Balsam Lake

Balsam Lake/Wolf Creek Waterfalls (7-29-18)

Balsam Lake Recreation Area of Nantahala National Forest is a place I’ve enjoyed quite a few times over the years. This small body of water…remote, surrounded by pines, with high mountains looking down on it from the distance…has always been a place of incredible beauty and solitude to me. In all the years, though, I was never aware of the quartet of cascades which lay tucked away in the forest just below the lake. It wasn’t until a recent blog post by friend and fellow explorer Mark Oleg on Hikingtheappalachians.com that I was informed of their existence. I quickly decided that in the near future I’d have to go take a look for myself. So it was on this day I made yet another drive up to Balsam Lake…this time not for the lake itself, though, but to see if I could discover for myself the four wonders of falling water nearby.

Named, in order of descent, there is Balsam Falls, Lower Balsam Falls, Patricia Falls, and Lauren Falls. All around the 25-40 foot range in height, the cascades are spread along approximately a half mile of Wolf Creek just below the Balsam Lake Dam. Wolf Creek is not unknown in the waterfall community but it is more popularly recognized for much the larger Paradise Falls located much farther downstream. Much of their anonymity is thanks to the lack of trail system or, for the most part, any type of path whatsoever leading to them. To reach all four you have to be comfortable crossing steep terrain along extremely faint paths, fording streams, scrambling exposed ledges, and full-on bushwhacking. If any of these aspects of visiting don’t appeal to you…don’t go…you’ll likely end up lost or worse. If that kind of adventure does sound like your cup of tea, however, then you’ll want to start where I did at the parking area and trailhead at Balsam Lake.

The first four-tenths of a mile of this hike is a breeze as the route follows the eastern shore of Balsam Lake along the well-traveled and mostly flat Mallonee Trail. As the trail nears the dam at the lakes southern end it gets a bit narrower before ending at the dam itself. A small dock here offers some wonderful views across the lake to the ridgeline of Rich Mountain to the north. It’s a good place to get prepared; things begin to get much more interesting from here. At the end of the main trail, facing the dam, you’ll notice a faint path heading downhill into the woods to the left. This is the start of the route to the falls.

**I’m going to give a general explanation of the route here but if you want specific, turn-by-turn directions I highly recommend you head over to hikingtheappalachians.com as Mark Oleg has put together an incredibly detailed description of the route on his site…one I found both accurate and invaluable as a tool on my visit. **

So, turning down into the woods the path descends along the ridge a short distance above Wolf Creek, which you can spot through the trees from time-to-time. The path is faint but discernible (this is as close to a ‘trail’ as I’d get the remainder of the hike) and soon comes to a point where it turns to the right for a steep scramble down to the creek at a point just below Balsam Falls. From the side of the creek the path deposits you on there’s not a real good view of the cascade so crossing the stream, a knee-deep wade at normal flow, is in order. It’s also necessary to cross here to continue the hike down to the next falls. Be careful here, however, and choose your crossing point carefully as the 25-foot Lower Balsam Falls drops directly from the lower edge of the pool…one slip near the lip would certainly result in serious injury or worse. On the far side I took a minute or two to enjoy the 25-foot two-tiered beauty that is Balsam Falls. The cascade certainly whets the appetite for things to come. To continue on I would now climb the steep bank to the left of the falls picking up a faint scramble path which climbs into the woods. Using roots for handholds I shortly found things flattening out and quickly found myself at an overgrown trail onto which I took a left. Walking this faint trail a minute or so I then picked up another faint path breaking left back down towards the river. Please note that when I say “faint” I mean it. Any short lapse in attention is probably going to mean ending up somewhere you don’t want to be. Picking up the path to the left I know found myself on a two-tenths of a mile trek back down alongside Wolf Creek where there were plenty of blowdowns and undergrowth to push my way through. At about the three-quarter mile mark I reached an important landmark, a tiny tributary stream cascading down from the right signaling the point, just past it where I needed to make another crossing of Wolf Creek. Pushing down to the banks of the creek I found a good place to rock-hop across and, with a bit of looking, discovered the faint path continuing on the far side.

From here the hike quickly takes the difficulty level up a notch. As the path rounds the ridge above the brink of Patricia Falls it turns away from the creek briefly to follow the contour of the heavily forested cliff. Soon though it simply, literally, drops to the right down a series of steep and wet bare ledges. Take a real long look at what is needed to be done here and decide whether you have the skills to attempt it. This is not a place you want to take a fall. Also recognize you’re going to have to climb back up these same ledges on the return. Carefully picking my way down using cracks in the rock and available branches I was soon below the ledges and then, not long after, on the beautiful moss-covered “beach” at the pool beneath Patricia Falls. Patricia Falls is a true beauty. In my opinion it’s the finest of the four on this hike. It’s just under 40-feet tall and Wolf Creek is split up over numerous broken ledges into dozens of tiny veils of falling water. Combined with its rugged and remote surroundings this makes for a waterfall experience to equal the best of the region. I enjoyed what time I could at Patricia Falls but, yet, I had one more waterfall to go. At this point the hike becomes a true bushwhack. Though Lauren Falls is only a few hundred yards downstream there’s still a bit of effort required to get there. First off I picked my way down the river-left side of Wolf Creek following the path of least resistance. Then, just before reaching the crest of Lauren Falls I turned to follow the ridge away from the river to a point where I could just make out the route of a previous visitor descending a narrow gully. This descent is almost as steep as the one at Patricia Falls but, as the ground is covered in soil and there is a plethora of rhododendron, I didn’t find getting down this slope as difficult. Descending the gully the route soon deposited me on an open rock ledge right alongside Lauren Falls, about a quarter of the way up from its base. This is a pretty spot but if you look to the pool below you’ll see the spot you really want to get to…a small island in the middle of the stream with a full frontal view of the falls. So from the ledge there was a bit more bushwhacking to do. I can’t tell you which way to go other than to at first hug the ridge a ways first before descending. The final struggle passed quickly and soon I was standing on said island enjoying the wild beauty of 40-foot Lauren Falls and the accomplishment of successfully getting here. Soaking in the beauty surrounding me I relaxed for a good while…building energy for the inevitable return.

The hike back out retraced my route in and went quite a bit quicker as I was now more confident and familiar with the route that I was taking. Even so it took a good hour to hike the one mile back out. This quick trip was one of the toughest little shorty-hikes I’ve been on in a while. Trust me, don’t look at the diminutive mileage I covered and think less of the effort required for this one. As I mentioned at the top this trip IS NOT FOR THE NOVICE. Be well prepared for this one with a good map and/or GPS and be ready for any difficulties that one might expect being off-trail for an extended period of time in the mountains. Respect the difficulties and pack some determination and you’ll be well rewarded though. This is a fantastic and seldom visited corner of the mountains…and I sincerely hope it stays that way for years to come. With that, I present to you the waterfalls of Wolf Creek at Balsam Lake Recreation Area…I’ll do the work for you this time…and as always, please ENJOY!!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.272785, -82.969209


Route Type:  Out-and-back        Difficulty:  HARD (EXTREME without detailed directions)  (Petzoldt Rating:  2.60 )

Hike Length:  2.0 miles                Hike Duration:  2:30

Trailhead Temp:  70'F                  Trail Traffic:  NONE!!

Min. Elevation:  3,350'                  Max. Elevation:  3,600'

Total Vertical Gain:  300'             Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  150' (on return)


Trails Used (blaze color):  Mallonee Trail (unblazed)


  • Tim Truemper

    on February 12, 2021

    Perusing this trail. I have never seen this mentioned so glad to see this and will check it out.