Transylvania County, North Carolina is known as “Land of Waterfalls” for good reason, as there are 250 unique cascades within a short drive of each other. Upper Whitewater Falls on the Whitewater River south of Sapphire is perhaps the most spectacular. There are two distinct overlooks of the 411 foot plunge taken by the river on its path to Lake Jocassee. Nantahala National Forest has developed a small park with family amenities for those who wish to view this spectacular wall of water. Eight short miles north of Upper Whitewater is Gorges State Park. An elevation that rises 2,000 feet in only four miles, combined with rainfall in excess of 80 inches per year, creates a temperate rain forest in one of North Carolina’s newest state parks. This excursion occurred on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 from 7:15am to 11:30am. My plan was to take the short trail to Upper Whitewater Falls, then drive north on Hwy 281 to Gorges State Park for some exploration.
First Trail: Whitewater Falls Hike Length: 0.75 mile Hike Duration: 1 hour
Hike Rating: Easy Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: None needed
Elevation Change: 183 feet Trail Condition: Paved path and wooden stairs.
Starting Point: Upper Whitewater Falls parking area in Nantahala National Forest.
Trail Traffic: I had the viewing platforms all to myself early in the morning.
How to Get There: From Sapphire, NC take Hwy. 64 east. Turn right on Hwy. 281 and go 8.6 miles. Turn left into the Whitewater Falls access area in Nantahala National Forest. Parking, and the trail, are straight ahead.
I went solo on this trip. Usually not a good idea out in the wilds, but there really wasn’t much to be concerned about on these trails. I left the house just before sunrise for what amounted to an 80 minute drive to Upper Whitewater Falls. I went through Brevard, past Rosman, and beyond Lake Toxaway as I looked for Hwy 281 South, also known as Whitewater Falls Road. Once on 281, it is nine miles to the turnoff for the falls. The Nantahala National Forest folks have done a nice job setting up a small park-like atmosphere out in the middle of nowhere. People can come see the falls, but stay and enjoy the day picnicking or playing with the family.
It’s a $2.00 day use fee for parking, a reasonable price for keeping the area maintained and safe. Look for the registration kiosk, grab one of the pink envelopes, then put the date and your vehicle plate number on the outside. Slide a couple bucks inside the envelope, seal it, and drop it back in the kiosk. Place the pass portion on your rear view mirror or dashboard so they know what day you are there, and you’re good to go.
As I approached the paved trail toward the falls, I saw a great view of the South Carolina upstate through the trees. The mountains aren’t quite as tall here as they are farther north, but they’re no less beautiful when shrouded with that typical early morning low-lying fog. I could make out Lake Jocassee to the southeast, and the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
The trail, or pathway, is paved and handicapped accessible. It curls past picnic tables, grills, and swings for the kids. It is relatively flat, although it does climb about 70 feet in the quarter mile length to the first overlook. When I reached the upper overlook, there it was straight ahead, the very large Upper Whitewater Falls. That’s the picture at the top of this post. Click it for a larger image.
In its 411 feet of length, there are three distinct tiers of water descent. At the top is a 70-80 foot free-fall as the Whitewater River rushes over the precipice. The top is perhaps the widest section of the falls, or at least it was on this mid-July day when the flow rate was probably somewhat low. Next, the water enters a cataract section as it spills over, around and under large black boulders strewn at the bottom of the initial plunge. From there, it enters a slide area as it continues its cascade down the gorge. It then free-falls another 200 feet before finally crashing loudly on the rocks below and heading to South Carolina.
There is another 200 foot waterfall just a scant couple miles across the state line, known as Lower Whitewater Falls, but that’s a hike for another day. That one is not as easily accessible.
There is a split-rail fence on the edge of the cliff at the upper overlook that will keep you from getting too close. It’s probably a good idea to heed the warning sign that advises not to stray away from the barrier. After all, it is a 400 foot fall into the gorge. Above the falls, to the north, is a beautiful mountain scene so typical in the southern Appalachians. The post-dawn bright blue sky filled with puffy white clouds made quite the picturesque scene.
But now it’s time to work for your viewing pleasure. You see, there is another lower overlook. A lot lower. Like 154 steps lower. There is a wood plank staircase built into the side of the gorge. It will drop 8-10 steps to a small landing platform, then turn to the left, or right, and drop another few steps. If you wish to go to the lower viewing platform, take just a moment to ponder your physical conditioning. It isn’t so tough to go down 154 steps, but consider what it will be like coming back up. It’s equivalent to climbing the stairwell in a 12-15 story building.
At the bottom of the stairs, the lower viewing platform is not particularly big, perhaps a 15 foot square. You can only see the falls from one side of the platform, so it might get kinda crowded down there on weekends or afternoons. But this day, before 8:00AM, I had the place to myself. I would recommend you do the same, especially if you’re looking for some solitude, or so you don’t feel rushed. It was nice to be able to setup my tripod and not have to worry about disturbing other visitors.
The lower overlook is halfway down the plunge of the waterfall, about the same height as the taller lower free-fall. Because there are trees growing all around, there is only a small window to view the falls, but it is spectacular. From the lower overlook, you can see the absolute bottom of the falls
— where it crashes onto the rocks. You can’t see that from the top.
On the south corner of the platform is a trail that continues down into the gorge to meet the Foothills Trail. However, there is not another view of the falls down there. It heads the other direction.
Satisfied with the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, after about 20 minutes it was time to climb up the stairs. I was determined to check my endurance and see if I could make it back up without stopping. I am, after all, a Meanderthal. Well, I made it! Yay! One of life’s little accomplishments. For those of you who are sensible, and don’t see the need to play these little head games, there are plenty of benches along the way to stop and take a breather.
The first part of my day was complete. It was time to get back in the car and head north to Gorges State Park. But first, there is a little viewing area of Whitewater Falls that is outside the fee area. If you go about 1/4 mile north on Hwy 281 from the Whitewater park, there is a pull-off on the side of the road as you crest the hill. There is a rock scramble up the hillside to a view of the top of the falls from the west side. Be careful, the rocks are pretty dangerous. It would be easy to stumble.
Second Trail: Bearwallow Valley Hike Length: 1.6 miles Hike Duration: 3/4 hour
Hike Rating: Easy Hike Configuration: Slingshot Blaze: Red triangles
Elevation Gain: 253 feet Trail Condition: Gravel
Starting Point: Bearwallow Valley Picnic Area.
Trail Traffic: I had the place all to myself.
How to Get There: From Sapphire, NC take Hwy. 64 east. Turn right on Hwy. 281 and go one mile. Turn left into Gorges State Park. Go a mile to the Visitor Center and turn left again. Continue past the White Pines Picnic Area and park at the Bearwallow Valley Picnic Area.
It’s an eight mile drive north on Hwy 281 from Whitewater Falls to the northwestern entrance to Gorges State Park. If you’re coming from Sapphire or Hwy 64, then it’s only a mile down 281. The park opens at 8:30AM.
Gorges is one of the state’s newest parks. The roads and infrastructure project, begun in 2007, is now complete and available for visitors. Located in the northwestern section of the park, the Bearwallow area is brand new. The picnic facilities have just recently opened and are still shiny, not sticky. The park Visitor Center remains under construction, and the trails just opened in July, 2012. It’s still a good idea to call ahead to inquire about the status of the park’s various amenities.
I am impressed with the quality of the loop road through this section of the park. The Visitor Center is probably 2/3 completed as of mid-July 2012, but it looks fancy. The trails, though, I’m not so sure about. I explored the newly opened Bearwallow Valley Overlook and Picnic Area Connector Trails, and was underwhelmed. It’s a nice stroll through the woods, but the tracks are covered in gravel. I suppose that makes for easier maintenance, but I prefer a more natural look.
Bearwallow Valley Overlook is an overlook of
— wait for it
— power transmission lines. All this property used to be owned by Duke Energy as a right of way for the lines from Lake Jocassee to Tuskaseegee in Jackson County. In the 1990s they sold and donated 7000 acres in the watersheds of the Toxaway River and Bearwallow Creek to the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation. Those acres are now Gorges State Park.
In fairness, you can see Lake Jocassee and Lake Keowee from the overlook, through the power lines. These two reservoirs were constructed by Duke Energy back in the 1960s for hydroelectric power generation.
It seems to me though, if they had continued the overlook trail just another couple hundred yards under the power lines there would be an unobstructed view of the two lakes, and the South Carolina upstate. Oh well, they didn’t ask me. Perhaps there are geologic, safety, or property rights reasons.
There are other trails that may be more enjoyable. There is a 1.5 mile trail to Upper Bearwallow Falls, and a strenuous three mile trail that starts within the state park boundary, but leaves to go to Rainbow Falls. Keep in mind, this is a new park that is still evolving.
If you want to see Lower Whitewater Falls, in South Carolina, lace up your hiking boots. It’s a two-mile hike to another far-away observation deck that overlooks the 200 foot cascade and the Jocassee Gorges area. There are four rivers and numerous creeks that flow into Lake Jocassee as they careen down the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Upper and Lower Whitewater Falls are just two among six waterfalls on the Whitewater River before it empties into the lake.
I thoroughly enjoyed Whitewater Falls. It is one of the more spectacular in the “Land of Waterfalls.” Try to go early in the morning if you can, to avoid the crowds. This isn’t a close up waterfall experience, but it doesn’t need to be because the falls is so large. You won’t feel the mist on your face, but your eyes will open wide and your ears will be filled with the sound of roaring, rushing water. I suspect this is a definite must see during fall foliage season.
Gorges State Park, on the other hand, is still trying. They aren’t quite ready for prime time yet. The trail system, at least so far, is ho-hum. I hope they have plans to construct trails down each of the gorges the park is named for. That would be some rugged, wilderness-type hiking. The Auger Hole and Canebrake Trails in the eastern section of the park are a whole lot more interesting. The western side of the state park is probably going to be a good summer weekend experience for families, but if you’re looking for hiking, stay on the east side.
Update October 2012: The park Visitor Center, Maintenance Facility, two Picnic Areas and two Restroom Facilities are now fully open and operating. The Visitor Center in particular is quite classy and adds considerable ambiance to the park.