Accessibility – Moderate+
Height – 16′
Distance – Approx 4 miles (out and back)
Beauty – 9
Photo rating – 6
Solitude – 7
GPS Info: LAT 35.3492 LONG -82.7322
Last updated: 09/05/2016
High Falls on the South Fork Mills River isn’t a hard waterfall to reach but even so it took three tries before I reached the falls. Our first family venture ended before it got started in February of 2015, when we arrived and found FR1206 gated. Not wanting to add about 6-7 miles round trip to the hike, we decided to stop back another time. This we did in July of 2016. It was a beautiful sunny day when we set out. We reached the Falls on Billy Branch about the same time the thunder started. We got as far as the crossing at West Ridge Way when the deluge began. After waiting for about half an hour for the storm to subside, we called it off and headed back to the truck. Of course by the time we got to the truck the sun was out. As my second failure ended with the rain, my third try began with it. After midday showers on the Friday before Labor Day 2016 chased me away from NC215, I headed over to FR1206. This time I reached the falls. High Falls will always have the distinction of being my 150th waterfall.
High Falls is a 16 foot high waterfall on the South Fork Mills River in Pisgah Forest. While not actually high, the waterfall, its surroundings and the hike make for a great expedition. High Falls has an amazing swimming hole at the base and ample places to sit and relax. The hike offers just enough challenge to make it interesting, just enough distance to feel like you’ve done something and a rewarding place to cool off after you’ve arrived. The hike features two easy creek crossings and a river wade. On the route I took you also have to walk the river back up to the falls. The trail is easy to follow but there are numerous places where it is very narrow and one misstep will send you down the steep slope. In several places it is a vertical drop of 10-15 feet. Keep a close eye on everyone in your party. This hike can be combined with a hike to the Falls on Billy Branch which are on the way and require only a short detour.
To get to High Falls start from the convergence of US64/NC280/US276 in Brevard and head North on US276 for 11.7 miles to FR 1206, Yellow Gap Rd. The turn is on the right. If you’re coming from the Blue Ridge Parkway the left hand turn onto FR1206 is 3.3 miles from the stop sign at the base of the ramp. FR1206 is a single lane gravel road that sees a lot of traffic in the summer months so watch your speed and don’t be surprised if you have to make use of the turn outs to allow approaching vehicles to pass. It is also popular among mountain bikers so stay alert. Remain on FR1206 for 3.25 miles to the intersection with FR476. Make a right and follow FR476 for approximately 1.25 miles until it ends. There is ample parking at the end of the road so there is no need to block the gate. The hike is broken up into four segments. As it turns out they are arranged longest to shortest and easiest to hardest.
Begin the hike by following the continuation of FR476 past the gate. The terrain is flat as the road follows the South Fork Mills River downstream. There are some great cascades along this stretch so plan on making plenty of stops. At 0.65 of a mile, the trail will swing to the left. On the right there is a narrow path that leads to a campsite on the shore of the river and an huge swimming hole. Stay on the main trail until it comes to the bridge over the South Fork Mills River. At this point the trail splits. The logging grade heads over the bridge. The trail we want is to the left. It might be hard to locate in the summer but once you’re on it, the way is obvious. The trail will ascend before splitting. The left fork heads up the hill to the Falls on Billy Branch. Take the right and cross Billy Branch. The first mile is in the books.
The second segment of the hike is half a mile long. It starts at Billy Branch and ends at West Ridge Branch. This section follows the South Fork Mills River from various elevations on the river’s left. In places it is steep and eroded. It is also narrow so use caution. There is no reason to rust at this point. After crossing West Ridge Way, you have reached the third segment of the hike. This one is 0.25 of a mile. The trail continues to follow the river from the left side but the trail conditions are not as good and there are more sections with a steep drop only a foot away. There are also several points where the trail is eroded badly. This quarter mile section will take as long as the 0.5 mile section that preceded it. Segment three ends at the South Fork Mills River. As the trail descends to meet the river there are several scramble paths on the right. Ignore them and stay on the main trail. You’ll know you’re almost there when you have to climb over a large tree that has fallen across the trail. Barely a hundred yards later the trail descends to an opening on the shore of the river. If you look diagonally downstream, you will see a rocky beach area. That’s the target.
If the water level is up, you might want to skip this one but I don’t think it could ever be low enough not to get your feet wet. The best place to cross is on a natural rock dam. The water to the upstream side of the dam is about 3-4 feet deep while the water to the downstream side is about 3-4 inches deep. The water doesn’t appear to be moving quickly but the way it comes over the rock dam makes it tricky. The final segment of the trail is accessed off the rocky beach and it is by far the most overgrown and dangerous. There are more narrow sections over sheer drops during the 0.2 mile segment. This narrow path will pass by the top of High Falls giving a partially obstructed view. DO NOT descend here or you will likely get hurt or worse. Stay on the trail. Keep going until the sounds of the falls starts to fade. On the left side of the trail there is a tree that looks like a barrier. Hop over this tree and walk along the flat area to the edge of the river. YOu can not see the falls from here. To get to the falls you will have to wade back upstream. I put on the water shoes at this point. So worth it.
You can shoot this one from any number of locations in front of the falls. I explored most of the collection pool and swam in most of it after the hike. It is a pretty setting that feels a lot more isolated than it is. Judging by the overgrown nature of the trail, I’m thinking this one doesn’t see the traffic it used to. The hike is borderline kid friendly and definitely dependent on the ability of the kid. If you’re not comfortable wading a river, crossing creeks and navigating narrow trails, you might want to skip this one. No matter your skill level, after the first segment you’ll want to take your time.