Devils Elbow Trail, Panthertown Valley, Nantahala National Forest

Even though Devils Elbow is a mountain summit, the highlights of the Devils Elbow Trail in Panthertown are the myriad of waterfalls on the Tuckasegee River. The river forms at the confluence of Panthertown and Greenland Creeks, then takes a wild ride over several falls on its way eventually to Fontana Lake in the Great Smoky Mountains. Most of this hike is on maintained trail, but prepare yourself to do battle with rhododendron thickets on your way to each waterfall. When the leaves are down, there are scattered views from the Devils Elbow into Panthertown Valley, and of the surrounding Blue Ridge. We followed the Devils Elbow Trail on Friday, January 16, 2015 between 11:00AM and 3:00PM. Our plan was to take the Panthertown Valley Trail to the Devils Elbow Trail, climb to the Devils Elbow, then check out the waterfalls on the way back.

Hike Length: 7 miles Hike Duration: 4 hours

Hike Configuration: Up and back, with spurs. Blaze: Occasional ribbons.

Hike Rating: Difficult. Some strenuous climbing and primitive trail.

Elevation Change: 410 feet, gain 1,180 Elevation Start: 3,885 feet

Trail Condition: The trails maintained by the Forest Service are in very good condition. However, the footpaths to the waterfalls are somewhat sketchy.

Starting Point: Trailhead for the Panthertown Valley Trail.

Trail Traffic: We encountered four other hikers on this beautiful January weekday.

How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take US 64 west. Turn right on NC 281, and go 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 to reach the trailhead parking area. The trailhead is just to the right of the gate and sign board.

 

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Like most hikes in Panthertown Valley, this one starts at the Panthertown Valley Trailhead at Cold Mountain Gap. Unlike most other hikes, you’re going to get off the main trail. About a half mile down, take a right turn on Devils Elbow Trail. It’s just before the bridge over Greenland Creek.

Devils Elbow Trail starts out pretty flat, then makes a dip down to the level of the Tuckasegee River. Along the way, the trail passes beneath the power transmission lines that criss-cross the valley. Surprisingly, this is one of the clearest views you will find of the bowl that is Panthertown Valley.

We had two goals on this day. Since we hadn’t tried this trail before, we were not only interested in all the waterfalls, we were also curious about what was at the summit of Devils Elbow. There are some pretty great long-distance views in Panthertown. Perhaps this was another.

So, we first passed the junction with Riding Ford Trail that takes you to (of all things) Riding Ford Falls. Then we passed the Carlton-made trail that goes to Elbow and Red Butt Falls. To reach a summit, you first have to climb, and so it was. Beginning at this 2nd junction, Devils Elbow Trail takes a decided turn up, climbing more than 300 feet in a half mile.

When you reach the summit, known as Devils Elbow, unfortunately there isn’t a nice viewpoint like an outcropping or ledge. How do we know that? Well, we went exploring. We went down two different game trails looking for views either inward, into Panthertown Valley, or outward to the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains of Nantahala National Forest. The scratches on my legs and arms are testament to the thick briars, laurel and rhododendron we bushwhacked through during our search. We came up empty.

So instead, we continued beyond Devils Elbow on West Fork Way. This trail follows the crest for several miles, eventually coming out on Hwy 281. There were occasional openings in the trees for a semi-view, but still nothing remarkable. After 15 minutes we turned around to head for the waterfalls.

Unfortunately, this is the best view we could find from Devils Elbow. This is looking southwest from the summit across Panthertown Valley.

Unfortunately, this is the best view we could find from Devils Elbow. This is looking southwest from the summit across Panthertown Valley.

Above I mentioned “Carlton-made trails.” Carlton McNeil was the unofficial “caretaker of Panthertown.” Throughout the latter years of the 20th century, McNeil spent most of his days in Panthertown Valley building trails. Some were very good, while others were quite sketchy depending on terrain. Carlton’s trails are, as you can imagine, somewhat controversial.

The U.S. Forest Service isn’t crazy about them because they aren’t supported, and in many cases simply aren’t safe. But those who love to explore Panthertown are eternally grateful to McNeil because he provided pathways to some of the most remote features found within the forest. This includes dozens of hidden waterfalls like the ones that line the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River.

On our way back down from Devils Elbow we took a hard right turn on one of Carlton’s trails. You won’t ever see any signs for these trails. As I said, the Forest Service doesn’t support them. Occasionally you will come across directional ribbons tied to trees along the path, but that’s about it. You are pretty much on your own. Well, this “Carlton trail” off Devils Elbow goes first to Elbow Falls, then continues deeper into the gorge to Red Butt Falls.

It is downhill to the river, and in January, covered with wet leaves over loose topsoil. Traction is difficult. Downed trees and thick rhododendron make progress increasingly hard. We were clambering both under and over branches. We reached Elbow Falls first. Appropriately named, the river comes down over the falls and into a deep crevice that redirects the river flow to the left, like an elbow. 40 feet later, the flow makes another sharp turn back to the right.

There is a large, smooth granite area at the base of the falls that is a great place to hang out and experience the scenery. There is even a downed tree there that makes a perfect seat to enjoy lunch and the moment. While drinking warm soup we talked about the trails that Carlton McNeil built a few decades ago. We have mixed feelings about some of his trails, particularly the ones that are causing erosion in fragile areas, but we are grateful when they take us to remarkable wild places like Elbow Falls.

Refreshed and nourished, we continued down the waterfalls trail to the next destination. It’s about another tenth mile to Red Butt Falls. Access is even more difficult as the trail (such as it is) is really full of obstacles. Red Butt Falls is a classic slide waterfall, gliding 100 feet or more to a pool at the base of the slide. There is a very small, tight access to the top of the slide, but be extremely careful as one slip means you won’t stop until you splash into the pool.

The most interesting feature of Red Butt Falls is the cave at the base. Over eons the rush of the water has carved the stone at this curve in the river, creating a recession that you can walk beneath. On a summer day, Red Butt Falls would be a nice swimming hole, and a place to shade yourself from the hot sun in the cave. If you're brave, you might even try the slide that is Red Butt Falls.

The most interesting feature of Red Butt Falls is the cave at the base. Over eons the rush of the water has carved the stone at this curve in the river, creating a recession that you can walk beneath. On a summer day, Red Butt Falls would be a nice swimming hole, and a place to shade yourself from the hot sun in the cave. If you’re brave, you might even try the slide that is Red Butt Falls.

After getting our fill of Red Butt Falls, we climbed back up out of the gorge to the Devils Elbow Trail and the next stop on our waterfalls trek. This one is actually a supported trail with a sign at the junction. It’s called the Riding Ford Trail and it takes you to Riding Ford Falls in only a couple hundred yards.

As you can imagine from the name, the trail itself actually fords the river and continues for another mile deep into the forest toward Sassafras and Blackrock Mountains. There really isn’t a waterfall here, just more like a small cascade, but if you ford the river you gain access to more Carlton trails and more waterfalls further upstream. We didn’t have the appropriate footwear for a river crossing, so we decided to save this one for a warm spring or summer day. The photo at the top of this post is a view downriver from Riding Ford.

On our way back to the car, we talked about this new (for us) section of Panthertown. We learned a lot about the path the Tuck, as it is called, takes through the valley. It is quite rugged in the Tuckasegee River gorge. I have done hikes that were longer, or had more elevation gain where I wasn’t as tired as I was at the end of this day. This is one of those hikes that kinda beats you up. But hey, if you’re gonna be dumb, you better be tough, right?

To summarize, it is 1.5 miles from the start of the Devils Elbow Trail to the summit of Devils Elbow. If you’re only interested in the waterfalls, you can cut that distance by a third. It isn’t all that far off the main trail to the waterfalls, but be prepared for a tough go. Expect some scratches and a bruise or two, and please be sure to use your head and don’t do something stupid around the falls. Some people love the wild nature of off trail experiences at Panthertown Valley. If that isn’t your cup of tea, don’t fret, there are still miles and miles of supported trails available to you.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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  • ashevillain

    Just a couple tips for next time:

    1. When you’re at Riding Ford Falls, you don’t need to get your feet wet to get to the next one upstream (i.e. Jawbone Falls or some call it Lower Warden’s Falls). Just squirrel your way upstream through the Rhodo/Laurel and you’ll come to a small campsite where you can pop out next to the river on a tiny little beachy area to see Jawbone Falls. It’s literally right upstream and around the bend from your photo titled “Upstream from Riding Ford” — it’s like a 5 minute walk at most.

    2. When you reach the end of the Devil’s Elbow trail (going from memory, I believe the end is where you took the photo titled “Cross Valley from Devil’s Elbow”) the trail actually continues in 2 directions…although these are really just some more of Carlton’s “man-ways.” If you continue downhill in a NE direction the trail heads toward another waterfall (drawing a blank on the name…Dismal maybe?). BUT, if you continue up and around the bend in a more ESE direction the trail ascends and traverses the SW face of Shelton Pisgah Mtn traveling in the direction of Cold Mountain/Bethel High Altar. This little traverse has some of the best views of Panthertown Valley. This and Bethel High Altar are really the only 2 places that you can take in the entire expanse of the valley. It’s really about as far off the beaten path as you can get in Panthertown so you’ve got to be comfortable with that, following pieces of survey tape…if you are, the reward is great.

    • Thanks for the tips ashevillain. We saw the trail by the campsite at Riding Ford and figured it probably went to Jawbone, but we were pretty much done for the day by that time. Nice to get confimation on that. A couple months ago we accessed Jawbone from the west, on the other side of the river. Quite a bushwhack that.

      We did go out the other trail you mentioned, but only a quarter mile. I could see from my Burt Kornegay map that West Fork Way goes to Dismal Falls, and the other fork goes to Cold Mountain/High Bethel.

      I think I’ll approach Dismal Falls from Hwy 281 some day, and I would like to see the views from High Bethel, perhaps in the Spring.

  • budoma

    Awesome hike – especially this time of the year.
    If you ever have questions about Panthertown, you should get in contact with Burt Kornegay in Cullowhee. He had a guide service for many years, but I think he is out of the business now. He knows the area better than anyone, and is an incredible person besides…
    Slickrockexpeditions.com is the website