Hiking at Catawba Falls
Catawba Falls is one of Western North Carolina's exceptional Blue Ridge waterfalls - one which is along the steep escarpment where the higher mountain lands drop off to the Piedmont areas below.
It's located on an isolated tract of Pisgah National Forest property near Old Fort, NC, at the southern end of the Grandfather Ranger District, just south of I-40. A new parking area and trail culminates years of effort to provide public access to this special area, which required a variety of legislation to accomplish. Today, Catawba Falls is open to visitors and a highly recommended destination.
Catawba Falls itself is divided into two or three main sections (depending on who you ask), along a stretch of the Catawba River which drops around 600 feet in about a half mile. The main upper part is about 50 feet high and is a free-fall, while the lower (or middle) section is over 100 feet high across multiple falls and cascades. It's more of a rushing creek than a river at this point, and thus shares an attribute with most higher mountain falls: it looks best after wet weather. Still, there is enough area on the plateau above to gather water that it's worth visiting any time, even in periods of lower water. It never dries up completely.
The small cascade below the old dam may constitute a third "lower" part of Catawba falls. Much of this cascade - the part most people see - is man-made and will be eliminated when the dam is removed, making them even smaller. The prettiest part of this cascade is natural, but most people don't see it due to difficulty of accessing it. Personally, this is far enough downstream and distinct from the main falls that I think they should have a separate name.
Right now, one trail is located within this trailhead area, and it leads to the falls. Starting at the new parking area, the trail heads upriver on old road beds, crossing the river once on stepping stones. You may have to get your feet wet here, and it may be an impossible crossing in very high water. (A bridge is planned for this location in the future.) The trail climbs moderately past some old building foundations and an old dam, before ending at the base of the lower falls.
The trail technically continues up the right side of the lower falls, and then along a more level path to the base of the upper falls. However, before leveling out, the way is extremely steep and dangerous, and it's right next to the lower falls. It's almost to the point of being technical rock climbing, and sketchy ropes have been tied to trees to help people haul themselves up. But a slip here could easily be fatal - not to mention the resource damage being caused by the heavily eroded trail. So until the Forest Service completes a re-route of this section - which is planned - we don't recommend continuing beyond the lower falls.
The Catawba Falls area has a long history of receiving visitors for recreation, and the waters of the river below the falls have been used for electrical generation as well. As early as the 1880's, accounts of trips of the falls read much the same as they would today - save for the part about a lack of trail:
We set out next morning, following the fountain pipe, for Catawba Falls, which we reached this time without difficulty. On every side the forest was thick with the white and pink ivy, which was now in full blossom, mingled with the white laurel and the superb azalea - white, scarlet and brilliant orange. In going to the falls we followed, to the last mile of the way, the course of a stream, entirely without a path, down a very wild and steep yet extremely beautiful gorge. We had almost despaired of ever finding the falls, when suddenly we found ourselves at their foot. They are in two divisions. The lower is a succession of cascades, the whole aggregating nearly two hundred feet. Very beautiful they are, but the upper falls, with their single plunge, are still more so. The climb to the latter was like trying to walk up a wall. For two hundred yards or more, we had to hold on to trees and bushes every step lest we fall and know no more.
-- North Carolina University magazine,
University of North Carolina, 1793 - 1962
The dam you'll see on the way up to the falls was built in the 1920's to provide hydroelectric power for Old Fort. Further downstream was a powerhouse, with the water being sent there from the dam via a pipe. To the right of the dam is the remains of another powerhouse, supplied by water from Chestnut Branch, which you cross just before the falls. Duke Energy company eventually acquired this small generating station and shut it down.
By the late 1980s, the US Forest Service owned the land around the falls. It was being accessed by the public over private tracts, but the owners closed it off with a gate. Soon, McDowell County abandoned the stretch of road over private lands, essentially sealing off official public access (although some folks still came to the falls by trespassing, or off of an illegal access from I-40). The Forest Service put acquisition of the land needed to provide public access to its tract at the top of its priority list.
By the mid-2000's, some of the land near the bottom came up for sale. This re-kindled the possibility of obtaining public access to the falls, and a local land conservancy was able to step in and quickly purchase a key tract of land adjoining Forest Service property in two purchases in 2005 and 2007. Limited public access then became available, but without a good parking area.
Starting in 2009, funds for the purchase of this tract from the Foothills Conservancy were authorized by the Forest Service, and in 2012 a huge new parking lot was completed - the final step needed to ensure permanent public access to the falls. More improvements are planned here in the future, including restroom facilities and the trail improvements listed above.
Places to Stay
The area around Catawba Falls is designated as a Day Use Area, so no backcountry camping is allowed. However, there are private campgrounds in the vicinity.
Catawba Falls Campground
This campground is located just down the road from the new parking area. Walk from your campsite to the falls!
Essie Mae's Cottage - Old Fort, NC
This cozy little cottage is located in the western North Carolina town of Old Fort. Its location is fantastic as it is only minutes away from antique and craft shopping in Black Mountain and Asheville, within a few miles of many waterfalls and hiking trails in the Blue Ridge mountains. The property backs up to the Pisgah National forest, a short drive from Lake James and many water and boating recreation areas, and only an hour’s drive away from skiing and snow activities. It is located on Old US 70, only a mile or two away from the beginning of the Point Lookout Greenway Bike Trail. The cottage sleeps four comfortably, with two bedrooms (1 queen bed and 1 full/double bed), one bath, a small kitchen, and a family room/dining area. It is well-stocked. Linens are provided. Cable TV, telephone and Wi-Fi equipped. Smoking and pets ARE NOT permitted.
From Asheville, take I-240 E to I-40 E. Go just under 20 miles on I-40 to exit 73, the second Old Fort exit. Before the ramp ends, turn right onto Catawba River Road. Go 3 miles to the end of the road. The new, larger parking area is on the left side of the road just across the bridge.