An ancient creek, dropping close to 800-ft in a short 0.5 miles, all while descending through one of Western North Carolina’s true and oldest slot canyons? Yeah, I’m on board.
Funny thing about Ledbetter Creek is that I knew none of what I just said on my first trip out there. A few years back , my friend Conor attended WCU and used to train parkour / go on harrowing adventures with me. One time while out on campus he randomly suggested we go up “Ledbetter” the next day with his friend Andrew and our mutual friend Sam (admittedly not even knowing that he was referring to a creek).
On that trip, I was equipped with nothing more than my swim trunks and GoPro. We made it as far as Notch Falls, but I couldn’t climb past the waterfall because I was on the tail end of my recovery from a fractured rib. I have since then made a return trip with my DSLR to better document the adventure.
More recently, a group of friends and I rappelled the upper sections of The Notch, then came downstream through this entire route.
But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Depending on how far up the creek you plan to visit, the harder and dangerous it can become. The rocks are smooth and slick. As always, caution should be exercised at all times and knowing ones’ limits should dictate how far you go upstream.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center is a widely popular guide service and store, located along the Nantahala River in southwest Bryson City. It’s also the reference point for reaching the parking for Ledbetter Creek, which a Google Map link to the specific address can be found here.
From the NOC, head about 6.6 miles southwest on US 19/74. This is where Ledbetter Creek meets the highway, and on your right will be a paved drive ending shortly at a picnic area. Wayah Road (SR 1310) is 0.8 miles further southwest, incase you miss the turn.
This is the parking for the Bartram Trail (section 7), and most people approach the creek by taking the trail over the old railroad above. But I come here for a wild creek walk, and it starts right at the parking lot for me!
A short walk through the tunnel and upstream will bring you to the point where the trail from the parking clearly meets the creek on river left. From here, it’s nothing but steep rock scrambling greeted by waterfall after waterfall!
As Ledbetter ascends into the canyon, the boulders rapidly become steeper and the vibrant green moss consumes the rock faces. Every time we climbed over a boulder, there was some sort of beautiful cascade or small falls to be seen. This creek is so engaging, while the landscape is absolutely mesmerizing!
By this point in our journey, the creek is really starting to take on the canyon look that precedes its reputation. The small fall pictured below was the last obstacle before reaching the first official landmark on Ledbetter – Inside Passage Falls.
There’s no wonder why Inside Passage Falls got its name. This beautiful fall comes over a steep boulder that may be impassable for some inexperienced climbers. Luckily, on river left, the boulders create a small passageway that will grant access through this barrier!
After ascending Inside Passage Falls, the creeks returns to its steep climb as we near the start of the canyon. Below is a gallery of various small falls as I continued upstream.
The next big obstacle is a beautiful 15-ft fall with a tree’s exposed roots bordering the waterfall’s profile. Aptly, this is locally known as Root Falls.
After the tree climb, there was only one more set of boulders standing between us and the bottom tier of Ledbetter Canyon Falls – the next major stop on our journey and the start of the canyon!
Ledbetter Canyon Falls comes in three tiers, with the bottom being the most accessible. From the base, you can’t see the top of the falls but you can see the start of the canyon walls as it towers above. From this point to Notch Falls marks one of my personal top three favorite adventures.
Most experienced scramblers make it up the bottom tier without much hassle. But it’s the middle tier that get people hung up. This section is steep and completely surrounded by rock. By glancing judgment, it looks like river left would make the most amount of sense. I can assure you that route gets “cliffed” out at the top of this tier. What we can’t see from the base is that the walls get ever steeper and rise higher at the top of this fall. There would be no good way to descend back down without executing a rappel. River right is the way to bushwhack around. Although it looks impossibly steep, its pretty doable. Just know that you’ll have to swing way higher than you would think to get around this wall. My best advice is to keep as many points of contact as possible while also keeping your center of gravity low.
During my initial trip here, my friends and I didn’t really conceive the bushwhack concept because that log was standing against the rock wall. We instinctively up climbed the log to get above this tier. But on a return solo trip years later, I did both – just to see what the bushwhack was like.
Most people would say that the top tier isn’t very impressive and not worth the bushwhack to reach. I think I would agree with that statement; it’s just too covered in dead fall and might look better with higher water but wouldn’t be safe at that point. However, what lies beyond Ledbetter Canyon Falls is so beautiful that it’s worth climbing the sketchy log several times over for!
The top of Ledbetter Canyon Falls is where the slot canyon begins to open up and take form – with Notch Falls at the head of it. Everything inside this section is known to locals as “The Notch”. It carries a very ancient energy and offers some of the most picturesque waterfalls and mossy rocks I have ever seen.
Notch Falls lies in the heart of the slot canyon. While not tall (maybe 12-ft), this location carries a certain vibe to it that you just have to be there to experience for yourself. It’s very ancient in its feeling and the adventure it takes to reach this rarely visited waterfall is truly one for the books. Not to mention, you get to re-live the epicity when you backtrack down the canyon!