A Complete Guide to Chasing Waterfalls in North Carolina
Picture this: jaw-dropping peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the picture-perfect sandy beaches of the Outer Banks, North Carolina has it all. And we can’t forget the Pisgah National Forest, where numerous cascading waterfalls line the trails. Whether you are after a peaceful escape to the mountains, a relaxing coastal trip, or just want to experience the zen of the forests' natural wonders, the beauty in North Carolina is like a year-round open invitation to this outdoor extravaganza.
North Carolina Mountains are home to some of the most beautiful waterfalls. There is some irresistible attraction when you see the water flow over the cascading cliffs and into clear, cool pools below as you listen to the sound of the rushing water, creating an overwhelmingly peaceful atmosphere. Whether hiking a trail to visit the ethereal Looking Glass Falls or embarking on a journey to Linville Falls, each waterfall has its unique charm well worth your time.
Exploring North Carolina's waterfalls is a captivating journey, each one being unique in beauty. With over 250 waterfalls scattered throughout the state, choosing which ones to prioritize can be challenging. We want to make it easier on you as you visit The Land of Falls, so we compiled insights into the must-visit waterfalls that showcase the diverse and natural splendor of the region. Discover the enchantment of these wonders, from their scenic landscapes to the best times to visit and the most rewarding activities that await!
The Geography of Waterfalls in North Carolina
North Carolina’s geological diversity is a defining feature of the beautiful state, with its land divided into three distinct regions. The Coastal Plain, Piedmont Plateau, and the Appalachian Mountains contribute to the state's unique geography and offer a wide range of geological features, including numerous waterfalls.
Waterfalls are the result of nature's artistic hand at work. They form when rivers move across terrain that has been uplifted or as they flow through steep valleys that have been carved out over centuries. The rock formations under these landscapes erode over time, creating the breathtaking waterfalls we see today.
The abundance of waterfalls you will encounter when exploring North Carolina can be largely attributed to the state’s mountainous terrain, abundant precipitation, and complex geology. So, it’s no surprise that you’ll discover the majority of these mesmerizing waterfalls in the Western half of North Carolina, where the dominance of mountain ranges characterizes the landscape.
Top Waterfalls to Chase In North Carolina
Situated about 66 miles northeast of Asheville, North Carolina, this location is compelling and a convenient stop if you are traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Linville Falls originates from the Linville River that flows through the surrounding landscape. This unique waterfall is divided into an upper and lower section, each one being equally charming. The upper falls are easily accessible and present stunning views of the waterfall, while the lower falls require a bit more of a journey but reward you with a closer and more intimate encounter with the breathtaking falls.
The surrounding area offers various trails to explore, with the Plunge Basin Trail providing multiple perspectives of the fall's splendor. A Visitors Center is conveniently located near the parking area, providing information about the falls, surrounding area, and trail maps, ensuring that your visit is both informative and unforgettable.
The trails near the Linville Visitor Center lead to the majestic three-tiered Linville Falls. As you venture through this area, you will cross the Linville Gorge, which features a combination of moderate and challenging paths. The steeper path is justly named the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians.” Along these trails, you will encounter four overlooks that provide panoramic views of the falls, framed by a colorful tapestry of wildflowers and foliage, making any of them an ideal location for photography enthusiasts.
Looking Glass Falls:
This natural gem is nestled within the Pisgah National Forest, not far from the charming town of Brevard. Looking Glass Falls is just 5.6 miles from the nearest highway exit, making this destination highly accessible and widely loved by every visitor. One of the main draws of this waterfall is its 60-foot cascade that tumbles into the crystal-clear pool below.
The base of the waterfall is surrounded by an array of wildflowers that enhance the beauty of the destination even more. The journey down to the base of the falls is just about a quarter-mile one way. Remember to be cautious, as the rocks can be slippery, and the water conditions can be unpredictable. If you exercise safety, you will enjoy every moment of this beautiful waterfall.
Located directly next to the parking area, you will find a convenient viewing platform accessible for all ages, offering incredible views of the cascading falls. If you need to cool off from your hike, don’t hesitate to take a refreshing dip in the water, but keep an eye out for changing water conditions. For a truly unforgettable experience, consider visiting in the fall when the waterfalls are framed by vibrant foliage. While summer offers great weather, it tends to be crowded, and the winter season can be a bit too chilly to enjoy the surrounding beauty fully.
Located in Pisgah National Forest, not far from the town of Little Switzerland, you will discover this 70-foot waterfall. Truly unique, Crabtree Falls cascades into multiple pools, giving it the name “Crabtree.” To see this stunning waterfall, you begin in the Crabtree Recreation parking lot, which starts you on the 2.5-mile hike. While this hike has moderate elevation and rocky terrain changes, it is well worth it.
As you finish exploring the area, you can either choose to double back on the same trail or choose the slightly more challenging loop, which entices hikers due to its breathtaking scenery. Along the trail, various viewpoints dot the trail, offering you many opportunities for capturing incredible photographs. The landscape is covered in an array of wildflowers and scenic hardwood forests, creating a truly beautiful environment.
The best times to visit this remarkable wonder are in the spring and summer, when the recent snowfall ensures the falls are at their fullest. At the bottom of the trail, you will come across a charming wooden bridge to cross in front of the falls and experience its beauty up close. That’s not all this area has to offer; within this national forest, you can find campgrounds and perfect picnic spots, along with a large number of captivating trails to explore.
You will find this incredible waterfall in the Nantahala National Forest, near the charming town of Cashiers. Whitewater Falls is the highest one east of the Rockies, with an impressive 411-foot plunge and lower falls cascading another 400 feet. With the viewing platform close to the parking area, everyone has the opportunity to take in the breathtaking views of the upper and lower falls. The area's wild and undeveloped beauty has been maintained due to the challenging trail access caused by the rugged terrain.
The upper overlook is very accessible so that anyone can take in these truly incredible views. If you are up to the challenge, you can descend 154 steps down a steep path to access the lower falls. The most challenging part of this trail is a half-mile spur trail that drops over 600 feet, leading you to the Whitewater River and Foothills Trail. This trail stretches 85 miles, with numerous trails leading to exciting destinations such as the Lower Falls, parts of South Carolina, and other interesting destinations. Dedicated volunteers maintain each one to keep them accessible for visitors up for the challenge.
If you're still craving more excitement, this area provides a variety of outdoor activities to enjoy, including thrilling hikes and serene picnics. You can also spend your time fishing, boating, or swimming at the Chattooga River or Lake Jocassee. It's a genuine paradise for outdoor enthusiasts.
Towering down a near-vertical cliff near the Nantahala National Forest, this 150-ft waterfall is framed by the lush forest and steep meadows covered in wildflowers. Rainbow Falls gracefully pour into a deep pool, creating rainbows when the sunlight hits the mist at the base of the falls. Located in Gorge State Park, multiple hiking trails are offered that lead to this magical spot, with the Rainbow Falls trail being the most popular. It’s a moderate 3-mile roundtrip hike with some very steep sections, so be careful. Staying on the designated paths here is crucial, as is staying mindful of your surroundings and avoiding getting too close to the waterfall, especially in high-water conditions.
The hike to the waterfall involves a decent for about a mile until you reach the ascent to the falls. One of the most beautiful stops on the trail is a grassy, wildflower-covered slope that appears in a broad clearing. From here, you can see the falls in all their beauty. Additionally, a short side trail at 1.4 miles leads to Hidden Falls, which offers a clear pool at the base of the falls.
Tips for Chasing Waterfalls Safely
This is an exciting and rewarding adventure, but it is so important to prioritize safety when exploring these natural wonders. Here are the best ways to ensure your adventure is safe yet exhilarating.
Research before you go: Know the location, the best times to visit, and the current trail conditions.
Know the park regulations: Every park is different, so be sure you are informed.
Wear the right clothes and bring the proper gear: Flashlights, water, a map, a first aid kit, etc.
Tell someone you’re planning a trip: Someone should know where you are, whether traveling solo or in a group. Also, be aware that cell reception may not be where you are headed.
Check the weather before you go: Rain flow can change water levels, making some areas really slippery or even inaccessible at certain times. Seasons with heavy rain tend to experience more of these issues.
Dispose of all waste properly: Leave things the way you found them means not only picking up after yourself but not disrupting nature in the area you explore.
Follow all fire regulations: Use a camp stove rather than making a fire if you can. Limiting fire use in forested areas, especially in dry seasons, is important.
Respect wildlife: Every regulation helps you to be considerate of the wildlife in the area. It is equally important to be considerate of other visitors.
Capturing the Magic: Photography at North Carolina Waterfalls
The scenery you will encounter when traversing these breathtaking waterfalls is something you won’t want to forget. It is important to come prepared with the right photography equipment to capture the beauty in this type of environment properly.
Recommended Photography Equipment
- Camera: The obvious choice of equipment is a camera. However, there are so many types of cameras, so using the right one is important. It is highly recommended to use a DSLR camera so that you can control the shutter speed and shoot manually when capturing beautiful scenery.
- Lens: As you play around with the camera settings, it can also be fun to try out different types of lenses to get different effects. Some of these might include a wide-angle lens or macro lens.
- Tripod: When you are shooting waterfalls, you often will be using a longer shutter speed. So taking handheld photos hardly ever look as good as you want them to. A tripod can be a good idea for photography in or around the waterfalls to ensure the camera's stabilization and safety.
- Neutral Density Filters: These filters help to reduce the amount of light that enters the camera, allowing for longer shutter speeds. This is crucial for capturing the smooth look of the waterfalls.
- Circular Polarizer: This is crucial in reducing glare and reflections on the water's surface and enhancing colors and details in the photo.
- Lens Cleaning Kit and Rain Cover: Since you are photographing waterfalls, your equipment will be exposed to wet and misty conditions. Many of the areas where waterfalls occur can have unpredictable weather conditions, so it is wise to carry a rain cover. These wet conditions can mess up the lens of your camera, so it is important to come prepared to be able to clean your equipment properly.
- Comfortable Backpack for Equipment: Some of the locations you might be headed to will require a potentially rigorous hike. Coming prepared to lug your plethora of equipment in any condition is important.
- Extras: It is important to come prepared with things like additional batteries, memory cards, flashlights, and a headlamp just to play it safe!
Tips for Capturing the Best Shots
- Use a tripod, long exposures, manual focus, and live view. This will ensure that the entire frame is sharp when capturing the landscape.
- Shoot in overcast conditions. This will reduce the glare of sunlight on your camera lens and allow you to capture a clear photo.
- Time your photo shoot well. Plan your visit when you know it won’t be raining or super busy. By researching a little before you go, you can ensure the conditions of the location will be ideal for the photos you are attempting to capture.
The Best Times of Day and Year for Waterfall Photography
The time of day and even year can greatly impact the mood and quality of your images.
Time of Day: Golden hours and late afternoons are typically ideal for capturing the best photo. The sunlight is soft, diffused, and at the perfect angle, which is perfect for capturing the full array of colors and details while avoiding a harsh contrast.
Time of Year: Depending on the outcome you are hoping for, the time of the year depends:
The snow has just melted in the spring, and water levels are high. The landscape is typically the brightest combination of wildflowers and lush greenery.
Summer combines spring's lush, vibrant colors with longer, warmer days and more sunlight.
The leaves change in fall, and the red and orange colors provide contrast against the flowing falls. This combination can be captivating to capture.
The Winter is the least popular time for this type of photography. However, it can be beautiful. With frozen waterfalls or ice formations, the scenery can provide a dramatic sense. It is important to be extra cautious in slippery or icy conditions that also occur in the Winter.
Conservation and Preservation of Waterfalls
Importance of Waterfalls
Waterfalls contribute more than just being a beautiful natural attraction; they play an important role in ecological and recreational ways.
- They contribute to the biodiversity of the areas they are in. They support unique plant and animal species; by protecting the waterfalls, we protect the ecosystems around them.
- They also play a key role in erosion control. By naturally breaking down the rocks they flow over, sediment is carried down the rivers or streams they are a part of. This prevents excessive erosion in the areas they inhabit.
- They are vital parts of the river and stream system. They purify the water by removing sediment and contaminants and providing cleaner water sources downstream. This safeguards the environment, sustains biodiversity, and upholds cultural and recreational values.
Organizations and Initiatives
Organizations and initiatives are in place to try and preserve and protect these natural wonders. One of the most notable is the Waterfall Keepers, the first nonprofit solely dedicated to preserving waterfalls. Their goal is to preserve, protect, and promote the waterfalls through cleanup efforts and educating everyone about the wonders and dangers of waterfalls so we can better respect them.
How You Can Contribute to Conservation Efforts
There are many ways in which anybody can contribute to the efforts to conserve these beautiful natural wonders. By following park rules and regulations, the leave no trace policy, volunteering in cleanup and preservation efforts, reporting vandalism, respecting nature and wildlife, and educating yourself.
Beyond Waterfalls: Other Natural Attractions
Aside from waterfalls, North Carolina has a wide variety of activities and things to offer. Whether it’s nature, history, art, or culture you are interested in, there will be something for you to enjoy in this breathtaking region.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: This national park is in the Appalachian Mountains. On the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, it covers over 800 square miles of wilderness, making it one of the most biodiverse regions in the country. It is renowned for its numerous hiking trails and incredible views of waterfalls and wildlife.
Blue Ridge Parkway: This iconic, scenic road winds through the Appalachian Highlands in North Carolina. Stretching for almost 470 miles, it offers all visitors a breathtaking journey through lush forests, valleys, and panoramic mountain vistas. This road trip destination is known for its scenic beauty in the fall and offers a peaceful escape into the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Pisgah National Forest: This forest, nestled in the Western part of North Carolina, covers over 500,000 acres. It is a popular destination for hikers, campers, and nature enthusiasts. Its’ hardwood forests, rugged terrain, and waterfalls contribute to its natural beauty. This area is perfect for a getaway of solitude or an outdoor activity hub.
Asheville: This town is in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This vibrant city is known for its diverse culture and beautiful surroundings. You will find thriving art scenes, historic architecture, and a dynamic culinary landscape here. Enjoy live music or explore the outdoors. This town's blend of creativity, outdoor recreation, and a welcoming community make it a popular travel destination.
Outerbanks: This string of barrier islands is located off the coast of North Carolina. It is famous for its maritime heritage, beautiful beaches, and natural beauty. This narrow strip of coastal land stretches for 200 miles. You can explore historic lighthouses, experience a variety of water sports, or simply relax on the sandy shores. This is where history, nature, and coastal charm work together to make it a unique and unforgettable destination.
Whitewater Rafting: Being one of the most popular adventures in the state, this exhilarating activity takes you through some of the most scenic and wild waterways. From the Ocoee River to the Nantahala River, there are plenty of options for all skill levels of rafters. Whether you are seeking a heart-pounding adventure or a peaceful float, this experience in North Carolina is one you will not forget.
Wright Brothers National Memorial: This national memorial offers visitors the opportunity to connect with the extraordinary history of flight. Located in Kill Devils Hill, North Carolina, it commemorates the historic achievements of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the inventors who powered flight. You can visit the spot where they launched their first flight and visit the monument that provides panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. This memorial symbolizes the birthplace of aviation and is a popular tourist destination.
Biltmore Estates: Located in Asheville, this estate is a masterpiece of the Gilded Ages and one of the most impressive mansions in the United States. It features 250 rooms and covers over 8,000 acres of stunning gardens, a winery, and unforgettable landscapes. You can wander through the interiors and the landscape to capture what life was like for the Vanderbilts, who once lived on the property.
Each of these activities is a part of the experience of visiting North Carolina. When you plan a trip to chase waterfalls, don’t forget that these nearby attractions are worth adding to your itinerary!
North Carolina’s waterfalls are not just mesmerizing natural wonders but vital components of our environment. Exploring these cascading beauties is an invitation to connect with the beauty of nature. As you embark on your adventure, remember to prioritize safety and conservation so that future generations can enjoy them as we do. And while you are chasing waterfalls, don’t forget to explore the diverse variety of natural and cultural attractions the Tar Heel state offers! Share your unforgettable experiences responsibly and let the world witness the magic of these cascading wonders while you visit us at The Land Of Falls.