North Carolina is home to hundreds of waterfalls – small and tall – but the largest number spill over the craggy rock face of Transylvania County.
The county, known as the Land of Waterfalls, boasts at least 250 private and public falls. Many, such as the popular Looking Glass Falls, are in the more than 500,000 acres that comprise Pisgah National Forest. Others lie in and around the Lake Toxaway and Gorges State Park areas.
Although reaching many falls can require a moderate to challenging hike, some are less strenuous and even disability accessible. Other attractions can include fishing, camping, cycling and learning centers, from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute near Rosman to the Cradle of Forestry Discovery Center.
Rainbow Falls is the gem of Pisgah National Forest and Gorges State Park, a diverse environment with the greatest number of rare and unique animal and plant species in the eastern United States.
Visitors can view the 150-foot Rainbow Falls from side trails and platforms above, below and beside the spray. Go early in the morning or on a sunny afternoon, and you might catch a rainbow bridging the mist, especially if the water is high.
The water was low on our trip, so no rainbow, but the rock boulders at the base of the falls were accessible and dry, making it a good spot to swim, picnic and stretch out in the sun. The surrounding forest was quiet and cool, with broad, old trees and an understory ripe with mushrooms and ferns.
The three-mile, round-trip hike to Rainbow Falls is moderate to strenuous – including a series of wooden steps that take visitors up the steep grade. Older and slower folks, with good pacing, plenty of water and occasional stops, can make the trek over several hours. Walking sticks are another good idea.
Rainbow is among a series of cascades and falls stretching two miles of the Horsepasture River. If you’re feeling up to it, Turtleback Falls and a swimming hole are about a quarter-mile up the trail. The 20-foot tall Turtleback sheets over a curved rock into a pool – good for sliding and swimming.
State park officials warn, however, waterfalls can be as dangerous as they are beautiful, and people die on them every year. Several fatalities were reported this year, including Georgia news anchor Taylor Terrel, who fell to her death July 21 at Rainbow Falls.
The easiest way to avoid trouble is keeping your distance, officials say. Good footwear is a must, and never climb on or around waterfalls, jump off them or dive into pools. Water currents above and below the falls can be swift and change frequently, rushing around rocks, logs and other debris. Swimmers have suffered broken bones, paralysis and drownings, said National Forest spokeswoman Cathy Dowd.
Unsafe behaviors also put rescuers at risk, she noted. Rescue divers face the same strong currents and slippery rocks, sometimes retrieving a body from a pool that is up to 80 feet deep at the base of the falls. Rescue operations also are expensive, requiring 50 to 150 people working for two to four days, she said.
“At some point, people have to take a personal responsibility to not do things that are dangerous or don’t make sense,” she said. “I think a lot of people just aren’t aware that the rocks in a river are so slippery or that they are so close to the falls.”
Looking Glass Falls, Brevard
The 50-foot Looking Glass Falls is one of Pisgah National Forest’s most popular, just off N.C. 276 and with ample parking. A tower of stairs takes you by two observation decks to the base of the falls. The water rushes over the rock face, filling a pool that’s deep enough for swimming in some places. Rock ledges at the base of the falls and across the pool, under a shady shelf of heavy boulders, offer places to rest, while less-skilled swimmers can find slower-moving water for wading and rock- and gem-hunting just downstream. The observation decks and surrounding rocks provide a wide view of the falls and good photos. Kendall White of Denver, N.C., said the water is cold but warms up when you start moving; the best part was swimming to the base and going under. “It’s hard to swim to it, because the current keeps pushing you back,” she said. “It’s really fun, though.” A day trip could include an easy hike to the 50-foot Moore Cove Falls and nearby Sliding Rock Falls, a 60-foot natural waterslide with an 8-foot deep pool. There is a $2 fee for Sliding Rock. Take U.S. 64 East from Brevard and turn left on U.S. 276. The falls are in eight miles on the left.
Schoolhouse Falls, Canada
The trail to Schoolhouse and other falls picks up deep in the forest by a couple of wayfinding signs. The trail is cool and damp, perfect for ferns and a variety of mushrooms. It crosses a footbridge and descends a slab of rock glittering with mica to a wide, gravel trail through sunshine and wild blackberries. Songbirds and running water follow us onto the “Green Trail,” an immediate left. We cross another, curving footbridge to a sandy trail, woven with roots, and a short flight of steps. We follow the sound of the falls around a corner and emerge onto a rocky beach at a wide plunge pool. Schoolhouse Falls – 20 feet tall and wide – is directly ahead. It’s a great place to have lunch, play in the water and look for colorful rocks and butterflies. Be advised, the water deepens quickly and the undertow can be strong. Take U.S. 64 West from Brevard for about 15 miles and turn right onto N.C. 281. Turn left in 0.8 miles onto Cold Mountain Road (a fire station is on the right). A Panthertown parking sign is posted about six miles up Cold Mountain Road at a sharp left turn. Follow the gravel road to the right.
Wildcat Falls, N.C. 215
The trail to Wildcat Falls is family-friendly and littered with ferns, mushrooms and blooming bushes. It follows a gentle slope until you reach the first crossing. The rocks are a little tricky but passable. The trail narrows before reaching a grassy grove. The second crossing brings an unexpected surprise: an unnamed, double waterfall tumbling 7 or 8 feet over the rocks into a small pool. We splash around before moving on and spy a huge rock formation rising from a bed of needles on the right. The surrounding Fraser firs are skeletal, but a young stand – not more than 10 inches tall – hugs the trail’s left side. This a good sign, since the balsam wooly adelgid has destroyed over 80 percent of the native Fraser firs. Experts hope future trees will have a natural resistance. We come to Wildcat Falls, a 60-foot cascade, after crossing over rocky, almost dry streams. Wildcat is more impressive when the water is high, coursing down and under a concrete logging bridge. Head north about 0.8 miles on N.C. 215 from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The gravel drive on the right is marked with a small “BR1” sign.
Sunburst Falls, Sunburst
The cascades at Sunburst Falls can be a quick stop, flowing under a 1937 arch stone bridge on the side of N.C. 215. The lower waterfall and the pool below – on the West Fork of the Pigeon River – can be seen from the right. At low water, the boulders above the bridge are mostly dry and visitors can get closer to the water. A steep scramble path to the bottom and a pool can be found across the road from the parking lot. The water is most impressive after heavy rains, zig-zagging down the mountain, around and over the massive boulders. Head north on N.C. 215 for 4.2 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway. A pullover is just past the bridge on the left, and another one on the right a bit further down the hill.
Whitewater Falls, Sapphire
The highest falls east of the Rocky Mountains, at 811 feet, is on the North-South Carolina border. While mostly hard to access, there are two overlooks at the Whitewater Falls Recreation Area. Parking is available – there’s a $2 honor system fee – plus picnic tables and restrooms. The paved trail rises about a quarter-mile from the end of the lot to the first overlook. To the right, you can descend 154 wooden steps to the second overlook for a better look. Hardy hikers then can follow a half-mile spur trail, dropping 600 feet over steep, sometimes dangerous ground to the Whitewater River and Foothills Trail and hike another hour to the lower section of the falls. Take U.S. 64 West from Brevard and turn left on N.C. 281 South at Sapphire. The entrance is in nine miles on the left.
Our series appears online and in print each Monday through Labor Day.
For animal lovers
Best-Kept N.C. Giveaway
Win an NC Waterfall Explorer Prize Pack! Enter our weekly contest at newsobserver.com/contests.