Cascade Conundrum: With so many magnificent waterfalls in one place, how to choose which ones to visit?

You’ve come to Cashiers for a little quiet time, a little mountain repose. You’ve made peace with the wilderness; you’ve purged your inner demons. But now you want some adventure!

Western North Carolina offers some of the finest waterfall watching in the East. With more than twenty falls within thirty minutes of the Cashiers crossroads, where do you even begin

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • How much walking/hiking (if any) am I ready for?
  • Would I like to get away from the crowd, or am I looking for a more “civilized” outing?
  • How much time do I have for this excursion?

These are just a few of the variables to consider in planning your waterfall adventure.

Of course, you might be the type who is looking for something a bit more spontaneous. Why not take a look at the GoCashiers Map of Waterfalls and pick one—or two, or three? Do some reserach, though. There are plenty of places to get lost in these woods (just about anywhere in Panthertown Valley).

Accessibility to waterfalls

Bridal Veil Falls, near Highlands, is probably the easiest waterfall to reach in the area.You might like to know which waterfalls you can access. Since many of the waterfalls in and around Cashiers reside in rugged terrain, some falls will just be out of reach for some visitors. For instance, Rainbow Falls and Glen Falls, however glorious, involve too much of a hike for my grandmother. As much as I would love sharing two of my favorite places with her, she just wouldn’t make it.

On the other hand, Bridal Veil Falls, Dry Falls and Whitewater Falls are doable for the vast majority of visitors (though I’d probably hold my grandmother’s hand on the latter two). Bridal Veil sits adjacent to Hwy. 64 just west of Highlands. You don’t even have to get out of your car to see it (though it is highly recommended). Dry Falls, just down the road from Bridal Veil Falls, involves a walk of about 150 yards on a paved walkway. An observation deck for Whitewater Falls (technically Upper Whitewater Falls), the highest single drop for a waterfall east of the Rockies, sits less than a quarter-mile down another paved path.

If you are an experienced and prudent hiker, given the right maps and sense, you should have no problem visiting any of the area’s accessible waterfalls.

Secluded or social?

Toxaway Falls, shown here as the morning fog burns off, winds its way down a huge rock face.Yes, there are roadside waterfalls around Cashiers. Bridal Veil Falls is one. Toxaway Falls is another. While many drivers pass directly over Toxaway Falls without even knowing it’s existence, those who stop for the view do not quickly forget it. From a roadside pull-off—beware the traffic!—the downhill side of a concrete bridge over Toxaway Falls offers a breathtaking, panoramic landscape of a running cascade, descending over 400 feet in a quarter-mile. The mountains around and behind frame the river as it grinds away on the exposed rock.

The downside: cars, trucks and—depending on your point of view—people.

Some waterfalls are magnets for visitors, especially in warm weather. Swimmers frequent Turtleback Falls and Sliding Rock during the summer months. Rainbow, Whitewater and Schoolhouse Falls are, in season, rarely places of solitude.

What if you’re looking for a private getaway? Never fear, there are places less frequented by visitors. Many of the falls in Panthertown Valley, such as Warden’s Falls or Greenland Creek Falls (remember: buy a map of Panthertown before you enter; try A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown Valley, available at Brookings and the Highland Hiker), are more remote and less well-known. Bull Pen, a small, out-of-the-way waterfall on the Chattooga River, provides a roadside (well, bridge-side) sight on a secluded piece of river. Beware, however, you are a long way from help and well out of cell phone range. Embark on the road less traveled at your own risk.

A matter of time

The hike to Rainbow Falls is relatively long, but the payoff is sweet.As rivers leap their way down the mountains towards the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico—the Cashiers area straddles the Eastern Continental Divide—they often make those leaps in twos and threes. Some make natural half-day and full-day outings.

The following are three waterfall circuits, from very easy to moderate adventures:

Bridal Veil and Dry Falls - very easy, half-day

From the Cashiers crossroads, take Hwy. 64 West to Highlands, about twenty minutes, depending on traffic. Include a tour of Highlands and lunch or dinner as part of your outing. Making a right at the second traffic light, continue on Hwy. 64 through town. After approximately five to ten minutes, you will see Bridal Veil Falls on your right—you can’t miss it. Until recently, cars could drive underneath the falls, but a storm caused the collapse of the rock face over which the creek runs. Take your time here, and watch out for traffic.

Just down the road, keep a lookout on your left for a brown National Forest sign for Dry Falls. The trailhead leads from a small parking area. A short descent brings you directly to the 40-foot plunge. The path even leads behind this waterfall, but respect the gate, as rangers close this part of the path when conditions are dangerous.

Return the way you came, through Highlands to Cashiers.

Toxaway, Whitewater and Silver Run Falls - easy-to-moderate, full-day

This is a wide circuit of relatively easy to reach watefalls, but it covers a good bit of ground—that is, road—along the route. Any of the three can be jettisoned for a half day excursion.

From Cashiers, begin your journey down Hwy. 64 East towards Sapphire and Lake Toxaway. As you begin to see signs for Lake Toxaway businesses, look for an old gas station and then October’s End restaurant on the right. Just after October’s End is a small concrete bridge and a cliffside view that opens on the right. The Toxaway River flows underneath the bridge, and Toxaway Falls begins its plummet. A small, gravel pull-out allows for parking. There is an entrance behind the concrete barrier guarding the overlook if you walk all the way back up Hwy. 64 to the west end of the barrier. This is a one-looker, as no other viewing points are available.

Back in your car, make an about-face and follow Hwy. 64 West until you reach a left turn for Hwy. 281 (look for a BP station on the corner). Whitewater Falls will be on your left several miles down the road. Look for brown National Forest signs. This is a very public area and requires a nominal day-use fee. A fifteen-minute walk down a paved path leads to an observation platform. As mentioned above, Whitewater Falls is the tallest single plunge East of the Rockies.

Onward! The last leg: Making a left turn out of the Whitewater Falls area, drive approximately one mile into South Carolina (N.C. Hwy. 281 becomes S.C. Hwy. 130), and turn right onto Wiginton Rd., which jaunts to the right as Hwy. 130 bares left. Follow Wiginton Rd. back up the mountain and past a spectacular overlook (feel free to stop) until you reach a stop sign at Hwy. 107. Turn right onto Hwy. 107, and travel back into North Carolina. After approximately 5 miles on your right, you will see another brown National Forest sign for Silver Run Falls and a small parking area. A ten-minute walk down a rooty dirt trail (watch your step) will lead you over a wooden bridge and to the waterfall, a 25-foot gem with a large plunge pool. Silver Run makes a great swimming hole in warm weather.

From the Silver Run Falls parking area, continue north up Hwy. 107 and back into Cashiers.

The Falls on the Horsepasture River - moderate, long half-day

The hike to the Horsepasture RIver waterfalls is for the reasonably able-bodied, basically those willing to hike the three-to-four mile round-trip incline on rocky, rooty trails. (Remember, this is one of the places I’d love to show my grandmother but wouldn’t take her to!)

Take Hwy. 64 East from the Cashiers crossroads to Hwy. 281. Make a right on Hwy. 281 and follow the road for approximately one mile until you see the entrance to Gorges State Park. You will park here and walk back out to the road, following a trail to the left that soon turns into the woods.

The hike to the river runs through Gorges State Park and Nantahala National Forest. Following a broad dirt road that deteriorates to a smaller trail as it descends, once you reach the river, follow the trail to the right and upriver to see Drift Falls or go left to see Turtleback, Rainbow, Staircase and Windy Falls.

Keep in mind that Drift Falls runs over private property and can only be viewed from below. The area is well marked to keep visitors off of private property. Authorities are serious about the property boundary, so don?t test them. Drift Falls is a long, 60- to 70-foot slide, well worth the extra footsteps.

Depending on water levels, there may be a lot of exposed rock to lounge on, or you may have to stick to the trail.

Turtleback Falls is relatively short compared to Drift and Rainbow falls. But what it lacks in height, it makes up for in beauty. The river plunges over Turtleback in a wide, thick sheet of water, and it makes a sharp 90-degree turn after the large pool below the falls. This pool is a great place to swim, but be careful as many have been injured here in the past, especially when sliding over the fall.

Just downriver from Turtleback, the trail continues to Rainbow Falls, where exposed rocks make another good lounging spot or a place to picnic. But be very careful ? you?re standing atop a 150-foot waterfall!

The valley below widens and lets in plenty of light, making for an amazing vista.

The trail gets a little tricky as you head below Rainbow Falls. Shoes with traction are especially important here. Getting pulled out with a broken ankle would not be the way to end your day.

To keep it to a nice, well-paced half-day hike, I wouldn’t recommend going further than Rainbow Falls. Remember, you have to hike out uphill.

Return to Cashiers the way you came.

To visit Cashiers and not take in some waterfalls is a tragedy. But don’t become the tragedy!  People are seriously injured or killed visiting waterfalls with unfortunate frequency.  Water and rock together can be a very slippery combination, and rock is always very hard.  Respect the wilderness, be prudent, and you’ll be fine.  Do not take Mother Nature lightly!  Keep a close watch on your children, but keep one eye on your feet.

With so much to choose from, there is bound to be an adventure you’ll take with you wherever you go!  Just remember to take it slow.


Recent Posts

August 16
Zip line tour in Bryson City

July 16
Kayaking Toxaway Falls: not recommended for ... anyone!

March 31
Whitewater Falls fogged in

March 11
Making the most of a rainy day in Cashiers

February 27 relaunch special: $239 for the year for new Basic Accounts in all categories

February 7
Lucky you, you found the redesign project