Accessibility – Hard+
Height – 35′ (3 drops)
Distance – 5.8 (out and back)
Beauty – 5
Photo rating – 7
Solitude – 10
GPS Info: LAT 36.10345 LONG -81.69619
Last Updated – 03-02-2019
WARNING: The usual rules apply for this type of hike. The trail portion of the hike on the MST is strenuous but the trail sees enough foot traffic on weekends that if you get hurt someone will likely find you. Once you leave the trail to head down to the waterfalls, the chances of you being found are slim. This isn’t the kind of hike you should do alone. If you’ve never done a creekwalk or off-trail hiking, this is not a good place to learn.
NOTE: There are four ways you can approach this hike but I’m only going to explain the route I took, which was an out and back, starting at the Lower Trailhead on Steels Creek Road. You could do an out and back starting at the upper trailhead or you could do the hike as a shuttle hike starting at either end with a second vehicle waiting. Starting at the upper TH and finishing at the lower would be the easiest route.
There are four main waterfalls on this hike and a lot of smaller falls and cascades. Since I was alone and pressed for time, I took a different approach to this creekwalk, missing all of the smaller waterfalls between Mossy Ledge and Mossy Chute.
Getting to the trailhead: From NC181 turn onto the gravel FR228. It will descend for about 1.5 miles to a cement ford over the creek. The bright is signed as “Impassable in high water.” Use your judgment here. At 2.1 miles the road forks, stay to the right and follow it past the campsites bordering Steels Creek. At 3.9 miles from NC181 the road ends at a parking area. Park here.
The hike begins on the narrow continuation of the road as it heads upstream. Follow this part of the trail past several wet areas until it comes to a crossing at Steels Creek. This is about 0.3 of a mile from the parking area. You can cross either above or below the cascade but regardless of which you choose, this is likely going to involve getting your feet wet. The water was pretty low on my July 2019 visit and it was still easier to wade below the cascade. Once across Steels Creek, a trail heads into the woods perpendicular to the creek. Follow this for around 100 feet to a T. This is the MST (Mountains-to-Sea Trail). It is white blazed. Make a left.
In another 100 feet the MST crosses Buck Creek. There is no bridge but there are enough rocks where you can hop across without getitng your feet wet. If the water is up, its gonna be a wade. So far so good. Now it’s about to suck. The MST embarks on an uphill stretch that had me huffing and puffing. From the creek crossing the MST is going to gain about 1000 feet in elevation before reaching the bushwhack point for Mossy Ledge Falls. This isn’t so bad over 2.5 miles but 750 feet of the 1000 are gained in the first 0.75 of a mile.
The MST is going to swing away from the creek as it climbs and it will remain away from the creek almost to the point where it’s time to head down to Mossy Chute Falls. This is 1.4 miles into the hike but for now pass this point and keep heading up hill. The point to leave the trail for Mossy Chute is 1.4 miles from the TH. It is another 1.4 miles to the drop point for Mossy Ledge. The only thing you need to watch out for is an unsigned junction 2.4 miles into the hike. The trail goes straight but another makes a hard right, You want to make the hard right to continue on the MST. 0.4 miles from the junction you will come to a random point on the MST where I left the trail.
I picked this spot because there was a ridge spine and the rhodos weren’t too thick. The GPS where I left the MST was 35.90371, -81.86415. I don’t know that is much matters one way or another. What I can tell you is as you descend, angle to the left or you will come to some high cliffs. I came out below the falls a short distance. You’re going to have to take your time and pick your way down. The woods are fairly open once you’re away from the MST almost all the way to the creek. This is what you will find when you get to Mossy Ledge Falls.
Most of my friends who have done this hike have done it as a creek walk and you can to. I have no idea what is between Mossy Ledge and Mossy Chute except for 1 mile of creek walking. It took me ten minutes to bushwhack down from the MST and 30 minutes to hike the 1.4 miles between my trail departure points. Since there is no way I was going to cover a mile of creek walking in 40 minutes, I climbed back to the MST and hiked down to the point I picked to make my descent to the creek for Mossy Chute. This descent was a lot more difficult and the terrain a lot steeper. It was a meandering zigzag down the steep ridge before I finally reached the creek above Mossy Chute Falls. I could do this hike ten times and never once follow my exact route. I entered the creek above the falls and worked my way down to the base, pausing to take a few pics of the upper section with the mossy chute before ducking behind some boulders on river left and making my way down the lower portion of the falls. I made that sound easy but it isn’t. None of this is easy.
At the base of Mossy Chute Falls there is a great swimming hole, which was a nice place to wash off after the brutal bushwhack down the mountain. Click this link if you wanna see Mossy Chute Falls.
The good news it Buck Creek Falls is only 0.15 of a mile downstream from Mossy Chute. The bad news is this is not an easy section of creek to walk. The water was low which made life easier but it places it is very slow going. As you get closer to Buck Creek Falls, a huge cliff if going to rise out of the creek on river left. There is no way around it to the left so I crossed above the falls, made my way down as far as I could and crossed. It is going to be unnerving since if you slip, you’re going to use Buck Creek Falls as a water slide. The pool is deep and the rock-face smooth so chances are you’re not going to get too busted up. Your best photo option is going to be standing in the creek between the falls and the pile of jumbled logs.
Orange Rock Falls is 300 feet downstream and getting to it will start with climbing over the pile of jumbled logs. The creek walking wasn’t too hard but I have done a lot of these kinds of hikes and I am used to it. “Not too hard” to me is likely going to be a challenge if you’re not used to hopping boulders and climbing over small cascades. The banks are so thick with rhodo and steep that trying to bushwhack will take forever. It’s going to get tricky at the top of Orange Rock Falls as the only way to get to the upper drop is by going into the woods and then dropping onto a huge slab of open rock. You can walk up it to the upper drop easy enough but getting off the lower end of the rock is difficult. I used an old fallen tree to drop off the 6 foot ledge. You could probably push into the woods and head down that way as well but damn it looked gnarly in there that I took my chances at the end of the boulder.
From the base of Orange Rock Falls it may seem tempting to try and charge up the ridge to get out of the creek and hike back via the MST.. I suppose you could do this but other than some downfall, the lower section of Buck Creek is flat all the way down to where it meets the MST crossing. Getting up the ridge to the MST would be a real struggle and as open as the lower reaches of the creek was, trying to get out by climbing the mountainside would take much longer. When you get to the MST crossing, make a left and follow it to the spur trail that leads back to the cascade on Steels Creek. Cross at your point of preference and follow the extension of the logging road a third of a mile back to your car.