Catawba Falls Old Fort, North Carolina
Catawba Falls is one of Western North Carolina's exceptional Blue Ridge waterfalls - one which is along the steep escarpment where the higher mountain lands drop off to the Piedmont areas below.
It's located on an isolated tract of Pisgah National Forest property near Old Fort, NC, at the southern end of the Grandfather Ranger District, just south of I-40. A new parking area and trail culminates years of effort to provide public access to this special area, which required a variety of legislation to accomplish. Today, Catawba Falls is open to visitors and a highly recommended destination.
Catawba Falls itself is divided into two or three main sections (depending on who you ask), along a stretch of the Catawba River which drops around 600 feet in about a half mile. The main upper part is about 50 feet high and is a free-fall, while the lower (or middle) section is over 100 feet high across multiple falls and cascades. It's more of a rushing creek than a river at this point and thus shares an attribute with higher mountain falls: it looks best after wet weather. Still, there is enough area on the plateau above to gather water that it's worth visiting any time, even in periods of lower water. It never dries up completely.
The small cascade below the old dam may constitute a third "lower" part of Catawba falls. Much of this cascade - the part most people see - is man-made and will be eliminated when the dam is removed, making them even smaller. The prettiest part of this cascade is natural, but most people don't see it due to difficulty of accessing it. Personally, this is far enough downstream and distinct from the main falls that I think they should have a separate name.
Right now, one trail is located within this trailhead area, and it leads to the falls. Starting at the new parking area, the trail heads upriver on old road beds, crossing the river once on stepping stones. You may have to get your feet wet here, and it may be an impossible crossing in very high water. (A bridge is planned for this location in the future.) The trail climbs moderately past some old building foundations and an old dam, before ending at the base of the lower falls.
The trail technically continues up the right side of the lower falls, and then along a more level path to the base of the upper falls. However, before leveling out, the way is extremely steep and dangerous, and it's right next to the lower falls. It's almost to the point of being technical rock climbing, and sketchy ropes have been tied to trees to help people haul themselves up. But a slip here could easily be fatal - not to mention the resource damage being caused by the heavily eroded trail. So until the Forest Service completes a re-route of this section - which is planned - we don't recommend continuing beyond the lower falls.
The Catawba Falls area has a long history of receiving visitors for recreation, and the waters of the river below the falls have been used for electrical generation as well. As early as the 1880's, accounts of trips of the falls read much the same as they would today - save for the part about a lack of trail:
We set out next morning, following the fountain pipe, for Catawba
Falls, which we reached this time without difficulty. On every side the
forest was thick with the white and pink ivy, which was now in full blossom,
mingled with the white laurel and the superb azalea - white, scarlet and
brilliant orange. In going to the falls we followed, to the last mile of the
way, the course of a stream, entirely without a path, down a very wild and
steep yet extremely beautiful gorge. We had almost despaired of ever finding
the falls, when suddenly we found ourselves at their foot. They are in two
divisions. The lower is a succession of cascades, the whole aggregating
nearly two hundred feet. Very beautiful they are, but the upper falls, with
their single plunge, are still more so. The climb to the latter was like
trying to walk up a wall. For two hundred yards or more, we had to hold on
to trees and bushes every step lest we fall and know no more.
-- North Carolina University magazine,
University of North Carolina, 1793 - 1962
The dam you'll see on the way up to the falls was built in the 1920's to provide hydroelectric power for Old Fort. Further downstream was a powerhouse, with the water being sent there from the dam via a pipe. To the right of the dam are the remains of another powerhouse, supplied by water from Chestnut Branch, which you cross just before the falls. Duke Energy Company eventually acquired this small generating station and shut it down.
By the late 1980s, the US Forest Service owned the land around the falls. It was being accessed by the public over private tracts, but the owners closed it off with a gate. Soon, McDowell County abandoned the stretch of road over private lands, essentially sealing off official public access (although some folks still came to the falls by trespassing, or off of an illegal access from I-40). The Forest Service put acquisition of the land needed to provide public access to its tract at the top of its priority list.
By the mid-2000's, some of the land near the bottom came up for sale. This re-kindled the possibility of obtaining public access to the falls, and a local land conservancy was able to step in and quickly purchase a key tract of land adjoining Forest Service property in two purchases in 2005 and 2007. Limited public access then became available, but without a good parking area.
Starting in 2009, funds for the purchase of this tract from the Foothills Conservancy were authorized by the Forest Service, and in 2012 a huge new parking lot was completed - the final step needed to ensure permanent public access to the falls. Improvements have been made including restroom. After a flood in 2012 the bridge was damaged and closed. Access reverted back to parking on the side of the road and walking in. A contract is being bid 2014 and repairs scheduled for early summer 2014.
Places to Stay
The area around Catawba Falls is designated as a Day Use Area, so no backcountry camping is allowed. However, there are private campgrounds in the vicinity.
Catawba Falls Campground
This campground is located just down the road from the new parking area. Walk from your campsite to the falls! http://catawbafalls.com
From Asheville, take I-240 E to I-40 E. Go just under 20 miles on I-40 to exit 73, the second Old Fort exit. Before the ramp ends, turn right onto Catawba River Road. Go 3 miles to the end of the road. It is past Catawba Falls Campground but if you need water stop and pick some up. The new, larger parking area is at the dead end just across the bridge.
For more pictures on North Carolina Waterfalls visit the incredible website http://www.ncwaterfalls.com/
. No overnight camping, ATV, Horse or Bike access.
WARNING!!! Wet rocks are very slippery and people fall to their deaths from waterfalls every year! If you visit them, please be careful and use common sense! Do not climb rocks around the waterfalls and do not ever cross a stream or swim at the top of a waterfall. There are also many species of rare plants near some of these waterfalls, living in and near the spray areas of the falls. Please be very careful not to trample vegetation while exploring any falls!