the peak, will cover the entire waterfall.  It is beautiful and truly something to see.  It took me 4 times before I finally saw the rainbow, now I will plan any hike here to be at the spot between 9-10 am.

The hike there can be challenging for some.  There used to be an easy access right off of highway 281 that required only a short hike to get here.  This is now private property and the owner has very intimidating signs everywhere threatening prosecution for trespassing.  He or she does not appear to be playing around.  So, the new option is to drive into the new Gorges State Park, which has a ton of waterfalls of its own that I will have to discuss on another blog, another day.  The Trail is called the Rainbow Falls Trail and is roughly a 5 mile round trip.  It starts in the park, but leaves the park halfway and into the Pisgah National Forest.  The trail is mostly down hill to start, which makes for a difficult return trip.  It finally meets up with the Horsepasture River, and the hike goes upstream.  There are a number of smaller waterfalls and large rapids that would be the focal point of parks in other regions, but not here.  Once on the river for a ways, the trail begins to climb, eventually gets steep for a short distance.  At that point you look over the top and there it is, Rainbow Falls, and all of the thunderous sounds of the water pounding down 150 feet below.  Here you will be at an area with a safety fence and is the place to shoot the waterfall if you are lucky enough to be there with the rainbow.  Don’t stay long, as you can get drenched, not good for the camera.

The trail keeps going up towards the top, but there is also a side trail that goes down to the base.  Be careful, use some common sense, and it can be navigated safely.  At the bottom, you are close-up to this monster and then you really appreciate it’s size.  The walk to the top will cause some huffing and puffing, but the view from the top is magnificent as well.  Be very careful, I have read stories of people falling off the top, they did not live to tell about it.

After you take in this beauty, surprise, the Horsepasture river has more in store for you.  Just upstream from Rainbow, is Turtleback Falls.  Although it is much smaller, it has a character all its own  and is a beautiful waterfall in its own rights.  In the summer, people will slide over these falls into a deep pool.  Don’t do this in high water, as I have read that people could not get out, and were swept right over Rainbow Falls.  Then….about 1/4 more upstream is Drift Falls.  This used to be called “Bustyerbutt” Falls as it was known for people to sliding down a large rock face into a pool.  It is the closest to the highway and the waterfall people always saw first on the trip then.  It is now on private property, but the park line comes just to the point where you can get a good view of the falls from down stream.  It is a nice waterfall too, but does not compare to the other two.

There are two other waterfalls on this river I have yet to see, maybe this year.  Stairstep falls, and Windy Falls.  They are down stream from where the trail meets the river.  Stairstep is fairly close from what I can tell, but Windy Falls is supposed to be quite the adventure.

If you make it down to this area of NC, the famous Upper Whitewater falls is just a few miles down the road from Gorges State Park, and is supposedly the tallest waterfall in the eastern US at 411 feet.  It is only a short hike to a distant viewing platform, certainly a must-see.

Here is an extended gallery of some of my Rainbow Falls visits, along with a few shots of Turtleback and Drift Falls.