Reece Place Falls -- 2,600'

Headwaters State Forest - Reece Place Falls

Headwaters State Forest is a recently established piece of protected property along the North Carolina-South Carolina border in Transylvania County. Established in 2009 with the acquisition of land by local conservancy groups, Headwaters opened to the public in 2018 and encompasses nearly 7,000-acres. Named for its location surrounding the headwaters of the East Fork French Broad River the State Forest is a rugged and all but undeveloped piece of real estate containing wooded ridges and numerous waterfalls (although the advertised 20+ count may be a bit exaggerated). Since the forest is still in its infancy as public property very little, if any, infrastructure exists providing access as yet. There are only two official trailheads and maps of the roads/paths within it are vague and hard to find. For those worried that Headwaters might someday become the zoo nearby DuPont is, there is some hope…the NC Forest Service has stated it intends to build little more than a couple small parking areas. Otherwise it will remain preserved in the wild state in which it currently exists. So, for those of us with a sense of adventure and a good map, we can experience this new state forest at its most raw...untouched as-yet by the hands of man.

Reece Place Falls, if a trail system is eventually established, will no doubt be one of its main attractions. Sixty feet in height, this is a waterfall of remarkable and serene beauty. Before the State Forest was opened to the public a one-mile, fairly level path led up to the falls from the end of a nearby, but private, road. As knowledge of the State Forest and waterfall grew the inevitable happened. Owners of the property which had provided access closed the road. That means that Reece Place Falls suddenly went from easy to access to quite a bit more problematic. No official trail has yet been constructed to the falls but two main routes have established themselves as the new, legal, ways to reach the falls. The first access point is off of East Fork Road at a point 3.7-miles from US-276. It’s 1.5-miles to the falls from here and used to involve a lengthy bushwhack. Enough people have now travelled this way, however, that a rudimentary path to follow (I’m told) now exists. Always looking for the lesser-known route places I was more interested in the other option for getting into the falls…a route I had plotted out a couple years ago and one I was happy to discover, a short time later, had now been verified as viable by a number of local waterfallers. This access point is along the remote two-track known as Gum Gap Road. Before you even hit the trail you’re going to need a good map to find this spot.  In fact, on most maps the section of Gum Gap Road you need to drive to doesn’t exist. It does, but it is rough. You could possibly make it in a standard car but you’ll have to take it real slow…high clearance is certainly preferable.

To reach the ‘trailhead’ stick to the following directions:

- On East Fork Road, 1.1-miles from US-276, make a sharp left turn onto Happy Acres Road.

- Stay on the gravel Happy Acres Road for just over 1.5-miles to a split where Gum Gap Access Road goes straight.

- Gum Gap Access (i.e. Gum Gap Road) now becomes ever more narrow and rutted as it follows along the state line towards Gum Gap.

- At 2-miles from East Fork Road you’ll pass a sign for Watson Cooper Heritage Preserve - At around 2.7-miles a forest road with a large red steel gate heads into the woods on the right.

- Park nearby without blocking the gate or road, the hike begins beyond the red gate.

- DO NOT attempt to drive any farther on Gum Gap Road without a high-clearance vehicle. The final ¾-mile to Gum Gap is by far the roughest part of the road and IS NOT suitable for standard cars.

So, if you’ve managed to find the trailhead let’s get hiking shall we? Departing along the forest road beyond the red gate route descends briefly and then climb to the first of three major Y-junctions you’ll encounter which could be potentially confusing. The first is reached at the ¼-mile mark and you need to bear right. The second is reached at the ½-mile mark, after some more gentle climbing, at which point you need to bear left. Beyond the second junction the trail dips a bit again and arrives at a steep incline where it seems the NC Forest Service might be beginning trail construction in the area as someone has obviously taken a brush hog up the slope to the left of the main roadway. You can either follow the freshly cut route or the road as within a few hundred yards they rejoin. A short distance later the third Y-junction is reached. Though the road straight ahead looks well-traveled to continue on the right track you need to follow the road that cuts sharply back to the left and downhill. You’ll now be dropping off the ridge into the valley of Hickory Flat Creek. After the rolling journey atop the ridge the route now is decidedly downhill, at first it’s a moderately steep descent but then eases off a bit the lower you go. Over the next ¾-mile the road is easy to follow, with no confusing junctions to deal with. At approximately the 1.5-mile, however, a narrow drive cuts back to the left and a short distance later another old trail road also breaks left. The first drive leads to a nearby private hunting cabin which you can just barely make out through the trees. This cabin is one of a couple private inholdings within Headwaters so please respect property rights and refrain from poking around. The road which breaks left a short distance later leads quickly down to Hickory Flat Creek, just head straight past it to continue in the right direction. The road now begins an extended climb, steeply at first though overall nothing terribly strenuous. Soon the route tops out as the road rounds a shoulder of the ridge and then begins descending again. Soon it arrives at an unnamed and unmarked tributary of Hickory Flat Creek at a sharp left-hand bend. Hopping across the rocks you now have to start really paying attention. As the road continues to head downhill keep an eye out straight ahead. Before long you should spot a curious tree with an odd right-hand bend in its trunk perhaps a dozen feet up. Just before arriving at the tree a long, partially decomposed log will lie along the left side of the trail. At the far end you should be able to spot a trail dropping down the slope…this is where you leave the road.

The next part of the hike is by far the steepest as the unofficial trail drops straight down into the valley. After 2/10-mile the path turns to follow the narrow valley, going from silly steep to just good-ole-fashioned steep. After about a half-mile from leaving the road the path bottoms out in the flats surrounding the confluence of Hickory Flat Creek and a major southern tributary. The trail arrives at a deep ditch here, which it circles to the left, then arrives at another potentially confusing spot where the floor of the woods opens up and the route isn’t clearly defined. Just keep left following the creek downstream and you should be able to pick up the trail again with little trouble. A bit more downhill walking you’ll arrive at the first of two crossings of Hickory Flat Creek. At normal to high levels this might be a wet crossing for you. Flow was about average when I visited and I only stayed dry thanks to high-topped Gore-Tex boots. After the first crossing you’ll quickly come to a point where an old forest road begins to ascend the hill ahead. The trail drops towards the creek here on the right…watch for faded orange blazes denoting the correct route. The lower crossing is much like the upper one in that, except during dry periods, it’s likely to be a wet crossing. Now the route enters the wide flatlands surrounding the confluence of Hickory Flat Creek and the East Fork French Broad River. The main channel of the East Fork needs to be crossed here (another potentially wet crossing) as well as a couple substantial over flow streams which can be rock-hopped. You might be able to hear falling water through the trees to your right at this point…you’re getting close. After a brief climb through a stately grove of trees you’ll arrive at the forest road which used to be the main access to the falls. Make a right here, walk a hundred yards or so to the end of the road and pick up the path continuing ahead. A short distance farther you’ll come to a small clearing, with falling water visible through the brush ahead and another trail leading up the slope to the left. Head straight to the falling water first. A nice little cascade is located here, tumbling from beneath the overhanging laurels. You might catch a glimpse of Reece Place Falls through the trees high above also. Returning to the small clearing now take the path leading up the slope to the left of the lower falls. The path gets quite narrow as it climbs, rounding a large ledge near the top. At this point you’ll see Reece Place Falls ahead. Be super careful as you cross the narrow ravine here then, with a few more rock-hops you’ll have arrived at the base of the falls.

Reece Place Falls is a magnificent sight from here. Over 60-feet high it drops in two distinct stages through a narrow, mossy ravine which takes on a very tropical feel in the warmer months. This view of the falls is definitely worth the trip already but, if you’re feeling a bit adventurous yet, Reece Place has one more surprise. With great care one can scramble up the bare rock ledges to the river-right of the cascade. It’s not a terribly long scramble but the rocks are frequently damp making it trickier than it looks. The scramble ends at the base of the upper drop…or rather the upper drops!  Hidden in the narrow cleft beyond is a near-twin cascade to the one visible up to this point. The river makes a sharp right-turn at the base of the far cascade and the waters of the two falls join at the bottom of a steep narrow rock chute. I’ve visited a lot of waterfalls in the area and I can promise you, there’s nothing quite like the view of Reece Place Falls from here. Again, the summer brings a blanket of green which very much imitates what you’d imagine a tropical rain forest might look like. There’s no doubt in my mind that someday soon, for good or for ill, Reece Place Falls will become quite popular. It’s too unique and beautiful not to be. If you visit in the near future, though, you’ll likely still be able to enjoy it in solitude. After soaking up all the natural splendor you can handle, the return hike simply retraces the 2.8-mile route in from earlier. If you’ve made note of the major junctions on the way in there should be no problem finding your way out. Needless to say Reece Place Falls is an incredible place to visit. With Headwaters State Forest still in its infancy it remains a true hidden gem, though with the inevitable publication of maps in the future, it’s likely not going to stay this way. So if you want to experience it in its current pristine, relatively undiscovered, present state I recommend visiting soon!  With all that said I now invite you now to come along with me as I make the journey to the exquisite Reece Place Falls of Headwaters State Forest. Pay attention to the turns and, as always…ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.11000, -82.68731

Route Type:  Out-and-back         Difficulty:  CHALLENGING(Petzoldt Rating:  7.10 )

Hike Length:  5.6 miles                  Hike Duration:  2:45

Trailhead Temp:  45'F                    Trail Traffic:  NONE!!

Min. Elevation:  2,500'                    Max. Elevation:  3,120'

Total Vertical Gain:  750'               Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  147'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Unnamed Forest Road (orange/unblazed), East Fork Connector Path (orange)


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