Waterfall Week II: Whitewater Falls
Almost every Bucket List of waterfalls in North Carolina has Whitewater Falls near the top. Why? Well, as well say in Boston, it’s Wicked Big!!!
According to Romantic Asheville, Whitewater Falls is a total of 811 feet high*! Woo Hoo! It’s Wicked Huge!!! In fact it’s the tallest Waterfall East of the Rockies!**
You will note the asterisk after the first sentence, which read, “Except that it’s NOT anywhere near that high.” ☹
You will then note the double asterisks after the next sentence, which read, “This statement is very much subject to debate.”
For starters, “Whitewater falls” as described by the Romantic Asheville site is actually two separate waterfalls, Upper Whitewater and Lower Whitewater falls. The lower falls is quite some distance downstream of the upper (more than three miles.) The Upper Falls, which is the bigger of the pair, is commonly listed at 411 feet high…still very comfortably the tallest waterfall East of the Rockies (That’s right, taller than this one.)
The Lower Whitewater Falls (which is across the border in South Carolina) is listed at 200 feet tall. So, even combining them does not add up to 800+ feet…I have no idea where Romantic Asheville is getting that lofty figure. They may be adding another waterfall near or between the two into the total…possibly Moondance Falls.
But wait, there’s LESS! 😊
Another problem is the given height of 411 feet for the Upper Falls might not be an accurate figure. The Western North Carolina Waterfalls site lists it as 334 feet citing GPS data to back up their claim…if true, then the title of Tallest in the East passes to Hickory Nut Falls in Chimney Rock State Park — the waterfall featured in the climatic scenes of “Last of the Mohicans.” Hickory Nut Falls tops out at 404 feet.
But even THAT fact is debatable. In fact, neither Whitewater NOR Hickory Nut Falls is strictly speaking a waterfall at all. They are better termed cascades…a series of many smaller plunges, some of which are separated by a good distance (a fact which looking at them from some angles does not necessarily reveal.)
The highest true free plunge falls East of the Rockies is probably Falls Creek Falls in Tennessee.
And if the true criteria of a waterfall is a SINGLE straight plunge, then the title moves to Taughannock Falls in New York State, which plunges 215 feet straight down.
In fact, this would also put Whitewater Falls behind Hemmed-In-Hollow down in Arkansas, which plunges 209 feet straight down. Sylvia and I visited this falls in 2005 and can confirm it is wicked tall…someday I’ll recover those photos from the pre-digital age and post them here.
Note that NONE of those falls listed above is truly in the Appalachians.
Oh…and if you consider cascades as a single ‘falls’ then you open up another can of worms. Whitewater Falls is nowhere NEAR the tallest cascades in the Appalachians…that title probably belongs to Crabtree Falls in Virginia, which plunges at least 1000 feet in a series of small steps. There are many, many other cataracts cumulatively taller than Whitewater falls. So then you get into splitting hairs about how far the drop over a given distance…and the debate becomes subjective.
So, I guess what I’m saying is, while Whitewater Falls a wicked big falls, reports of its bigness are also wicked exaggerated.
Another problem with Whitewater Falls is that it’s wicked far away the designated viewing platform. Located at the bottom of a steep gorge where the Appalachian Escarpment plunges to the Piedmont, the bottom of the falls is very hard to reach. There are herd paths that do access the bottom and top of the falls, but these trails are NOT official and we do NOT NOT NOT GODAMNIT IT DON’T DO IT recommend you use these trails. In fact, we strongly discourage any hijinks involving waterfalls. MANY people are killed on Appalachian waterfalls and cascades every year…Being dead does NOT make you look cool.
The best view is from a platform at the bottom of a long, 150-odd step wooden stairway built by the National Forest Service, which follows a half mile pretty easy hike. The stairs were apparently burned down by an arsonist in 2017 and completely rebuilt. When Sylvia and I visited in late 2018, apart from the stairs looking new there was absolutely no sign of the fire damage at all, an incredible testimony both to the ability of nature to recover, and the amount of rain that the area gets (100 inches most years.)
The lower viewing platform has a somewhat better viewing of the falls than the upper. AT least there’s no tree standing right in the way. But on the down side, it’s wicked faaaah. The falls do not look as impressive from here as they might up close.
The trail continues down from the platform along a regular dirt path to a confluence with the Foothills Trail, a trail Sylvia and I may explore at some point. A sign warns the overly enthusiastic that there are no views of the falls past this point. Again, you could probably make a liar out of that sign by bushwhacking, but we don’t endorse it. We want y’all to be safe, hear?
Whitewater Falls has established itself as one of those touristy ‘must do’ things that everyone who visits the Carolinas MUST do, because it’s close to a road and is reputed to be the biggest or best somethingorother. We do NOT consider it one of the ten best waterfalls of the Southern Appalachians, though we MIGHT change our minds if we could safely get closer to it.
We feel there are many better falls in the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. If you want one close to a car, try Abrams Falls in GSMNP or Looking Glass Falls near Brevard. And if you are willing to brave a longer hike, a venture to Dupont State Forest or Gorges State Park…and for those of you who don’t mind a hike, we think the Ramsay Cascades to be the best falls in the region.