Cherokee National Forest: Twisting Falls (Compression Falls), Elizabethton, Tennessee
The Elk River is best known for its spectacular upper waterfall, Elk River Falls. But as the Elk River enters Tennessee, it encounters a twisting passage with a series of waterfalls collectively known as Twisting Falls that is even more jaw-dropping. The 35-foot lowermost drop of Twisting Falls, locally known as Compression Falls, creates one of the area's most impressive sights as it crashes with a deafening roar into a deep pool flanked by tall cliffs. The trail to the base of the falls is no joke though - the unofficial path descends over 400 feet to the Elk River in just a quarter-mile! The destination waterfall is well worth it, but be prepared to huff and puff on the way back up. This hike occurred on Wednesday, July 5th, 2017. My plan was to hike out and back to the base of the lowermost drop of Twisting Falls (aka Compression Falls). This hike was the second of ten hikes that I did during a seven-day trip to the mountains of northwest North Carolina.
R/T Length of Trail: 0.9 Miles
Duration of Hike: 1:30
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 6 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 431 Feet
Pros: High-volume waterfall
Cons: Insanely steep trail to the falls; huge amounts of junk in the vicinity of the falls
Points of Interest: Twisting Falls (lower drop, aka Compression Falls) - 10 stars
Trail Blaze Colors: None, not an official trail
Best Seasons to Hike: Winter
Beginning Point: Parking area off Dark Ridge Road
Directions from Elizabethon, TN: From the intersection of US 321 South and US 19E in the community of Hampton south of Elizabethton, follow US 321 South for 17.0 miles. Then, turn right onto Poga Road. Continue for 4.0 miles before turning right again onto Clawson Road. In another 0.5 miles, turn right onto Dark Ridge Road. Follow Dark Ridge Road for 0.4 miles to the entrance to the Twisting Falls parking area on the right. At the time of my visit, an arrow attached to a tree pointed the way into the parking area, but don't count on it still being there. Dark Ridge Road turns unpaved after 0.2 miles but is in good shape.
Click here to download a track of this hike.
The name of Twisting Falls has given birth to more chaos throughout the internet than the name of any other waterfall I've ever visited. Even now, lengthy arguments about the true name show up from time to time. Simply put, the series of waterfalls on this short twisting stretch of the Elk River is collectively known as Twisting Falls, but locals appear to know the lowermost main drop of the falls as Compression Falls. This name isn't officially correct, however, for several reasons. Most importantly, Twisting Falls was initially marked and named on the 1934 USGS topographic map. The name originated from the twisting nature of this series of waterfalls in such a short span of the Elk River. The name Twisting Falls was even added in 1980 to the US Board on Geographic Names (an authority on official names for geographic landmarks). Sometime in the late 1900s, however, a kayaker went over the lowermost drop of Twisting Falls and damaged his spine. The kayaker began to refer to the lower drop as Compression Falls, and the new unofficial name gradually went around and stuck with locals. Today, lots of people still call this lower drop Compression Falls and the upper drop Twisting Falls, but really - the entire series of waterfalls is Twisting Falls. Further evidence of this is found in the 1939 book "Tennessee, A Guide to the State". The excerpt 'water of the Elk River falls 200 feet in three big leaps' from the book is about a listing bearing the name Twisting Falls. While the height estimate is incorrect, the description matches the series of waterfalls still known as Twisting Falls. It is no wonder that Kevin Adams's guidebook "North Carolina Waterfalls" and Gregory Plumb's guidebook "Waterfalls of Tennessee" both refer to the falls as Twisting Falls and not Compression Falls.
With that said, the hike to Twisting Falls begins at the west end of the parking area. An obvious path begins along an old forest road. In about 250 feet, keep right on the broad trail at a junction with other paths. The path begins a gradual descent toward the rim of the Elk River gorge. At 0.15 miles, the forest road that you're following reaches a powerline cut and bears right. For Twisting Falls, stay left on a narrower path which comes to a point right under the powerline in a few feet, where there is a decent view of the Elk River gorge. Here, turn sharply left onto an extremely steep trail that resembles a drainage gully more than a trail. This trail, which drops about 300 feet in the next 0.15 miles, leads directly to the Elk River at the bottom of the gorge. The ungraded trail is very rocky and slippery in many places, and while none of the spots are particularly technical, prepare for a lengthy descent that requires caution. The way back up might actually end up being faster, although the ascent is so steep that it will force even the most fit hikers to stop a few times. At 0.3 miles, the trail reaches the roaring Elk River. Turn left and follow the obvious path upstream along the river. There are a few spots that will be muddy or wet during high water, but all of them have bypasses. As the trail comes in sight of Twisting Falls, there will be a couple of brief scramble spots. The trail finally ends close to the bottom of the lower drop of Twisting Falls at 0.45 miles. From this vantage point, you can only see the main right arm of the falls. If the water is low enough, you will be able to hop onto a long rock slab with views of the left arm as well, but on this day, that required wading. A couple hundred feet before the end of the trail, there is a large boulder in the river that provides a limited view of the left arm as well.
The main drop of Twisting Falls is jaw-dropping from all aspects. The first thing that you will notice is how powerful this 30-foot falls is. Due to how large the Elk River is here, this will be a powerful waterfall no matter the weather and time of year. The mist and spray from the falls were so strong on this day that I had to constantly wipe my lens standing nearly a hundred feet from the base. A huge deep pool lines the base of the falls. The waterfall wouldn't be complete without the massive cliff that rises dozens of feet into the air on the left side of the river at the falls, giving the setting a grotto feeling. The best time of year to see Twisting Falls is winter, because that's when the swimmers, jumpers, and sliders are absent. Yes, people do 'slide' down the falls from the top, and I witnessed a half-dozen people do it! Unfortunately, the trash that these revelers leave behind is present year-round, and there's plenty of it all around the falls. I have not been to the upper drops of Twisting Falls, which are smaller but do not appear to be less scenic. Access to them is very difficult and requires scrambling up very steep and dangerous slopes near the falls. For more information about the upper drops of Twisting Falls, please read Kevin Adams's excellent report on Twisting Falls.
From Twisting Falls, simply return along the same way back to the parking area. Remember, the ascent will take a lot of time! You will reach your car at 0.9 miles, concluding the hike.
0.0 - Dark Ridge Road Parking
0.15 - Powerline Cut, Begin Extremely Steep Descent
0.3 - Reach Elk River
0.45 - Base of Twisting Falls (lower drop, aka Compression Falls)
0.9 - Dark Ridge Road Parking
An excellent waterfall hike in the same area is to Elk River Falls and Jones Falls. Another hike that you van consider combining with Twisting Falls is the hike to Laurel Fork Falls near Hampton.
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