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Catawba Falls is easy to reach

By Johnny Molloy • Apr 22, 2018 at 6:00 AM

Waterfall admirers have been coming to Catawba Falls — often with great difficulty until recently — since the 1800s. Catawba Falls is located east of Asheville, about a 90-mile drive from the Tri-Cities. Back in the old days, there were primitive roads to tackle and when they got there no hiking trail to Catawba Falls, making visiting the cascade a challenge. It took scrambling directly up the stream to see the venerable cataract. In the late 1800s, early North Carolina photographer Rufus Morgan took pictures of Catawba Falls, and the fame of Catawba Falls began. Tourists traveling between Asheville and points east began journeying to the cataract (plus its upstream brother Upper Catawba Falls). Later, Daniel Adams, early proponent and facilitator of hydroelectric power, saw energy in the Catawba River as it spilled east from the Blue Ridge. In the early 1920s, he erected a dam on the river, below the falls, as well as on Chestnut Branch, then ran the water to generation stations, generated electricity then sent it on to the nearby town of Old Fort. What became Duke Power was intrigued. They bought the setup, but eventually closed the small facility. Today, hikers can see the century old generation stations and now breached dam on the Catawba River, adding a touch of industrial history to the natural features of the hike. It is 1.2 miles one way from the trailhead to Catawba Falls. However, a few decades back visiting the falls became as hard as the old days. See, the falls itself was on private property but then was purchased by the Pisgah National Forest in 1989. Good news, right? Well, even though the falls were on public land, the tract was encircled by private property, blocking legal access, though some waterfall crazies were parking on I-40, north of Catawba Falls, then bushwhacking to the cataracts while hoping a state trooper didn’t examine their unoccupied vehicle on the interstate. However, on March 25, 2010, the Foothills Conservancy deeded 88 acres over to the Pisgah National Forest, the all-important downstream auto accessible tract. A trailhead parking lot was built, restrooms added and a bridge on Catawba River Road replaced, creating ideal conditions, making a hike to Catawba Falls an easy and legal proposition essentially for the first time. Nevertheless, there is still that matter about Upper Catawba Falls. Upstream of our destination — Catawba Falls — stands another cataract that rivals its lower kindred falls. However, the Forest Service hasn’t continued the trail beyond Catawba Falls yet. Over the years, reckless waterfallers have been climbing to Upper Catawba Falls via a route that more resembles a mountain climb than a hike. Don’t be tempted. People get hurt here regularly trying to climb along Catawba Falls to get upstream. Eventually, the forest service will build the trail to the upper falls, adding to this hike. Even without visiting Upper Catawba Falls, the hike features still other cataracts, including one on Clover Patch Branch and a show stopping, two-tier cascade just below the old power generation dam on the Catawba River. There is still other beauty — a wealth of wildflowers in spring, including foamflower, phlox, violets, trout lilies and more. One thing you won’t find during the warm season is solitude. Expect company on weekends and nice weather afternoons. Solitude seekers will visit the falls when the chill winds blow as well as early and late in the day. The trail to Catawba Falls follows the creek-like Catawba River the whole way. Start along a gurgling foothills stream. As you climb, the waterway morphs into full-blown, boulder-strewn mountain creek filled with noisy cascades and chutes. The first stream crossing is arguably the toughest. It spans the Catawba River, a mere 20 feet wide at this point, but still a moving waterway. Stepping stones have been laid across the river, but at higher flows expect to get your feet wet. The other crossings are of the two primary tributaries — Clover Patch Branch just above Clover Patch Branch Cascades, and Chestnut Branch just before reaching Catawba Falls. The 100-foot Catawba Falls has a surprising flow even though it is only a few miles from the river’s headwaters, which drain the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge. As mentioned, Daniel Adams built the hydroelectric operation but that wasn’t his initial project. The inventor, while employed by the U.S. Forest Service in Arkansas, built the first fire tower for the federal agency and figured out a triangulation method for marking a fire’s location. He even came up with an early fire retardant to dump on conflagrations, as well as tools specifically created to battle fires. Adams joined the forest service here in the Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest prior to tackling the hydroelectric project on the Catawba River, settling in Old Fort. That initial 1989 transfer of land on which Catawba Falls stands was conveyed by Daniel Adam’s family to the Pisgah National Forest. As you will see on the hike, the forest has returned and the cataract-laden upper Catawba River valley displays scenic splendor that would make Daniel Adams proud. To reach the Catawba Falls trailhead from Asheville, take I-40 east to Exit 73, Old Fort. Before fully leaving the off ramp take the right turn onto Catawba River Road and follow it for 3.2 miles to dead end at the trailhead. For more information, please consult my book Waterfalls of the Blue Ridge.

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