The Land of Falling Water

Published: February 16th 2012
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Western North Carolina has some of the steepest mountain valleys in the eastern US.

The central part is a high mountain covered plateau.

This area also gets quite a bit of rain.

These factors combine to give this part of the state the highest density of waterfalls over a large area in the US.

There are areas with a high number in a small region (such as Rickets Glen State Park in Pennsylvania) but none has as many over a wide area.

Today, I explore many of them.

My guidebook for this part of the trip was the waterfall lover’s bible: North Carolina Waterfalls by Kevin Adams.

It has detailed descriptions and maps for hundreds of waterfalls.

Since it had rained recently, the stream levels were up and things were roaring.

First Glen Falls

The first waterfall for today was the only major hike, Glen Falls.

Overflow Creek falls into the Blue Valley, the steep gorge seen from the road yesterday.

Glen Falls is a long series of cascades, some of them spectacular.

The hike is valuable for more than just the waterfalls, because it passes through hemlock forest and lots of mountain laurel.

Glen Falls roostertailGlen Falls roostertailGlen Falls roostertail

A leaf caught on a branch exactly in the middle of a cascade creates a roostertail. This is a very rare phenomenon, and photo.

The trail is at the end of a dirt road through a high mountain valley.

This road perfectly illustrates the environment around Cashiers and Highlands.

It passes a number of vacation houses before reaching the protected forest.

Most are modest, but a few were quite large.

One had a paved driveway, which terminated at the dirt road!

The book described this walk as a hike along a scrubby path.

It turns out that the forest service used some of its stimulus funds to rebuild the trail here.

It needed it, because it many places it was overrun by shortcuts and other unofficial paths.

The trail is now a walk down a long dirt and wood staircase.

The first major overlook is the top of a long cascade.

The water flows over smooth black rock with beautiful white quartz veins.

When constructed, the viewpoint must have been very nice.

Since then, a laurel tree fell into the stream, blocking most of the downstream view.

It did have one sweet feature.

A stick had gotten caught in one of the drops,
Quartz veinsQuartz veinsQuartz veins

Closeup of the lower left of the first drop of Glen Falls, showing the quartz veins in the rock
with its end pointing upstream.

A leaf was caught on the end of the stick at the exact middle point.

The leaf caused the water flow to form a perfect rooster tail, jetting into the air.

This is a pretty rare sight, since the next major storm will wash it away.

After the viewpoint, the trail continued down, past pine trees and mountain laurel.

Soon enough, it reaches a large view at the top of a big drop.

The view of the valley is nice, but there is not much view of the waterfall.

The trail then switchbacks down to the bottom.

The base contains an example of strange engineering by the forest service.

They built a new level viewing platform on an area which had been sloping soil.

They wanted to avoid burying some existing trees, so they created a hole in the platform for the trees.

The platform has a two foot deep hole in it with trees sticking out.

It must be seen to be believed.

The bigger problem is that the viewing platform was designed for safety, but does the opposite.

It ends a ways back from the stream.

From this view, a big part of the waterfall is blocked by a tree.

People respond to this as one should expect, by vaulting the railing and crawling as close to the open rocks as they dare.

At high water, the waterfall was pretty nice.

It’s a curtain cascade.

The water splits into seven streams, which then spread out across the rock face to create a curtain of froth.

It has three distinct drops.

Near the bottom, the quartz veins in the rock were prominently visible.

I found the rocks nearly as picturesque as the waterfall.

Second Glen Falls

From here, the trail continues down.

It soon reaches anther view of the valley, and then the base of another waterfall.

This one is a stair step waterfall.

The water falls over a series of ledges.

There was enough water that each part was a series of curtains rather than narrow streams, which I really appreciated.

Wide and pretty.

Most write-ups of this
Bridal Veil FallsBridal Veil FallsBridal Veil Falls

How to drive a convertible under a waterfall and stay dry.
waterfall mention three separate falls on this stream.

My guidebook recommends stopping after two.

I decided to keep going.

The reason for the guidebook write up became apparent soon enough.

There is indeed a third waterfall on the stream, but it’s hidden deep in woods and very hard to see.

On top of that, the forest service trail work ends after the second drop, so the trail became much harder to follow.

I quickly turned around and headed back.

One of the truisms of waterfall hikes is that any trail along a waterfall stream needs to drop the same elevation the stream does.

This does not seem very important on the way down.

It becomes very important later due to the second truism, which is that any hike which starts down at the top of the falls eventually must come back up!

I did appreciate the overlooks of the valley on the way back.

I was certainly feeling the elevation change by the time I got back to my car.

From Glen Falls, I drove back to Highlands (see yesterday) and got
Dry fallsDry fallsDry falls

Seen from the first overlook
on route 64 west.

It follows the gorge of the Cullasaja River.

The Forest Service calls it the Waterfall Byway.

The reasons for this quickly become obvious.

Drive behind Bridal Veil Falls

The first waterfall along the route is as close as a natural feature can come to kitsch.

Many waterfalls exist that people can walk behind.

The rock behind the falls consists of a hard rock on top of much softer stone.

Spray from the falls, which freezes in the winter, fractures the softer rock forming a cave behind the falls.

When the cave becomes large enough, people can walk into it and behind the falls.

Bridal Veil Falls (one of several, actually) is likely the only waterfall in the world people can drive behind.

A little stream falls over a large ledge with a deep cave behind it.

When building the highway in 1926, the designers deliberately widened the cave enough to put the road behind the waterfall.

What they didn’t anticipate is that the road would ice up every winter.

In the 1940s, the state moved the road in front of the falls, but
Behind Dry FallsBehind Dry FallsBehind Dry Falls

The Cullasaja River gorge, as seen through Dry Falls.
the old route is still drivable.

In a dry period, people can be forgiven for wondering what the bother is about.

During these periods, the waterfall is a tiny drippy stream.

After a good rain it becomes an irresistible photo opportunity.

The waterfall is now a wider curtain the width of a car.

People park theirs behind the falls and click away.

Unfortunately, when the water is really high, this waterfall provides the less desirable opportunity to drive through a waterfall as well as behind one.

A tiny bit of the stream volume flows along the edge of the ledge before falling off, creating a series of rain drips over the road.

I put up with it 😊

Dry Falls

The next waterfall is one of the most famous in North Carolina, for good reason.

Dry Falls is a big waterfall that people can walk behind.

The waterfall is on the Cullasaja river, so it always has quite a bit of water.

After the recent rain, it had a lot of water.

This waterfall is the classic image of one, a big
Cullasaja FallsCullasaja FallsCullasaja Falls

Cullasaja Falls, the most dangerous legal roadside picture in North Carolina. I shot this one from inside the car.
volume free falling off a cliff.

It’s called Dry Falls because normally, the cave behind it is completely dry.

The waterfall is very near the road.

A trail goes from the parking lot into the gorge and behind the falls.

The trail was originally constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and part of their handiwork is still visible.

The trail originally had posts made of native rocks with log railings between them.

Most of the posts are still there, but the logs have rotted out.

They have been replaced by steel rails.

The trail was designed to give a perfect view of the falls at almost every step.

It does this beautifully.

Every part of it gives a slightly different, and glorious, view of both the falls and the rocky ampetheater it falls in.

I took pictures almost constantly.

Once at the falls, the real adventure began.

The waterfall does not fall on the trail.

Unfortunately, at high water the spray from the falls does.

Walking behind it today would be like taking a steam bath.

I had a rain coat, and my camera is waterproof, so I didn’t mind this very much.

Being behind this waterfall was a wonderful and surreal experience.

Opportunities to get this close to a big waterfall are very rare.

From behind, the water fell like a huge wet curtain.

Trees and the gorge downstream are visible through the water, and they look like a scene through a huge wet window.

The roar of water hitting rock rang in my ears.

I took dozens more pictures of this one waterfall, from every angle possible.

Cullasaja Falls

Before seeing the next two waterfalls, I drove to the end of the gorge and turned around for safety reasons.

The last part of the gorge is dramatic.

At one point, the floor quickly drops over two hundred feet.

Both sides are now shear rock walls.

This is a problem for the road, which is now two hundred feet in the air and needs to reach the bottom.

It does so by winding its way down along the gorge wall, a path blasted directly into the rock.

Along this stretch of road there is a sheer rock wall going up, then barely two car widths worth of road, a guardrail, and a sheer drop.

When it was built in 1926, a local newspaper editor called this the most scenic and terrifying stretch of road in the state.

The difference between those with mountain driving skills and those who don’t really shows up here.

The former shift into low gear and drive; the latter become cationic.

Now heading back up the gorge, I could see the last two waterfalls.

The waterfalls are seen from overlooks along the road, and it’s only safe to pull over on the same side as the river.

The first waterfall is Cullasaja Falls.

Where the gorge floor drops two hundred feet, the river drops with it in a series of cascades.

The guidebook mentions that this waterfall only looks great with a lot of water.

At this water level, several of the drops were wide fans, and they looked very nice.

A picture of this waterfall may be the most dangerous legal shot in North
Silver Run ProfileSilver Run ProfileSilver Run Profile

The upper portion of Silver Run Falls from the side.

The pull over area is very narrow, and part of it is eroded.

People will be whizzing by just inches from the driver side door.

Even worse, it’s just after a sharp turn in the road, so visitors don’t have much space to see cars coming.

People get injured here every year.

This was yet another place where a convertible came in very handy, because I could take the picture from the car since nothing blocked the view.

Quarry Falls

The last waterfall in the gorge is called Quarry Falls.

It’s a sliding falls that is clearly visible from the road.

The pullover spot here is wider and safer than the one at Cullasaja Falls.

This falls is unmarked, but plainly obvious.

According to my guidebook, it becomes a huge swimming hole for locals in the summer.

Silver Run Falls

After the Waterfall Byway, I went to yet another waterfall, Silver Run Falls.

This one is also near the road, although further away than Dry Falls.

The obvious trail takes about ten minutes to hike and crosses a river along the
Upper Whitewater FallsUpper Whitewater FallsUpper Whitewater Falls

Upper Whitewater Falls from the lower overlook

I felt I was in wilderness when I reached the waterfall.

Silver Run Falls falls off a ledge onto a steeply sloping rock wall, and then slides into the bottom pool.

Seen from the front, it looks like a regular pour over; seen from the side, the two pieces become obvious.

Profile pictures are nearly as popular here as at Dry Falls.

Upper Whitewater Falls

By now, daylight was starting to fade.

My final waterfall of the day was on the border of North and South Carolina.

Upper Whitewater Falls is a cascading falls that totals 420 feet high.

It’s yet another waterfall that people label as the highest east of the Mississippi River (see April 13th).

The key to the designation is the ratio of the size of the drops to the space between each.

If the drop must be much higher than the space after it, this waterfall wins, otherwise some steep mountain streams can be counted as single huge falls (such as Crabtree Falls in Virginia, which has five major drops and hundreds of smaller ones).

The trail first goes uphill to an
Whitewater River and Lake JocasseeWhitewater River and Lake JocasseeWhitewater River and Lake Jocassee

The lower portion of the Whitewater River where it flows into Lake Jocassee. I took the photo from an overlook in the parking lot for Upper Whitewater Falls.

It’s the remains of an old road, so its paved and handicap accessible.

The waterfall is at quite a distance from the overlook, so it’s not really desirable.

From the overlook, a long series of steps descends the hillside.

At the bottom is a viewing platform which is much closer to the waterfall.

The waterfall is a series of long drops spaced closely together.

From the lower platform, the total height of the drops is clearly visible.

In several of the drops, the water spreads out over the rock face as a feathery curtain.

I clearly heard the roar of the water.

The parking lot provides a final treat on the way out.

It’s located above a scenic gorge of the Whitewater River, with the waterfall at the head.

The lot has several overlooks of the gorge.

The view is long distance and very pretty in the fading light of sunset.

Today covered eight waterfalls.

Tomorrow covers even more.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Paved driveway ends on a dirt roadPaved driveway ends on a dirt road
Paved driveway ends on a dirt road

Welcome to the mountains of North Carolina
Glen Falls TrailGlen Falls Trail
Glen Falls Trail

Forest of mountain laurel
Blue Valley overlookBlue Valley overlook
Blue Valley overlook

Early on the Glen Falls Trail
Top of first drop, Glen FallsTop of first drop, Glen Falls
Top of first drop, Glen Falls

Look closely to see the quartz veins
Trees in platformTrees in platform
Trees in platform

Just as ridiculous as it looks
Third drop of Glen Falls?Third drop of Glen Falls?
Third drop of Glen Falls?

About the spot I gave up looking for it
Bridal Veil FallsBridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls

A waterfall people can drive behind!
Convertible behind a waterfallConvertible behind a waterfall
Convertible behind a waterfall

Yes, I really did have the roof open!
Trail stoneworkTrail stonework
Trail stonework

Glorious construction from the Civilian Conservation Corps
Dry FallsDry Falls
Dry Falls

Dry Falls, seen from the trail just before the overhang
Dry Falls caveDry Falls cave
Dry Falls cave

Prepare to get soaked

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