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Afield in WNC - Hiking Catawba Falls

Afield in WNC - Hiking Catawba Falls

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While the weather remains hot, we might as well go after some of the easier trails and score another waterfall. I know many of you know about, and may have hiked to the Catawba Falls but, just for fun, hike it this time with a different perspective.

Try to imagine yourself hiking in these woods, along the river, in September of 1776. Somewhere close by, maybe where you are standing, General Griffith Rutherford was leading 2,400 white men and about 100 Catawba Indians to attack the Cherokee villages toward Asheville. Supposedly as punishment for the Cherokee siding with the British during the Revolution.

I’m a trail guy, not an historian and certainly not a moral arbiter. You make the call the way you see it. I just want you to try to feel what it might have been like for someone standing in the exact same spot as you. The fear and the excitement those men, on both sides, must have felt, knowing mortal combat was ahead. All the while wrapped in the pristine beauty of this forest with the river rumbling just below.

We’re lucky to have this resource available to enjoy. A nod to The Foothills Conservancy who, a few years ago, acquired parts of this area in order to remove any posted land and provide us with a clear path to the falls. The State of North Carolina and other trail groups joined in to make it the beautiful trail it is today.

I know that for many of you this trail will be too easy and far too crowded but if you haven’t been to the falls, just call it a workout, get close enough to take a selfie and head back. If you have been there and done that, you might be more satisfied on another trail.

Trail to Catawba Falls

Difficulty: Moderate/easy

Shoes: A light to medium weight hiking boot or shoe that supports the ankle. A waterproof boot/shoe is preferable. You’ll be close to water at times and almost certainly, at least one water crossing. Unless you just want to take off your shoes and wade in, waterproofing is advisable.

Time: Expect to spend 1-2 hours on the trail if you plan to go to the falls and back. You’ll find yourself wanting to stay at the base of the falls for a while. The water is usually clear and cold. It is tempting to get in and play a while, and really, what’s stopping you?

Distance: Total distance round trip is 2.5 miles. Elevation gain is about 100’ to the falls.

Safety: The trail is a wide dirt path all the way. There are some rocks and roots, but the trail is so wide that you will find good footing all the way. The route is generally uphill to the falls. It drops off steeply on one side so be careful not to wander out into space. You will do a little scrambling over the rocks at the falls. Footing can be little dicey, but there have been hikers from 8 to 88 who have had no problem. There are snakes in the area. I’ve seen a few copperheads in the summer. When you’re rock scrambling keep a lookout and keep your hands out of the crevices. It is important that you take hydration.

There is a trail that runs up and along the side of the falls. I do not recommend this trail for anyone. You might very well be able to navigate it but these days, why put the E.M.T. folks at risk and make them come to help you down with your broken ankle?

Chances are, you will encounter many people on the trail. Mask and distance as you feel appropriate.

How to get there: From Marion, take Interstate 40 to exit 73. At the end of the ramp turn left. Go under the freeway bridge then almost immediately, take the right toward Old Fort Recreation Park. You’ll think you are turning the wrong way on the Interstate but you’re not. Make a left across the off ramp. Again, you’ll see the brown sign to Old Fort Recreation Park. Go about 3 ½ miles until the road ends.

There are lots of parking spots at the trail head but during the summer there is a risk of all being full. This is an extremely popular spot for out-of-state visitors. The entrance to the trail is well marked. Currently, the restrooms are closed.

The Trail: From the parking lot it’s a simple, good, wide dirt  trail to follow. Two very nice bridges now provide easy traveling over major water and rock obstacles. It’s a generally uphill but not unpleasant hike. With the new and improved trail, lots of side trails have developed. They all lead down to the river. Nothing wrong with a little exploring. Just watch where you step and where you place your hands. Not only snakes in the summer but a little poison oak can make your life unpleasant in a very short time.

Take time to stop at the remains of an old dam. This dam and power plant were constructed around 1924 -25 under the direction of Colonel Daniel W. Adams. Adams was a conservationist and a resident of Old Fort from 1914 until his death in 1957. If you are interested, more information about Col. Adams can be found at the Gateway Museum in Old Fort. If you take the time to research the area before you hike, it will make the trip even better.

Do a search under “Rutherford Trace” and you will discover just how much history you are walking through.

When you get to the falls there will be plenty of places to pose and take pictures. Take a snack. Relax. Let me say again that this will probably be a crowded area. I know that most of you are like me and enjoy the solitude of a good, peaceful hike. This time try to look beyond the crowd and see the beauty of the falls.

I will probably write about this trail again if we get winter snow. The trail is safe enough to hike in the winter and affords great pictures.

Remember, there are lots of people on this trail. Do not be the one to litter. While hiking here, watch your trash. If you pack it in. Pack it out. Enjoy.

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