Below the Lake Glenville Dam, the West Fork of the Tuckasegee River comes over a mighty 100-foot cataract known as High Falls (locally as Cullowhee Falls). Most of the year, the dam severely restricts the watershed flow, reducing the water level at High Falls to only a few slim ribbons. But there's a few times in the year when High Falls is transformed into a monster. Several days a year, water is released from Lake Glenville down the West Fork Tuckasegee River for kayakers, and the water subsequently crashes over High Falls. Watching High Falls transform in mere seconds from a low-flow waterfall into one that's totally flooded out is an astounding experience! Two trails lead to the base of High Falls: a steep, official trail through Duke Energy land from The Pines Recreation Area by the shores of Lake Glenville to the south, and an easy, unofficial pathway through private land from Shoal Creek Mountain Road to the north. This trail report describes the Shoal Creek Mountain Road access, which the property owners have graciously opened to the public. Even though it's over twice longer, the north access is highly recommended due to the relaxing nature of the pathway, the better vantage points of High Falls, and a bonus waterfall called Rough Run Falls. This hike occurred on Saturday, April 7th, 2018. My plan was to hike out and back to High Falls from Shoal Creek Mountain Road, stopping by Rough Run Falls along the way.
R/T Length of Trail: 3.9 Miles
Duration of Hike: 1:35 plus 50 minutes of stopping and photography
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 3 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 670 Feet
Pros: Easy yet little-used trail
Cons: Water levels are often very low at High Falls
Points of Interest: High Falls - 8 stars; Rough Run Falls - 4 stars
Trail Blaze Colors: None, not an official trail
Best Seasons to Hike: Spring; Summer
Beginning Point: Shoal Creek Mountain Road
Directions from Cashiers, NC: From the intersection of NC 107 and US 64 in downtown Cashiers, follow NC 107 North for 8.2 miles. Then, make a very sharp left turn onto Shoal Creek Mountain Road (SR 1158). In 300 feet, the trail to High Falls begins on the right behind an orange gate. Park along the road shoulder.
Click the link below to download a .GPX file with a track of this hike.
For years, I'd read that the water release at High Falls on the West Fork Tuckasegee River is a must-do event for every waterfaller's portfolio. With my increased hiking in North Carolina, I decided that I absolutely must see the water release in 2018. The release typically occurs at 10 AM, with the water reaching the falls around 10:20 AM, so with the 3-hour drive factored in, I needed to get up very early - but it was worthwhile! Out of the two trails that lead to the falls - official and unofficial - I chose the unofficial one, primarily because it leads to much better vantage points on the east side of the river at the falls.
The hike begins along a broad gravel road behind the orange gate near the start of Shoal Creek Mountain Road. Remember that this is private property, which the owners have graciously opened to public access. Please abide by the rules described on multiple signs along the trail! The rules include No Four-Wheelers or Motorized Vehicles, No Littering, No Camping, No Campfires, and No Fishing or Hunting. The trail descends to a wide bridge across Shoal Creek at 0.1 miles. At 0.3 miles, there's a Y-split - stay left on the uphill trail, just as a gravel road bears right. The main trail to High Falls narrows into a distinct footpath. At 0.6 miles, the trail passes through a gap and begins descending into the West Fork Tuckasegee River gorge. Views open up toward the river below around 0.8 miles. The easy pathway reaches the river at 1.0 miles and begins to follow it closely. If you happen to be hiking this trail to see the water release, it's fun to note the difference in water height before and after the release in this area. At 1.65 miles, a side path leads 100 feet right to Rough Run Falls. About 40 feet high, Rough Run Falls is a steeply-sliding falls on a tributary of the West Fork Tuckasegee River (Rough Run). Unfortunately, it's on private property on the other side of the river, so you can only view it from a distance. It's a nice bonus waterfall if the flow is high and if foliage doesn't completely obscure it. Another name for Rough Run Falls is Thurston Hatcher Falls.
The main trail continues to follow the river and reaches High Falls at 1.95 miles. The last bit to the falls will involve some rock-hopping. High Falls is a spectacular waterfall regardless of conditions, unless the flow is well below average. It's 100 feet high in total and features a pair of near-free-falling drops. A gigantic cliff stretches away from the falls on both sides. Even though this waterfall is impressive even without a water release, the flow was much, much higher before the dam for Lake Glenville was built in 1941. Although the amount of water coming over the falls during a water release is even more than the old natural flow, it's closer to the old flow than the normal flow is nowadays. See the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce website for the latest water release dates; the water release dates for 2018 are April 7, April 8, June 9, July 14, July 28, August 11, and August 25. From High Falls, simply retrace your steps back to Shoal Creek Mountain Road, concluding the hike at 3.9 miles.
0.0 - Shoal Creek Mountain Road
1.65 - Rough Run Falls
1.95 - High Falls
3.9 - Shoal Creek Mountain Road
The Cashiers area is home to a high concentration of waterfalls. Choices you could consider for the day you go to High Falls include Silver Run Falls, Glen Falls, and Secret Falls.
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