181 – Secret Falls (Highlands)

Accessibility – Moderate

Height: Approx 50′

Distance – 1.60 (out and back)

Beauty – 9

Photo rating – 8

Solitude – 6

GPS Info: LAT 35.0047 LONG -83.1715

Last updated – 04-15-2017


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Secret Falls was by far my favorite waterfall of the 6 we visited in the Highlands on our first expedition into this area. The waterfall is about 50 feet tall and drains into a large swimming hole that was a nice place to rest after our long day. Despite the fact it was early April, I had no problem wading into the pool to relax. There is a lot to see here as both the main falls and a downstream series of drops offer a lot of options. Getting to the falls isn’t too hard as the route follows a graded trail. It does get a little steep near the falls and there is a large fallen tree to contend with near the beach area on river-right but neither should dissuade you from a visit. There is a section of steps near the top of the falls and some of them are not looking too good. There is also a wet area to contend with at the base of the steps. These few factors make the hike difficulty moderate.

Like all of my Highlands directions, I’m going to start from the intersection of US64 and NC106. To get to Secret Falls, head east on Main Street. Very quickly the downtown area will fade and less than a mile later you will be descending on a steep grade into Horse Cove. The road will level out at the base of the mountain and it’s long this stretch, 3.7 miles from the starting point that Walkingstick Road comes up on the right, Make the right onto the gravel road and follow it for 2.9 miles. The early part of the drive takes you through a mountain community. Once you’re past the last of the houses, the road condition will drop off a bit. At 2.9 miles, FR4567 intersects from the right, turn here and head up the hill to the parking area, which is less than 0.25 of a mile. The parking area is on the left side of the road.

The trail begins at carsonite sign indicating Secret Falls trail #402. The wide section of trail will lead you past a gate. The path meanders through sections of small pines that infringe on the sides of the trail before it descends to a creek crossing. You’re about half a mile in at this point. The creek was easy to cross, as was the second creek crossing. The trail will ascend after the second creek and come to a fork. Take the trail to the left and head down the hill. This is about the steepest part of the hike. When this trail splits, go to the right to get to the base of the falls. This is the section with the steps and the wet area. As you get toward the base of the falls a trail will head to the left and you will see a large hemlock lying across the trail.The easiest way to the base of the falls is by going over or under this tree. The other branch of the trail will led you downstream and you’ll have to creekwalk back up to the falls.

The hike is kid-friendly but you will want to keep a close eye on them on the steps leading down as some of the steps are unsteady. The swimming hole is awesome and the open rock area next to the falls is a great spot to look for salamanders. The rocks have great color and there’s a little pool carved out of the stone to the left (when looking at the falls) of the main drop. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, you can head downstream to a series of stepped drops as the river turns left. The four drops are like a series of steps heading around a corner. Very cool indeed. Photographically, you can shoot just about anything from anywhere. If you show up on a weekend in the summer, you’re likely to have a lot of friends in the shots. This is one of those places where people tend to linger. We arrived near the end of the day just as the family of 5 was packing up, giving us the falls to ourselves for the rest of the day.

If you take the kids this will instantly become a family favorite. You will also learn that the only thing harder than getting your kids to go into the freezing cold mountain water is getting them out of the freezing cold mountain water.

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Secret Falls from the bech on river-right – April 2017
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Secret Falls from the closer beach – April 2017
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The hole in the rocks – April 2017
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From the brink of the next drop – April 2017
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The collection pool – April 2017
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Am old tree near the shoreline – April 2017