Hike the Catawba Falls Trail east of Asheville, trekking through a mossy, shady forest valley to a beautiful series of waterfalls on the Catawba River.
LOCATION:east of Asheville, in the Pisgah National Forest
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 779 Trails Illustrated Map
The headwaters of the Catawba River are beautifully scenic. Just east of Asheville, the river tumbles through a rolling forest, cascading in a series of waterfalls and flowing over a mossy riverbed set in a shady, scenic stretch of the Pisgah National Forest. This fantastic day hike explores waterfall after waterfall in a sun-dappled valley, hiking just over two miles through a shady forest to the seeping wall of vibrant green moss and tendrils of water known as Catawba Falls.
In the early 1900s, the river’s turbulent flow was dammed by a small concrete dam and harnessed by a hydroelectric facility. The rustic remnants and ruins of the electrical plant still stand in the quiet, sun-dappled forest today, covered in moss and lichen, and slowly receding into the forest. The history, beautiful forest and stunning waterfalls score this trail high with local hikers: it’s one of the most popular waterfall hikes near Asheville, and it makes for a great, shady trail run, too.
The trail meanders through a shady forest, fording several usually-shallow crossings to visit several small waterfalls, a beautiful waterfall at the old electric dam, and the tall cascades of Catawba Falls as it tumbles down a multi-tiered, moss-covered cliff. At just over 2.5 miles, roundtrip, and with just over 300 feet of climb, it’s a moderate hike that’s great for families with kids, families with dogs or just about anyone in search of some beautiful waterfalls.
Catawba Falls: the hike
The hike departs a signed trailhead near Old Fort, just east of Asheville on I-40 (view maps and driving directions). The hike trails southwest, ducking into a shady forest of pine and leafy fern. The trail reaches the Catawba River at just under .2 mile, following yellow trail blazes on a newly-opened section of trail. The hike crosses a metal span bridge over the Catawba River, newly installed in summer 2016, at the base of the moss-encrusted remains of a stacked-stone powerhouse on the banks of the rocky-bedded river.
The hike follows the river upstream, climbing elevation and rising high above the river’s banks. A small side trail descends to the river at .75 mile, sighting several small waterfalls on the Catawba at the confluence with a small tributary stream.
The hike returns to the main trail, crossing the stream, Clover Patch Branch, and resuming the climb. A steep side trail descends to the river’s banks at .9 mile, catching views of a tumbling waterfall on the river beside a small cave.
The hike continues climbing, reaching an old moss and lichen-covered concrete dam at 1 mile. The river cascades down through an opening in the dam, tumbling in streams of whitewater and over moss-covered rocks. (As always, don’t climb on the dam, or on or near the rocks surrounding waterfalls, as the rocks are often very slippery.)
Departing the dam, the trail becomes rocky, scrambling over boulders and crossing Chestnut Branch, as the sound of rushing water grows louder. The hike arcs through a switchback and rounds a curve, the lower stretches of the towering waterfall suddenly appearing in the near distance.
Catawba Falls cascades over a rocky, blocky outcrop, spilling in multiple tiers and tendrils over the moss and plant-covered cliff.
Large boulders below the falls make a great place to relax, grab a dip in the waterfall’s cool flow or enjoy some quick mid-hike refreshments before the return hike. Departing the waterfall, the hike doubles back on the outbound trail, an easy and nearly continuous descent. The trail reaches the trailhead at 2.7 miles, completing the adventure.
Note: slippery rocks and fast moving water can be extremely dangerous! Please don’t climb, stand on, swim near, or jump from any waterfall. Previously, the trail continued past the lower falls, making an extremely difficult, heavily eroded and dangerous climb to an upper waterfall. Until trail conditions improve, though, the trail to the upper falls is officially closed.
Nearby Asheville-area hiking adventures
Catawba Falls is located south of Mount Mitchell, the tallest summit east of the Mississippi River, and one of the most beautiful, scenic hiking areas we’ve explored. Catch stunning, sweeping, see-forever views and hike through a beautiful high-elevation forest on the Mount Mitchell Summit and Balsam Nature Trail. Or hike from peak to peak on the Deep Gap Trail from Mount Mitchell to Mount Craig and Big Tom Mountain, following the view-packed ridge line of the Black Mountain range.
This map is not a substitute for official trail maps or topographic maps.
Free parking is available at the trailhead.
35.613083, -82.230667 // N35 36.785 W82 13.840