The public has been able to gawk and gaze at three of North Carolina’s most resplendent waterfalls for only 14 years, even though they’ve been around for thousands of years.
Bridal Veil Falls, High Falls and Triple Falls had been on private property, hidden from visitors except by invitation of the landowner.
The seclusion of the waterfalls began to lift in 1997. That year, the state completed purchase of 7,600 acres from the chemical giant DuPont Corp., the most recent landowner. The acquisition created the first phase of DuPont State Recreational Forest. Visitors streamed onto the forested mountain land.
But they couldn’t go to the three spectacular cascades. That’s because the falls were within a hole-in-the-doughnut tract that previously had been bought by a South Carolina developer, who planned to build upscale homes overlooking them.
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In 2000, the Council of State, led by then-Gov. Jim Hunt, condemned the property for the forest. The developer sued and the state eventually paid $24.5 million for the 2,200 acres.
Well worth the money, waterfall lovers might say.
Bridal Veil Falls, the upper waterfall on the the forest’s Little River, races down a 400-foot-long rock slab. Scenes from the 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans” were shot there. Photographer Kevin Adams, author of “North Carolina Waterfalls,” gives Bridal Veil a beauty rating of 7 on a scale of 1-10.
Farther downstream, High Falls, a liquid colossus, drops 120 feet with lacy sheets of water spilling over gray rock. Its spray douses bathers who wade in the pools or bask in the chilly mist. Adams also gives High Falls a 7.
A mile downstream from High Falls, Triple Falls plunges over jumbo layers of rock. The falls splash down 120 feet. Signs warn against swimming or climbing on the upper two falls because of the danger of being swept over the final drop. Adams gives Triple Falls an 8 beauty rating.
Visitors such as Aaron and Karyn Gaines of Sanford, children and friends come to watch the mesmerizing water rush by and let the thunderous roar drown out everyday cares.
“I would like to put in a cabin here and watch these falls all day,” Aaron Gaines said, taking in Triple Falls in late July. “There’s nothing like the mountains.”
Both falls can be reached in a 45-minute hike from either of two parking areas, the High Falls and Hooker Falls access areas. At the High Falls area, visitors can get forest information at the Aleen Steinberg Visitor Center, located next to restrooms.
The Hooker Falls parking area not only leads to Triple Falls, a 10-minute walk upstream on the Little River, but also to Hooker Falls, a 12-foot drop and a 5-minute walk downstream.
Some 82 miles of trails and dirt or gravel roads twist through the forest’s 10,500 acres. The highest point, at 3,620 feet, is Stone Mountain. The trails, except for those leading to the waterfalls, are open to mountain bikers and horse riders as well as hikers. Cars aren’t allowed except by special permit; overnight camping isn’t permitted.
Though it looks like a state park, DuPont Forest is operated by the N.C. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Last year, DuPont Forest counted 332,611 visitors, according to Brian Haines, Forest Service spokesman in Raleigh. That’s double the number from five years ago.
Helping to drive the rising visitation are fans of the 2012 adventure movie, “The Hunger Games.” They’ve been arriving in droves to see Triple Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, where scenes were shot.
For those who hanker for a “Hunger-Games”-themed tour, a Brevard entrepreneur leads groups to the two waterfalls and takes them to Brevard for archery and sling shot classes for $59. The walking tour in the forest includes a picnic lunch with food the movie characters would have eaten – including basil-wrapped goat cheese.
“It’s a great way to see DuPont Forest,” said Leigh Trapp, who owns Hunger Games Unofficial Fan Tours. “Most of our guests had never been in North Carolina before, much less Transylvania County or DuPont State Recreational Forest.” (The forest lies in Henderson and Transylvania counties.)
Trapp said the 30-member groups may include parents with children, grandparents with grandkids and young couples. “At least one of those guests is a hard-core fan,” she said. Remaining 2014 tours are scheduled for Oct. 11 and Oct. 18.
Deeper in the forest are five lakes and two smaller waterfalls, Grassy Creek Falls and Wintergreen Falls. All connect by trails to the forest’s six access areas.
Thelargest of the lakes is 100-acre Lake Julia, an hour’s walk from either the High Falls or the Fawn Lake access areas. Anglers carrying in their own gear can fish from the banks for largemouth bass and bream. Absent from the lakes are watercraft. DuPont Forest doesn’t provide or rental boats or canoes. “We just don’t have the staff to manage that,” said Haines said.
For those who prefer trout fishing, the state annually stocks nearly 4,000 brook, brown and rainbow trout in 1.8 miles of the Little River from Lake Dense to Hooker Falls. Catch-and-release fishing with single-hook artificial lures applies until the first Saturday in June. Then it’s catch and keep with a seven-fish-a-day creel limit until stockings resume every Oct. 1. Hunting is allowed in season by permit.
DuPont Forest stands to grow in size though inward, not outward.
Near the center of the forest is a 417-acre private inholding that includes an 11-acre lake. It’s still owned by DuPont and was the site of a plant that manufactured X-ray film beginning in 1958. The operation closed in 2002 under a subsequent owner.
Since 1996, DuPont has been razing buildings and cleaning up waste on the site. Jamie VanBuskirk, DuPont Brevard site project manager, said by e-mail the company hopes to complete the cleanup in three to four years.
At that point, DuPont may give the inholding to the state forest, thus opening it to the public. “The donation of the land to the State of North Carolina is certainly one of the more attractive options that are being considered,” he said.
Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”