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WNC Afield: Catawba Falls covered with snow is a winter wonderland

WNC Afield: Catawba Falls covered with snow is a winter wonderland

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Snow Day!

And a perfect snow day it was. I like snow much the same way that poet Carl Sandburg referred to fog: “Fog comes in on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches then moves on.”

That’s the way I like snow, especially the “moves on” part.

I have about half a dozen trails that I can go to on a snow day. The point of the hike is, obviously, to enjoy the beauty and serenity of being out in the elements and seeing nature from a different point of view. You’re not going to set a speed record but if the snow is heavy enough, there should be a few challenges.

If you want to go out in the snow, consider a few things: 1) Will the roads be safe from home to the trailhead? 2) Is it close enough to get there and back even if the weather worsens during the hike? 3) Is the trail safe enough and easy to follow during or after a snowfall?

I can’t answer these questions for you, but I will recommend, for your consideration, one of my favorite snowy hikes.

Trail to Catawba Falls — In The Snow

Difficulty: Moderate/easy

Shoes: You will most definitely need a waterproof boot. Not only will the snow stick and melt on your boots, but there will also be water crossings on the route. The kind of water where there is ice on the top. You get your little toes wet in this environment and you’re in for a very unpleasant day. If you have leather gloves, it’s good to waterproof them also.

Time: Expect to spend 2-3 hours on the trail if you plan to go to the falls and back. If you are lucky enough to go during a snowfall, there will be so many great photo opportunities that your time will be quickly spent trying to pick the best shot.

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

Safety: Please be clear that I am not recommending this kind of hike for everyone. This is an adventure, no different than rock climbing or scuba diving. It is an itch that you may or may not want to scratch. If you feel that you are up for the adventure, then this should be a safe trail to experiment with. If you think it is beyond your ability, you’re probably right.

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 snow may hide obstacles, so watch your step. Even if it looks easy, there could be something slippery just under the white stuff. The route is generally uphill to the falls. It drops off steeply on one side so be careful not to wander out into space. Don’t get so caught up in the scenery that you become part of it.

As you get close to the falls, you will do a little scrambling over the rocks. Footing can be little dicey, especially with ice. A good pair of gloves will be important to keep your hands warm while negotiating the rocky parts.

Even in the cold and wet weather, it is important that you take hydration. Layering your clothing will help you prevent overheating.

Try to find a hiking buddy that will venture out with you. If you’re looking for the opportunity to just be alone and meditate, take someone that will hike with you but respects your space. Among my friends, that’s an easy task.

When we were there the parking lot was open, but the restrooms were closed. I would plan on them being closed in the colder months. There is a McDonald’s restaurant just before you take the road to the falls. Good place for that last coffee and a pit stop.

We didn’t see anyone on the normally busy trail. A mask is still appropriate and can be a great way to keep your face warm.


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. That McDonald’s is close to the freeway intersection.

Parking should not be a problem in the winter weather and especially if you can go on a weekday. Just remember, this type of outing is a little like swimming against the current. You may have to improvise a little to get parked and get to the trail. The entrance to the trail is well marked.


From the parking lot, it’s a simple trail to follow even with snow on the ground. Good, wide dirt path. Two very nice bridges now provide easy traveling over major water and rock obstacles. Be careful; the bridges are slick. Guys, it’s OK to hold onto the rails, you won’t lose macho points. It’s a generally uphill but not unpleasant hike. Stay on the main trail. Even in a light snowfall, if you go off the trail you can encounter unseen drifts that cover brush or rocks that can catch you and twist or break an ankle.

We have discussed this route before, but it will be a different experience under a blanket of snow. At the old dam, the snow and ice along with the water forcing its way through will give you some great photos. By now, everyone knows I’m into the selfie thing. Just be careful when you try to put the dam behind you in your photo. One back step too far and I lose another reader. As I have said before, there is a lot of history along this trail. You can explore it more at the museum in Old Fort. For today, just turn that thinking stuff off and enjoy the outing.

Now for the payoff. Trust me. When you get to the falls, you’ll be amazed at the show nature can produce … and the admission is free. Listen to the silence, then try to sense the force of the moving water. Feel the cold on your face. Personally, I think that the forces of nature are echoed in the rhythms of our bodies. This can be a place to align those rhythms. Maybe not a bad medicine these days.

Go when it is cold, and the weather is brutal. Then pat yourself on the back when you make it out. Don’t forget to go with your hiking buddy.

Just wait for the right day. Be ready to go at a moment’s notice. If you catch the weather right, you’re in for a treat.

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