Hidden deep in the woods between Courthouse Ridge and Brushy Ridge in western Pisgah National Forest, Courthouse Creek makes a dramatic plunge through a narrow chute into a natural amphitheater of bedrock. Cascading 45 feet into a cold crisp pool, Courthouse Falls is one of the best kept secrets in the “Land of Waterfalls.” Beautiful for its solitude as well as its picturesque setting, Courthouse Falls is reachable by trail or by forest road. The Summey Cove Trail is a 5-mile round trip that begins north of Balsam Grove on Scenic Highway 215. It crosses Courthouse Creek several times before its final destination at the falls. This hike occurred on Wednesday, August 15, 2012 from 9:30am to 12:45pm. My plan was to sandwich Summey Cove Trail to Courthouse Falls between visits to Living Waters and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Hike Length: 5.3 miles Hike Duration: 3.25 hours Blaze: Blue
Hike Rating: Moderate, pretty strenuous at times Hike Configuration: Out and back
Elevation Gain: 1,315 feet Elevation Change: 473 feet
Trail Condition: Mostly good. Some roots and small creek crossings.
Starting Point: Summey Cove Trailhead on Highway 215 north of Balsam Grove.
Trail Traffic: I did not see another person on the trail or at the falls.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy 64 12 miles to Hwy 215 and turn right. Drive 11 miles up 215 and Summey Cove Trailhead is on the right just before a sharp curve. Limited parking is on the left.
This report is about the Summey Cove Trail to Courthouse Falls in Pisgah National Forest. However, I made a stop on the way, and another after I was done that are worth mentioning. About nine miles up Hwy 215 from Hwy 64 in Rosman, just south of the teeny community of Balsam Grove, is a Christian retreat known as Living Waters. The North Fork of the French Broad River and Shoals Creek merge on the property with twin waterfalls that are quite spectacular and well worth the time.
Living Waters is private property, but the owners welcome your visit as long as you behave yourself. Just don’t do anything your momma wouldn’t be proud of and all will be cool. There are lots of old buildings at the retreat that hug the riverbank and are quite interesting in their own right, but the waterfalls are the primary scenic attraction. French Broad Falls and Mill Shoals Falls each drop 20 feet off a ledge about 100 feet from each other as Shoals Creek spills into the river.
The one on the river is more of a free-fall, while Mill Shoals Falls is a tiered cascade that is quite picturesque. There is also a nature trail on the property that winds to another waterfall farther down river. That will be an adventure for another day. On this day my primary goal was still to come.
So I hopped back in my car and continued north on Hwy 215 through Balsam Grove and about another two miles past. When you see Forest Road 140 on your right, know that you are getting close to the trailhead. It’s about another half mile further. You will approach a very sharp left curve in the road. The trailhead is right in that curve with a small parking area on the left side of the road.
I should mention that you can also get to Courthouse Falls via the aforementioned Forest Road 140, but that would be like cheating. Right? The destination is a lot more fun if you work for it by hiking. But just for info purposes, you can also drive to the northern trailhead of Summey Cove Trail on a gravel forest service road.
Both of my regular hiking companions were out of town, so I was solo on this one. The southern trailhead on Hwy 215 plunges into the forest immediately, then begins a moderately steep climb up Summey Cove Ridge. You will climb about 470 feet of elevation over the next half mile on a blue blazed trail that is well worn and easy to follow. The woods here are typical for the altitude, primarily hardwoods and laurels with the odd hemlock and pine thrown in. Watch for roots on the trail, but it isn’t particularly rocky. The trail is lined with fern, moss and galax, as most are in the national forest.
Just as you top the ridge, and get a breather from the climbing, the trail immediately begins a descent of the back side of the ridge. In the next half mile you will drop back down all but about 100 feet of what you just climbed. The down side of the ridge is darker because it doesn’t get as much sun, but otherwise looks pretty much the same. I was totally alone in the forest, so I was hoping for some wildlife, but grouse was it. Over the course of a hundred yards, I scared up four different grouse who obviously weren’t pleased with my presence.
You can kinda tell when the trail bottoms out because you’ll begin to hear the far away sound of rushing water. The trail maintains a steady altitude the rest of the way, but does begin a roller coaster pattern of small ups and downs. As the water sounds get closer and closer, so too does the density of the rhododendron thickets. That’s a given in the forests of Western North Carolina. Wherever there is water there will be rhododendron.
As you approach Courthouse Creek for the first time, you will notice the occasional secluded primitive camp site. These are really out there away from the roads, so if you want some serious privacy for camping you may want to consider Summey Cove. The trail crosses not only Courthouse Creek, but several other small streams that drain from the surrounding ridges. None of the crossings are difficult.
There are a number of small coves where streams meet Courthouse Creek that are quite tranquil and serene. I found myself taking lots of pictures, but also just sitting… enjoying the peace and solitude. I felt alone in the woods, and savored the sensation.
Louder and louder. The falls must be getting close. The trail widens, then there’s a log on the side painted with <---- Falls. Not the most elegant trail marker, but it served the purpose. The spur trail to the falls is the most difficult of the hike. It's only a couple hundred yards, but there are lots and lots of tricky root balls and rocks that make navigation a bit perilous. Then you catch your first glimpse through the forest from about 100 feet away. Be careful in your rush to get there. The trail is slippery, and waiting to reach up and grab your knee or ankle. But the reward is stunning. It makes it all worthwhile.
I have seen taller waterfalls. I have seen wider waterfalls. I've seen slides, and cascades and cataracts. But none are more beautiful than Courthouse Falls. Click the picture at the top of this post for a larger view. The setting is stimulating. A natural amphitheater of granite bedrock surrounds the plunge pool creating a harmony of sight and sound. The splash reverberates off the encircling walls. Little sunlight finds its way through the dense forest, so the bright white of the falling water illuminates the scene.
There is a very steep rudimentary set of stairs that goes down to pool level where you can wade your way to large slabs in the middle of the creek. That was my resting place. I setup the tripod and pulled out my lunch. There was not another soul around. Just me and the sensory extravaganza of Courthouse Falls. I tested the water. It was cool to the touch on this 70
° day. The plunge pool is deep and no doubt cold. On a hotter day it would have been great for a refreshing dip.
I stayed for about 45 minutes, pleased and somewhat amazed that in all that time I had Courthouse Falls to myself. Complete solitude. This alluring waterfall must not be on the radar despite the relative ease of access. It is now definitely on my list of places to go whenever I need some tranquility and seclusion.
I hated to leave, but I wanted to see what was at the northern end of Summey Cove Trail. It's about another quarter mile beyond the falls to the north trailhead. It meets Forest Road 140 there as the road crosses Courthouse Creek. If you wish to drive instead of hike, this is where you will come. The flow in the creek is steeper above the falls than it is below.
For a moment I considered making a loop of the hike by going back on the road, but just for a moment. All it took was remembering how boring and irritating gravel forest roads are to hike on. Plus, it's about a half mile on Hwy 215 from the road to where I parked. It would be kinda dangerous to walk on the highway. So I went back the same way I came. Remember the strenuous 400 foot climb up and over Summey Cove Ridge. For me, it was somewhat tiring at the end of a three hour hike.
When I got back to Hwy 215 I still had one more goal for the day. I volunteer on the Blue Ridge Parkway picking up trash and other debris on the Pounding Mill Overlook at milepost 413. It's a scenic drive from Hwy 215 to the Parkway. There are a number of pullouts where you can view Devil's Courthouse, a massive granite outcropping that is the namesake of Courthouse Ridge, Creek and Falls. There's even an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway for Devil's Courthouse with a half mile trail to the top. Check it out someday. There is a spectacular view of the surrounding Blue Ridge.
People have been behaving themselves this summer. There wasn't much trash to collect on the overlook, so I was only there about 30 minutes. Cigarette butts are the main thing. When you throw down one cigarette it may not seem like much, but when hundreds of people repeat that over the course of a month, it becomes noticeable. Just my two cents.
Courthouse Falls is highly recommended. It is stunning in its beauty and relaxing in its seclusion. It's a bit of a drive to get there, but easily accessible by either forest road or hiking trail. Just driving Hwy 215 is in itself quite enjoyable and scenic, so consider doing what I did and combine a visit to Living Waters and the Blue Ridge Parkway with your hike to Courthouse Falls. It makes for a very pleasant day.
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