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. If you’re going straight to Stillhouse Falls stay on the main path but if you want to detour to Devil’s Canyon Falls, look for a faint path on the left around these coordinates 35.16865, -82.95706. It will go down into the Fork Creek drainage along a steep section of partially exposed rock. The footing was treacherous but in drier conditions I imagine it would be so bad. The steep rock will end at Fock Creek which you will have to cross to make your way up the falls.
There is a large mounded rock on river right which you can use to cross back to the left to get to the side of the pool. I thought it was a worthwhile detour, even though I missed it on my first two trips in. If you want to see Devil’s Canyon, it’s right here.
To resume on to Stillhouse Falls follow the same route back to the main trail and make a left. The decent will get steep and there are ropes stung along this section but they have been here for several years and are starting to fray. About halfway down the steep part 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. The easier way is to go down the river right side of the mossy, stepped creek bed. When the creek flattens out at the base you will see a trail coming down from the left. If the water is too high to walk down the falls you can walk 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 down the narrow path to the right and connect with the creek.
Staying in the creek you can make it to the top of Lower Stillhouse Falls, which you can climb down using the rope that someone strung. The Falls is steep and slippery but with some careful footsteps you can descend the thirty foot high waterfall. From the base of Lower Stillhouse Falls is you look up the trib coming in on river right you can see Hidden Falls. Getting to it only requires a short detour up the sloping rock on river left, which can be a touch slippery.
The hike to this point has gotten hard but it’s about to get intense. To get to Cleft Falls resume the trek down the creek as it goes around a bend and slopes toward a high cliff on river left. You can climb onto the rock rock below the cliff and follow that downstream until you near the top of Cleft Falls. At this point you have to enter the woods on river left and angle away from the creek to avoid a 15 foot cliff above the falls. Swing around the cliff and find a safe place to descend to the creek. I have been here three times and have found the spot each time. You will be downstream of the falls and have to negotiate a steep path with several rhodos lying across it.
You want to be extremely careful here, especially if the water is up (or way up). If you fall 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 on my high water visit. 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.
To get to Emily’s Falls, if the water is low enough, carefully cross Fork Creek on the flat section of rock and make your way down the river right side, hugging the bank. It is a fairly open creek walk to the brink of Emily’s Falls, which like Cleft Falls, you will have to descend by making your way toward the right side of the creek. At the base of the falls there is a large bounder and from this rock you can see the brink of Elmo’s Falls. Use your best judgement here as one slip could be fatal. There is no way you are going to stop if you fall in and get swept past the boulder. This is Emily’s Cascade.
From the base of Emily’s Cascade carefully cross the creek to the river left side onto the end of a narrow ridge. The ridge is steep off the sides but it is easy enough to follow higher. There is no right or wrong way but you need to avoid a lot of steep rock areas and cliffs on the way up. If you are programming this into a GPS use 35.17099, -82.95514 as a point to aim for on the top of the ridge. You may be tempted to try and side hill to the right but you will cliff out.
If you skipped Emily.s climb 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. You will want to target the same point on top of the ridge that I specified in the route from Emily’s Cascade.
Regardless of which way you come in, it will be an arduous climb to the top of the ridge. The woods are thick and it is hard to cut a path through the rhodos and briers. TO get to the base of Elmo’s you have to swing away from the cliff and follow the ridge to the base. It is going to descend and start to swing to the right when it starts to parallel a small drainage. The easiest route I have found to the base leads you to Fork Creek where the trib enters. If anything you might come out slightly upstream of the confluence.
There is no shortcut on this hike. I did come out a different way and while it was shorter it was just as steep and way more dangerous getting up the ridge. Elmos Falls is slightly over a tenth of a mile 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.
The creek is easy to walk in lower flows and if you do need to get around a pool or cascade, I would do so on river left. There are some obvious bypasses if you look for them. You will make one last crossing when you can see the falls through the trees, the hike finishes up on river left. You can approach the falls as closely as you choose and you can climb up onto the rock shelf above the creek. The boulders are huge and a fall down here is going to be problematic. The falls is flanked by high cliffs, those on river left overhanging the area below. This is Elmos Falls.