Updated: Dec 14, 2021
Spectacular waterfalls in Western North Carolina
The Land of the Sky
We celebrated our being fully vaccinated by accepting a friend’s offer to use their vacation home in Western North Carolina (WNC), which comprises the mountain region abutting the Tennessee state line and Great Smokey Mountains National Park. We had not been to WNC before and our research identified a variety of cultural attractions and outdoor activities, from exploring the heritage of the Cherokee Indians, to culinary exploits in Asheville and hiking to many spectacular mountain waterfalls. There are also a vast number of parks and forests in 'The Land of the Sky' such as Nantahala National Forest and Pisgah National Forest.
Destination: Sapphire Valley
We were looking for a quiet visit to the outdoors and our destination was Sapphire Valley, a mountain resort destination offering boating, skiing, golf, fishing and plenty of opportunities for hiking, particularly to view waterfalls. There was also my secret hope that we could find some hikes that included opportunities to dip into some trout water – after all, the area we were visiting is in Jackson County, which calls itself the NC Trout Capital®.
Our first trek was to discover the Whitewater Falls, situated near to the border with South Carolina. This is the highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains with a spectacular 400-foot plunge that roars even from the distant overlook offering the best views of the falls. The trek from the parking lot is relatively short and easy and a second overlook is situated at the bottom of a 150-step wooden staircase.
Bridal Veil Falls
The following day we traveled west through the towns of Cashiers and Highlands to a series of waterfalls that flank US 64. Among these is the Bridal Veil Falls, which is adjacent to the highway and a quick photo op. There was a time when you could drive behind the falls, but that is no longer possible, although it is fun to walk behind them. It should be known that there are two waterfalls in WNC named Bridal Veil Falls – the more famous of the two was a filming site for Last of the Mohicans and is located in DuPont State Recreational Forest about 60 miles to the east.
The Dry Falls, also known as the Upper Cullasaja Falls, is located a mile up the in Nantahala National Forest. The hike down to the falls is relatively easy and with each step the sound of the 75-foot cascade gets more deafening. A vast overhanging rock structure affords a dramatic (if not soggy) view from behind the waterfall and another great photo op.
Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park
By far our favorite excursion was to visit the Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park. This park is a vast 7,500 acres comprising several hikes of varying difficulties and views to a variety of natural phenomena. The trek to Rainbow Falls is moderate to strenuous (because of the elevation change) and approximately 3 miles round trip. A bit further along the trail is Turtleback Falls where many go for a slide down the cascades (although Park Rangers discourage this because of the many accidents that have occurred in recent years). The trail also borders the Horsepasture River and there are a few opportunities to enter to wade or rock hop through the river to fish for trout and smallmouth bass, especially at Hidden Falls about a quarter-mile before Rainbow Falls.
Whiteside Mountain trail
Another moderate hike with impressive views is Whiteside Mountain trail, also in Nantahala National Forest between Cashiers and Highlands. The trail is about 2 miles round trip and includes two overlooks with prospects for spotting peregrine falcons that were reintroduced to native habitat in 1985. Whiteside Mountain also sits on the Eastern Continental Divide, which facilitates the watersheds that feed the Savannah River Basin to the east (and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean) and the Mississippi River to the west (and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico).