Catawba Falls is a beautiful set of multiple falls with two distinct sections -- the lower falls, which is actually a series of cascades, and the upper falls, which is a single, more dramatic fall but is difficult to access. Catawba Falls was frequently pictured on postcards and in publications at the end of the 19th century, but it received relatively little attention in recent years because until recently there was no public access to the falls. The hike to the lower falls is about 2.5 miles round-trip and moderate in difficulty. It is NOT recommended that you hike to the upper falls until access is improved and made safer.
Catawba Falls is located just off of I-40 in the Pisgah National Forest, near Old Fort, in McDowell County, North Carolina. Although the falls are on National Forest property, the falls were off-limits to the general public for many years because the access trail was on private property.
Reaching Catawba Falls is easy. Going west on I-40, take exit 73 (Old Fort). Turn left, go under the interstate, and turn right to go up the eastbound off ramp (as odd as it might seem, there is indeed a lane there). Turn left and follow Catawba River Road for a few miles, when you'll come to a parking lot and the trail head. From there, it's about 1.25 miles to the Lower Catawba Falls.
There are a few stream crossings on the way. While the overall hike is relatively easy, there are a couple places where you will need to make a large step up. There are many falls along the way, but you will know when you reach Lower Catawba Falls (pictured at right).
People have hiked along the Catawba River to view these spectacular waterfalls for over 150 years. In the 19th century, the Catawba Falls were promoted as a tourist attraction along the road from Old Fort to Asheville. In the 1870s, Rufus Morgan popularized the falls with stereographic photographs (see Rufus Morgan photographed the Catawba Falls). In the early 1900s, Colonel Daniel W. Adams, a pioneer in the development of hydroelectric power, bought the land around the falls and in the 1920s, he built the dams below the falls, which created electricity for the town of Old Fort. In 1928 he sold the power plant to a small power company. Eventually Duke Power Company took it over and closed the facilities. The falls have received relatively recent attention in recent years because (until recently) it was necessary to obtain permission from a private property owner to access the falls.
Hike to Lower Falls
The trail begins beside the creek (actually the Catawba River) at the parking lot at the end of Catawba River Road. The trail is relatively easy, and it follows an old wagon trail that was once the main stagecoach route from Old Fort to Asheville. The trail also follows an old power line (which is down in places). There is no camping or overnight parking allowed along the trail, but there is a campground on the River along the road to the trailhead.
The trail up to Catawba Falls is requires a little scrambling to cross the water in a couple of places and you will get your feet wet if the River level is up, but is otherwise relatively easy. It is about 1.5 miles one way. There are 3 stream crossings with the first crossing being the most difficult. Rocks have been positioned for a dry crossing, but if the river is up, you may have to wade in the river. Wear shoes you don't mind getting soaked or bring a towel to dry your feet off if you have to take your shoes off. A hiking stick comes in handy for balance if you can get over on the rocks.
When you leave the parking lot, head upstream. Pick up the trail that heads up river behind the building. The trail starts on the left side of the river but eventually you must cross to the right side where the trail continues. When the water is low, it is possible to rock-hop at the obvious crossing point, but it when the water is high it may be impossible to cross at this location without getting your feet wet. Just upstream from the obvious crossing, there is an old slippery log that can be used to cross the stream (or as a platform to fall into the water). The log is near the old powerhouse. You may be able to scoot across the log as a makeshift bridge. Be prepared to get wet.
After you cross the water, the trail follows the creek upstream on a gentle grade at first, then a moderate climb. You will pass by the ruins of the dam that supplied the old power house (seen here). The trail drops off steeply to a cascade below the dam, so be careful. For a different perspective on this cascade, there is a small goat trail down to the base of the lower drop. This creek used to be the sole power source for the town of Old Fort. Please stay off the dam and away from the cliffs in this area.
Beyond the dam, the trail climbs a bit more steeply before making another creek crossing - an easy rockhop. Next, the trail comes out in a dry wash. Cross to a rocky “island” in between the wash and another creek crossing, and cross that as well. This second crossing is more tricky, but there may be logs that can be used as a bridge.
After crossing the creek, Catawba Falls is only a little further up the trail. The trail continues uphill a short distance through an area of very large boulders. The trail can be difficult to follow in this area so when in doubt stay to the right around the rocks and come out above them at a nice viewing area at the base of the falls.
Lower & Middle Falls
The heavily traveled section of the trail ends at the base of the lower falls, where there is a decent area for hanging out and viewing the falls. The waterfall cascades for more than 100'. With leaves on the trees you can't see the entire waterfall from the base because it makes a curve to the right towards the top. In the winter months you'll get a more complete view. It isn't safe to climb this or any other waterfall, so please don't! Be careful! There are some drop-offs and cascades just downstream from the viewing area.
Lower Catawba Falls
Middle Catawba Falls
There is a scramble path that leads up the right side of the falls to the Upper Falls, but it is NOT recommended that you proceed to the upper falls. There is a sign warning you not to go that way and you should heed the sign. The path to the upper falls is steep, arduous, slippery and dangerous. You have to climb next to the falls where one slip could send you over the edge. Until a better path is established, do not attempt to reach the upper falls. According to one experience hiker, “the trek to the Upper Falls is more technical than the trek to the base camp on Mt. Everest.” If you are tempted to ignore the warnings, remember that the hike down this steep section will be more difficult than the climbing up.
The trail to the upper falls starts out steep, and gets steeper so that it eventually becomes necessary to pull yourself up from one handhold to the next. There is a rope of uncertain reliability that provides the illusion of security along one section of the climb, but the rope is frayed and should not be relied upon. If you slip, you may tumble down the path and off the falls. Not only is it steep, but it’s narrow, with a sheer drop-off into the creek.
Upper Catawba Falls
Other Routes to the Falls
Although the only public access to the falls is from the parking lot at the end of Catawba Falls Road, there are two excellent trails down to the Upper Falls along old wagon roads. One trail comes down from the Catawba Meadows development and Crooked Creek Road (accessible from Hwy 9) - The Davie Crockett Bridle Trail. A second trail starts on private property below High Rock Acres near the headwaters of the Catawba River. Most of this trail is on private property and access is limited to dates when the property owner gives permission. Be on the lookout for notices of scheduled hikes and/or trail maintenance days and you might have a chance to hike this historic trail with us.
The first trail from above the falls to the Upper Falls is part of the historic Davie Crockett BridleTrail that ran from Fairview, NC to Old Fort, NC. The story goes that trail was created by David Crockett around 1816 to visit the home of his second wife (Elizabeth Patton Crockett) and to avoid the tolls on the main road from Old Fort to Asheville.
The second trail from High Rock Acres Road (near Hwy 9) to the Upper Catawba Falls is generally well maintained by the owners of the property and volunteer caretakers, but it should not be used without permission. The first 3/4 of a mile of the trail, goes to the site of an old homestead and is passable to four-wheel-drive vehicles (if you obtain a key to the gate). The hike to and from the Upper Falls from the old homestead site is about a 4-hour roundtrip hike and requires 7 wet-foot stream crossings.
Regardless of which trail you take, there is a small waterfall about a mile above the Upper Falls which is know to some locals as "David's Falls." In addition, there is a short side-trail to the top of the Upper Falls. DO NOT attempt to cross the river at this location. The rocks are deceptively slippery and it is easy to slide down over the falls. Almost every year, overly adventuresome hikers are killed or seriously injured at this location.
It is possible, but not recommended, to scramble down a very steep bank from the Upper Falls, past the middle falls to the base of the lower falls.
When you are around the falls, including the lower falls, remember that wet rocks are very slippery and people fall to their deaths from waterfalls every year! Please be careful and use common sense! Do not climb rocks around the waterfalls and do not ever cross a stream or swim at the top of a waterfall.
Cell phone coverage is good around the falls but there is no quick response emergency team to help you so be safe.
Please be very careful not to trample vegetation while exploring any falls! There may be species of rare plants living in or near the spray areas of the falls.
Most of the photographs on this page are provided courtesy of Rich Stevenson at ncwaterfalls.com. Copies of the photos can be purchased at www.ncwaterfalls.com. The black & white photo is a public archrival photo taken in the 1870s by Rufus Morgan.
Information for this page was obtained, in part, from http://blog.wncoutdoors.info/hikewncnews/visit-to-catawba-falls/http://blog.wncoutdoors.info/hikewncnews/visit-to-catawba-falls/