One of the highlights of the Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River area is Harper Creek Falls. Located in the Grandfather Mountain Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest, this three-tiered falls is a fun place to swim, slide and dive
— but the rugged terrain makes for a difficult and dangerous access. The Harper Creek Trail is easy enough. With the exception of a 200 foot ascent from the trailhead, most of this trail follows Harper Creek as it makes its way through the wilderness to an appointment with Wilson Creek. Once you reach the falls, be prepared for a very steep rope descent across extremely slick granite to the plunge pool. This hike occurred on Tuesday, October 9, 2012 from 11:30am to 1:15pm. My plan was to seek Harper Creek Falls on forest trail #260, the Harper Creek Trail. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
Hike Length: 3.7 miles Hike Duration: 1.75 hours Blaze: Orange
Hike Rating: Moderate, some dangerous Hike Configuration: Out and back
Elevation Gain: 960 feet Elevation Change: 260 feet
Trail Condition: Mostly very good, but poorly marked. Some erosion to beware of. Rope descent to falls is dangerous.
Starting Point: Harper Creek Trailhead #260 on Brown Mountain Beach Road.
Trail Traffic: I did not encounter anyone else on this hike.
How to Get There: From Asheville take I-40 East to Morganton. Use Exit 100 (Jamestown Rd.) north. Follow Jamestown Rd. to the junction with NC Hwy 181 and turn left. Follow 181 north for 12 miles to Brown Mountain Beach Road and turn right at the Smyrna Baptist Church. Go about 5 miles just past a bridge over Wilson Creek, then turn left to stay on Brown Mountain Beach Road. Follow Wilson Creek through the settlement of Brown Mountain Beach, then into the protected gorge section. The Wilson Creek visitor center is on the left 5.5 miles past the left turn. From there, it is 1.6 miles to a small parking area on the left.
Locals certainly know about the excellent recreational opportunities that Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River offers. If you live more than a couple hours away, though, for name recognition Wilson Creek plays second fiddle to its more famous neighbor to the west, Linville Gorge. The Wilson Creek Gorge isn’t quite as spectacular from a scenic perspective, but it stands right up there with some of the best rugged wilderness terrain to be found in Western North Carolina.
Wilson Creek is north of Morganton, NC. Plan on taking about 45 minutes to get from Morganton to the Wilson Creek area. Hwy 181 North takes you to Brown Mountain Beach Road, the primary access through Wilson Creek. Once you enter the recreation area, the road changes to graded gravel, with some single lane bridge crossings. There isn’t much there
— except peace and solitude. I noticed a couple of very small camp stores, but if you are coming for an extended stay, you probably want to bring supplies and provisions with you.
If it’s your first visit to Wilson Creek, be sure to make a stop at the Visitor Center and speak with the volunteers about the adventures you can find. In addition to fabulous fishing, kayaking, tubing and family recreation, Wilson Creek is home to more than two dozen maintained trails for hiking. Some are also available for mountain bikes and equestrians. Wilson Creek was added to the National Wild and Scenic River System in August, 2000.
The Harper Creek trailhead is 1.6 miles beyond the Visitor Center on Brown Mountain Beach Road. Wilson Creek will be on your right and parking for the trail will be on the left. There is room for about 10-12 cars. The trail is designated #260 on the Grandfather Mountain Ranger District trail maps, and has orange blaze markings. You will discover, however, that most of the markings are old and nearly worn off the trees. Trail junctions are very confusing with signs and blaze that seemingly make no sense. It’s a good idea to get your bearings at the Visitor Center before you begin.
The Harper Creek Trail begins with a steep ascent to the ridge above, a climb of about 200 feet. This early climb is quite rutted and eroded, so watch your step. Once you’ve reached the ridge, take the left fork at the trail junction, down the old road bed. The red-blazed Yellow Buck Trail takes off to the right up and over Yellow Buck Mountain.
From this junction until the next, a good mile further on, Harper Creek Trail is flat and easy, following the creek with plenty of opportunities to explore the banks. There are a few small branch crossings, but nothing where you need to worry about getting your feet wet.
The forest here is quite lovely, typical for Pisgah. I noticed plenty of acorns along the trail, so the deer and bear should be happy with the mast harvest. There was also the occasional walnut, as well as the ubiquitous rhododendron along the creek bed. I was about 10 days too early to catch the peak fall foliage, but some of the birch were giving me a nice show.
The second half of the trail approaches several campsites along Harper Creek. The trail elevates about 20-30 feet above the creek with a steep climb down to the sites. There is one particular point where the trail has significantly eroded and crossing the exposed granite is a bit dicey. I went down to a couple of the campsites to take some photos of the creek. The campsites looked pretty nice, but I don’t know the extent of the foot traffic along the trail during the summer recreation season, so they may not be particularly private.
At one of the larger campsites, you will encounter the next trail junction. The Raider Camp Trail meets the Harper Creek Trail and they are both designated as part of the Mountains to Sea Trail with a white blaze. There are a couple of wooden signs, both of which indicate the trails as 440. So what to do?
This is your first confusing decision point. Despite nothing on the signs or blazes indicating where to go to Harper Creek Falls, you want to bear right, up the hill. Raider Camp Trail goes straight ahead, around a bend, and eventually crosses Harper Creek. Keep in mind, if you cross Harper Creek you are on the wrong trail. So go up the hill to the right. You will finally see both an orange and white blaze about 100 feet up.
The next quarter mile is up, not especially strenuous, but the trail is again eroded in places. Take your time, watch your step on exposed roots and rocks and you’ll be fine. A few hundred yards up, you will reach your second decision point. Here, I made a mistake. Looking at my map, and speaking with the volunteer at the Visitor Center, I was led to believe that you always stay right at trail junctions. Not so fast, my friend.
You will come to a split in the trail with two white Mountains to Sea Trail blazes, and nothing else. Neither trail says anything like “falls this way,” or has a colored blaze. So I went right, up the hill. Turns out this is the trail that eventually goes to North Harper Creek, an entirely different section of the forest with another spectacular waterfall. I didn’t realize this, though, until I had climbed probably 300 feet in elevation and could eventually see and hear Harper Creek Falls waaaayyy down below me.
So live and learn, I swallowed my pride and turned around. Apparently a lot of people make this same mistake, because on the way back I found a connector trail back to Harper Creek Trail that shortened the backtracking. Just keep in mind, when you come to the junction with the two white blazes, take the left fork to the falls.
Once back on the correct trail, it was only a short distance to Harper Creek Falls. The trail kind of dead ends, and you can make out the falls through the trees from about 60-70 feet above. Harper Creek Falls is a three-tiered cascade with two distinct plunge pools that have been carved through a massive granite gorge.Danger
Getting down to the base of the falls is extremely dangerous. The trail is severely eroded and is basically unusable. Not to mention the last 40-50 feet is across wet and slippery granite that is so steep as to make standing impossible, much less descending. For that, there is a rope. It isn’t quite a free-fall rappel, but the granite is nearly that steep. I had to decide whether I would have the strength to pull myself back up the rope when I was done. I’m not as young as I used to be.
If I wanted to get any pictures of Harper Creek Falls, I was going to have to man-up and give this rope a go. The rope itself is about 1.5 inches in diameter, very thick and secure, but it felt quite large in my small hands… and wet. The rope was waterlogged and cold, and dripping as I began the descent. As I inched my way down, when I reached the wet portion of the granite I realized this was probably the most dangerous thing I had ever done in nearly 40 years of hiking!
Despite wearing my fancy Montrail Mountain Masochist hiking shoes with Gryptonite™, that steep wet granite may as well have been ice. It took every bit of strength I had to remain upright as I lowered myself down the rope. My feet were essentially unable to assist because of the slippery nature of the wet rock face. I was operating on pure adrenaline, and amazingly enough managed to make it to the bottom without falling.
After catching my breath, I surveyed the plunge basins to see if there was another way to get out of this predicament. Much to my dismay I discovered that I would either have to go back up the rope, or swim in the cold, cold water of the pool. Well, here I was. I might as well get the photos I came for, then worry about getting back up when the time came.
I found myself at the level of the 2nd tier of Harper Creek Falls. This is the largest of the three cascades. The photo at the top of this post is the view I had of the falls. Click it for a larger image. You can decide for yourself if the view is worth the danger of the rope descent. This is a very popular swimming hole with the local teens who are a lot more limber and invincible than I. You can climb the rock and jump into the upper pool, or you can slide down the third cascade into the lower pool, but not in October. The air temp was about 55
° and the water was probably less.
I stayed about 15 minutes, ate a granola bar for some energy, then decided it was time to pull myself up the rope. Hoping I wouldn’t end up stuck down there overnight, I summoned all my courage and grabbed hold. I made it about 1/3 of the way up with no problem, but then it got steeper and down I went. My feet slipped on the slick granite and I landed on my chest, but I managed to maintain my hold on the rope so I didn’t lose the progress I had already made.
I laid there for a moment, clinging to the rope, collecting my thoughts and wondering what to do next. I thought that perhaps if I simply pulled myself up the rope with my arms about five feet, I could then get another chance at grip with my feet. Sure enough, it worked. After arm climbing, I very gingerly pulled myself back up to my feet and was able to stand without slipping. Whew!
I took the remainder of the climb very carefully and managed to stay upright. When I got back to the trail, man was I grateful. I sat down and took inventory. I didn’t appear to be hurt from the fall. I didn’t seem to lose anything I was packing. I checked my pockets for car keys, and my brain for sense, and decided right then and there that if I ever came back to Harper Creek Falls I would search high and low for a better way to do this.
The hike back on the Harper Creek Trail was anti-climatic. My mind was still racing from the fear and struggle with that rope, so I hardly noticed anything on the way back. It only took me about a half hour to get back.
In summary, Harper Creek Falls is a beautiful but isolated waterfall. The trail to it is well maintained, but poorly marked. You may want to content yourself with looking at the falls through the trees from above, because there is a pretty darn good chance you might get hurt if you try to tackle that rope. Like the Meanderthals motto says, “If you are gonna be dumb, you better be tough.”