Public access to the beautiful Catawba Falls is a relatively recent development, with work formally competed in December 2016. Previously, seeing the waterfall required trespassing on private property and making several stream crossings. Today the day use area’s 4-mile round-trip hike requires crossing a small creek on rocks and, to really see the falls, either walking on rocks or in shallow water below the waterfall, but it is well worth it.
The 100-foot-tall Catawba Falls, which is actually the lower of two falls in the 88 acres obtained by the Forest Service in 2010, may be the state’s prettiest waterfall. Our photos do not truly capture it.
The trail to Catawba Falls is mostly flat and easy, though there is some elevation gain. We saw families with children and older adults along the trail and at the falls when we visited on a nice Sunday morning in May 2018. However, there are several spots where rain falling down the mountainside washes over the trail, leaving sometimes-wide rivulets of water and mud to deal with.
On June 8, 2018, the National Forest said in a news release that rain had “multiple small landslides along the trail and a portion of the old dam (shown further down this page), (had) washed out.”
Before it starts to ascend a ridge toward the falls, the trail passes a series of cascades and several spots where it is easy to get down to the river, which is pretty and, along this stretch, shallow.
Development of the site included constructing two bridges across the river, as well as installing a parking lot and vault toilets at the trailhead. The first bridge is at the ruins of a dam and hydroelectric power plant, which closed in the mid-1900s.
Here’s Pam at the old dam and a look at the waters below …
This trailside cascade is at the creek crossing …
The last leg of the trail to the lower falls is rocky and, though there is a discernible path, it may make the approach a little tougher for some.
Catawba Falls is very popular and was crowded when we were there. The trail continues upward alongside the waterfall and eventually leads to another beautiful waterfall upriver. But, at this point, the climb becomes strenuous and the trail is variously described as extremely steep, slippery and dangerous. “Every month, McDowell County Emergency Management responds to at least one critical rescue at the site from the public seeking access to the upper falls,” the National Forest Service says.
The Catawba Falls trailhead can be found off of Catawba River Road in Old Fort, which is in McDowell County. From Interstate 40, take Exit 73 toward the south. From I40E, Catawba River Road is an immediate right at the bottom of the exit ramp. Follow it for 3 miles to the parking lot.
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