NOTE: Seeing the waterfalls on this hike is going to be one of the more challenging hikes you’ll tackle and on the day I went, the conditions made it that mush more difficult. It is going to combine creek-walking, bushwhacking and following the contour of the land without benefit of a trail. The upper portion of the hike isn’t too bad but getting to Cleft Falls and especially Elmos Falls is a serious undertaking that could go terribly wrong at any number of places. Think long and hard about what you’re getting into before you embark on this hike.
Overview: Fork Creek runs through the mountains North of Lake Toxaway, collecting a few tributaries along the stretch from Stillhouse Falls to the base of Elmos Falls. Along this roughly quarter mile stretch there are four waterfalls on Fork Creek and two more easily accessed on tributaries of the main creek. The total hike is 2.6 miles out and back and it took me all day. We reached the trailhead at 9:30 in the morning and we got back to our cars at 4:00 in the afternoon. No matter how you approach this hike its going to be a long day in the wilderness.
To reach the trailhead the way we went, from Brevard follow US64 West to NC281 North and make a right. There is all kinds of road construction going on and with US64 being rerouted to make it less curvy, I don’t have an accurate mileage. If you get to Toxaway Falls you went too far. From Cashiers take US64 East and make a left onto NC281 North. This is less than 0.5 of a mile after passing over Toxaway Falls. Follow NC281 North for 1.4 miles and make a left into Slick Fisher Road. At 0.2 miles, bear right to stay on Slick Fisher Road. At 1.9 miles from the split, make a left onto Mcintosh Road. We followed it to where the road ended at a gravel drive and a wide pullout. I didn’t see any no trespassing signs along our route but I don’t know for certain if we crossed private property or not.
Begin the hike by following the gravel road that is a continuation of Mcintosh Road. It will bend to the right as it climbs slightly to an intersection with a narrower road coming in on the right. Take this narrower road. It will lead you past a crumbling fireplace that is the remains of a house heading into the woods. The trail will meander slightly as it weaves a course along a slightly descending grade. A side path on the right is a short distance down the road and if you’re paying attention and listening, you will hear one of the most beautiful sounds in the world, the sound of falling water. The path leads a short way to a steep drop that stands across a pool from a 15 foot waterfall. You can see this unnamed waterfall here.
Back on the main trail, continue heading down grade until you come to the second path on the right. This one is pretty obvious and once you’re on it, it will veer from the other path. Initially it is fairly level but as it nears Fork Creek it will get very steep. Ropes were strung along the creek to use in getting down the grade. By this time you will hear the falls ahead but it will remain hidden until you get around the massive cliff. The steep trail ends on river right under a large overhanging rock. Some intrepid sole piled up the fallen stone slabs to make a wall, steps and fire ring closer to the falls.
The thirty foot high falls is formed where the creek is forced into a narrow opening in the rock above. The entire creek is funneled into a foot-wide opening and launched outward. On my visit the falls was raging and the column of water was impressive. To see Stillhouse Falls, follow this LINK.
Up to this point the hike has been tolerable. After this point, it’s going to get unruly. The easiest way to get to Lower Stillhouse Falls and Hidden Falls is by creek-walking down from Stillhouse Falls. On our visit the water was way too high, forcing an awful bushwhack that began by walking behind Stillhouse Falls to the river left side of the creek. A trail leads along the rock wall and meets up with a trail that climbs up the hill toward the top of Stillhouse Falls. Ignore this trail and plunge into the woods, heading downstream. It’s less than a hundred feet to Lower Stillhouse Falls and Hidden Falls is also here as it is formed a tributary where it enters Fork Creek at the base of the lower falls. I didn’t get good pictures of either on this trip.
The hike to this point has gotten hard but it’s about to get intense. To get to Cleft Falls head back into the woods and up the ridge. It is steep as hell and filled with briers. There is no good point where you should start downstream but you will have to be high enough to skirt the cliff at the top of Cleft Falls and low enough to avoid the cliffs higher on the ridge. Getting to the base of Cleft Falls was the most dangerous part of this hike. There was a narrow drainage with a cliff bordering the upstream side. I was able to cross the drainage and then skirt down the far side, holding into the steep hillside as it sloped toward the creek. The route does a 90 degree bend as it gets closer to the creek and there are several fallen trees to climb over as you make your way onto the exposed rock at the side of the falls. You want to be extremely careful here, especially if the water is up. If you call into the creek you’re going over Elmos Falls in all likelihood. I managed to get into position on the rock for a few shots. The creek was so loud that we couldn’t hear each other talking and the rooster tail from the upper drop carried past where I was sitting. It was one of the most amazing waterfall sights I have ever seen. The pictures are here at Cleft Falls.
Climb back out from the base of Cleft Falls via the same gully but instead of heading downstream, continue making your way up the ridge toward the top. It is a long way up but in order to get around the towering cliffs that flank Elmos Falls, you have to get above them and stay away from them. It is an arduous climb to the top of the ridge and once you get there and start downstream, the laurel is dense and hard to push through. It will feel like you’ve gone miles and as tempting as it seems to work your way down the ridge to the creek, all you’ll find are cliffs unless you pick the right spot. So where is the right spot?
As long as you’re on top of the ridge, you can head down the ridge spine. There was a tributary on our left with several nice falls on it and for most of our trek down we were close to the tributary. Elmos Falls is a ways upstream but this is the only way to the creek that doesn’t involve repelling off the cliffs. If you reach an impasse descending the spine, error by heading to your left. If you get too far to the right you’re going to come to high cliffs. It’s a fine line you’re going to have to walk and once you’ve reached the creek you may be ready for a break but there is more work to do.
When our hike began it was raining lightly and 47 degrees. By the time we reached the base of Elmos after having to walk and wade the rushing creek the temp was closer to 30 and it was snowing lightly. From where you reach the creek you can make your way up the river left side for a time before the terrain will force you across the creek. The going on the river right is thick but passable until finally the way forward is in the creek. There are rocks to climb over and small cascades to climb around, as well as fallen trees. We made out final approach on river left, in the shadow of the huge cliff that we skirted on the ridge. Due to the spray we couldn’t get too close to the falls but even so it was worth the effort. This is Elmos Falls.