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Catawba Falls Trail

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Total distance: 2.8 or 3.5 miles (see options below)

Overview: After a two-year closure the Catawba Falls Trail reopened to the public on May 31, 2024. The trail underwent significant redesign and engineering to provide safe access to the Upper Falls. Before these improvements Catawba Falls was the scene of serious injuries and deaths as people attempted to reach the Upper Falls by climbing too close to the Lower Falls. Safety and improved user experience were the main reasons for the trail improvements as well as making the falls more accessible.

Catawba Falls and the trail are in the Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather Ranger District.

One of the main features of the new trail are the staircase and observation tower between the Lower Falls and the Upper Falls. The 540 steps and 60-foot observation tower ascend the steep terrain to the Upper Falls. There are several landings along the way to stop and view the Lower Falls as you go up beside it, and there are some benches along the way as well. Plan to take your time on the steps and enjoy the views.

The Waterfall

The waterfall itself is divided into two main sections. It’s along a stretch of the Catawba River which flows off the steep Blue Ridge escarpment, where the higher mountain lands drop off to the Piedmont areas below. The river drops around 600 feet in about a half mile.

No single drop comes anywhere close to that height, though. The main upper drop –referred to as the Upper Falls – is about 50 feet high and is a beautiful free-fall, ending in a split cascade into a deep, clear pool.

The Lower Falls is over 100 feet high across multiple sections with free-falls and cascades. The flow splits into many distinct channels and goes all over the place across the rock face. Lush vegetation and a spray-cliff community of plants grow on the falls. It is partly obscured from view at the base by foliage during the summer months.

The Catawba is more of a rushing creek than a river at this stage since it’s the headwaters, and thus shares an attribute with most higher mountain falls: it looks best after wet weather. Still, there is enough acreage to gather water on the plateau above that it’s worth visiting any time, even in periods of lower water. It never dries up completely and takes on a different character as the water level varies.

The map shown above shows the three main segments of the trail: 

  1. The River Trail– Yellow blaze – 1.1 miles on the original trail from the parking area to the Lower Falls. The Wildflower Trail – Red Blaze – a .25 mile loop off the River Trail provides a quiet walk in the woods.
  2. The Stairs– Blue Blaze – 0.3 mile of stairs (540 steps) and landings and a 60-foot observation tower that ascends the steep terrain from the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls.
  3. The Ridge Trail– Purple Blaze – 2.1 miles on a graded forest road along a ridge line and descent to the parking area.

Hike options – Choose the option that best suits your ability and time you have to spend at the falls.

  1. Hike the loop counter-clockwise using the River Trail, the Stairs, and the Ridge Trail for a 3.5 mile loop. In this direction you will ascend the steps and landings from the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls. 
  2. Hike the loop clockwise using the Ridge Trail, the Stairs, and the River Trail, for a 3.5 mile loop. In this direction you will descend the steps and landings from the Upper Falls to the Lower Falls. 
  3. Hike the River Trail in/out – 1.1 miles to the Lower Falls and 0.3 miles on the stairs and landings to the Upper Falls, then return on the same trails for a total hike of 2.8 miles. With this option you will be climbing and descending the stairs if you go all the way to the Upper Falls.

Getting There: The Catawba Falls Parking area is at the end of Catawba River Road near Old Fort, NC. I-40 Exit 73 is the closest exit to the parking area, about 3 miles. See map below

Shoes:  Wear comfortable, sturdy, close-toed shoes for hiking on a natural surface trail and 540 steps on the staircase and observation tower. If you want to wade in the pool at the base of the Lower Falls bring water shoes.

Time:  Expect to spend at least 2-3 hours on the trail if you visit both Lower and Upper Falls.

  • Some tips for enjoying the hike:
  • Allow plenty of time to enjoy the views of the falls. There is access to the base of the Lower Falls like before. You will want to take your time on the stairs, stopping to view the Lower Falls as you ascend beside the falls (and to catch your breath). There are benches at some of the landings and you will want to take in the view from the 60-foot observation tower. Climbing the steps and the observation tower is equivalent to a 30-story building.
  • Bring plenty of water and a snack to enjoy on the hike. Remember to pack in and pack out your trash.
  • If you hike on the Ridge Trail, there are a few steep descents on switchbacks as you approach the parking area. This is a gravel road so watch your footing. There are some nice long-range views from the ridge.
  • If possible, arrive early. The parking area fills up quickly, especially on the weekends. 
  • Be patient and courteous while on the stairs. Step aside for those coming in the opposite direction or approaching from behind. Take your time and enjoy the views.
  • The nearby Town of Old Fort has several restaurants and other outdoor recreation options. Visit https://www.blueridgetraveler.com for information.