Designated a National Wild and Scenic River, the Chattooga River’s headwaters are in North Carolina, but it stretches into Georgia and South Carolina as well. In fact, at one point known as Ellicott Rock, it marks the common tri-boundary of all three states. There are more than 50 miles of trails along the Chattooga River but this four-mile stretch just south of Cashiers, NC is a good introduction to get you in the mood for future exploration. This section of the river is known for the steep, remote Chattooga Cliffs that stand guard high above. This hike occurred on Thursday, March 29, 2012 from 8:45am to 12:15pm. Our plan was to take the Chattooga River Trail (432) to the Chattooga Loop Trail (433), then return the way we came.
Hike Length: 8.2 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours Hike Rating: Moderate to easy
Blaze: None needed Elevation Gain: 390 feet Hike Configuration: Down and back
Trail Condition: Mostly excellent; a few areas with erosion problems.
Starting Point: Chattooga River Trailhead on Whiteside Cove Road.
Trail Traffic: We only encountered one other hiker on this day.
How to Get There: From the Cashiers, NC crossroads on Hwy 64, drive south on Hwy 107 1.8 miles to Whiteside Cove Road (SR 1107). Turn right and drive 4.2 miles on this winding road. Look for a brown national forest sign at the small parking area on the left. The trailhead is on the east end.
If you’ve never been to Cashiers/Highlands in southwestern North Carolina, it’s a rugged mountainous area with massive granite cliffs surrounding deep, luscious valleys. The drive from Cashiers to the trailhead on Whiteside Cove Raod sets the mood for some exceptional scenery as it passes by Whiteside Mountain, one of those prominent landmark cliffs that are ubiquitous to the region. The road winds steeply down through a residential neighborhood typical of mountain living.
The trail starts out with a short climb of about 200 feet as it enters a mixed forest of white pine, hemlock and laurels. When you pass the “boating access” sign (it made no sense to me either) be sure to look behind you for a magnificent view of the Whiteside Mountain cliffs edge peering out above the treeline. As the trail tops out, it begins a gradual descent along a soft, well-groomed, pine needle covered track that makes for a very pleasant stroll through the woods. When the trail begins its decline it makes a westerly turn before winding back to the southeast.
On this day in the last week of March, we began seeing our first wildflowers of the season. Yay! There was a patch of bluets alongside the trail, and a few violets. On the way back, there were more violets and a number of daisies that had opened up to enjoy the sunshine. We could see the trillium stems poking out of the ground, but no flowering yet.
As the trail nears the river, it hangs on a ledge, and has suffered the effects of erosion in a few spots. The forest service and volunteers have done some work to shore up the deterioration with platforms and railings, but there is more work needed. This is, however, the only section of the trail that is anything less than excellent. It was from one of these platforms that we caught our first glimpse of the river. There is a series of two switchbacks at the steepest part of the descent before the trail reaches the river level and turns south. This is just about the halfway point.
Perhaps a little wider than we expected at maybe 30 feet, the Chattooga River is calm through this area with the occasional shoal. No whitewater here; it’s a soothing, tranquil experience. The trail continues along the river through this calm stretch, passing large boulders covered with Biltmore sedge, a rare northern club moss. Just ahead is the Chattooga Narrows, a dramatic section of the river that cuts under the Chattooga Cliffs on the eastern side.
There is a small waterfall that spills out of the Narrows into a large pool, the first sound of rushing water we heard. The area is surrounded by dense rhododendron thickets and white, sandy beaches. I suspect this is a popular spot for sun and water bathers in warm summer weather. It was fun guessing all the critter tracks in the soft, cushy sand. Most appeared to be possum.
Just past the Narrows we had to navigate a downed tree that had fallen directly across the trail, and began to notice one of those signs of the south
— spanish moss. When I lived in coastal South Carolina for awhile about seven years ago, this angiosperm was all over, especially on live oak trees. It’s said that the Chattooga River runs through somewhat of a rainforest, so the increased humidity creates ideal conditions for spanish moss to grow.
The next landmark is Norton Mill Creek. The creek cascades into the river from the west in a terraced fashion, creating a picturesque scene with plenty of places to sit and rest, or dangle your feet in the refreshing water. There is an iron and plank bridge perhaps 40 feet in length that crosses the creek making for a safe traverse. The spanish moss is quite prevalent here. This spot is just about three miles from the trailhead.
Not far past the bridge at Norton Mill Creek, the trail climbs up on the hillside away from the river about 90 feet or so. It was difficult to tell the reason. Most likely the riverbank is particularly steep. The trail stays above the river for perhaps
¾ mile before reaching a trail marker for the Chattooga Loop Trail. There’s nothing exceptional about this spot. It’s like they just decided to rename the trail at this peculiar location. The Chattooga Loop Trail continues southward until it meets Bull Pen Bridge, but this was our destination so we turned around. It was also getting about time for lunch and we decided that Norton Mill Creek would make an ideal scenic setting.
Like further upstream, the Chattooga River narrows again as it approaches the Norton Mill drainage. Solid moss covered granite on each side of the river tightens the passageway and speeds the flow. The Chattooga Cliffs are above to the east, and the terrace of the creek is to the west. We each found a flat, smooth spot of dry granite to sit a bit and enjoy the sights, sounds, refreshing aromas, and some nourishment.
After I had been sitting for a few minutes I began noticing the summer azure butterflies. For some reason they seemed to like my pack. Do you suppose it was something about the color? There were about half a dozen of them hovering around it, and then landing on it. They were a delight, but the marble-sized black flies were a nuisance. Fortunately they didn’t bite, or want my sandwich.
There are a number of sizable granite slabs covered with Biltmore sedge. The picture at the top of this post will give you an idea. Click it for a larger image. The surrounding hillside supports several very large, beautiful hemlock that are unfortunately succumbing to the wooly adelgid infestation. The river pools somewhat after squeezing through the narrows, swirling from the creek’s additional flow. The combination of rushing water, sand, rock, cliffs and disparate foliage creates a splendid scene, one that makes the hike worthwhile. Even the bridge is tastefully done, so it doesn’t distract terribly from the ambience.
After lunch, we followed a bushwhacked semi-trail up Norton Mill Creek a bit to see what was there. It eventually ended in a maze of rhododendron trunks and branches, but not before first offering a view of the bridge and river from above.
We recognized each landmark as we returned on the same path. There were more wildflowers out now, a pleasant reminder of how mild this past winter was, and perhaps a longer blooming season ahead. The climb back up is gradual, so not tiring, simply good exercise. Near the top we met another hiker, a fellow apparently searching for a short hike, because he turned around and raced back to the trailhead when we told him it was at least another mile to the river.
After reaching our car, we decided to continue down Whiteside Cove Road, seeing on the map that it eventually meets Bull Pen Road and ends up in Highlands, NC. Quite a fine drive. We even spotted a pileated woodpecker feeding on a downed log.
For us, this hike was a good introduction to the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River area, and to southwestern North Carolina. It enticed us to want to learn more. Some day soon we will return to explore more of the Ellicott Rock Wilderness that straddles the state lines of NC, SC and Georgia. The river is wilder and the hiking more difficult. There are always more hikes out there waiting… for you too.