Panthertown Valley in Nantahala National Forest is known for its stunning mountaintop vistas, but also for a numerous and varied assortment of waterfalls that run the gamut from slides, to cascades, to ledge and plunge. Six of those falls are along Greenland Creek, including the feature cascade Greenland Creek Falls. Beyond this tall waterfall, the Greenland Creek Trail has become overgrown and difficult to follow, but there are two more waterfalls further upstream. Halfway Falls and Carlton’s Falls are definitely worth the effort to access, but not-for-long as the trail is no longer maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. This hike occurred on Tuesday, December 31, 2013 beginning at 10:15AM and ending about 2:30PM. My plan was to follow the Greenland Creek Trail past the various waterfalls for as far as the overgrown trail would take me, then return and take the Panthertown Valley Trail to everybody’s favorite, Schoolhouse Falls.
Hike Length: 6.5 miles Hike Duration: 4.25 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate; mostly easy, but one extremely difficult and rugged stretch.
Blaze: No blaze, but plenty of trail signs.
Elevation Gain: 770 feet Hike Configuration: Out and back
Trail Condition: Fair to Greenland Creek Falls. Overgrown beyond that.
Starting Point: Cold Mountain Gap
Trail Traffic: I was the only one on Greenland Creek Trail.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC go 15.5 miles on US 64 W, take NC 281 0.7 mile north. Go past the Lake Toxaway fire station. Turn left (north) on Cold Mountain Road and continue 6.0 miles. When the road ends (Canaan Land will be straight ahead) bear left on a gravel road. Then turn right on the first gravel road. The trailhead is immediately on the left. Parking is limited.
The six mile stretch of Cold Mountain Road from Hwy 281 to the trailhead is a beautiful drive through pine forest around Lake Toxaway and past homes of the ultra-rich. There is also a charming hundred-year-old church in one of the turns. Eventually the road climbs, winding its way up Cold Mountain and away from the lake.
I’ve hiked most of the trails in the picturesque central and northern sections of Panthertown Valley. It is a remarkable place. Efforts by the U.S. Forest Service in teamwork with Friends of Panthertown have created a robust trail system in this iconic area of Nantahala National Forest. However, there is a secluded trail in the far southeast corner of Panthertown that had so far eluded my discovery. No more. I have now hiked the Greenland Creek Trail.
The northern half of this trail is a loop, so you can access trailheads at both ends of the Cold Mountain Gap entrance. I chose the eastern trailhead to start, and returned on the west side of the loop. The trail sign on the east side is labeled Mac’s Gap Trail.
It initially drops about 150 feet of elevation as it dives into hardwood forest. Most of the trail is rhododendron and laurel lined, so expect plenty of flowers in spring. Like many of the trails in Panthertown, this one does cross the right of way beneath the Duke Energy power transmission lines. Soon afterward it reaches the first junction with Greenland Creek Trail, roughly half a mile from the trailhead.
For the next couple hundred yards Greenland Creek and Mac’s Gap share the same trail, then you’ll come to the 2nd junction. Here, Mac’s Gap turns right and heads in a westerly direction and Greenland Creek bears just slightly left, but southerly. Expect the rest of the trail to Greenland Creek Falls to get rockier and more confined.
It’s another 1/4 to the falls, hiked in close quarters. The laurels are really taking over in this area making the trail harder and harder to keep clear and navigable. You begin to get the impression the Forest Service has chosen to abandon this trail and the only thing keeping it going is the foot traffic wanting to see Greenland Creek Falls.
To get the best view of Greenland Creek Falls you will have to go slightly off trail, across some large boulders and a very large downed tree. You can even use the trunk of the tree as a walkway to cross the boulders. Once on the other side, you will be facing directly at this two-level cascade with the plunge pool lapping at your feet.
As Greenland Creek drops over the precipice of the falls, it plummets about 35-40 feet to a hard landing below, bouncing and splashing onward to the next tier. It’s then another 15 feet over the second cascade into a large pool that would be ideal for wading and cooling during the hot summer months.
Most casual hikers will stop here and return, thinking that Greenland Creek Falls is the feature of the trail. But if you want to see more waterfalls, it’s time to pull the straps tight on your pack, cinch the laces on your boots, take a few deep breaths, and steel yourself for an all-fours climb that approaches bushwhacking.
Left of the falls is the remnant of what used to be the continuation of Greenland Creek Trail. At some time in the past decade, the Forest Service decided this trail was too difficult and costly to maintain, so they abandoned it and took it off of their maps.
If you keep you eyes peeled, you can still follow the remains of the trail as it climbs extremely steeply up the left side of the falls. I found myself reaching for saplings as I climbed to keep from falling backward, and to pull myself up the next few feet. It took me about 15 minutes to climb the 200 feet to the top. Believe me when I tell you, I was panting by the time I got there…
…only to discover that the trail heads straight back down the other side almost as steeply. Oh great, I thought. Now I have to climb up this on the way back. The trail actually has to go above the level of the falls precipice, then back down part way to rejoin Greenland Creek. There is a nice view off into the distance over the precipice of Greenland Creek Falls, but don’t be tempted to go to the falls edge as you will surely die if you slip.
The rest of the trail to the upper falls is relatively flat, but it continues to get more and more overgrown. I had the good fortune of being on this trail in winter when the leaves were off the trees and the weeds were gone. I have to imagine it’s next to impossible to follow in summer when the vegetation is at full green. There is some evidence (machete chops) of a few hearty souls still trying to keep this trail active, but it is unfortunately suffering the fate of abandonment.
In about five minutes you will reach Halfway Falls, a classic slide waterfall. You’ll have to drop off the path through the rhodos to get a closeup view. Be sure to watch your step on the wet granite.
It’s then another 10 minutes to Carlton’s Falls. Greenland Creek makes a decidedly eastward swing, and the trail climbs again, but this time easily manageable. The best view of Carlton’s Falls is about 100 feet short of the cascade, again down off the path through a rhododendron thicket.
Carlton’s Falls is named for Carlton McNeil, the unofficial caretaker of Panthertown. If you spent much time in Panthertown Valley during the 1990s, it is likely you met Carlton McNeil out taking care of the trails so that future generations could enjoy his beloved Panthertown.
I paused at the spot downstream and enjoyed the first warming sunrays of the day, and a by now nearly frozen sandwich. After renourishing, I continued up the path to a spot next to Carlton’s Falls. I couldn’t get real close because there simply wasn’t a good flat piece of granite, and it wasn’t safe.
At one time the Greenland Creek Trail continued easterly toward Ravenrock Mountain. My curiosity led me onward, but I turned around after a short hundred yards because the trail just became too difficult to follow.
Hiking back became a reverse of the difficult venture upward. When I reached the precipice of Greenland Creek Falls, I had to retrace steps back up to the top of the trail, then slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, slip and slide my way back down the pathway to a safe landing at the bottom. I know I went “whew” more than a few times. But, as the Meanderthals motto suggests, “If you’re gonna be dumb, you better be tough.”
When I reached the junction of Mac’s Gap and Green Creek Trails, this time I followed the Greenland Creek Trail back up the hill to the parking area. It seemed like this western side of the loop climbed farther than I remember going down at the beginning, but perhaps I was still tired from my prior adventure.
After a brief respite to shed a layer, I set out again down the Panthertown Valley Trail just to see Schoolhouse Falls. No visit to Panthertown is complete without it. I won’t get into the details here
— there’s another entire trail report that includes a stop at Schoolhouse Falls.
To summarize, the Greenland Creek Trail is dying. Even the first section to Greenland Creek Falls has probably seen better days. From that point on, you’re on your own. The upper falls are definitely worth seeing, but only you can decide it it’s worth the risk to try to get there. Greenland Creek Falls, in and of itself, makes for a very nice short and rewarding hike, so be sure to see it sometime on a visit to Panthertown Valley.