11 Top-Rated Waterfalls in North Carolina
Visiting the impressive waterfalls in the Blue Ridge or Smoky Mountains is a wonderful way to spend a couple of days in the mountains of North Carolina. Depending on your interests, you can do short hikes to falls, stop off at a simple roadside lookout, or even plan to go for a dip at the base of a waterfall.
Many of the waterfalls in North Carolina are located in close proximity to quaint mountain towns or are within driving distance of the city of Asheville. From Asheville, you can easily plan a full day of visiting waterfalls, stopping in at some of the towns for lunch or sightseeing. Many of these small mountain towns make great getaway destinations and are worth stopping in to spend a night or two. Some of the towns you may want to plan your itinerary around are Hendersonville, Highlands, Brevard, Bryson City, or Cherokee.
Several of the waterfalls are right on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and others are a short drive on side highways, so it's easy to combine highlights of the Parkway with stops at these waterfalls.
1. Whitewater Falls
One of the largest and most impressive waterfalls in North Carolina is Whitewater Falls. Surrounded by lush vegetation, this massive waterfall tumbles 811 feet over two ledges. The quarter-mile walk from the parking lot to the first lookout is along a wide and paved path, suitable for strollers, wheelchairs, and those with mobility issues. From here, you can walk down 154 stairs to a viewing platform for a little better view of the falls.
Whitewater Falls is in Nantahala National Forest and there is a nominal fee to park and enjoy the area. At the large parking area are picnic shelters, barbecues, plenty of green space, and washrooms with flush toilets.
Located near the town of Cashiers, not far from the South Carolina border, Whitewater Falls makes a nice day trip from Asheville. Drive time is a little less than 1.5 hours, but you can add in stops along the way or do a scenic loop drive. Along the route, you'll pass the town of Brevard, with some outstanding waterfalls nearby.
2. Linville Falls
Linville Falls has an incredible setting and offers multiple ways to see this beautiful natural attraction. Short trails lead to dramatic views or close-up access to the river's spectacular 90-foot drop into the Linville Gorge. Jagged cliff walls with trees clinging to the sides add to the scene.
The main trail, with stops at the first two lookouts, is a 1.6-mile return walk, including the spur that takes you out to the center of the falls. The views from this trail offer some great photo opportunities.
The first lookout is an easy half-mile walk that takes you to a rock ledge set between the less dramatic upper falls and the impressive lower falls. The view here is mainly to the upper falls, but also looks out over the river as it leads up to the ledge of the lower falls. It does give you a sense of scale and a connection to the falls you don't get from the main viewing area.
To get the best view of Linville Falls, you will need to continue on this trail a short distance to the Chimney View overlook, a small ledge jutting out over the gorge. From here, you get the classic view over the entire scene, including the upper and lower falls and the gorge pool below.
You can continue to Erwins View Overlook, however the added effort versus reward is relatively low. Should you wish to climb down to the pools below the falls, take the .75-mile-long Linville Gorge trail.
All trails leave from the Visitors Center, located at mile post 316.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, east of Asheville.
3. High Falls and Triple Falls, Dupont State Park
Not far from the delightful town of Hendersonville, you'll find Dupont State Park and two beautiful waterfalls easily accessed via one hiking trail. The area was one of the filming locations for the first Hunger Games movie. This two-mile trail, called the High Falls Loop, leaves from the visitor center. It is relatively easy, with a couple of long steady inclines and declines, and can be visited at any time of year.
The first waterfall on the trail is High Falls. This is where the Little River tumbles 150 feet down a long rock face. The best place for a photo is from the trail directly across from the waterfall or just above at the large picnic shelter. Farther on you'll come to an in-and-out spur trail leading to Triple Falls. This stunning series of waterfalls is suitably impressive. Depending on the water level, the base of both High Falls and Triple Falls can be accessed via spur trails.
4. Dry Falls
If you really want to get up close to a waterfall and experience it in a different way, Dry Falls is what you're looking for. Located near the lovely town of Highlands, Dry Falls is an impressive spectacle that allows visitors to walk behind the curtain of water coming over the ledge.
From the parking lot, you descend a short set of stairs, past some interesting displays, to a railed walkway that leads to and behind the waterfalls, emerging on the far side.
Although not overly high, at 75 feet, the Cullasaja River offers an impressive display as it tumbles off a high ridge. Great views can be had from many locations along this walkway, but most people come for the experience of standing below the ledge and watching the water pour down from above.
The parking area can be found off highway 64, about three miles from Highlands. Drive time from Asheville is a little over 1.5 hours. If you are interested in more than just a day trip from Asheville, you may want to spend the night in Highlands and enjoy the town while you're here. The Old Edwards Inn and Spa is a wonderful place for a relaxing getaway.
5. Catawba Falls
Although it requires a short hike, this is a waterfall you can swim below or just appreciate from the shore. Easily accessible off Interstate 40, Catawba Falls is an impressive sight, as the Catawba River tumbles down rocky ledges dropping over 100 feet to large pools below. Catawba Falls has the appearance of dozens of smaller waterfalls as it weaves around boulders. You can get right up close to the falls and appreciate the mist floating through the air and the water dripping and flowing over mossy clumps and fallen logs.
To reach the waterfall take the wide and slightly uphill trail for 1.2 miles to the base of the falls, where you can also enjoy a dip. Large fallen trees and rounded boulders are ideal places to have a picnic lunch or just hang out and relax. If you are an experienced hiker and have the appropriate footwear, a trail continues up the steep incline beside the waterfall. Note the rocks and roots can be wet and slippery.
Once you've had your fill, it is another 1.2 miles back down the same trail to the large parking area. The trailhead is located off Interstate 40 at exit 73. From here, it's a three-mile drive to the end of Catawba River Drive.
6. Skinny Dip Falls
Skinny Dip Falls provides a cool escape from the summer heat in North Carolina. Located high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the falls are reached via a well-maintained trail with a total return trip distance of one mile.
The falls curve down around a series of ledges and large boulders. Cool, deep pools are ideal for lounging in. The setting is particularly peaceful and lush, and encourages you to slow down and soak in the surroundings.
Be aware that the trailhead is not marked, and you won't find a sign with the name of the falls, but it is across the road from a parking area. To find the trailhead, drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to mile marker 417, to the parking lot for the Looking Glass Rock overlook. The trailhead is across the road at the east end of the parking lot, and the signpost will say Mountains to Sea Trail. Head into the forest and stay to the main pathway, which passes under large trees and follows rolling terrain.
Note that the parking lot can fill up quickly on summer weekends, so go early if you want to secure a spot.
7. Sliding Rock Falls
Known as a great family day trip destination, Sliding Rock Falls provides a gentle incline where you can slide 60 feet down the slippery rocks. Clear, clean water gushes over smooth rocks and plunges into a deep pool at the bottom.
It's suitable for all ages, providing you can swim and are comfortable around water. In summer, the area is monitored by lifeguards, and safety rules are in place, prohibiting recreational floating devices (i.e. inner tubes), but life jackets are allowed.
Changing rooms and restrooms are provided, but no picnicking is allowed. You can watch the activity from an expansive area above on the right side of the sliding area.
The rocks can be hard on your bathing suit and feet, so it's a good idea to bring an old suit and water shoes if you have them. A modest fee is charged per person to enter the area from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
8. Looking Glass Falls
Located just down the road from Sliding Rock Falls, and an easy stop along the way, is Looking Glass Falls, where Looking Glass Creek tumbles 60 feet off a ledge to a shallow pool below. From the parking area, a short and easy walkway, suitable for wheelchairs and strollers, takes you to a viewpoint overlooking the falls. A trail with stairs leads down to the pool area.
This is a very popular summer swimming spot. Bring your water shoes and swim right up to where the water hits the surface of the pool.
Looking Glass Falls are located north of the town of Brevard, along Highway 276. There is no charge to enter this area.
9. Lower Falls at Graveyard Fields
Located on the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 418.8 is the trailhead for the Graveyard Fields hike leading to Lower Falls. The .3-mile trail to this waterfall is quite beautiful, offering up expansive views of the 6,000-foot-high surrounding peaks. If the season is right, you can also catch wildflowers and rhododendrons in full bloom or even blueberries ripe for picking.
The Lower Falls cascades over a series of small ledges into a pool. Unless you plan on going for a swim, views are best from the wooden platform. After a quick dip in the cold water or snapping a couple of photos, you have the choice to return back along the same trail to the parking area or continue on along the four-mile Graveyard Fields hike, which passes by another smaller waterfall.
This area is a popular stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway for hiking, and parking can be an issue. It's best to go early in the day during the peak season. Restrooms are available in the parking area.
10. Rainbow Falls
The Horsepasture River drops 150 feet over a ledge from the Blue Ridge Mountains in a spectacular show of whitewater and spray. A popular spot for photographers, the sunlight here often forms rainbows from the mist emanating from the falls. The large rocks at the base of the waterfall heat up in the summer sun and are an ideal place for a bit of sunbathing or a picnic.
Reaching Rainbow Falls requires a hike, but it's worth the effort and is a pleasant outing. The hike to the lookout platform at the base of the falls is 1.5 miles, descending gradually most of the way. The trail follows the river, and frequent side trails provide access to the water and another small waterfall en route called Hidden Falls. Return to your car the same way. The falls is near the small town of Sapphire in Gorges State Park.
11. Soco Falls
If you are driving between Cherokee and Maggie Valley, up and over the Soco Gap, be sure to stop in and take a look at Soco Falls. This waterfall is unique, as two rivers meet and tumble over a ledge into a beautiful double waterfall, forming one stream below.
Soco Falls is right beside the road, but for the full view, follow a very short and easy trail that leads down to a lookout platform. For those who are a bit more adventurous, unmaintained trails take you down to the base of the falls and along the stream. This section is steep and slippery, but helpful folks have strung ropes that you can use to aid in your descent and eventual ascent.
These falls are easily missed from the highway. If you are coming from Maggie Valley, a small blue sign on the side of the road indicates the falls are a third of a mile ahead. If you are coming from Cherokee, there is no signage, you'll just have to look for cars parked on the pull out on the right- hand side, just over nine miles from the center of town. The parking area is very small and on a curve.
Day Trip from Asheville to Waterfalls & Towns
If you are based in Asheville and looking to do a full-day driving tour, stopping off at towns and waterfalls, the following routing is a good option. You may even want to overnight at the far end of this route and turn it into a two-day outing.
Driving Route: This drive is a partial loop, and you will have to do some backtracking. From Asheville, head southwest, through Brevard, and begin with your first stop at Whitewater Falls, about one hour and twenty minutes from Asheville. Plan a short stop, with time to walk out and see the falls, then travel roughly 45 minutes to the charming small town of Highlands. Stop here for lunch or to do some shopping. From here head on to Dry Falls, about 10 minutes away. After Dry Falls head back to Brevard and onto Asheville.
Aternate Route: If you want to see additional waterfalls, on your return trip from Highlands, turn north at Brevard, up 276, and see Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock Falls. Then, continue north on 276 until you hit the Blue Ridge Parkway, where you will head east, returning to Asheville.
Maps: Reception in the mountains can be limited at times, and the map application on your phone may not always work. Before heading out for a drive, it's best to pick up a North Carolina map or a tourist map of the area, many of which show the major waterfalls.
More Articles on North Carolina Mountains
Small Towns: The small towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains make wonderful destinations for vacations or weekend getaways. While they are always popular during the summer months, these towns also make for great escapes in winter, particularly for skiers who want to take advantage of the ski resorts. For ideas on where to go, see our article on the Best Mountain Towns in North Carolina.
Trout Fishing in North Carolina: There are more things to do in the mountains of North Carolina than just hiking and seeing waterfalls. Anglers can learn about where to go and other details with our article on the Top Rivers for Trout Fishing in North Carolina.