A Beginner’s Guide to Waterfall Hiking

First and foremost welcome. My name is Chris and I am an avid hiker, wilderness explorer, photographer and blogger. It is through this site that I meld these four pursuits into one. I have been hiking the wilds of western North Carolina for 11 years now, and in that time I have visited 932 different waterfalls and completed more than 1000 hikes. When I began my hiking career, I did it through the trial and error method. I took some directions off the internet, followed them as best I could and sometimes I reached the waterfall I set out to see. On other occasions we ended up on the wrong trail, saw the wrong waterfall, didn’t go far enough, went too far. It didn’t take long after a few failed hikes for me to rethink my approach. I’ll say this, even now, after 11+ years, I don’t always find what I’m looking for, at least on the first try. As of January 2023, my lists in progress list had gotten shorts. My three current obsessions are th South Beyond 6000, the Pisgah 400 and the Smokies 800. Two of them should be done this year.

The most important thing to consider when planning a hike (or using my site to get to a waterfall) is knowing where you’re going. Once you’re in the woods, it looks the same in every direction. Marked trails are easy but know what color blazes you need to follow. Once you get off the main trail you need to know how to get back. Many of the areas we hike are littered with logging roads from the late 1800s. They go in every direction, they intersect at odd angles and they can occasionally end without warning. Many of them look the same. If you don’t know the difference between a logging road and a trail or a bushwhack and a creek walk, go HERE. If you get lost in some places, it will be a long time before someone finds you. Bear in mind that cell service is spotty at best. My cell phone usually works on mountain tops but there are no waterfalls on mountain tops. Waterfalls are down in the valleys where cell phones don’t work.

The next question is, can I physically do this? A two mile hike doesn’t sound like much but throw in 1400 feet of elevation change and an eroded trail and this changes everything. Not all of the trails we hike are in the best of shape. I am an avid runner (5-6 days a week). I bicycle and kayak as well. The quarter mile hike from Rhapsody Falls to the top of Dismal Ridge left me sucking wind. The hike back up to the top of the ridge from the bottom of Dismal Falls about killed me! A quarter of a mile! Know your limits and the limits of your hiking party. My regular companions do this stuff all the time. It’s been a long time since I had to leave anyone behind! My wife Jennifer and daughter Alana do some trail hiking with me. If I start the description of what we’re doing with “once we get to the end of the trail…” they opt out. I know what each of us can do. My daughter did her first waterfall hike at age 3. She hiked from Hooker Falls to High Falls in DuPont Forest, about 1.5 miles all uphill. (I carried her on my shoulders coming back). Since then she has been to 350+ waterfalls. I know what she can do. You need to know what your kids can do.

Safety. Think before you step. Waterfalls are steep and the rocks around them are slippery. It only takes one misstep to ruin the day. My advice is, enjoy waterfalls from the base. Bad things happen at the top of waterfalls. As such, I don’t venture up there. Every year there are stories in the local papers about waterfall deaths. There were two deaths the week before I wrote this (May 7, 2016) near Lake Toxaway after things went bad at the top of a waterfall. DO NOT underestimate the power of the current. I watched a girl about 10 get swept off her feet at Middle Falls in Stone Mountain State Park. She slammed into the rock and luckily got caught up in a collection pool about fifteen feet later. If not for this pool she would have been swept over the main drop of about thirty feet. One bad step! Once you get swept off our feet, you’re done for. Also, the vegetation around waterfalls, especially in the spray zone is very delicate and frequently rare. Leave it be and find another way around. Do nor climb on waterfalls or allow young children to wander unattended. This may seem obvious but I watched a toddler stroll to the brink of Triple Falls in DuPont while dad was taking selfies and mom was waving to the kid. Tragedy was barely averted that day. There are not any signs in the forest warning people to use common sense.

Good shoes are a must. You’ll see people hiking in Chuck Taylors and flip flops. No matter the hike, I wear something with ankle support. OK, that’s a lie. I sometimes hike in water shoes. You do not want to sprain an ankle two miles from your car. The trails we hike are littered with rocks, roots and changes in elevation. Long pants? The woods are full of poison ivy so plan accordingly. I don’t get poison ivy so unless it’s below 50 degrees, I wear shorts and a tanktop. There are briars, wood nettle, thorns and other nastiness. The forest encroaches on infrequently used trails. My daughter and I did a bushwhack to Red Rock Falls (above Upper Courthouse Falls). It was a wade through a half a mile of dog-hobble. In the forest there are bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. In the spring and summer you can’t walk through the woods without getting buzzed by flies and bees. I have a mutual agreement with both. I don’t bother them and they return the favor. My only encounter with bees so far was hiking to Pig Pen Falls. My wife stepped over a bees nest in a tangle of roots. My daughter and I had to take off running as the bees swarmed out. The first person in line rarely gets stung by bees. Mosquitoes are another common pest. If they bother you, bug spray is a necessity.


The water. Mountain water is cold and on a hot day, I like nothing more than a dip in a refreshing mountain stream. I’ve been under my share of waterfalls and swam in plenty of collection pools. My only advice is this, before you go in the water, look around. Is there a potential you’re going to be swept over a waterfall? If so, swim elsewhere. Be careful jumping in and use caution on the rocks in the water. They are slimy and you’re going to slip. Not you may slip, you will slip. Do not drink the water in mountain streams or you will get sick. Again, not may, will. I know people who use filtration and purification methods. These seem to work well. When it comes to safety around water and waterfalls, use common sense. Here is a photo of a gentleman doing a backflip off of Second Falls @ Graveyard Fields in July of 2015. This would be an example of NOT using common sense. Hey y’all, watch this!

The biggest favor you can do is to properly equip yourself. I always have a map, a compass (compass app), a GPS (hiking app) and a fully charged backup battery for my cell phone. I have my Nikon D5600, two lenses, assorted filters and a tripod. I bring water, lots of water. I keep several dry bags in my backpack. When the rains come, and they will, you don’t want your electronics getting wet. I also bring water shoes because getting the best shot isn’t always done from dry land. Keep your car keys zipped up in your backpack. On my September 2016 trip I suffered my first electronics tragedy as my $649.00 HTC M9 (Smartphone) and I became separated while hiking back from Avery Creek Falls. As luck would have it, someone found the phone, contacted me two days later and less than a week after going missing, my phone and I were reunited!

Always remember that things live in the woods. I have seen countless snakes. On the frequently traveled Buckhorn Gap Trail heading to Twin Falls on Henry Branch I saw a rattlesnake on the side of the trail. On another occasion we crossed paths with a six foot black snake. Heading to Lower Whitewater Falls my niece and I encountered an Eastern King Snake. My family and I startled a family of wild turkeys, scattering about a dozen babies, which the mother had to go and collect. Always stay alert. One time I even startled a bear! A lot of people say they’ve seen a bear. I have and I have a witness to the sighting. If you want to read my bear story, you can read about it here.

An example of a Carolina Hemlock

Another thing you will notice once you are in the woods is there are a lot of trees and if you’re hiking in North Carolina, you will likely see many Carolina Hemlocks. These trees are easily identified by the fact they are all dead or dying from an infestation of the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. This photo is an example of a Carolina Hemlock, there are tens of thousands more examples all over western North Carolina. After these trees die, they dry out. When the wind blows the brittle branches break off and plunge to earth. If the wind blows hard enough, the entire thing comes crashing down. You will see a lot of these once majestic trees clogging up the base of waterfalls. The sides of trails are littered with dead limbs. On a hike to Dismal Falls I had a ten foot section of limb land on the trail about twenty feet behind me. It would have been a lot closer but I heard it break off, looked up and started running. Always keep this in mind.

My last bit of advice involves etiquette. If you bring it into the woods, take it out with you. Don’t leave your trash behind. If you find something cool in the woods, leave it there. The rest of us might want to see it as well. I’ve heard the arguement, it’s only one rock. Yeah, well if we all took one there’d be none left. As the saying goes, take only photographs, leave only footprints.