Hike AbstractLocation: Upper Creek Falls Trail, Pisgah National Forest, NC Distance from Hubs: Raleigh (215 miles – 3 hours and 21 min) Charlotte (99 miles – 1 hour and 44 min) Asheville (64 miles – 1 hour and 15 min)
Trail Access: From downtown Morganton follow NC-181 north for 21.6 miles to the gravel parking area on the right side of the highway. Once you pass the Brown Mountain Overlook on the right it is 2.0 miles to the trail head. The Upper Creek Falls Trail loop #268B begins on each side of the parking lot. On the left is the trail to the top of the waterfall and is described in this post. HikingUpward link to hike Hiking Trails: Upper Creek Falls Trail #268B Hike Configuration: Loop Elevation Gain: 415 feet Hike Distance: ~1.7 miles Hiking Time: 1 hour Date of Hike: 03-15-15, Sunday at 5:50 PM Trail Condition: Good — Each trail descending into the gorge are in very good condition but more eroded once you follow the creek Hike Difficulty: Moderate — No matter which direction you begin, you will face a fairly steep climb out of the gorge
Isolation: Average — I only saw two groups of people here, but given it was almost nighttime on a late winter Sunday that is probably an anomaly. This is supposedly very popular in the summer for swimming.
Highlights: Incredible waterfall with intimate access to multiple spots along the creek
Lowlights: Two creek crossings could be potentially wet and hazardous, the old trail between the newer switchbacks isn’t disguised well and is likely used often Google+ photo album link
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.
Max elevation: 3238 ft
Min elevation: 2815 ft
Total Time: 01:01:57
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.