Panthertown Valley - Dismal Falls (11-21-15)
The hike to Dismal Falls has a reputation in local hiking circles as one of the most difficult treks to a waterfall you can make in North Carolina. Located in a steep gorge on the western edge of Panthertown Valley, the trailhead for the falls is only nine miles from my driveway but its fearsome reputation had kept me from attempting it until now. All the guides I'd read, both printed and online, warn of the brutal climbs and hard-to-follow paths which provide access to this remote corner Nantahala National Forest. It was because of these warnings that I had put off an attempt on Dismal for so long. Armed with the best maps I could find and steeling myself for the worst, today would be the long-awaited day. I was pumped.
The trailhead for the hike is located just off NC-281 north of Lake Toxaway. As the highway begins its climb to Owens Gap you need to turn left off the highway at the unsigned road for Trails Carolina. Almost immediately the pavement ends and a gravel two-track breaks right, which leads a short distance to the small parking area at a forest service gate. The first half of the hike is an easy one as the easy-to-follow trail meanders along the valley floor of the West Fork French Broad River. After about a half mile I would pass the short spur to Aunt Sally's Falls which, thanks to some recent heavy rains, was well worth the short detour to visit. A mile or so in the infamous trail to Dismal Falls broke left and the real adventure began. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find that the path continued to be easy to follow. Flagging tape was plentiful along the route but it was hardly needed. Arm yourself with a good map and you'd be fine up here. The Dismal Falls 'Trail' is a steep one however. Climbing past Trailside and the short spur trail to Rhapsodie Falls in the first half mile there's lots of eye-candy as well. Beyond Rhapsodie Falls things get serious. The trail climbs the ridge at a brutally steep angle (around 400 vertical feet in a quarter mile!) and freshly fallen leaves made it slick to boot. Once atop the ridge I then had to make the insanely steep drop into the gorge of Dismal Creek itself. Thankfully an enterprising hiker had strung rope on a previous visit which helped immensely. A couple good butt-slides later and I found myself beneath one of the most spectacular cascades in the Southern Appalachians.
Overall, this wasn't nearly as intimidating a hike as I had been led to believe. It's steep, brutally so, in places (particularly beyond Rhapsodie Falls) but enough people have made the trek in recent years to leave behind paths which are much more easy to follow than guidebooks would have you believe. That said, this is still a hike only for avid hikers. You need a good map just in case, waterproof boots, and a solid set of legs to make the trek to these waterfalls.
So, at long last Dismal Falls was in my sights...come along with me won't you and see what I discovered...
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.188172, -82.953452
Hike Length: 4.0 miles Hike Duration: 2:15
Trailhead Temp: 40'F
Min. Elevation: 2,730' Max. Elevation: 3,600'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,050' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 264'
Trails Used (blaze color): Aunt Sally's Falls Spur (unblazed), Dismal Falls (unblazed), West Fork Way (unblazed)