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High Falls

on South Mills River

"High" Falls on South Mills RiverClick on image to view full size

The first thing that comes to mind with this waterfall is how silly the name is:  "High" Falls, given that these falls are wider than they are tall!!  However, that thought soon fades away as you take in the large, wide swimming hole at its base, and the solitude of this location, despite being within the popular and heavily used South Mills River recreation area.

Many thanks to Kevin Adams, for his excellent description of how to locate these falls, as described in his "North Carolina Waterfalls - A Hiking and Photography Guide".

Topo MapClick on map to view full size

The trail begins at the end of Wolf Ford Road, a dead end gravel road off Yellow Gap Road.  To get here from Brevard, NC, go north on 276 (towards the Blue Ridge Parkway), until you pass the Forest Discovery Center (about 11 miles from the intersection of highways 276/64/280 in Brevard).

Yellow Gap road (Forest Service Road 1206) is the first gravel road to the right following the Discovery Center. 

Follow Yellow Gap road for approximately 3.3 miles, and turn right onto unlabeled Wolf Ford road (this will be the first and only road to your right as you travel along Yellow Gap Road.)

Follow Wolf Ford Road to its end (about 1 1/4 miles) and park (on the topo map above, this is labeled with the "P").

You'll immediately notice that this is a very popular trail head; especially in the summer, you'll be sharing this area with mountain bikers, horses, and other hikers.  But High Falls is quite off the "main drag", and you'll no doubt have the falls all to yourself.

After approximately 2/3 of a mile from the trail head, the trail turns sharply left.

Head down the well worn path to your right to see Otter Hole, a delightful, wide, deep pool.  On my visit in late June, the rhododendrons were in full bloom!

Click any of the images
to see full size.

Otter Hole at South Mills River
Otter Hole at South Mills River Rhododendron at Otter Hole at South Mills River

Continue on the main trail from Otter Hole.  After about a mile from the trail head, the trail forks.  The main trail turns right, and crosses a concrete bridge.  For this hike, you want to turn left, away from the bridge.  (See point #1 on topo map)

As soon as you turn left off the main trail, look for a small side trail to your right that drops down to Billy Branch creek.  Cross this small creek and head up the other side, bear to your right, and pick up a narrow trail that parallels South Mills River.

The several times I have done this trail, while there are always a lot of other folks on the main trail, once I get to this point, I have yet to run into any other hikers.   (And no horse poop either, which is nice!!)

Continue to follow this trail, as it follows South Mills River.  Much of the time, you will be well above the river, but it will always be in sight and within earshot.  Unlike the main South Mills River Trail that you left back at the concrete bridge, this trail is narrow, very uneven, and rocky.  And you run into a few roadblocks here and there as well!

Alternate South Mills River Trail Some roadblocks along the way!

After approximately 1/2 mile from leaving the main trail, the trail ends at the river.  Well, it doesn't end ... it just crosses the river and continues on the other side!  (See point #2 on topo map)  But the trail literally just heads right to the river and stops!

Crossing South Mills River

You will NOT be able to rock hop across here ... your feet ARE going to get wet (as well as your legs!!).  Do it on an 80° day as I did, and you'll enjoy the water play!  But pay attention to the current ... as Kevin Adams says in his description of this hike:

"If the water is up, don't risk it (fording the river).  The current is stronger than you realize."

He is quite right ... the day I crossed it, water came up to mid calf, and even with the river that seemingly shallow, I felt a lot of pull and tug by the river on my legs.  The river bottom is rocky and uneven, and many of the rocks are as slick as ice.  I definitely needed my trekking pole to assist with balance.  See below for a way to get to the falls without wading the river if the water is up too high to safely cross.

Once you cross the river (head diagonally downstream to find the path's continuation on the other side), the trail becomes even narrower, rougher, and more uneven.

Soon after the river crossing (Kevin Adams says about 0.1 mile), you will come to an unnamed waterfall, that, despite being very close to the trail, is very hard to see. 

Foliage hides much of it, and there is no safe way to get down to the river to view it. 

Unnamed Waterfall on South Mills River
Unnamed waterfall on South Mills River
The two images here were taken upriver from the waterfall, directly above it, looking down onto it, shot from some large boulders on the bank above the waterfall.

A short distance after passing this waterfall (Kevin Adam's description said another 0.1 mile, although it seemed a little longer to me, but without a GPS, it is hard to tell precisely) you will come to the top of High Falls.  Following the trail a little further, you will find a side path to the left where you can safely scramble down to the river's edge for an excellent view of the falls and their pool at the base.

High Falls is beautiful for so many reasons.  The volume of water is impressive, the falls cover just about the entire width of the always wide South Mills River, the banks on either side are steep and thick with foliage, and there is a gorgeous water pool at the base. 

High Falls on South Mills River

Of special interest are 4 small cascades to the far right of the waterfall, each making their own little waterfall.

The image to the right is a zoomed in shot from the one above.

Side waterfalls of High Falls

From here, it is an easy hike back the way you came.  But you can make a loop out of this hike, that will total approximately 5 miles start to finish.  It includes one moderately steep climb up to and over Grassy Ridge.

To do this loop, continue on the trail past High Falls.  In approximately another 1/2 mile (remember ... no GPS on my part!), you come to the crossing of the very small Clawhammer Creek.  Immediately prior to this crossing, is a trail to the right.  (See point #3 on topo map)  This goes up to the top of Grassy Ridge, a climb of about 200 feet in elevation in a quarter mile.  From here, you follow the ridge line.

This unnamed trail along Grassy Ridge joins the main South Mills River trail just a stone's throw due east from where the trail to Buckhorn Gap joins South Mills River Trail.  (See point #4 on topo map)

An alternate, longer route is to NOT turn right onto the trail up to Grassy Ridge, but instead, cross Clawhammer Creek, and join up with the main South Mills River Trail just beyond that crossing.

This will significantly lengthen the loop, and having done both trails, I find the South Mills River Trail from here back where Buckhorn Gap trail joins to be quite boring.   The trail up to Grassy Ridge is much more interesting, as well as significantly shorter.

Less than half a mile from the point where Buckhorn Gap Trail joins South Mills River Trail, comes the concrete bridge mentioned at the beginning, that marked where you originally left this main trail.  Turn to the left after crossing the bridge; the trailhead is one mile ahead.


This loop trail allows access to High Falls when the water is too high or too cold to safely ford the river.  Simply follow this loop backwards and head to the falls.  It will make for a longer total hike, since you'll have to backtrack the way you came.

NOTE #2:

You might wonder why I have no pictures from any part of the hike beyond High Falls.  I'm afraid that my wonderful camera died a watery death a quarter mile or so past High Falls.  At this point in the hike, the river is very wide and shallow, and the banks also are quite wide, flat, and grassy, making for a perfect lunch spot. 

I was standing in the river a short ways from the bank.  The river was only ankle deep or so, and I was about to get a shot of the bank and the lovely lunch spot I'd found when WHAMMO ... the next thing I knew, both my feet had gone out from under me and I landed HARD on my behind!!  After a moment or two of gathering my wits (and being glad no one was around to witness this delightful splash), I suddenly remembered that I was holding my camera at the time!  It took a moment or two to find it, totally submerged, and resting in the gravels on the river bottom. 

As I brought the camera out of the stream, water literally POURED out of its insides!!  I immediately popped open the slot where the memory card was, and was SO relieved to see it had only a drop of water on it.  I wiped it dry with my sleeve (which was about the only dry thing on ME!!) and stored the memory card in a dry spot in my pack.

And, then I did the next logical thing which was to plop down on that nice grassy bank and eat lunch!!

I still don't know exactly what happened ... the current was not even noticeable here, the footing, while rocky, was solid.  All I remember was suddenly going down!!

A good reminder that when water and rocks get together, there is always the danger of falling.   This yielded nothing more than a sore behind on my part, but it reinforced the ever present reminder that when you are around waterfalls, NEVER climb out to the edge.  Just because the footing seems solid now is no guarantee that you won't go over the edge.

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