High (Cullowhee) Falls Dam Release Hike Route Map

High (Cullowhee) Falls

In the narrow gorge of the West Fork Tuckasegee River, just below the dam forming Lake Glenville, a giant sleeps...awoken on only a handful days each year.  Here lies High Falls (also known as Cullowhee Falls), a two-tiered cascade where the Tuckasegee tumbles 150-feet over a pair of massive rock ledges.  For most of the year the waterfall is a timid one...impressive in height, to be sure, but barely violent enough to keep moss and ferns from growing across its face.  On seven select days a year, however, the cascade transforms into another beast altogether.

Prior to 1941, the West Fork Tuckasegee River flowed free and wild.  The waters crashing over High Falls ebbed and flowed in a natural fashion dictated by storm and season.  Then, with the completion of the dam forming Lake Glenville upstream, the cascade was cut off from its natural liquid food source...becoming only a faint shadow of what it once was.  Thankfully, as mentioned above, there are still a select few days a year where one can visit the falls in all their former glory.  Duke Energy publishes a page announcing these 'recreational release days', which you can visit by following this link.  With the completion of an official trail to the falls in 2013, access to High Falls is easier than it once was.  As a result, the release days at the falls have become an increasingly popular event locally.  My advice, get there early to get a prime spot to watch and just expect to be surrounded by a hundred or more people before things are all said and done.  

I had never before been to a release at High Falls, I just hadn't been that good at paying attention to release days so always managed to miss them in previous years.  This year I was determined to pay closer attention and on this Fourth of July weekend I finally got my chance to go.  The trail to the falls is short and steep, leaving from the Pines Recreation Area on Pine Creek Road which runs along the north shore of Lake Glenville.  It drops around 700 vertical feet on its 3/4 mile route to where it meets the Tuckasegee just below the falls.  With a 10am release time I wanted to get to the falls a minimum of a half hour early to get a choice spot for pictures so I hit the trail by nine.  I beat the crowds, but only just, setting up atop a large boulder on the rivers west bank.  The main event was awesome...spectacular...jaw-dropping...incredible.  It was astounding to witness the transformation of the waterfall from wispy cascade to thundering monster in a matter of seconds.  Its an experience I simply can't describe adequately here in words and one which the following photos and videos will only provide you with a taste.  This is an event you have to experience first hand...

So, if you're in the area I highly recommend checking out the release dates by visiting the link listed previously.  Otherwise, or in the meantime, come on along with me and witness the amazing transformation of High Falls as seen on my visit.  As always...ENJOY!!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.198521, -83.159605

Route Type:  Out-and-back              Difficulty:  MODERATE  (Petzoldt Rating:  3.24 )

Mileage Hiked:  1.7 miles                    Hike Duration:  2:00

Trailhead Temp:  70'F                        Trail Traffic:  100+ people

Min. Elevation:  2,880'                         Max. Elevation:  3,500'

Total Vertical Gain:  770'                    Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  453'

Trails Used (blaze color):  High Falls Trail (unblazed)


  • Emily Mercer Sampson

    on December 2, 2016

    You have given the incorrect common name to the shrubby plant with purple flowers. It is not wild geranium, it's flowering raspberry or Rubus odoratus. It's funny because I was at Cullowhee falls this year around the same date as you and also took pictures of the beautiful blooms. At that time there were also a few berries of the plants to eat which were amazing. I have a degree in botany and would be glad to help you with any id questions you have in the future.... :-)

  • Dave Kathy Weemhoff

    on September 23, 2016

    Look at all that water! Awesome to be able to be there at one of those times!