NOTE: This is not an easy adventure and the possibility of getting injured is real. There are sections of open rock along the sides of waterfalls and steep banks to negotiate. The creek is relatively easy to negotiate but all it takes is one false step. If you get hurt no is going to happen along and find you. You need to know where you’re going and what you’re doing. I’m going to provide the trail departure points but these are by no means definitive. I’m not doing this to encourage anyone to make this hike but simply to make it as easy as possible for those that do. If you do this hike, expect a long day.
Dark Prong Falls is one of three major waterfalls on Dark Prong as it runs down the south side of Ivestor Ridge paralleling Greasy Cove Prong which runs along the north side of the high ridge. Dark Prong is a shorter hike due to the trail access but it is still a long arduous day. Dark Prong Falls was the last of the three waterfalls we did on this hike. As with Greasy Cove, this hike is going to start and end following marked trails but it is the section in the middle that makes is so difficult. From the moment you leave the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) until the moment you get onto the MST there is no defined route. We walked the creek and when the woods opened up, we made our way along the mostly level banks. The good thing is the creek is wide enough that it’s not terribly overgrown and at this elevation it isn’t under a wave of fallen hemlocks.
Directions to trailhead: From Beech Gap head North on the Blue Ridge Parkway to milepost 417 and park a second vehicle at the Looking Glass Rock Overlook. If you are coming from Brevard, Asheville or I-26, take the parkway South to MP417 and leave a car here or at the large open area on the right side of the road at MP 416.9. With a second car in place, head South on the Parkway to Black Balsam Rd, MP 420.2 and make a right. Follow Black Balsam Road to the MST trailhead about 0.5 of a mile from the Parkway. If you don’t get here early, good luck finding a place to park.
The Hike: The trailhead is in the middle of the parking area on the North side of the road. Numerous trails cross here so you really want to make sure you take the MST, which is white blazed. Just off the road it turns to the right and enters a stand of pines where the ground is open and easy to navigate. Once you exit the pines the trail is hemmed in by vegetation and not pleasant. For the most part the trail is going to descend through the narrow alley of growth but there is one climb up a rocky area to a great view of the BRP and the parking area at Graveyard Fields. after cresting the rocky are the trail will head down to a junction with the Graveyard Ridge Trail. This is 1.4 miles from the trailhead. The junction is in a large open area. The Graveyard Ridge Trail crosses here. If you make a left it will take you to Greasy Cove. if you make a right it will take you to the parking lot at Graveyard Fields. Cross the Graveyard Ridge trail to remain on the MST.
Follow the MST as it swings into the Dark Prong drainage for about 0.7 of a mile. There is no easy landmark as to where to leave the trail but we could hear the falls making noise down in the gorge. The point where we left the trail was 35.32798, -82.85605. It was a point that looked to me like it would provide an easy access and it did. The woods were mostly open and as long as you follow the contour of the hillside it will steer you away from the cliffs and rocky outcrops. It is not a terrible difficult descent as far as bushwhacks go. With a pin on the falls we came out just downstream and headed up the creek to hake a look at Upper Dark Prong Falls. The important thing is to come out below the upper falls. We arrived at a great swimming hole, one of about 15 we found on this hike and on the far side of the pool we were able to walk up the sloped rock and follow the creek to the base of Upper Dark Prong Falls. As far as creek walks go this one is very easy with most of the way paved with open bedrock and shallow water.
On the way back to the pool, the discussion in our group had been about the swimming hole and the chute of water feeding it. Prepared for such a thing, my friend Katie blew up her inflatable avocado for a run down the chute. It was an epic ride captured for all to enjoy. Click this link to see the ride of the avocado.
Moving on from Upper Dark Prong Falls the next major waterfall is Serpentine Falls but before you get to that there are dozens of smaller falls, cascades swimming holes and places to play on a hot April Day. At one inviting cascade, Katie elected to take the plunge, the inflatable avocado having gotten holed on its maiden voyage. From Upper Dark Prong to Serpentine Falls is about a mile of open creek walking with the occasional obstacle. It wasn’t overly difficult but it is a creek walk and lots can go wrong if you don’t pay attention.
Serpentine Falls is a hard one to get a picture of since the falls zigzags around the bends that give it its name. You can see it in isolation shots but there is no way to see all of it from one place. It is also a great place to hang out with several deep swimming holes and a nice slide below. It is another relatively easy half a mile to get to Dark Prong Falls with most of it in the creek bed. Just stay with the creek as much as possible. This is a creek walk and on our trip we never got far from the water. Don’t turn this into something that it isn’t. The easiest way to the base of Dark Prong Falls is to climb down on river right. You can probably bushwhack but it is really steep here and you’d probably get more tore up if you fell out of the woods as opposed to butt-sliding down the falls.
When it’s time to go, resume the trek downstream to bypass the steep slopes near the falls. We stayed with the creek until reaching this point, 35.32777, -82.83233. From here it was straight up the ridge to the MST which we intersected at 35.32710, -82.83378. It was the hardest part of the hike but it was’t too long. This is off-trail and steep so you will be winded by the time you get to the MST. Make a left and follow the MST as it parallels Dark Prong. From where we got onto the MST is was a mile back to the parking area at the Looking Glass Rock Overlook and it included passing Skinny Dip Falls.