Magnificent waterfalls make for spectacular summer escapes.
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
Above cover image by Matt Williams Photography
Waterfalls are fun for the entire family, and early summer is the perfect time to explore them. Luckily, North Carolina is home to hundreds of waterfalls of varying size, splendor, and popularity. Most are in Transylvania County in western North Carolina—the designated Land of Waterfalls—but several are an easy day trip from Raleigh. Start with those closest to home, and then plan to visit others that you add to your ever-growing bucket list.
The waterfalls we’ve selected to highlight have self-guided adventures, are open to the public, and offer free access.
All are in scenic areas with good trails, native plants and wildlife, and breathtaking views. Make sure your day of
outdoor exploration includes following all posted rules and warning signs: Stay on the marked trails. And do not climb
on waterfalls! Here are seven natural wonders to get your waterfallin’ feet wet.
Dupont State Recreational Forest, Near Brevard
This exceptionally gorgeous waterfall has captured Hollywood’s eye on several occasions, and with good reason! Triple Falls was featured in The Last of the Mohicans and, more recently, in The Hunger Games. When measured together, the three falls cascade an astounding 150 feet. The trail to the falls is short (just .35 miles), but steep. The drive from Raleigh is too distant for a day trip, and besides, you will want to spend ample time hiking, biking, and fishing in Dupont State Forest’s 10,000-plus acres. Stay in nearby Brevard, and make this the summer vacation that convinces everyone in the family to abandon the Xbox and lay down their iPhones for some serious outdoor fun.
Stone Mountain Falls
Stone Mountain State Park, Roaring Gap
Farther afield, although still less than a three-hour drive from Raleigh, Stone Mountain offers another worthwhile day trip for seeing waterfalls. Four named waterfalls, and numerous unnamed, flow within this state park, but the highest and most beautiful is the park’s namesake. With a 200-foot drop, Stone Mountain Falls thrills all who stand before its grandeur. Formed more than 350 million years ago, the domes in Stone Mountain are also a popular destination for serious rock climbers. Extensive trails wind through oak and evergreen woods, past pristine mountain streams surrounded by ferns and moss—a verdant wonderland. From Raleigh, roughly 160 miles.
High Shoals Falls
South Mountains State Park, Connelly Springs
For the more experienced hikers, adventure awaits at High Shoals Falls. Both of the trails to the falls are moderately strenuous and include steep wooden steps. To reward your effort, the paths weave through lush stands of hemlock and hardwood forest, and meander alongside the cascading Jacob Fork River. The sound of the rippling, gurgling mountain water is sure to soothe frazzled nerves. A boardwalk leading to an observation deck crosses over the rushing river below, while water shoots over an 80-foot drop above. Remains of a textile mill from the 1890s are visible from the trail. Stay in Morganton, 18 miles north, or make this part of a weekend trip that includes Catawba Falls, an hour west.
Pisgah National Forest,
Near Old Fort
This is a top-rated waterfall for its easy access, easy-to-moderate hiking, and spectacular beauty. A three-mile-roundtrip trail snakes along the Catawba River to the falls with its jaw-dropping 100-foot cascade. This is a highly scenic trail with many smaller cascades to enjoy along the way. The trails pass by moss-covered ruins of a powerhouse and dam that were fully functioning in the early 1900s. The lower Catawba Falls is on a short side path off the main trail. The make-shift path to Upper Catawba Falls is extremely difficult and hazardous, so enjoy the majesty from below. Catawba Falls is in the western part of our state—perhaps make the excursion part of a visit to Asheville, only 25 miles away.
National Park Service, Grassy Creek near Little Switzerland (photo at top of page)
One of North Carolina’s most picturesque waterfalls is located near Little Switzerland, a charming resort area offering endless views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A moderate one-mile-loop through wooded trails guides visitors to a thunderous roar of water rushing over a steep, 70-foot cliff. A bridge in front of the falls offers great views. The trail scenery is beautiful in all seasons, but particularly so in spring and fall. Plan a weekend in the mountains since this one is around 300 miles from Raleigh.
Lower Cascade Falls
Hanging Rock State Park, Stokes County, north of Winston-Salem
In about a two-hour drive from Raleigh, you can arrive at Hanging Rock State Park. The park is in the Sauratown Mountains range, which also includes our state’s prominent landmark, Pilot Mountain. With more than a dozen waterfalls and smaller cascades, it is worth the drive—so pack a lunch and plan to spend the whole day. Arguably, the park’s most scenic waterfall is Lower Cascade Falls, which ends in a large wading pool of cool river water. Three other falls—Upper Cascade Falls, Hidden Falls, and Window Falls—are short, easy hikes from the visitor center. The park also features 20 miles of wooded trails and unique geologic structures with names like Cook’s Wall, Devil’s Chimney, and, of course, Hanging Rock.
Lassiter Mill Historic Park
And last—but not least in the hearts of Raleighites—the “falls” at Lassiter Mill. Sure, this is a stretch for a story on dramatic waterfalls, but the park is a favorite local waterside haven. A mill once sat on the peaceful site tucked inside the beltline. Listen as Crabtree Creek rushes over the dam. Wander down to the small, sandy beach area. Spend an hour picnicking and planning your next great adventure to the many magnificent waterfalls that grace our beautiful home state.
The destinations covered here represent a variety of the closest, most beautiful, and most accessible waterfalls out of the hundreds in our region. Many are situated near other falls, so research before you go to find a trip that offers more bang for your buck. Kevin Adam’s book, North Carolina Waterfalls, and the website, NCWaterfalls.com, are valuable resources for waterfall exploration.