If you love waterfalls and want the best bang for your buck, then visiting Catawba Falls should be at the top of your list. Thankfully the Foothills Conservancy and eventually the US Forest Service saved access to these waterfalls from private development. Now, this easy trail is one of the most popular in the region due to its beauty and ease of access beside Interstate 40. There are 3 waterfalls along a short stretch of the Catawba River. Despite being one of the largest rivers in North Carolina, here it is no more than your average mountain creek. The trail follows forest roads that previously provided access to an old hydroelectric facility. It is an easy 3 mile hike (round trip) to see Lower Catawba Falls and the spectacularly high Catawba Falls. At this point most hikers turn around, but a steep, hazardous scramble trail climbs to the top of Catawba Falls providing access to the picturesque Upper Catawba Falls. It is worth the effort if you are sure-footed, otherwise I’m sure you’ll be satisfied with Catawba Falls.
We normally have very late Fall seasons in North Carolina, but on this Sunday before Christmas it was definitely a cold winter morning. The forecast was in the 20-30ºF all day, and there was a dusting of snow that weekend. My plan was to do two moderate length hikes in the area. I decided to head to Catawba Falls first to get overcast lighting and avoid any possible afternoon crowds. I would head to Bearwallow Mountain and Blue Ridge Pastures later in the afternoon. Catawba Falls Trail is located in Old Fort, NC, only a few miles from I-40. There’s only one tricky turn. The road to the trail is located on eastbound exit 73 from I-40. If you’re not familiar with the area you’ll probably miss the turn the first time, but it is easy to turn around. If you’re on the eastbound ramp, turn right on Catawba River Rd before the main road. From the other direction turn right onto the exit ramp and take immediate left onto Catawba River Rd. Drive 3.1 miles to the end of the road for parking.
Max elevation: 2339 ft
Min elevation: 1581 ft
Total Time: 02:35:26
The Catawba Falls Trail begins at the end of the parking lot. The forest road heads west into the trees and at mile 0.2 you’ll cross Catawba River. An old trail on the left before the crossing leads to an old building, and a dead end. I found this out myself, and quickly turned around. The reason I did this was to look for an easier crossing. This was slightly above average water flow, and most of the rocks were wet. I wanted to avoid getting wet since it was ~25ºF and I had a full day of hiking ahead of me. However, this trip was in December 2015 and in the last year the forest service has constructed a bridge across the river. So you don’t have to worry about getting wet!
On the opposite side of the river, river left, the forest road follows a stone wall. (River left means when you are looking downstream, you are looking towards the left side of the river.) At mile 0.9 is a simple rock hop across Clover Patch Branch. Before I crossed I noticed the branch dropped through large boulders into a narrow crevice. I scrambled down the hill to check out the scene. You could call it a waterfall, it was probably 6 feet tall. The trail actually crosses at the precipice of this drop, when the water falls between massive moss-covered boulders. I took some pictures but the sunlight was terrible, so I did not include them here. Back at the creek crossing this is another nice cascade upstream, just a taste of what you’ll see later.
Only 0.2-mi later you’ll hear an audible roar from the river down the left. If you keep walking you’ll eventually see a snaking waterfall beside an old dam. But wait, backtrack and search for a scramble trail on the left before this waterfall. Most hikers miss this, it is not marked nor widely used. While I went down, multiple hikers passed by overhead blissfully unaware it affords you an excellent view of Lower Catawba Falls. You cannot see the top half of the waterfall from here. It starts up to the left out of sight, then diagonally snakes right before falling the last ~10 feet over a cliff into a large pool. In total this waterfall is around 35 feet high. Since the river is funneled into this final drop, it roars beneath the overhanging cliff. I grabbed a few photos and then checked out the scene from up top beside the old dam, built in 1923. You have a direct view of the top plunge from the stone wall. Please don’t be stupid and walk on top of the dam which is covered in moss and usually wet.
The forest road grade ends at mile 1.3, a mere 0.1-mi beyond Lower Catawba Falls. It not only ends, but the trail itself seems to disappear at Chestnut Branch. Well for me it did. At this Y-confluence of waterways I wasn’t sure which creek was Catawba River, and which was Chestnut Branch. I rock hopped Chestnut Branch and followed flagging tape to the left. All of this is moot, because another bridge was recently finished across Chestnut Branch. Anyways continue left and the canopy will open up overhead as the massive Catawba Falls appears in view.
I’ve seen many pictures of Catawba Falls, most of them pathetic. I learned 1 important thing from seeing all of these pictures, visit this waterfall after a period of rain and/or snow. I also assumed this waterfall was about 60-70 feet high. Standing below it, I was taken aback at how tall it was, nearly 200 feet The lowest drop was around 70 feet, but there were multiple upper drops high above. Maybe the reason my memory was poor in this instance is when the water is low, it is likely much tougher to see those upper drops in photos. I admired the spiderweb-like cascades of the lower drop then proceeded to follow the rough trail on the right side of the waterfall.
WARNING – If you decide to explore the waterfall, you’ll find a scramble trail on the right side of the lower drop. You’ll then probably notice trail closure signs, danger, etc. I can’t say for sure these signs will be there, or if this trail is closed when you read this post. The scramble trail that climbs to the top of Catawba Falls is very steep, extremely eroded, a mixture between slick clay and bedrock, and downright dangerous in spots. There have been serious injuries here and that’s one of the primary reasons the forest service discourages visitors from using the trail. I would like to point out that I’m not encouraging anyone take the trail if you don’t feel comfortable with the hazards and the potential of receiving a fine from a forest ranger. I went ahead and started the climb. Proceed at your own risk.
The scramble started out fine for me, as it had plenty of footholds with rocks and fallen logs. There are scramble trails that head away from the waterfall, and you should avoid all of these. There are also paths from the main trail leading to views of each drop. These short paths are actually very safe, even with the ice on this cold day. They’re flat and end at wide rocks with close-up views of the waterfall. As you keep climbing you get a slightly different view of each upper drop, revealing fascinating aspects of this huge waterfall. You can get some amazing pictures here if you are a good photographer since you can get really close to the water. It might look even better with some greenery during spring and summer.
The crux of the scramble is close to the top where you are faced with a sheer rock wall approximately 20 feet high. This is exposed bedrock that is made slick by constant erosion of dirt and clay clinging to all the crevices. I wish I was an experienced climber because I would then be able to describe what type of climb/pitch/rock this was. In the past a rope was anchored for assistance, but that has been removed. It took me a few minutes to get up, but not much of a problem. Going up is almost always easier than going down.
After this climb you are at the top of Catawba Falls where you have a decent view of the gorge below. Continue following the moderately steep trail upriver and avoid any scramble trails on the right heading high into the woods. You’ll want to stick to the trail closest to the river. In 0.3-mi you’ll see Upper Catawba Falls from a distance and it is STUNNING. First, I had to figure out how to get a close, open view. When you reach a fork turn left to get down to the pool below the falls. The trail abruptly ends at a sloped boulder with a solitary, massive dead tree providing your only barrier between sliding in the water. During the summer, none of this would be an issue. But it was still 25ºF and I did not want to slip on that rock and plunge into the icy river with my clothes and electronics. The reason I’m mentioning all of this is Upper Catawba Falls is BEAUTIFUL and I wanted the best possible pictures. If you stay on flat dirt ground overhanging rhododendrons will be in the top of your photos. I had to carefully maneuver down the boulder to lean against the dead tree in order to get a good photo. Even with this effort you are still very close to the waterfall. The best angle is probably in the middle of the river below this tree, so if it’s warm outside go ahead and get your feet wet. That pool looks like an amazing swimming hole too. This is a great waterfall, one of my favorites in North Carolina. It is around 60 feet high and is part freefall and part cascade where the flow is broken in two by a massive boulder. If the canopy wasn’t open right above the waterfall this might be a perfect photo.
On my way back downclimbing the vertical rock section beside Catawba Falls was agonizingly slow. It is slippery and steep. Continuing down the eroded scramble trail was no picnic either. You really have to be careful descending or you can slip and break a leg. Fortunately at the base of Catawba Falls is the flat forest road that is a breeze. In total this hike is only 3.9 miles, but heading to Upper Catawba Falls adds a lot of time and difficulty. I started early this day because I had another moderate hike to get to later – Bearwallow Mountain and Blue Ridge Pastures. Catawba Falls is a great 2-3 hour hike and I highly recommend checking it out in the off-season or after a good rainfall. You won’t be disappointed.