Hike the Glen Falls Trail to three stunning waterfalls near Highlands, NC, exploring an ultra-scenic stretch of the Nantahala National Forest.
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 785 Trails Illustrated Map (find it at Trailful Outdoor Co.)
The trio of waterfalls at Glen Falls plunge through a rocky forest filled with tunnels of rhododendron and towering hardwoods. It’s one of the most popular hikes near the mountain town of Highlands, NC – and for a good reason, thanks to its abundant natural beauty and relatively short length. It’s a moderately challenging hike that ventures mostly downhill for the outbound stretch, and then uphill for the return, making it a great workout. And while this small slice of the Nantahala National Forest is scenic in every season, it’s especially beautiful in autumn, when the hardwood forest explodes in a stunning array of fall leaf color.
At just under two miles, round trip, this packs a whole lot of natural beauty in a short stretch, visiting a trio of waterfalls, catching stunning mountain views from the top of the upper falls, and exploring a mossy, rooty, rocky forest. The waterfall views are simply unforgettable, and some of our favorite in Western North Carolina.
Glen Falls: the hike
The adventure begins at a gravel parking area and trailhead just southwest of Highlands (view maps and driving directions). The trail dives into a leafy forest filled with rhododendron, descending steadily and meandering to the southwest. The sound of falling water fills the forest as the trail approaches the upper falls on East Fork Overlook Creek.
The hike veers to the right at .2 miles, following a side trail to an overlook above Upper Glen Falls. Views extend to the nearby mountains of Chinquapin Mountain and Little Scaly, and beyond to the rolling peaks on Hurrah Ridge.
Departing the overlook above the upper falls, the hike backtracks to the main trail, and then resumes its descent into the forest. The trail ducks beneath a canopy of gnarly-branched rhododendron as sunlight dapples to the forest floor between their leathery leaves. Vibrant green moss, pungent-scented galax, and fallen pine needles carpet the sides of the trail.
The descends to the southeast, and then arcs to the northwest, carving through a wide switchback. The hike reaches a wood-railed observation platform at just under .5 mile, catching beautiful views of the upper falls. The creek plunges over a tall rock outcrop, falling in tendrils of whitewater to the waterfall’s rocky base.
Departing the upper falls, the trail resumes its descent, hiking southeast and curving through another broad switchback. The trail veers to the northwest again at .6 miles, descending to a wood-railed rock outcrop with stunning views of the middle falls. Several large boulders punctuate the creek’s flow as it continues the cascade through the valley.
Leaving the middle falls behind, the hike continues the descent, venturing southbound. The hike reaches a fork, veering right to hike to the trail’s third, but smallest, waterfall. The trail reaches Lower Glen Falls at just under a mile as the forest opens into a broad, sandy clearing below the waterfall. It’s an excellent spot for a mid-hike water break, and the cool, shallow pools below the falls make for a great swimming spot for four-legged hiking buddies.
Departing the lower falls, the hike turns to retrace its outbound route in reverse, and the workout begins. It’s a 500-foot climb in elevation back to the trailhead, softened by the trail’s many switchbacks – and a great chance to admire the stunning forest surrounding the falls. The hike reaches the trailhead at 1.7 miles, completing the adventure.
More favorite hikes near Highlands
In the area with daylight and energy left to burn? The Nantahala National Forest is a simply stunning area to explore. Hike to the tumbling cascades of High Falls at Lake Glenville, dropping through a gorgous, rocky gorge to the base of a towering waterfall. Climb to soaring heights from the steep-sided cliffs at Whiteside Mountain. And don’t miss the ultra-popular walk-behind waterfall at Dry Falls – at under a quarter mile, it’s an extremely short walk, but the waterfall is one of the finest cascades in the area.
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.
Glen Falls Trail Map, Directions & Details
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Free parking is available at the USFS trailhead.
35.033283, -83.235850 // N35 01.997 W83 14.151