These falls are both located in Panthertown Valley and we used the trailhead at Cold Mountain road. When you reach the trailhead sign here you want the smaller blazed trail on the right, not the wider forest road beyond the gate.
This trail takes you down across a small bridge onto the switchbacks section of the Panthertown Valley trail. Continue along this trail until you can see the fairly major wooden bridge below Schoolhouse Falls (you haven’t seen Schoolhouse yet, but you probably heard it off to the left). Don’t cross the bridge! Instead take the trail to the right (Devil’s Elbow) which goes uphill. It will cross the power lines and give you a great view across the valley.
Not far past the powerlines you’ll re-enter the forest and then come to a small clearing. The main trail goes slightly to the right here and a very small trail goes straight ahead. This trail descends rather drastically and will leave you at the top of Warden’s Falls. This is a dangerous area, especially in high water. Do not enter the river here, turn right and pick your way down this bank along the faint trail here. You will come to a small bluff above a creek junction and from here figure out the best way down. You’ll have a partial view of Warden’s Falls here. To see it all you have to cross the river which is probably a wet crossing.
This is a nice area but it is a difficult descent from the Devil’s Elbow Trail. From here we went back down Devil’s Elbow Trail to the bridge and this time we crossed it. Not far across it on the left is the Little Green trail which will take you directly to Schoolhouse Falls.
This is perhaps the most popular destination in Panthertown and there are trails in all directions here. You can easily circumnavigate this pool to get behind the falls from either side, which is worth doing.
There is a small shortcut going back, from the opposite side of the river from the Little Green Trail an orange blazed trail leads up to the top of Schoolhouse (be careful here) and then reconnects with Panthertown near the bottom of the switchback section.
Nellie’s Falls is a difficult drive followed by an easy hike. It’s located upstream on Flat Creek. Beware of Google Maps on this one, it marks the falls in the correct location but it doesn’t connect any of the forest roads properly. To get here, turn west on Rock Bridge Rd off of NC 281 north of Panthertown. Follow the road until it ends at which point it will be FR 4662. There is minimal parking.
There are several nice creek access points here. You will need to ford it or take the log crossing. Head uphill briefly and take the trail to the left (not the forest road along the river). There are a lot of trails and roads around here so it’s worth making sure you are generally following the river upstream. There will be one left turn at an unmarked trail junction in a small pine grove as well. After that it’s a matter of following the trail down to the river and along the river. Ultimately you will have to cross just below the lovely little falls seen here:
We spent a bit of time here and found several small salamanders.
You can edge along the far side of the creek to go up and around the giant boulder and the really cool tree just beyond it.
Now you have arrived at Nellie’s Falls. You can actually see Nellie’s from below the lower falls but it’s worth coming up around the boulder for a closer look. This area is very slick by the way.
There are supposedly routes to the top of this if you are interested. Usual disclaimer here about waterfalls being dangerous, they are of course MUCH more dangerous when you’re at the top. We liked the bottom just fine there are some nice deep pools here and an island with a log for optimal viewing.
This hike took us up the West Fork of the French Broad River where it sort of magically becomes Dismal Creek. The trailhead is off of NC 281, north of Lake Toxaway. Turn west on Winding Gap Rd. and then immediately stay right onto the forest road track that looks like it might not be a road at all. This will dead end shortly at a gate with a trail beyond it. We believe there is an alternate trailhead further down Winding Gap Rd where the road turns south at the power lines but we didn’t verify the entire route so can’t really guarantee it. It seems like it would connect though.
Lots of nice falls on this hike, lots of good campsites. The first of each is at Aunt Sally’s Falls, about a half mile from the trailhead and up a small unnamed tributary. Nearly all the tributaries here are unnamed but the side trail is just before the 4th creek crossing.
This is a pleasant area to hang out in.
Back on the main trail heading west, there are many creek crossings which make the hike a bit more technical but the altitude is relatively constant so it’s not too tough.
Eventually the trails crosses the West Fork of the French Broad where there are several more good campsites. Especially on the south bank where the trail doesn’t run right smack through the middle of it. From here, the trail becomes difficult. Be prepared for the possibility of hands & knees sections as it is very steep and the addition of mud on our trip made it more like a slide than a trail.
Regardless, not long after the up starts, you’ll reach a very nice waterfall at a trail switchback. Some people seem to call this Lower Rhapsodie and some people call it Trailside. I like the latter name because you hike along the falls and the really impressive chute leading up to it as you ascend past it. Either way it’s a nice spot.
The steepness gets steeper here. You know you’re near the top when the large rocks appear. When the trail branches on the spur the left branch goes on into the Dismal Creek watershed (even more steepness!). The right branch goes down to Rhapsodie Falls which you can probably hear already. This is also a lovely area.
We did not continue on to Dismal Falls on this particular day so we went back down the otter slide (trail) after leaving Rhapsodie.
The Thomson river gorge is located between the better known Horsepasture River (Gorges State Park) just to the north and the Whitewater river just to the south. There seems to be a lack of naming ingenuity here as the two major waterfalls are named ‘Big’ and ‘High’. More on ‘Big’ sometime in the future. On this trip we visited High Falls and White Owl Falls.
There is no named, blazed trail to High Falls but the trail is clear and obvious. Park on Brewer Rd off of NC-281 and follow the gated forest road uphill from the intersection. This trail crosses a saddle and then descends. The trail to High Falls is tagged with pink ribbons as of this writing. You’ll be looking for a right turn shortly after passing a waterfall on Reid’s Creek. That smaller falls is on your left and you’ll hear it more than see it.
After the right turn the trail is pretty straightforward, you’ll be able to hear High Falls as you descend towards it. The trail ends just below the falls, there is a side trail that gives better access and you’ll have to ford the river somewhere.
This is a beautiful deep pool with several nice rocks to hang out on as well as a sandy beach.
Back up at the trailhead is a route to White Owl Falls, which is higher up the Thomson from High Falls and located just off the road. From Brewer Rd you can walk south on 281. The guardrail stops, when it begins again there is a trail that descends alongside the road. The trail was flagged on our trip and the falls is quite easy to find. There is a very small area at the base of White Owl.
So first of all, there’s a sign at the trailhead that says “Secret Falls”. Kind of ruins the Secret part of it. We happen to know the Forest Service official who put up this particular sign and he just shrugged when we pointed that out. Oh well.
Anyway, Secret Falls is in the Nantahala National Forest in the general vicinity of Highlands. It’s about a mile hike each way to a very pretty falls.
Along the way there are a couple of stream crossings, they are small and can be leapt or rock-hopped across. The trail continues beyond the falls and appears to follow the river canyon, possibly into Georgia (which isn’t far away). We didn’t follow it any further than these falls though so we don’t know what’s down there (yet).
These are two short hikes we did the same day, starting with the Whiteside Mountain loop trail just outside of Cashiers, NC. This is a popular day hike, it’s only about a 2 mile loop in total. Might be more exciting if you’re nervous around heights or maybe don’t expect a few steel cables will keep you from falling over the 700 foot cliff alongside the trail. The views are awesome though.
Next up was a totally different kind of hike. We went to Sol’s Creek just east of the town of Argula, NC. Calling it a town is way beyond a stretch but it shows up as such on USGS maps as well as (shockingly) Google maps. No trailhead for this one, just a guard rail to jump over. Best way to find this one is to find Sol’s Creek and then find where it crosses 281. You want to go a half mile upstream which can be accomplished by a combination of deer paths on both sides of the river and walking up the river itself. We found this extremely small salamander on one of our river crossings.
Please note, the west side of the creek is private property where it meets 281. A half mile or so from the road you’re notice the river is getting a bit wilder and steeper and then you’ll come around a bend and see this lovely view:
At these water levels it’s easy to get up to that middle level below the higher falls. It’s kind of a fun slide too. We didn’t try to go higher than that and wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re experienced at orienteering and bushwhacking you can manage this hike just by following the river upstream. A map and compass isn’t a bad idea though.
This is a little confusing since the last post involved a South Carolina waterfall called Eastatoe Falls (among other things) and now this one contains a North Carolina waterfall about 10 miles up the road with the same name.
This Eastatoe Falls is located on private property just off Highway 178. The landowners have graciously allowed people to park in their yard (follow signs) and visit the falls.
Dill Falls is located up NC 215 from Rosman almost all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a bit confusing but basically follow Forest Road 4663 to 4663B and follow that one until it ends, park there and hike down the continuation of the road to the river. Incidentally if you’re considering exploring the rest of the 4663 forest road complex, we can tell you that as of late 2013 there are miles and miles of this road with no connection to anything else.
Our old map shows those roads connecting to the Balsam Lake area. They probably still do but it cannot be traversed with a car (4wd or otherwise). Balsam Lake is a nice little lake on the eastern edge of Nantahala National Forest. The building visible here is the Balsam Lake Lodge which can be rented. There are a couple easy short trails along the edge of the lake.
The first is Glen Falls, or maybe Glenn Falls depending on which National Forest signs you believe. It’s just southwest from Highlands and is fairly well signed. This entire trail was reconstructed in the winter of 2010-2011 with multiple new viewing platforms. The first two overlooks have views above the falls. This picture is from the third platform which has perhaps the best views of the falls.
The second falls here is Picklesimer Rock House Falls which besides having a difficult name is very difficult to find. It’s south of Highlands along the Georgia border. If you can find the correct gated forest service road (there are plenty of instructions on other web pages) it’s a short hike to the end of it and then trails lead up the creek to this falls. There is a substantial overhang and cave behind the falls.
Dry Falls is located directly along US 64 west of Highlands. Last time we were over here there were some unimproved parking areas and a trail down to the falls. Since then the park service has built some overlooks and greatly improved the parking. This is the view from the overlook.
These two waterfalls are both short easy hikes just south of Cashiers.
Whitewater Falls is one of the highest in the eastern US. There is a separate parking and picnic area for it now and it’s about a quarter mile hike to an overlook of the falls. A separate overlook further down towards the Foothills Trail offers a better, unimpeded view.
A less obvious wayside waterfall is Silver Run Falls. There is a very small pullout next to a National Forest sign for the falls. Again, it’s only about a quarter mile to this small falls. There is a high quantity of mica in the rocks and the water around this falls so if the sun is out, it’s a pretty impressive effect.
This section of the A.T. runs 7 1/2 miles from Stecoah Gap at NC 143 to Yellow Creek Road. It’s not the most exciting section but we it was a bit we hadn’t done yet.
There are two waypoints of a sort along this stetch. One is Brown Fork Gap which has a shelter just above it. We stopped for lunch here. Coming northbound to this shelter you’ll have just completed the fairly hideous climb out of Sweetwater Gap. The next site of interest is Cody Gap which is also a reasonable campsite. In between is a high ridge with some great views of Lake Fontana and the Smoky Mountains.
Panthertown is a valley in the eastern portion of the Nantahala National Forest, just north of Lake Toxaway. It is not heavily used and this was our first visit to it – a few days after Toxaway had received more than 10 inches of rain.
The trails in general are not well-signed and there are old trails that are being reclaimed by the forest, new trails that will eventually be official, and then some unofficial trails. It’s generally a map and compass area. Schoolhouse Falls is easy enough to find however. Almost everyone else we saw in the forest was in the vicinity of Schoolhouse Falls which has a lovely big swimming hole at the base of it.
About 2 miles upstream from Schoolhouse is Greenland Creek Falls. The trails go up out of the gorge and connect back with the river about a half mile from the falls. We decided to bushwhack up the river directly. There was an old trail on the east side of the river but portions no longer exist. With high water, this is a strenuous hike that involves almost as much climbing as hiking. There are several more falls along the way. Pothole is the most impressive of these but it involved hanging over the river from branches just to get a glance at it.
The Greenland Creek Falls trail is not marked but it mostly heads upstream from an old forest road. At high water it involves crossing several tributaries.
Rufus Morgan falls is located on an isolated loop trail on the east side of Siler Bald. The forest road access to the trail is off of Wayah Rd and it’s about the only maintained trail in that area.
The trail is a loop of about a half mile on either side with a decent elevation gain up to the falls. The main falls can be seen in the background where the trail crosses the creek.
Up close, it’s impossible to see the entire cascade at once but the main drop is impressive and it’s about 5-10 degrees cooler in this little cove than the surrounding forest. There isn’t much of a pool at the bottom of this one.
Probably everyone who has ever been here has a picture involving this prominent rock. Now we do too. Trout usually wanders out of the frame before a picture is taken but for some reason he wandered into this one and sat down nicely in the center.
Big Laurel Falls is located deep into the Standing Indian area of the Nantahala National Forest. If you drive in past the campground, across the creek and a few miles further on – the trailhead is along the right side of the road.
Melanie isn’t tired yet in this picture – the crossing of Betty Creek is only a few hundred yards into the hike but I couldn’t get her standing up and the stream under the bridge at the same time.
It’s a short (0.6 mile) and pleasant hike along a couple different streams to Big Laurel falls. The falls themselves form a nice pool which one might consider swimming in if one is somehow immune to hypothermia. Maybe it’s better later in the summer but even Trout wasn’t willing to stand in this one for too long.
It’s a fairly easy rock scramble to get to the mid level of these falls but we’re probably supposed to mention that waterfalls are dangerous and you shouldn’t mess around with them. Don’t try this at home if you happen to have a 25 foot cascade at home.
Just a half mile or so further down the forest road from the Laurel Falls trailhead is a pull-off for Mooney Falls. You should be able to see the falls off the south side of the road as you approach. It’s just a couple switchbacks down to the river but the canyon is narrow and overgrown through here so it’s difficult to get a view of the entire cascade. This picture is probably less than half of the total drop.
After our two waterfall hikes (below) we felt we needed one more short hike to round out the day. Cowee Bald was a tempting target with it’s prominent location at the north end of the Cowee Mountains and it seemed like it might be a good place to watch the sunset over the Smokies.
Forest Service road 70 is the key to getting up Cowee Bald. It’s sort of hard to find in the maze of roads north of Franklin. Once found it’s a long way up with some fairly steep gravel grades. There’s a gate about a half mile from the summit so we parked there and hiked up to the lookout tower which unfortunately was locked halfway up.
Due to towers for cell phones, radio transmitters and such the view north is non-existant. The view in other directions isn’t bad though. This is looking south towards Franklin, NC. and Dillard, GA.
We’re pretty much willing to do anything that involves messing about in rivers or streams, so it seemed worthwhile to spend a few hours on our way through Macon County hunting for garnets in Buck Creek.
It’s not really hunting. Generally if you reach into the silt along the river you’ll pull out a dozen or so, although they’ll be so small it’s hardly worth isolating them. Buck Creek is in Nantahala National Forest, just west of where US 64 crosses the Appalachian Trail. We spent about an hour or so fishing around for some big enough to save before we started to lose interest and just ended up playing around in the creek. Besides the garnets there is an old corundum mine on the hillside above the creek, and also some fairly large chunks of talc lying about the area.
Here’s a pile of almandine garnets we found. It’s traditional to include a coin in pictures like this to show scale but well, it’s more impressive if we don’t.
This hike is just slightly under 8 miles in length. We did it by shuttle with help from the friendly folks at the Hike Inn in Fontana. We parked the car at the Fontana Dam, they shuttled us (and our dog) back around to Yellow Creek Gap and we started from there.
About a mile in is Cable Gap Shelter which is practically right on the trail and has a nice little stream running past it. After Cable Gap there’s a long climb through a series of knolls. Most of this section runs parallel to Fontana Lake and offers nice views. This picture shows a section of the lake and the dam.
Somewhere along here is Walker Gap where the Yellow Creek Mountain trail comes in. This does not appear to be a well marked trail but we’ll save that for some future hike. From Walker Gap to the road at Fontana is an endless series of steep descending switchbacks (unless you happen to be hiking up / south / towards the NOC). There are several nice water sources through here and it ends at the road / marina / shuttle pick up for the Fontana Village (which also has restrooms). From there, the AT continues up and over a knoll along Fontana Lake before descending to the assorted parking areas.
Note that post 9/11 – this section of the trail will be closed during “security threats”. There is an alternate path through Fontana Village and into the Great Smokies downstream of the dam. Just off to the right of this picture is the Fontana AT Shelter which is better known as the Fontana Hilton (because of its relative size for a shelter).
The interior of the dam is now closed to visitors although the overlooks are impressive. On the far side is the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where the AT begins a grueling ascent to Clingman’s Dome (30-some miles away by trail). The dam is probably more impressive when the spillways are open into the Little Tennessee River below.