Improving McDowell County access to trails and more

Catawba Falls Trail

Catawba Falls Trail

Difficulty Level: Moderately Advanced (See map below)

TOTAL DISTANCE: 2.5 Miles Round Trip

Catawba Falls, one of Western North Carolina’s exceptional Blue Ridge waterfalls over 100 ft high, is now fully accessible to the public and a highly recommended destination. It’s in the southern tip of the Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather Ranger District, just south of the Old Fort grade on I-40.

A new parking area, trail, footbridges, and signage builds upon years of effort to provide public access to this formerly off-limits special historic area

Shoes:  A medium to heavy hiking boot that supports the ankle.  A waterproof boot is much preferable.  In the winter when the streams are frozen and full they can be deep and potentially dangerous.

Time:  Expect to spend at least 2 hours on the trail if you plan to go to the falls and back. 

Distance:  Total distance round trip is 2.5 miles.  Elevation gain is about 100’ to the falls. 

The Waterfall

The waterfall itself is divided into two or three main sections (depending on who you ask). 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 – often referred to as Upper Catawba Falls – is about 50 feet high and is a beautiful free-fall, ending in a split cascade into a deep, clear pool.

The middle (or lower) section, which is called just Catawba Falls (or occasionally Middle Catawba 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.