Go for the flow: It’s easy to track waterfalls in Western North Carolina

Washington PostMarch 29, 2014 

As waterfalls go, Bridal Veil Falls are fairly small and easy to find. They cascade above U.S. 64 just a couple of miles north of the town of Highlands in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The fun thing about Bridal Veil Falls is that, if your car is small enough, you can drive under the 120-foot “veil” of water. Our 10-year-old Mini Cooper easily fits into the wedge between water and mountain and made for a neat photo op.

My husband, Roy, and I had come to Cashiers, N.C., a lovely village just a few miles from Highlands, for a late-summer sojourn. Both of us like to hike and to photograph waterfalls, and these ancient, mythical Appalachian Mountains and tapestries of forests are striated with dozens and dozens of them within a few miles of Cashiers.

We were staying at the High Hampton Inn, which is just a mile from town and right smack in the middle of waterfall country. The inn, at a cool and comfortable elevation of 3,600 feet, was a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of our home in Georgia.

Armed with a map provided by the High Hampton, we struck out north, south, east and west in search of waterfalls.

First, we went south to Silver Run Falls, just under 3 miles from the inn. Silver Run is considered small, at a drop of 30 to 40 feet, and the hike into the deep woods is easy on a trail surrounded by cathedrals of mountain laurel and rhododendron. Beneath a sky brindled with silver-edged clouds and iridescent sunlight, it was pretty here, and no one else was around in the early morning. The moment was romantic.

Our next stop was Sliding Rock Falls, where the late summer warmth brought out lots of kids and more than a few pups to frolic on the smooth rocks carved to softness by endless water. The bottom of the falls forms a big swimming hole, the old-fashioned country kind that’s the perfect antidote to a hot day. There would be no stolen kisses here.

At Whitewater Falls, which was our next stop and, depending on whom you ask, is in either North or South Carolina, the roar was impressive, and I was mesmerized by the unharnessed power created by not much more than the simplest elements of time, water, rock, erosion and gravity. The beauty and power of waterfalls never cease to amaze me.

The thing about Whitewater Falls, at 411 feet the highest in the eastern United States, is that you hear them long before you see them. As you glide along the footpath, the anticipation of seeing the falls grows, and the ground practically hums with unseen energy. An amalgam of fresh scents of rushing water and verdant forests fills the air. There are a thousand hues of green in these hemlock forests that I never imagined existed and that can’t possibly be found in any artist’s palette.

Then, like an apparition, Whitewater Falls finally come into view, the mist rising against the mountains so that they’re veiled in a ghostly haze, the massive rocks polished golden in the soft sunlight. As my camera clicked away, I knew in my heart that there’s no way to fully capture the falls’ splendor in photos.

That afternoon, we traveled a few miles east of Cashiers along U.S. 64 to Gorges State Park, near Sapphire, in Transylvania County. The park has access to several falls, including Drift Falls, Turtleback Falls, Bearwallow Falls, Horsepasture Falls and Rainbow Falls.

“If it’s sunny, you can see a rainbow at Rainbow Falls,” a ranger explained as he gave us a map of the park. “It’s just spectacular, but you have to come in the morning when the light is right.”

Bearwallow, Bridal Veil

By then, it was early afternoon, so we chose instead to take an easier hike to the amusingly named Bearwallow Falls. As we descended along the pathway, my mind visualized bears wallowing around in the shallow parts of the water. The trail is steep, a little slippery, and was scribbled with bright yellow, daisy-like flowers.

For someone like me who’s a little overweight and out of shape, it wasn’t long before I was out of breath trying to keep up with my better half. No bears put me to the test that day, but the view of the falls was pretty.

Our next sojourn took us west on U.S. 64 to Highlands, where we found Bridal Veil Falls and Dry Falls. The latter supposedly got their name because you can walk on a stone path behind the falls and not get wet. Roy accepted the challenge and took a few steps under the falls before coming quickly back.

“I wouldn’t call these falls exactly dry,” he shivered. “There’s a cold spray under there.”

The next morning, fueled by the High Hampton Inn’s immense buffet breakfast, we drove north of Cashiers on N.C. 107 toward Glenville. Here, Hurricane Falls spill serenely into the sapphire waters of Lake Glenville, a long finger of water surrounded by the Smokies.

As we drove along the scenic highway that edges the lake, I thought of Ernest Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa.” The landscape of the Appalachians is completely different from that of East Africa, certainly, but sometimes inspiration and creativity arise solely from the beauty of a place.

In a way, waterfalls, hypnotic and tantalizing, have the ability to send one into a contemplative mood. It just seems easy to pull up a rock and sit a spell and ponder the meaning of life. Somehow these cold, sweet falling waters provide answers to life’s conundrums in a peaceful and harmonious way.

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