In 1857, during the peak of a nearly two decade long dispute over which mountain is the tallest in the region, Dr. Elisha Mitchell met his demise at the age of 64 when he fell off a 30-ft waterfall that drops between a rocky, narrow slot. Ironically named Mitchell Falls, this richly historic location has risen to “Holy Grail” status in the ranks of the waterfalling community.
Dr. Mitchell first measured Mt. Mitchell, which was then called Black Dome, during a geological survey of the Black Mountains in 1838 and 1841. At the time, Grandfather Mountain was considered to be the tallest but Dr. Mitchell contested that Black Dome was higher. Senator Thomas Clingman, a former student of his, disputed the findings which erupted into a heated and slanderous debate spanning nearly two decades. That fateful day in 1857 was Dr. Mitchell’s attempt at remeasuring the mountain and putting an end to this debate. Incredibly, his predictions were 12-ft short of current measurements.
Unfortunately, Mitchell Falls lies on private land, therefore no tracks or directions will be provided. I was fortunate enough to have met an owner a bit ago, and was able to secure permission to hike in with close friends Eliza, Joey, and Everette.
We were given directions to take an old bear path – the supposed historic trail Big Tom Wilson, a famous bear hunter and guide, used to frequent. The story goes that Dr. Mitchell was taking the same path down the spine of the ridge to head towards Big Tom’s place, after taking his measurements at Black Dome. He allegedly left later than intended and lost his way on the bear path – forcing him down a dried up gully eventually leading to Mitchell Creek, which then called the Middle Fork of Caney.
At the start of the old bear path, was an old sign engraved “Mitchell M.”. We were immediately struck with the weight of the historic awe and the excitement of our journey ahead. The mountain was encased in clouds and rain threatened our mission, but onward we went. The plan was to retrace the footsteps of Dr. M, as he was often called, all the way to the falls – 2100-ft below our start.
Shortly down the path, I made the same mistake as Dr. M and lost it. I was surprised because right where I lost it, I was led to a dried up gully descending to the creek – the same one we planned to take as Dr. M and the search party did, following his footsteps. After that, I then understood how easy it was for him to make this mistake.
Once at the creek, we found ourselves at the base a significant, two tiered waterfall.
Mitchell Creek is shrouded in deep, vibrant moss. It’s a beautiful and highly photogenic creek the entire way down. The plan from here on out was to creek walk to Mitchell Falls, photographing it along the way.
There was a nice and scenic cascade between here and the next waterfall downstream. It had a deep and crystal clear pool.
The next 20-ft drop downstream slipped through an incredibly tight squeeze and formed a deep, narrow slot at the plunge pool. The boulders surrounding it were quite impressive.
Unfortunately, we were only there for a few minutes before it started to rain on us, quite heavily. Out of everyone, I was the only person able to snap a couple quick photos before we had to put our gear into dry bags.
We entertained the idea of waiting out the storm, as that’s not uncommon in the middle of summer. But after a few more minutes, the raining was only getting heavier and faster. Considering how dense the bushwhack is around the creek, we decided that the further we get downstream in the creek the better off we would be. Flash storms create flash floods, so it was best to keep moving.
I tried to snap as much phone photos as possible without water logging it. For the most part, there weren’t major waterfalls except a couple nice sized cascades between when the rain started and stopped. The going was slippery, slow, and cautious.
Not too far upstream from Mitchell Falls is a very impressive waterfall that falls into a slot canyon. It’s very easy to miss, as the creek forces you into a nasty bushwhack before you see the brink of it. I was being obstinate and staying the creek as long as possible – I was soaking wet by this point so I figured why not.
This 25-ft drop was hard to fully view – we had to slide out on a slick rock, while ducking under dense rhodo-growth to even get a photo. But with some luck, the rain let up enough to snap a photo at this point. Next to Mitchell Falls, I think this was my favorite of the day.
After this drop, Mitchell Falls was just ahead. We all recognized it immediately, as soon we were able to see the brink. It was such an intense feeling of historic awe; I don’t think I can find the words to sum up the moment. And to top off the occasion, the rain had came to a stop once we reached our destination.
After descending river right, we finally reached the base. Being that I am not sure when I’ll get the chance to photograph this fall again, I made sure to really take my time to capture the moment:
We spent an easy hour at the base, enjoying the value of the experience to the fullest. Afterwards, we took the trail back to the bear path on the top of the ridge. Although difficult to follow at times, I was able to keep with it all the way back to the “Mitchell M.” sign. Not too shabby for a 162 year old trail!
After 10 hours and 48 minutes, we finally made it back to our cars! Despite the thunderstorm, this day went off without a hitch. I am grateful to have visited such a richly historic waterfall and creek!