Trail Summary and Review: Catawba Falls Trail

Updated on February 3, 2015
Trail Details
Distance: 1.47 Miles
Difficulty: Easy/Moderate then Strenuous
Elevation Gain: 465 ft.
Time: 3+ hours
Season: Any

A relatively recent addition to the North Carolina trails system, Catawba Falls was once privately owned, and not easily accessible to the public. Owing to purchases by the Foothills Conservancy, and the efforts of the US Forestry Service that the land was conveyed to, Catawba Falls was finally opened to the public in 2010, and has become a fairly popular attraction ever since. It's a peaceful, moderate hike to the first two falls, before ascending into an only slightly apocalyptic climb up the steep mountainside to the third waterfall. Along the way, you will see the remnants of several buildings, and signs of the old roadway upon which the current trail sits.

The waterfalls in this new addition to the trail system are more formally known as Catawba Falls and Upper Catawba Falls, with the smaller waterfall near the dam having no designation at all. In the interests of clarity, I'll add that in my review, I'll be calling them Lower and Upper Falls, respectively.


Catawba Falls Parking Area:
3075 Catawba River Road, Old Fort, NC 28762, USA

get directions

From Interstate 40, take Exit 73. Depending upon what direction you're coming from, this can get a bit convoluted, but you'll be taking Catawba River Rd. to the parking area. From Hickory, it looks like you're heading back onto the interstate, but it branches off to the right. From Asheville, you simply turn right onto it along Exit 73 directly.

The Catawba Falls Trail - Out and Back

The trail starts literally footsteps from the parking area, and for half of the hike to the second waterfall (first waterfall depending on your opinion), it's a very easy hike. It's also one of the closest waterfalls to my home, so I find myself here quite a bit. Keep an eye out for signs of the old roadbed, including piled stone walls, and even a metal railing along the way. The various ruins are one of my favorite things about this hike, and I seem to find something new every time I go back, even if it's something as simple as an easily missed portion of an old wall.

CAUTION: Some of these old stone walls still have barbed wire on them. If you have a pet with you, be careful, as my dog at least seems to perceive barbed wire fences as a challenge to his manhood and proceeds to weave himself in and out of them.


First River Crossing

Once you're on the trail proper, you'll eventually hit a water crossing; the first of three. Keep an eye out for this one, because just before you cross the water, there is a small, hard to notice spur trail which will take to ground level with a ruined building, which was possibly a well-house in the past. If you miss the spur trail, you'll either have to hike back a decent ways, or make a somewhat more difficult water crossing further up. I would definitely recommend taking this short detour, because it's actually a fascinating little building. It no longer has a roof, and you can walk the edges of the quite thick walls to look down into it from above, but as always, use caution and good judgement when doing so.

Catawba Falls Wellhouse
Catawba Falls Wellhouse

You'll pass two significant abandoned and ruined buildings along the way, including the one along the short spur trail mentioned earlier, but for the most part it's a straight shot after that to the first of the three waterfalls. Don't rush the hike to get to the waterfall, however. There are tons of neat little remnants of this trails' former life as a roadway of sorts. Nestled below an old concrete dam further down the trail, the first waterfall can be dangerous if you're trying to climb down closer to the base for a better view. Standing atop the dam can be treacherous as well, and it's no longer a completely solid piece of stonework either, so use caution. Likewise, getting down to the base of this waterfall is a precarious and slippery journey.

Catawba Dam Falls
Catawba Dam Falls

The picture doesn't really do these falls justice, though, as a good portion of it isn't readily captured from a safe vantage point with a camera. Moving on past the Catawba Dam Falls, as I've taken to calling it, there are two more river crossings that the trail passes through, including a perfectly picturesque crossing framed by a fallen tree now imbedded along the walkpath. After the falls themselves, though, the trail becomes more and more rocky and begins to take a decidedly more uphill slant the rest of the way to the waterfall. When you see the lower falls itself, though, you'll instantly forget every ounce of weariness accumulated along the way. Its expansive, multi-tiered streams of water fill your entire field of vision, and give you the sense that you're approaching a vast landscape populated only by gently cascading fields of crystal liquid. It's not the largest waterfall I've visited, and certainly pales in comparison to the largest, but it's very impressive in it's own right.

Lower Catawba Falls

Lower Falls from Base
Lower Falls from Base
The trail almost disappearing among the leaves.
The trail almost disappearing among the leaves.

Catawba Falls Trail: Part Two

After the Lower Falls, the real fun begins. Bearing to the right, at the top of the Falls trail, you'll see the trail basically climb right up the side of the mountain wall beside you. Shortly up the trail, you'll see two rope assists to help you on your way. After this, the trail can get a bit tricky, and at times seem to all but disappear.

WARNING: This trail is not for inexperienced hikers. It can be quite steep and rocky, and it ices over in places during the winter. It's very easy to slip and fall quite a ways here, so use caution after this point.

If you can make it through the various climbs, dips, and hard to follow trailpaths, you'll eventually find a more opened portion of the trail, as it resumes it's riverside path, leading up to the third of the falls, Upper Catawba Falls. While not as large or impressive as the Lower Falls, I personally find it to be much more picturesque; a perfectly glorious cascade of sparkling water, roaring down in a more much secluded and peaceful setting than the more popular Lower Falls. In the summertime, the pool of water just under the waterfall makes a half decent swimming pool as well.

Upper Catawba Falls
Upper Catawba Falls

The final falls has always been, to me, the perfect centerpiece for the end of this trail. While the Catawba Falls trail can get very busy in the summertime, this portion is usually a bit less busy, owing to the hike required to get here. I usually take a while to rest, and relax here, and enjoy the beauty that nature has to offer to those with the will to actually walk there to see it. If it hadn't been so cold on the day I last visited, I'd probably have even taken a nap before heading back. I'd have been liable to become Catawba Falls next frozen attraction if I had though, so I headed back.

In parting, I hope if you're considering a visit to this trail, that you found this helpful. If you've visited it, and found anything incorrect or noticed something important I left out, feel free to leave a comment. As an avid hiker, I'd love to know of a few more things here to see!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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