I knew well ahead of time that any foray along the wild upper reaches of the Whitewater River in southwestern North Carolina was likely to end up being an epic adventure. This four mile stretch of river is one of incredibly rugged terrain, home to no less than 10 named waterfalls, and boasts the closest thing to a true slot canyon found in the southeast. Despite all the natural wonder found here, and the relative closeness of civilization surrounding it, this are remains one of pristine wildness. No maintained trails traverse it and no signs are there to announce it. It remains, as yet, a rather untouched landscape only accessible by the most determined and the most experienced. It's certainly not a place to wander into alone and that's the reason why, despite my acute awareness of its existence, that I had not attempted exploration of the Upper Whitewater on my own. So it was to my great pleasure then that another of the area's more experienced waterfallers, Mark Oleg of hikingtheappalachians.com, hit me up a couple months ago and asked if I'd be interested in joining him on a trip there. It took me all of about half a second to give my reply.
The first issue in visiting the upper Whitewater River is an issue of access. There is a fairly well-established trailhead along NC-281 at the crossing of the river above Whitewater Falls. An in-and-out-hike from this location, due to the ruggedness of the terrain, is a difficult goal to achieve as a day trip. The best option for walking the river is to make a point-to-point hike between NC-281 and the upper access point to the river, located at the end of Heady Mountain Road off NC 107 to the west. This option, however, then brings up the problem of avoiding private property boundaries at the upper end of the river. The Forest Service does own land adjoining Heady Mountain Road but no maintained trail lead down directly to the river through it. Over the years it has become increasingly popular to skip this quasi-bushwhack down to the river by ignoring property signs and cutting across private land to get to the river. This I patently refuse to do and I was quite pleased to discover that Mark felt the same way. So we would take the more difficult USFS route in and that's the route you'll find in this album.
Our hike began then by leaving one vehicle down along NC-281 and then driving up to the small parking area at the end of Heady Mountain Road. From this parking area we walked back up the road a few hundred feet to a wide bend where an obvious path leads into the woods opposite of a small grey electrical box. I'm not going to get into a turn-by-turn description here. We used the directions found in Kevin Adam's waterfall guide but those were only partially helpful. To successfully reach the river required competent use of our GPS and the ability to read the landscape, so-to-speak. This isn't a place for beginners. I'm serious...don't attempt it if you're not comfortable with off-trail travel in steep, thickly forested terrain. After an hour-and-a-half of travel which saw us cover barely a mile, we finally broke out along the Whitewater River at the base of Exit Falls. Exit Falls is so-named as it is the point at which, with a 30-foot plunge, the Whitewater River emerges from the narrow slot canyon above. It's a fabulous spot, complete with a wide sandy beach for lounging. From Exit Falls our intent was to find a way upstream and see the famous slot canyon and its falls for ourselves. Things quickly got serious again. An obvious trail ascends the slope just downstream from Exit Falls on the river-left but it's incredibly steep. The first thirty feet or so go straight up a wet rock cliff and would have been virtually unclimbable were it not for the ropes left by earlier hikers. After the brutal ascent to the top of the ridge we once again found a wide path leading to the river above the canyon. This are is by far the highlight of the trip. Beginning with Entrance Falls the wide Whitewater River drops and compresses to barely more than a few feet wide as it is pressed between 50-foot high vertical walls of granite. It's a place quite unlike any I have visited in the southeast. Tucked into the canyon as well is a true gem of a cascade, Sculpted Falls. This is a place begging to be explored but is an inherently dangerous place as well. If you make the trek step lightly and take care on the bare rock of the canyon rim...a trip here would, no doubt, be your last. After the canyon things calmed down for a while, hike-wise. Making our way back across the river to the main trail we decided that, rather than make the potentially treacherous climb back down the way we came we'd take a more circuitous route back to the river along a system of trail we knew to exist to the east of the river atop the ridge. This turned out to be by far the easiest travel of the hike as, for the next mile, elevation changes were minimal and the path remained wide and smooth. Then we reached the river again.
We came alongside the Whitewater River again a short distance below yet another cascade, Bedrock Falls, and after a quick visit there we picked up the faint but discernible path leading downstream along the rivers east bank. About a quarter-mile below Bedrock Falls, upon reaching a small stream named Democrat Creek, we decided to do a bit of exploring. Mark had, prior to the hike, told me he had good reason to believe that a cascade of appreciable size was located not far upstream on this creek that, according to his research, was as-of-yet undocumented in the waterfall community. I couldn't help but absorb his enthusiasm and so we found our way on a creek wade up Democrat Creek in search of these undiscovered falls. As it turned out we found a 30-foot beauty of a cascade just about exactly where Mark had predicted and, due to some ornery neighbors of the falls it has since been dubbed Hornet Falls by its discoverer. After our foray up Democrat Creek we began to feel the pressure of time weighing on our trip as the late afternoon sun sank ever lower and shadows grew. We once again picked up the faint path following the river downstream and passed two more of the upper Whitewater's scenic cascades along the way...Merge Lane and the oddly-named 55 MPH Falls. Merge Lane is a small beauty where the river cascades down behind a huge jagged ledge while 55 MPH Falls is a long, multi-tiered cascade which empties at its base into one of the largest and most scenic swimming holes I've ever seen. Unfortunately by this point, though, we couldn't dally...we were losing daylight, fast, and the most potentially treacherous part of the trip lay just ahead.
Downstream from the pool beneath 55 MPH Falls the trail we had been following disappears and the favored route for continuing downstream is to simply walk the river for 3/4-mile to a point where a path reappears just above a waterfall known as Portage Left. For whatever reason I had underestimated the difficulty we encountered as we carefully picked our way downstream. On our visit the water levels in the river were fairly normal for the time of year or even slightly low. Despite this the Whitewater is still a serious river. The current is swift, huge boulders are strewn throughout the river channel, and deceptively deep pools are needed to be avoided all along the way. The going was excruciatingly slow and around two-thirds of the way along the river walk, at a point where we were forced to make a particularly gnarly bushwhack up out of the river to get around Wheelchair Accessible Falls, darkness fell. The final 1/4 mile of river walking in complete darkness was one of the most nerve-wracking things I've done in the woods in a long time. Thankfully, moving slowly and deliberately we were able to complete the last quarter-mile in the river without incident and, after a steep scramble up the adjoining hillside, picked up the obvious path which would lead us the remaining mile back to our car. As I had expected, exploring the upper Whitewater River had indeed been a true adventure.
So, with all that said, I invite you to join me as I partake in one of the most ruggedly beautiful hikes I've done in a long time in the southern mountains. This is a toughie...so lace your boots tight and prepare to get a bit muddy, wet, and even a bit bloody. The payoff is worth it though...trust me. A reminder also that, if you enjoy this album and want to see more, I'd invite you over to view the trip report my partner on this hike (Mark Oleg) also created by clicking the link here. With that said, as always...ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.052548, -83.053556
Mileage Hiked: 6.1 miles Hike Duration: 9:00
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 2,680' Max. Elevation: 3,220'
Total Vertical Gain: 550' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 90'