NOTE: I usually provide hike directions but on this kind of hike there are no directions. Even if I wanted to tell you how to do this hike I couldn’t. I went with what looked easiest to me. My fellow hikers did the same thing. At times our routes converged and at others they diverged. The route I took followed the gorge upstream. It can be done heading downstream as well. There are so many ways up the riverbed that I couldn’t begin to recount my route. My feeling was, going into the woods would only lead to trouble. If I did have to go into the woods, I didn’t stray far from the riverbed. The gorge is hemmed in by steep cliffs and getting too far into the woods could leave you at the top of one of these vertical drops. It’s a dangerous place and any misstep can be unforgiving. This hike is both physically and mentally demanding. You’re going to need good balance, the right shoes (I did it wearing a pair of $5 water shoes) and a lot of commonsense. Use care not to get yourself into a location you can’t get out of. This is not the kind of hike I would ever undertake alone.
DANGER: Keeping all that in mind, there is also the knowledge that an automated dam release can occur at any time. The only thing holding the lake in check is a metal gate. This gate opens when sensors say the time is right. Rumor has it the dam releases only at 100% but I don’t know that for certain. The day we did the hike, the level was at 94%. Not a lot of margin for error. There are a lot of places on this hike where getting out of the riverbed is time consuming. If you are in the grotto at Bonas Defeat Falls, getting to high ground is going to take ten minutes. There is no quick way out. I spent a lot of time looking for possible emergency routes out of the river as I hiked. Any change in water level should be an immediate cause for concern and escape. Don’t think about it. Get out of the riverbed. A warning horn is supposed to sound when a release is imminent but use your judgment and error on the side of caution.
OVERVIEW: The Tuckasegee River Gorge is a one-mile stretch of riverbed, exposed after thousands of years by the construction of a dam upriver that created the Tanasee Creek Lake. Much of the outflow of the lake is diverted around the gorge to a downstream pump house and this leaves the sculpted river bottom exposed. Before the dam, most of the features you see would have been hidden by the churning water. There is no trail through the gorge. The path forward is along the route of least resistance. We all took different approaches to the trek. At the outset, I knew I was going to stay with the river as much as possible. There is no right way upstream but there are wrong ways. If you try and bushwhack up from the river, you’ll likely wind up on a sheer rockface too high to climb down. You may fall off a sheer rockface at the edge of the gorge.
The geology is unique due to the diverted flow. Normally these types of features are hidden from view. The boulders are enormous and in places stacked on each other. It is a dangerous place and it requires careful footing and commonsense. It also requires the ability to read the terrain to seek the best route. I went with two people with previous experience in the gorge but for most of the hike I was out in front, following my own path. It wasn’t the kind of hike where I worried about getting lost since it followed the riverbed.
The scale of the landscape was impressive. I had seen potholes before but on this hike I saw ones that were 6+ feet in diameter and 15+ feet deep. There were boulders the size of small houses and one towering rock just above Bonas Defeat Falls looked like the stern of a sailing ship from the 1800’s.
It is definitely not a place for everyone and probably not a place for most. This isn’t a hike to be taken lightly and if you’re going on the premise of seeing huge waterfalls, you will be disappointed. There are nice waterfalls and taken in context, they are amazing but if you’re expecting to see Whitewater Falls or Looking Glass Falls, the Tuckasegee Gorge isn’t the place. The beauty of this place is a culmination of everything you’ll see along the way versus one specific location.
Driving directions: It’s accessed off NC281 and we did it as a shuttle hike.
Hike directions: It follows the Tuckasegee River Gorge.
A giant sign or warning or welcome depending on how you view it. This one was posted at the upstream end of the gorge but there were others posted at the lower end as well.
The seven of us at the outset of the hike. We did this as a shuttle hike so this was the only time we saw this bridge. From left to right: Me, Amos, Everette, Lianne, Tyler, Stephanie and Joe.
We are a good looking bunch!
This was just a prelude of the geology awaiting us as we ventured up river. The lower part of the trek was along a relatively flat section of the river. It was mostly rock hopping with only a few short detours into the woods. For the most part I avoided the woods if at all possible.
This is the downriver view, showing the moderate terrain at the outset. There were a few of these sections upstream but they were separated by very difficult areas. Enjoy the easy part at the outset.
A small water feature along the Tuckasegee. There were hundreds of these type of water features along the hike and we had to find a way around all of them. I waded across and went up the sloping rock on the other side. There is no right way to mvoe upstream but there are a lot of wrong ways. If you try and venture too far from the river, there is a good chance you’re going to fall off a cliff.
A few of my fellow hikers give this scene some perspective. Amos (in orange) can be seen int he distance standing just upstream from a boulder the size of a train car. Lianne is in the process of climbing to the top of the 20 foot high boulder I’m perched on. The scale of this area is unbelievable.
A water-carved cliff face slightly downstream from the first waterfall of the day. This type of erosion is prevalent throughout the gorge. The moss adds to this scene as does the large overhanging rock (not in frame). My vantage is about 15 feet above the waterline as are the tops of the arched cutouts on the other side.
Grandmas Kitchen Falls – Not sure where this name came from or what inspired it. This is from a perch about twenty feet above the bottom of the falls. In order to continue up river, we went up the face of the falls and hopped across at the top. In time I ended up on top of the huge boulder on the left of the frame!
The power of the Tuckasegee is revealed in this potholes. They are 4+ feet in diameter and deep enough to stand in up to your neck. They were hidden until the river was dammed. Now they’re only underwater during a dam release. The rock had good grip but if it were wet, there would have been no way to get up this section. Some of our team went through the woods.
One more shot of the falls from about midway up the face. There are potholes inside of potholes in this area. At the very top of the falls the river runs into a rock wall and is forced to the right. This is where I jumped across a churning culvert of water.
Standing high above on the top of Grandmas Kitchen Falls. This is the view downstream as Amos and Everette arrive at the lower vantage. It helps to put the landscape into perspective. You can also see the crossing at the base you need to complete to get up the face of the falls.
A small side stream flows into the Tuckasegee upstream of Grandmas Kitchen Falls. With the river dammed, most of the flow at the lower end is provided by small tributaries. The majority of the flow is diverted around the gorge to a pump-house at the end of the gorge which you pass on the way in.
A solitary plant grows out of the rock at a swimming hole along the way. Further to the right and out of frame is a sandy beach area. This was a great place to take a break and relax in the water. I’m standing on a large flat stone that was a perfect place to dry off after a dip.
Immediately upstream of my last vantage was this water feature. I waded through this pool below the sloped rock and dropped down into one of the potholes up to my neck. The water was the usual freezing cold but on a 80 degree day, it felt great. This resting place came at a good time since the hike was about to get serious.
This was not much further upstream. The large boulder in the center was probably 20-25 feet high. In order to continue we had to navigate this jumble of stone by the path of lease resistance. There was no easy way through. A fall from any of these boulders could be fatal.
Seeing a way ahead, Lianne scaled this rock following the seam on the right edge. When she got to the top she realized there was no way forward and she had to come back down. This section is known as the conundrum. There is a way past but it isn’t easy to find. I was proud of the fact I figured it out. The secret passage is on river left!
With very low flow in mot instances, the gorge is littered with fallen tree trunks. This massive trunk has been in place long enough that years of periodic dam releases have shaped the bottom into a twisted knot of colored wood. This trunk was pretty high up above the river bottom, giving an indication of how much water courses through when the gates open.
The way through the conundrum. There is 15 feet of mossy, wet rock between where I’m standing at the sunlight in the back. The overhanging rock on the right extended most of the way to where I’m standing. To get upriver, you have to get up this rock along the far right side where it’s dry, get across the top and twist through the narrow opening. Then you climb out and go down the other side. I was first through and helped pull everyone else up.
Talus Cave Falls. A jumble of boulders in the middle of the river allow jet of water to pour though into this small cave. The force of the water at the mouth of the cave is pretty strong and the river bottom is covered in slick, sloping rocks. This is the most unique waterfall on the hike.
A little closer view of Talus Cave Falls. I didn’t venture inside since I wasn’t ready to submerge my Nikon D3200 again. The water was pushing good and footing was a bit of a issue. I elected to snap a few and move on. Next time I’ll devote more time to this one!
Grandmas Pantry Falls. Again, not sure of the name origin but the sculpted rock at this location was amazing. This is only the upper section of the falls. To my right and further down there is more drop and then a stagnant collection pool hemmed in by a large rock standing on end. To get to this vantage, there was a narrow rock ledge on river right with a deep pothole waiting below.
A look back toward the upstream entrance to Talus Cave Falls. Somewhere below that assortment of boulders, the rest of my team was exploring the falls at Talus Cave and Grandmas Pantry
A low hanging rock ledge on river right provided some shade on an otherwise sunny day. This brief respite in the shade provided a moment to rest and to review some pictures before the journey resumed.
Another of the many trees lying in the gorge. With minimal waterflow, this log will sit here until the end of time, slowly rotting away until the periodic release can sweep the pieces away. There is a small pool just beyond this log that turned out to be about 10 feet deep, forcing me a different way.
The challenges of the terrain were unending as one difficult section led into the next. This narrow opening in the rocks (center frame) proved to be time consuming to get past. The potholes and carved cliffs were so cool at this location. It made me wonder about the underwater eddies that carved these features over millennia.
One more tough spot as a large boulder forced us to the left onto a sloping rock. Just above we had to cross the creek to avoid more large rock formations (left edge). This was the kind of place you wouldn’t want to be facing if there were a release. There is no quick way out of here.
A view downstream of the last two obstacles we passed. They don’t look so daunting from this vantage, which was upstream along a relatively flat, benign section of the gorge. This easy section didn’t last long.
After scaling a mound of boulders, our trek led us to this triangular passage upstream. The edges of two angles rocks form a near perfect triangular opening and are fitted so tightly that you can’t see any light between the two rocks. This view us from the upstream side of the opening.
Giving the towering Bonas Defeat Cliff some perspective. The sheer rock wall dominates this area and it gives the name to the waterfall out of frame on the left. This vantage was accessed via a narrow slot in the rock that led to the edge of the splash pool below the falls.
Also in this secluded grotto is a cave that extends back into the cliff face about 20 feet. In the left side of the cave, water flows down the wall, continuing the erosion process. This view is from the midpoint of the cave looking downstream at the pool and the lower few feet of Bonas Defeat Cliff. The small boulder on the middle right edge of the frame is where I took the next few shots of the falls.
Bonas Defeat Falls. On an otherwise perfectly sunny day, my arrival an Bonas Defeat Falls coincided with some cloud cover that granted perfect lighting for this amazing waterfall. The upper section is a freefall onto the sloping rock below. I could have sat here all day!
Without a doubt my favorite place on this adventure. The setting has a pristine feel and with both an amazing waterfall and the Bonas Defeat Cliff the view was hard to beat. I enjoyed this perch on my boulder for a long time as the remainder of my group explored the area.
What better way to get to the view of Bonas Defeat Falls than having to come through this doorway. We could see the falls from downstream and after scaling more rocks we were left at this opening. The height is close to 12 feet and the boulders are huge. This is the view looking downstream after passing through.
In order to get upstream of Bonas Defeat Falls we had to wade the pool and then climb up the boulders on the far side. This course led us past a front view of the falls. White not as amazing as the view from down in the grotto, this gives a better perspective of how the water comes through the rocks making this waterfall. The boulder on the right of the frame is about 40 feet tall!
The boulder on the left is the 40 foot high one from the previous shot and it forms half of rock wall making the waterfall. Once up to the top of this waterfall, there was a giant boulder (center frame) that reminded me of the stern of a 18th century sailing ship. We had to make our way around this behemoth, heading to the right, passing over boulders that anywhere else would be considered huge.
After a tough climb the river leveled off the hike became more of a river walk. This is a view upstream of Bonas Defeat Falls of a natural dam in the river. After the tough trek thus far, we took some time to enjoy this peaceful location and ready ourselves for the final push to the end.
In a land of enormity, there were still small things that provided inspiration. While resting on the rock dam, I decided to enjoy some of the small water features on this ancient slab of rock. This is a simple two foot drop shot from directly above.
This is the same water feature but from a downstream vantage. It isn’t the type of thing that I would normally focus on during a hike but with the lighting perfect, it seemed a good time to add some context to the hike. There was something on this hike for all. By this point the worst of the hike was behind us and our sights were set on the climb out of the gorge but there were a few more sights to see.
Moving along a flat section of river, we heard the sounds of falling water. Approaching from downstream we couldn’t see much of this waterfall until we were on the rock directly across from it. This is the Waterfall on Slickens Branch, framed in mountain laurel. Slickens Creek and Doe Branch provide much of the water flowing through the gorge. Having gotten this far, we knew we were almost done the journey.
This unnamed waterfall came as a surprise as we moved upstream. All of the other drops of this size were mentioned and named but this one wasn’t expected. Sadly it is above Doe Branch and Slickens Creek so there is almost no water but with a touch more water this would be an amazing sight. The small terraces on river left and the sloping drop on river right make for a great contrast. Don’t have a name for it so I’m going with Terrace Falls for now.
Getting closer to the spillway and the hike out, this is the last major area of potholes and carved rock on this epic hike. The water was barely moving and in this shot it looks to be standing still. This is in the main channel, very close to the end of the run.
The final hurdle. This is the spillway below the dam. During a release water would race down this sloped, terraced concourse and rush through the gorge, clearing out leaves, sticks and unwary hikers. On our trek there was a hint of water dribbling down. So little that I don’t count this as a waterfall. Maybe if I saw it during a release that might change!
How much water comes through when the dam is released? Looking at that huge flat stone near the midpoint of the spillway gives an idea. That boulder didn’t stand itself up on end like that. The dam is directly behind me in this shot and the logging road out of the gorge is off to my right (out of frame). Standing on top of the spillway, knowing my time in the gorge was over, I felt relieved and exhausted. I knew I had traveled a place most will not.
SUMMARY: At the time of this writing, I am exactly a week removed from the start of the hike up the gorge. It began at 10:32 a.m. on 6-10-17 and ended at 6:33 p.m. At eight hours, it was a full day. It is still fresh in my mind and my pictures bring me back. Time also dulls some of the rough edges. Now that I’ve had time to reflect, I feel as if I’m ready to do it again. I have to keep telling myself, it’s going to be just as hard the next time. Speaking of next time, I could have easily spent another hour or two exploring and photographing. On a future visit I will start earlier in the day to make sure I get to do and see everything.
This is a GPS tracking of the hike. When I did my track, I also included the shuttle drive from the lower parking area to the trailhead. The actual hike omits the line heading North along Wold Creek Lake. The hike began at the red marker on the left side and ended at the 4.0 mile marker on the right. The actual time in the gorge was less than 2.0 miles with the hike in and out making up the majority of the distance and hardly any of the time. The upper and lower access points are about 3.5 miles apart when driving. If you didn’t do this as a shuttle it would make for an awful backtracking or it would add 3.5 miles of walking down NC281.