Upper Creek Falls – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Upper Creek Falls

Upper Creek Falls

Upper Creek constitutes the western boundary of the massive Wilson Creek drainage in Pisgah National Forest. I drive by here a lot on NC-181, which climbs up the western ridges of the drainage on its way to Linville Gorge. There’s a sign for Upper Creek Falls on the highway, and I have never turned off. It didn’t seem like a destination to me – easy highway access + short trail to a waterfall = crowds and disappointment. Let me correct that wrong right now, it is a spectacular destination. Although it is likely popular with swimmers during the summer, Upper Creek Falls is one of the best waterfalls I’ve seen in North Carolina. There are taller waterfalls, and more powerful waterfalls, but this has the best attributes of both worlds in my opinion With easy access from the highway and a manageable trail you have to see this waterfall.

Total distance: 1.77 mi
Max elevation: 3238 ft
Min elevation: 2815 ft
Total Time: 01:01:57
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The Hike

At the parking lot you are presented with two options – go left towards the “Upper Falls” or right towards the “Lower Falls.” This description confused me since I assumed there is only one waterfall. Frustratingly state parks and national forests often refer to waterfall trails as the upper or lower trail depending on where it deposits you in relation to the waterfall. I went left to the “upper falls” because I wanted to start at the top. Additionally, both of my maps indicated this loop trail is 0.9 miles when the national forest information board says it is 1.6 miles and 0.8 miles one-way to the waterfall. Another instance of maps getting it wrong. After hiking for hours at Linville Gorge to Hawksbill and Sitting Bear Mountain plus the tiring descent into Devil’s Hole, I was mentally prepared for 0.9 miles, not 1.6 miles. I was already here though so I pushed on.

 

The first section of the trail to the “upper falls” is a wide, well-used path that parallels NC-181 before descending north away from the highway on two long switchbacks. Initially the forest is typical mountain hardwood but once you turn away from the highway and get closer to the creek the understory gets much denser with rhododendron. As I approached the creek I could hear the roar of the waterfall, much louder than I was expecting. The trail crosses Upper Creek at mile 0.4 in between a cascade and the main waterfall. Initially before the crossing I looked left and saw a 15-foot cascade upstream that looked nice, but then I looked right and saw the land dropping away. I cautiously approached the cliff. The water flow was average and the rock was dry allowing me to get to the brink of the falls, but this could be very dangerous in wet conditions. From here it looks well over 100 feet high, the creek plunges straight down and then follows a chute out of sight. I was very excited. I had no clue this waterfall would be so impressive.

Top of Upper Creek Falls

Top of Upper Creek Falls

First I had to cross the creek to get to the bottom. There is no bridge here, you’ll have to rock hop or wade. I managed to rock hop but in above average flow you’ll probably get wet. In high water, you might not want to try this at all since you’re very close to the top of the falls. On the other side the trail drops steeply into the gorge and there are multiple scramble paths that lead directly to the base. I followed one, but I advise sticking to the left trail as it gently switchbacks to the base.

 

Upper Creek Falls instantly vaulted into the upper echelon of North Carolina waterfalls I’ve seen (pun intended). The creek drops 50-60 feet over a massive cliff then continues its downward track through a long chute. This waterfall is beautiful. Smooth, slanted bedrock lies at the base of the main drop where the water flows into a slot gorge. If this is wet, there is likely no possible way to scramble down to get better pictures of the waterfall. Luckily it was dry on this day and I carefully walked down the slanted rock. Even with this improved angle it is difficult to fit the waterfall into a photograph. One advantage of this angle is you can see the bottom of the main drop and how the water veers left as it flows over the bedrock.

Upper Creek Falls

Upper Creek Falls

Back on the trail I continued downhill and spied a very obvious side trail to the right. It leads to a large pool at the base of the chute. I think the chute and final 10-foot slide are considered all part of the waterfall. It looks like a very nice pool for the summer, and the final portion seems to be a good natural slide. Since visiting this waterfall I’ve heard that the entire chute from the base of the main drop is slideable, but from what I saw this could be dangerous and I think people are exaggerating.

Base of Upper Creek Falls

Base of Upper Creek Falls

At mile 0.9 the trail crosses over Upper Creek amidst a very long section of exposed bedrock. Just upstream of the crossing is another small waterfall, maybe 15 feet tall. Rich Stevenson referred to this as Lower Upper Creek Falls, but there’s another Lower Upper Creek Falls many miles downstream along the Greentown Shortcut Trail #268A. Either way this was a nice spot. The bedrock was almost flat and I walked downstream along the creek. Here the creek has carved out shallow U’s in the bedrock so everything above these trenches are dry unless the water flow is high. These U’s actually made this creek crossing more difficult as there were no stepping stones. I had to jump over the widest U and made it barely. If the rock is wet you’ll slip and get wet and/or hurt, so it is better to wade.

Creek crossing over flat bedrock

Creek crossing over flat bedrock

After the trail passes beneath a massive boulder it switchbacks 10 times in 0.7 miles up the gorge back to the parking lot. Normally this would’ve been easy for me since the switchbacks were well-graded, but I had a long day hiking and it became a slog. I noticed in the middle of every switchback there was a cut-through trail leading straight up the gorge. This is obviously the old trail but still easy to spot and use, please avoid it since it will add to the erosion problems along this trail. It look me just under an hour for the entire loop, but you could easily spend 2 hours if you linger at the waterfalls. Upper Creek Falls is something you have to check out if you’re in the Linville Gorge region, it makes a great afternoon swimming stop after a long hike in the wilderness.

Click here to view my full album on Google+ of Upper Creek Falls

5 comments

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  1. Upper Creek in Pisgah has been my stomping grounds for the last 32 years along with my old Boone NC backpacking buddies. I discovered this blog when doing research for my next Pisgah trip to Upper (and Harper/North Harper/Lost Cove Creek etc)—and joining these sections with the Linville Gorge/Steels Creek section (on the MST).

    On many backpacking trips to Upper Creek we would come in on forest road 197 and take Trail 268A to a campsite on Burnthouse Branch Creek where we stayed for several days.

    During that time we dayhiked upstream on Upper Creek to where it jcts the Mountains to Sea trail (Greentown trail)and stay on the left bank of Upper to a higher crossing to the right bank and then follow Upper Creek on a “manway” all the way up to Upper Creek Falls as in your pictures. It’s the back way to the wonderful Falls, and an arduous and remote up-and-back trek.

    Anyway, I’ll look thru more of your blog and see if you have any more stuff on the Gorge or the Wilson Creek area.
    Tipi

    1. Thanks for checking out my blog. That sounds like a really good trip you have planned. I’m very behind on writing posts for my personal blog, but have kept the other website I write hikes for more up to date. The site is http://www.hikingupward.com/ and it is a huge directory started by a guy in northern Virginia. I’ve been adding trails in NC and southern VA the past 2 years. Two hikes I have on there not on my blog yet are North Harper Creek and Little Lost Cove Cliffs. Yet to be added anywhere are Gragg Prong/Lost Cove Creek loop and Shortoff Mt to Table Rock Mt. I’ve done more hikes in Linville Gorge in the past but I’ve only recently begun exploring Wilson Creek in depth because honestly the drive time is longer for me. I think my next hike there will probably be the Harper Creek/South Harper Creek Falls loop.

      I have been wondering about the Greentown Shortcut Trail for a while. It dives down into Upper Creek through what I’ve seen called Raven Cliff Gorge. There’s also supposed to be a waterfall, I’ve seen it called Lower Upper Creek Falls or Falls of Raven Cliff Gorge. I’m sure you’ve seen it, is it a cool place to check out?

  2. Neato reply and thanks for the hiking upward link, I’ll check it out. And yes, Upper Creek does have its own “secret” rock canyon gorge which is just another highlight of the Upper Creek area. Maybe it’s also called Raven Cliff Gorge although I never it heard called that.

    If you take 268A from the trailhead on Forest road 197, you climb up “heartbreak ridge” and it passes over the high crest of the gorge with Upper Creek far below on the left. If you know where to look there’s a doable manway off the high point of the trail and down a scrub rocky ridge finger on the left to “Babaji Point”—an edge cliff platform overlooking the Upper Creek gorge and about 200 feet above the creek. Awesome place and a little bit dangerous.

    Otherwise the best way to enter the gorge on Upper Creek is to finish 268A and cross sidecreek Burnthouse Branch coming down from the right. Once across you enter Burnthouse Camp. To get to the gorge you get in Upper Creek by camp and follow it DOWNSTREAM until it enters the rock canyon and gorge area. Some tricky footing but if you go far enough you’ll see the cliff of Babaji Point high on your left and below it a deep V pool with a great swimhole. This V pool sort of marks the end of the Upper Creek gorge section.

    Plus, in Burnthouse Camp there’s a 100 foot waterfall behind camp and fed by Burnthouse Branch which you crossed to get into camp. It’s possible to bushwack up to the top of this waterfall and on top there’s a beautiful moss rock covered in falling water and a large level rock platform to sit and possibly see your tents in Burnthouse Camp.

    Here’s my buddy Johnny B at Babaji Point looking down into the Upper Creek gorge, circa 1986—
    https://tipiwalter.smugmug.com/BooneYears/Pisgah-Upper-Creek/i-WdS3qHN

    Here’s the start of the canyon gorge—
    https://tipiwalter.smugmug.com/Backpack-2014-Trips-152/22-Days-Pisgah-Holyland/i-FzwPfzz

    Another pic of the gorge showing the creek dropping down towards Babaji Point and the V pool—
    https://tipiwalter.smugmug.com/Backpack-2014-Trips-152/22-Days-Pisgah-Holyland/i-bZtQTPX

    I could write pages on the area. I guess I’m a true Gorge Rat but my gorge is Upper Creek!
    Tipi

    1. Wow that’s a lot of info, and good pics. Makes me want to check that out soon. I’ve seen a couple people on Facebook describe that area as Raven Cliff Gorge, so that’s where I got the name. I also remember watching a really cool kayaking video of Upper Creek, their starting point is definitely where the waterfall loop crosses the creek on the lower end. The water levels looked intense here, and the gorge looks filled with sheer walls and multiple huge cascades. Upper Creek starts at 2:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8zV8jV4ZEY

  3. Thanks for the video link, I shared it with my Pisgah friends.

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