Waterfalls on this hike:
#474 – Panthertown Valley Trail
#448 – Devil’s Elbow Trail
#450 Riding Ford Trail
Panthertown Valley Hike #3 begins in at the East Gate. This hike leads to Warden’s Falls, Jawbone Falls (aka Middle Warden’s Falls), Riding Ford Falls (Lower Warden’s Falls), Elbow Falls and Red Butt Falls. The hike is an out and back of between 4-6 miles depending on the route you take. The route we took wasn’t the shortest so you could do this hike in less than 6.13 miles. I’ll mention where the differing trails split off but I can’t offer much more than some hindsight on what you may encounter. We will also be breaking an important waterfall rule on this hike. Taking one of the route you would actually break it twice.
Of the five, Warden’s Falls is my favorite with the distant Red Butt Falls a close second. The overall hike is one of my favorites in the area and knowing what I know now, I’m sure when I revisit this one, I will enjoy it even more! The rest of my Top 10 hikes can be found here.
If this is your first time hiking in Panthertown Valley, this hike is going to seem very confusing and at times you’re going to ask if you’re going the right way. It is not nearly as difficult or confusing as Panthertown Valley Hike #2. However at time you will wonder what Carlton McNeil was thinking when he laid out some of these trails. The Kornegay Map is an invaluable tool on this hike, despite the fact it has you crossing the creek above two waterfalls. This would be the rule we’re breaking.
First things first. To get to the parking area, take US64 west out of Brevard. Approximately 11 miles into your westward journey on US64 you will see Bear Tracks Travel Center. This is a good place to get your map of Panthertown Valley. It will be money well spent. Resume along US64 West until it intersects with NC281 North (if you get to Toxaway Falls turn around). Bear right onto NC281 and enjoy the amazing homes on the banks of Lake Toxaway. Drive for around 0.8 of a mile to the split with Cold Mountain Road and go left. When you see the Lake Toxaway Fire Station, get ready to make your left. Follow Cold Mountain Road for 5.6 miles. At around the 4.0 mile mark you will come to a section of road that was recently rebuilt and falling off the cliff face on the right is an 18 foot high waterfall called Shower Falls.
Resuming the drive, as Cold Mountain Road nears its terminus, it is going to make a hard left. If you continue straight you will be on private property. After the left the road changes to gravel but long before this, the road condition will have deteriorated noticeably. Immediately after making the left you will come to the first and only sign indicating you are on the right road to Panthertown Valley. Less than 0.1 of a mile after making the left you will come to another sign warning of private property ahead. Make a right. This is the East Entrance. There is a parking area which will undoubtedly be full so you may have to pull off along the side of the road on the way in.
The hike begins at the gate at the end of the parking area near the kiosk. The Greenland Creek Trail #488 is beyond the gate. Instead we are going to make a right and follow a smaller trail into the woods. The trail is mostly level with some downhill sections. It is in good shape and after about ten minutes it crosses a small footbridge over a creek. On the far side of the bridge is the Panthertown Valley Trail #474. Turn left. You will pass a small kiosk before the road goes into a switchback to the left. At the outside of this turn there is trail. There is a solar contraption here so use that as a guide. The trail splits after a short distance and you will stay to the right. The trail will end at a set of rough cut steps. At the base of the steps make a right onto the Pantertown Valley Trail. If you look on your map you will see that you cut out the switchbacks.
The trail will head downhill and into a long left hand turn before coming to an intersection. The road to the right is the Devil’s Elbow trail #448. Make a right and follow this uphill. The woods will open up when you pass under the powerline access. Once you’re back in the woods, continue for only a few minutes until you come to a small clearing. There is a log lying across the small side trail on the left that intersects the Devil’s Elbow Trail. Cross the log and follow the trail down the hill. The trail ends at the top of Warden’s Falls and it actually resumes on the other side but don’t cross. Instead take a small trail to the right to the base of the falls. You will come out below the falls on the left side of the creek when looking upstream. You can cross the creek to get to the exposed rock in front of the falls. This is a very cool area with deep potholes in the rock a sheer rock wall downstream of the falls.
You can shoot the falls from the sloping rock or you can move up to the flat section to capture the swirling pool at the base. Either way, you won’t be disappointed. The only negative about this waterfall is the power lines we crossed under. When you shoot the falls you’re going to see them unless you omit the sky completely. When you’re done here you have two choices. You can climb back up the same way as before or you can take the obvious path into the woods on the right side of the creek. We did this on the way back and crossed above the falls. The water was low and barely an inch deep but use your judgment on this. I don’t condone crossing creeks above waterfalls but in this instance, it was the lesser of two evils. Take the scramble path back to the Devil’s Elbow Trail and make a left.
Jawbone Falls is our next stop and this is where it got confusing for me. Looking back it’s all perfectly clear but that day, not so much. Continuing down the Devil’s Elbow Trail it’s less than five minutes before you come to another side trail to the left marked with a fallen log and flagging tape. You can take this down and you will come out above Jawbone Falls, which you will then cross (breaking that rule again). I didn’t go this route but we did get as far as the creek before hiking back to the Devil’s Elbow Trail and following that. Stay on the Devil’s Elbow Trail until it intersects with the Riding Ford Trail #450. Take the right fork onto the Riding Ford Trail. The trail will end at a series of campsites with smaller trails branching out into the rhodos. You will hear Jawbone Falls to your right. There is a small trail that will lead you to the sandy beach at the edge of Pittillo’s Pool. Jawbone Falls is directly across the pool.
You can shoot from anywhere in the sandy area. When you’re done backtrack to the campsite and look for a trail to the left. We were surprised at how close we were to Riding Ford Falls. The trail will empty you out onto the bedrock that the river is flowing over and you can make your way toward the base of the falls by walking on the dry rock. The area below the falls is filled with boulders and warrants further exploration on a later trip.
When you’re done exploring, head back to the campsite and take Riding Ford Trail back to the junction with Devil’s Elbow Trail. Make a left going up the hill and after no more than ten minutes you will come to a small side trail on the left. If you are quiet you will hear the river though the thicket. Take the trail to the left and it will lead you down to the waterfall. There is a large hemlock tree lying across the exposed stone. Elbow Falls is to your left. The river downstream is very picturesque so take your time and enjoy. It’s not likely you will have any company here. When you’re done, head back into the woods and make a left onto the trail you took to get here. This trail is a Panthertown special as it snake’s its way up the ridge and downstream. This will be the only time you’re on this trail since there is an easier way to get back. A trail will intersect from the right once you’re up on the ridge. Stay to the left but on the way back, take the left fork. It will avoid the steep unruly path between Elbow and Red Butt Falls. The two trails will come back together close to the intersection with Devil’s Elbow Trail.
The trail to Red Butt Falls will get steep at the end before it empties out onto the bedrock. Red Butt Falls with be both upstream and downstream of where you emerge. The long sliding waterfall eventually goes over a larger drop and into a pool below a high cliff. At this point the river makes an abrupt left. You can make your way up to the top on the dry rock and you can venture downstream and make your way to the boulders in the middle of the collection pool. It is a very cool area that I didn’t have even close to enough time to explore. The creek downstream is filled with boulders and numerous places to relax and enjoy nature.
Red Butt Falls is the last of the falls on the Tuckasegee River but half a mile downstream on river left, an unnamed tributary dumps in on river left and there is a very unique waterfall right where the tributary dumps into the river. Lichen Falls is not easy to access and if the water is up, the route I took would not be safe. You can also see if via bushwhack off the Devil’s Elbow Trail but I have not hiked this route to tell you where to leave the trail or what you might encounter. My approach followed the Tuck downstream from Red Butt Falls, sometimes walking the exposed bedrock and other times walking in the river. There were a few deep spots but with the low summer flow, it was nothing to worry about.
The tributary dumps into to the Tuckasegee in a sea of huge boulders in the river and a long sloping rock on river left. To actually see the falls, you have to get onto the open rock before the sloped rock, climb behind some other rocks and slip through a keyhole to reach the platform above the river where the falls drops. The rock ledge is about 25 feet above the Tuck and Lichen Falls comes down the rockface onto the ledge and drops from sight.
By the time you get back you will have hiked between four and six miles depending on the routes you took. When we made the hike it came in at just over six miles but there were a few oops along the way that added some distance. My six-year-old adventurer completed the hike but on the way back she was sunning out of steam. She also has tons of experience hiking both on and off trail so the scrambles don’t faze her. Don’t use her to make your final decision. Use you’re own judgment.