Springtime Hike: Catawba Falls Trail in Old Fort

Looking to get outdoors during your springtime visit to the Asheville area? A waterfall hike can be a great experience for many reasons: a chance to see spring wildflowers and other vibrant spring green everywhere, fewer crowds on the trails than in the summer and fall, and also the snow melt from higher elevations and the occasional spring rain shower make for more water…falling. One waterfall we like happens to be the closest one to the Inn on Mill Creek: Catawba Falls.

Water cascading down several large boulders with trees and other foliage around it

Catawba Falls in Old Fort, early April

The Catawba Falls Trail is part of Pisgah National Forest, thanks to a land conservancy, which bought the property from private landowners and transferred it to the Forest Service. The trail is between two and three miles total, an “out-and-back” trail as we say. You hike to the base of Catawba Falls and then return to your starting point. This is a waterfall hike in which you will get your feet wet as it requires crossing over the Catawba River and small tributaries along the way to the falls. Not to worry, this is the beginning of the Catawba River, so it’s more like a stream than a river. Rock-hopping and navigating over a large downed tree are part of the experience!

Stream with rocks and logs creating a place to cross

One of the water crossings on the Catawba Falls Trail

Man standing on a forest hiking trail where it crosses shallow water with boulders along the water's edge

One of the water crossings on the Catawba Falls Trail

The trail meanders through beautiful forested land, with evergreen and deciduous trees.

A forest hiking trail surrounded by boulders and trees

Some of the Catawba Falls Trail requires navigating around various boulders and tree roots

Man hiking down a forest trail that has trees that are just starting to leaf out

About half of the Catawba Falls Trail is a level pathway through the woods, with some incline

You’ll also see rhododendron (not yet in bloom in early spring), ferns, and wildflowers, including dwarf crested iris, wild geranium, foam flower, chickweed, wild violet, trillium, and may-apple. Here are some wildflower shots we took on our hike on April 7, 2016:

Plant with leaves going up both sides of the stem and still uncurling at the top

A fern uncurls in early spring along the Catawba Falls Trail

Small plant at the base of a mossy tree with flower stalks that have white flower clusters

Foam Flower blooming on the Catawba Falls Trail in Old Fort in early April

Close-up of a multi-colored flower blooming as it grows up through dried leaves

Wild violet showing off its colors along the Catawba Falls Trail

Part of the trail also traverses land that once housed a hydroelectric dam and parts of the structure are still intact, adding a dash of history and extra coolness to this particular waterfall hike.

Water gushing through the ruins of an old dam covered in moss in the forest

Portion of the old hydroelectric dam along the Catawba Falls Trail

Of course, the destination is the gorgeous Catawba Falls, which is actually a set of two falls — lower and upper. The lower section is over 100 feet high and features cascades of water over several large boulders. Quite impressive and rather peaceful at the same time.

Large waterfall with water cascading down several boulders with trees around it that are just getting their leaves

Catawba Falls, April 7, 2016

Portion of a waterfall with water spilling over several moss-covered boulders

View of a portion of Catawba Falls from a side trail

The upper section of the falls has a shorter-distance, free falling waterfall. Currently, the Forest Service does not recommend trying to access the upper falls of Catawba Falls and you’ll see signs at the falls saying so. Many people injure themselves on the upper section and the challenging terrain makes for a challenging rescue. We see at least one or two news reports every year of serious injuries sustained on the upper section of Catawba Falls. So please be safe — we want you to return to the Inn in one piece!

Catawba Falls Trail is about 20 minutes from the Inn on Mill Creek B&B. To get to the trail, travel south through downtown Old Fort on Catawba Avenue and turn right onto Catawba River Road, or take I-40 Exit 73 and Catawba River Road is pretty much right there at the exit ramp. Take Catawba River Road all the way to end and you’ll be at the parking area for the trail.

Two cars parked in a large gravel parking lot at the edge of the woods with interpretive signs and a small restroom building in the distance

Parking area at the Catawba Falls trailhead

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