Beauty Must be Earned

Published: February 16th 2012
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Lower Whitewater FallsLower Whitewater FallsLower Whitewater Falls

I cropped out the bottom portion, which is all behind trees. The total height is almost as high as Upper Whitewater Falls.
Today, I see yet more waterfalls.

There is a distinctive difference between these falls and the ones from yesterday.

With two exceptions, all of the falls yesterday were located near roads.

Most of the waterfalls for today are located along trails deep in the forest.

They require long hikes to reach.

Local enthusiasts tend to prefer these falls, simply because the work needed means that only outdoor enthusiasts ever see them.

These beauties must be earned.

Lower Whitewater Falls

The first waterfall I saw is the highest waterfall in South Carolina.

Remember that the last waterfall yesterday was Upper Whitewater Falls.

Lower Whitewater Falls is nearly as high.

It takes much more effort to reach.

For starters, the trail head is located on land owned by Duke Power as part of the Lake Jocassee project.

They are required to provide public access, but only during specified hours.

When the gate is open, a very steep winding road leads down into the gorge.

The trail head is located at a parking lot about halfway down the road.

The trail starts by passing through an old
A forest of mountain laurelA forest of mountain laurelA forest of mountain laurel

A fairy tale forest of flowers along the trail to Lower Whitewater Falls

The field is starting to grow in at this point, so it’s covered in wild flowers.

Unfortunately, most of them were past blooming stage.

After the field, the trail enters second growth forest.

This forest was unlike anything I have seen before; it was a dense maze of mountain laurel and lilac bushes, with oak trees sticking up at regular intervals.

Much of the mountain laurel was in bloom, making the area feel like something out of a fairy tale.

Soon enough, the trail descended and reached a river.

The river was the Whitewater River, between the Upper and Lower falls.

The trail crossed the river on a pair of bridges, with a rocky island in the middle.

Both bridges are reinforced with jetties made of rocks.

One look downstream gives the reason.

A clump of trees growing from the end of the rocky island is nearly covered in washed up logs and other debris.

Some of them had chain saw cuts, so it was clear that part of those logs were deliberately put there, but the floods here must be incredible.

Flood DebrisFlood DebrisFlood Debris

Think of the flood needed to accumulate this pile of debris, on an island of the Whitewater River

After the bridge, the trail entered deciduous forest.

It climbed a ridge high above a stream valley.

The valley is very pretty.

After a gradual climb, the trail reached an old logging road and followed it.

This road featured a phenomenon I have never seen before.

In several places, the road was cut into the hillside.

Where this happened, there was a cliff of dirt where the hillside had eroded underneath it.

The plants and rocks seemed to stick right out into the air.

Eventually, the logging road ended at a real dirt road.

This road, Musterground Road, is on Duke Energy land, so I gather it’s closed to vehicle traffic.

The trail split from the dirt road soon after joining it.

At this point, the trail followed the side of a ridge.

I started to hear a roaring noise at this point, softly at first but growing steadily louder.

The vegetation changed, to pine trees and mountain laurel.

Most of the laurel was in bloom.

The trail gently dropped along the ridge.

Through the trees, I could see
Trail to Stairway FallsTrail to Stairway FallsTrail to Stairway Falls

This, believe it or not, is a typical view of the trail from the logging road to Stairway Falls. It is completely unmarked.
that there was a rather deep gorge beyond them.

Eventually, the trail terminated at a viewing area across the gorge from the waterfall.

The waterfall appears about the same distance as Upper Whitewater Falls from the upper viewing area.

I was a little disappointed by this.

Like the upper falls, Lower Whitewater Falls is a series of steep cascades.

The final drop is a curtain of water that falls almost straight down.

It alone accounts for at least half of the height of the waterfall.

Unfortunately, the bottom portion of the final drop is blocked by trees, so it’s impossible to judge the full height.

After soaking in the view, I returned to the trailhead.

Lower Whitewater Falls required a three hour hike, for a waterfall view that was a little underwhelming.

For the waterfall alone, the hike would probably be disappointing.

The overall environment, including the forest of laurel, is what made this hike worth doing.

Horsepasture River Trail

My next trail was the hike that many North Carolina waterfall enthusiasts rank as the best in the
Stairway FallsStairway FallsStairway Falls

Stairway Falls of the Horsepasture River, in fairly high water.
entire state, the Horsepasture River.

(WARNING: Many websites, and virtually all books, have outdated directions to the trailhead. The site linked above is accurate).

Thanks to some strange land deals over the years (more on that below) this hike used to take a few hours and now takes at least half a day.

It’s still worth every second.

Parts of this trail require significant skills and proper equipment, so be sure to research it before trying it.

The trail head is located in Gorges State Park, even though the river is on National Forest land.

The road to the trailhead is narrow and winding.

It follows a ridge.

It eventually ends at a large parking lot.

There are signs warning that cars will be locked in for the night if people are not back by closing time (which is before sunset), and notes about bear dangers.

The trail starts by following an old logging road.

It is very clearly marked.

The trail drops gradually down the side of a ravine, weaving in and out of side ravines.

It crosses several streams.

There is
Hidden FallsHidden FallsHidden Falls

Hidden Falls on the Horsepasture River
quite a bit of mountain laurel.

Eventually, the logging road reaches a sign marking the end of Gorges State Park, and the trail markings come to an end.

The road clearly continues, however it is now completely unmarked.

Wilderness skills will soon be at a premium.

The logging road now passes through the National Forest.

The unmarked but obvious road crosses another stream, this one with quite a bit of water, and follows the ravine it creates.

A faint roaring noise can be heard at this point, cascades on the Horsepasture River.

Stairway Falls

At a certain point, the logging road turns away from the stream.

This is the point where the trail to the first waterfall splits off.

Unlike the road, this trail is narrow, steep, and hard to follow.

The starting point is clearly and ironically marked; the forest service has put a sign directly in front of it, with an arrow pointing along the road!

From the split, the side trail drops down a steep ridge along the stream ravine.

It eventually reaches a campsite at the junction of the
Rainbow FallsRainbow FallsRainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls on the Hoursepasture River, the most beautiful waterfall in North Carolina. Today was sadly overcast, so no rainbow.
stream and the river.

This campsite is at the top of the waterfall, but there is nothing to see from here.

Another trail follows the river downstream.

This trail is narrow, rocky, muddy, and steep.

Following it requires skillful scrambling.

It eventually ends at a pool at the base of the first waterfall, Stairway Falls.

The reason for the name is obvious.

The river cascades through a series of short slides.

The water was high enough that each slide was wide enough to reach from bank to bank.

Depending on how people count them, there are between seven and nine steps in the stairs.

Hidden Falls

Back on the logging road, it continues down, now dropping along the river gorge wall.

It eventually reaches a big stream crossing.

On the other side is a major campsite, large enough to hold an army brigade.

Judging by the fire pits, a large number of people have used it.

The logging road ends here.

From now on, the trail is narrow and rocky, filled with tree roots, and sometimes steep.

Rainbow falls close upRainbow falls close upRainbow falls close up

A close shot of the top of the waterfall from the lower overlook, showing the endless threads in the water flow.
trail follows the river pretty closely for a while.

There are several side paths that lead to overlooks.

Most of them are just pretty series of cascades.

One of them leads to a rock in front of a deep pool, with a six foot pour over falls at the far end.

The falls pours over one end of a rock ledge.

The waterfall is officially unnamed, although my guidebook states it was once called Hidden Falls.

Rainbow Falls

After this waterfall, the trail gets steep.

It climbs over a series of rocks in a pine forest.

A roaring noise is heard and gets louder.

Eventually, the trail breaks into an open hillside without any trees.

It offers a perfect view of why so many people put in the effort of this trek, Rainbow Falls.

Rainbow Falls is often called the most beautiful waterfall in the state.

Every website I consulted describes it that way, especially when the water level is high.

The river encounters a ledge above a nearly vertical sixty foot drop.

The water spreads out into a huge curtain
Turtleback Falls, frontTurtleback Falls, frontTurtleback Falls, front

Turtleback Falls, seen front the front
of white froth that flows down the drop.

The higher the water level is, the wider the waterfall.

When I saw it, at least half the rock face was covered in lacy white flows, splitting and joining and splitting again.

The water hitting bottom creates a mist of spay.

If the sun is out at the right time of day, the mist will create a rainbow, hence the name of the falls.

Unfortunately, today was clouded over.

The view from the hillside is nice, but there is an even better one available.

A series of confusing paths descend from the edge of the open area into the forest next to the waterfall.

They all end at an open area about ten feet from the bottom of the waterfall.

Any closer, and people would get soaked.

From here, the ever changing flow pattern of the waterfall is clearly visible.

I wanted to stay until the sun set.

I eventually managed to pull myself away, because I had still more wonders to see.

Turtleback Falls

Turtleback Falls is located just upstream from Rainbow Falls.
Turtleback Falls profileTurtleback Falls profileTurtleback Falls profile

A profile shot of Turtleback Falls, clearly showing the curve of the cliff. The brink of Rainbow Falls is visible in the far distance.

The trail has an overlook along the river where Turtleback is just visible upstream, and the top of Rainbow is just visible downstream.

In this waterfall, the river spreads out over a rounded ledge, and then free falls off into a deep pool.

It’s called Turtleback because seen from the front, the ledge looks like the profile of a turtle.

In summer, people will wade into the stream and ride over the waterfall.

Someone built a set of steps above the waterfall to make this easier.

Several are injured every year.

These sorts of thrills had a bad, and important, effect on the river a decade ago.

Drift Falls

A five minute walk above Turtleback, the trail reaches the last waterfall on the river, Drift Falls.

Drift Falls is a long steep slide.

It has a strange history.

Remember the comment above about how this hike used to be much shorter?

Here is the reason.

Believe it or not after all that hiking, Drift Falls is located right next to a major highway!

One can hear the traffic while on this section of the
Drift FallsDrift FallsDrift Falls

Drift Falls on the Horsepasture River. I took this photo the only legal way possible, with camera zoom.

A few decades ago, people would park on the roadside and scramble down to the waterfall.

It wasn’t long before people starting bringing beer and hanging out near the waterfall all day.

Not long after that, people who had a few too many beers decided it would be a very cool thing to ride down the slide.

Those who were lucky merely got sore.

Those who were unlucky got injured.

Those who were really unlucky hit their heads on rocks and died.

Things were clearly getting out of hand.

What followed is one of the strangest land transactions in this part of North Carolina.

A local landowner, Bill McNeely, sold the forest service a coveted part of his holdings in 1998.

As payment, he got land along the river near his remaining holdings, including this waterfall.

The new owner promptly put up “No Trespassing” signs everywhere, and convinced the county to prohibit parking along the road.

A hike that used to be pretty short now had to be done from the other end of the trail, and became much longer.

Looking Glass FallsLooking Glass FallsLooking Glass Falls

The most photographed waterfall in North Carolina. Add me to that list :)

The private property also makes it much harder to even see Drift Falls.

One hikes up to the huge sign that marks the property line (It’s not at all subtle: “Private property behind this sign; trespassers will be prosecuted”) and then rock hops into the river along the boundary.

The waterfall is finally visible in the distance.

I took my pictures with camera zoom.

At this water level, it ran from one bank to the other.

Pretty waterfall.

Pity people made it such a dangerous one.

After seeing Drift Falls, I had a long hike back to the trailhead.

Looking Glass Falls

The final waterfall for the day was completely different to the rest.

Looking Glass Falls is often called the most photographed waterfall in North Carolina.

It’s similar to Silver Run Falls, in that a large stream falls off a ledge in a pretty grotto.

The waterfall is beautiful, although it can’t compare with Rainbow Falls.

What makes it the most photographed waterfall in the state is its location, right next to a busy road.

The parking lot has a very good view, but the
Looking Glass and LaurelLooking Glass and LaurelLooking Glass and Laurel

Looking Glass Falls framed by mountain laurel. Did I mention this waterfall is popular with photographers?
trail to the base has an even better one.

Like Dry Falls yesterday, the trail was designed to give a perfect view at every step.

It ends at the base of the pool at the bottom of the grotto.

Thanks to cruddy weather, I got a rare treat at this waterfall, the chance to see it by myself.

It was peaceful and pretty.

I suspect on a clear summer day I would have a very different opinion.

After the last waterfall, I drove to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I spent the night at Smokemont Campground.

It was built as a logging camp, and became a major CCC camp after the park was established.

Smokemont, at least this week, was one of those places to experience the stillness of the wilderness with nothing but the sound of a river rushing nearby.

Once summer hits, it will be a different story.

Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


Whitewater RiverWhitewater River
Whitewater River

From a Lake Jokasse Overlook
Fern forestFern forest
Fern forest

Pretty trail on the way to Lower Whitewater Falls
Hillside erosionHillside erosion
Hillside erosion

The hillside wore away but left the tree roots!
Mountain laurelMountain laurel
Mountain laurel

On the way to Lower Whitewater Falls
Mountain LaurelMountain Laurel
Mountain Laurel

On the way to Lower Whitewater Falls
Stair Fals CampsiteStair Fals Campsite
Stair Fals Campsite

No view of the falls

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