The Notch, as it’s colloquially known, is an ancient slot canyon that descends ~150-ft in about 500-ft – deep within the heart of the Nantahala Gorge, North Carolina. Requiring four separate sections of rappel to successfully navigate, this adventure is one that demands mental fortitude of a higher caliber coupled with some serious canyoneering skills.
The formation lies at the head of the Ledbetter Creek Canyon – a NC waterfall hike that is revered as one of the hardest in the state. Traditionally, waterfallers hike upstream Ledbetter Creek from its junction with the Nantahala River at US 74, in WNC, (where we shuttled a car) to the base of Notch Falls (if they even make it that far), and then turn back. I have a previous trip report of this route that you can find here. According reports from others, Ledbetter Creek flattens out above Upper Notch Falls and is relatively easy creek walking downstream from where the Bartram Trail intersects Ledbetter until you reach the top of falls.
The mission was organized by John Podlewski, aka Capt, who assembled an elite team of renown Southern Appalachian explorers: Kitty Myers – aka Rock Sprite, Thomas Mabry – aka The Badger, Everette Robinson – aka Everest Denali, and myself. The plan was to either a) shuttle in a 4 x 4 through an undisclosed county road above the Bartram Trail and Ledbetter Creek to a point right on top of the slot canyon then bushwhack down to it; or b) hike the Bartram Trail upstream from the Nantahala River confluence with Ledbetter until its intersection with the creek (above the gorge) then creek walk down from there.
I had climbed above Notch Falls once before and saw an upper tier, but that’s as far as I’ve ever made it. Under the assumption of the previous reports, the creek should have spit us out right on top of the upper tier I saw. We later learned this would not be the case.
Capt opted to investigate the county road prior to our meet up time at 8 a.m. By 10 a.m., we haven’t heard word and decided to proceed onward, despite the odd lack of communication. From the starting point described in my previous post of Ledbetter Creek, the four of us hiked up the Bartram Trail until we encountered the infamous Bushwhack Jack Thyen and The Professor Scott Burns coming down from a camp out on Cheoah Bald. They were going to await infamous explorer Andy Kunkle – aka Fungi – at the shuttle drop point (who had also camped with them but was starting his descent after a breakfast cookout). The gang was going to creek walk upstream to the base of Ledbetter Canyon Falls, lower tier, with the hopes of timing it to meet us after our descent of The Notch.
During our run in, Capt made an appearance hiking up the trail! Turns out, he had gotten his truck stuck on the scouting of the county road.. delaying him two hours. Luckily coming prepared with boards and a jack, along with the help of some locals willing to dig him out, he was able to get out and catch up to us!
With the gang united and the group photo behind us, we finished the ~1.5 mile hike in until we reached Ledbetter Creek. This is where the real fun began. The creek walk downstream was only ~1000-ft, through one of the most vibrantly green colored creeks I have ever seen.
Not too far downstream, the creek started taking shape of a gorge and was foreshadowing the epicity that was to unfold. By this point of the journey, navigation was an all out “path of least resistance” approach.
There is more than one way to negotiate Ledbetter, as demonstrated by Badger and Denali.
Trying to avoid the cold water exposure as long as we can, this was about as far as we lasted! Pictured above left to right: Capt, Rock Sprite, and Badger (in the form of AquaBadger). Click to enlarge.
Just before reaching The Notch, Ledbetter forms a small mini gorge and then flattens out for about 25-ft before dropping off into the slot canyon. We considered this section to negotiate our “warm up” for the main event lurking just around the bend.
The warm up mini gorge traversed in various ways.
(Click to enlarge)
From what we had read and thought from my previous explorations, the top of the slot canyon should’ve been the top of the upper tier above Notch Falls. Once we reached this point, we quickly realized we were not at the same falls. In fact, The Notch was much longer and more complex than we had known or read about it. The slot immediately drops with rising, impossibly slick canyon walls 50-ft to 60-ft in places, and narrows to only a few feet wide in sections – squeezing the entirety of Ledbetter Creek through some impressive clefts.
While Capt set up the first rappel of the day, I was able to find a down climb route on river left and opted out to do that instead. We decided to later dub this unnamed waterfall Captain Falls – in honor of our fearless leader.
Captain Falls traversed (Click to enlarge).
This is where the slot canyon gets serious. Looking down into it, I was able to see more small falls but the walls gets taller with each passing one. Not only were they incredibly slick, they were also covered in poison ivy. There is no way to down climb without gear here. To proceed, you must be fully prepared to rappel three more tiers with no real option to return back upstream.
A few more feet beyond the base of Captain Falls is another drop that we later dubbed Notch Grotto Falls. What we can’t see from the top is the hidden grotto under us that squeezes Ledbetter through a tight cleft. In a maneuver we called the No See Drop, you swing completely under the creek as you enter the grotto during the rappel – the entire force of water bearing down, swallowing you whole. The thunderous sound is overwhelming; the free hanging drop is daunting. Denali, a virgin rappeller, went first.
Denali getting the final words of instruction from Capt, then fearlessly committing to the descent through the No See Drop of Notch Grotto Falls.
Next up was Rock Sprite.
After Rock Sprite, we had to ferry up the harnesses – because we only had 3 but 5 people. Next up was Badger, followed by me, and finally Capt. The total process took about 30 minutes.
Me coming over No See Drop on the left. Followed by Capt being fully immersed as he swings into the grotto.
(Photos by Badger)
Once we all were at the base safely, we stood in awe of Notch Grotto Falls. The vibrancy of this section was breath-taking. The tall walls prevented active sunlight from reaching the slot canyon, and the cold water gives off cold wind that is channeled down the rest of the formation.
I was able to get on top of the rock, on the right from the picture, above to get a better look for what’s to come next. Not too far behind us was the next drop, as the creek takes a curve to the left at the top of the falls and then curves back to right by the bottom. In this section of The Notch, there is still no way to climb up and out. I would say that this is where the canyon walls are near their tallest.
There isn’t much of a good option for an anchor point at the base of Notch Grotto Falls, but luckily the Capt’s rope was long enough to make it down the next tier – which we dubbed Notch Slot Falls. This was the tier that I had seen the time I had climbed above Notch Falls, and the tier we were under the impression that started the slot canyon.
Denali, Capt, and myself making our way down Notch Slot Falls.
(Photos by badger)
The bottom pool is deep here. We didn’t test the full depth but we believe it is far above your head just at the base of the fall. At best, it is knee to waist deep on precarious sloping under rocks outlining the pothole plunge pool. There is a rock at the crest of the next drop – Notch Falls – that we took turns standing on to get out of the cold waters that were becoming increasingly unbearable. By this time, we were starting to feel the fatiguing numbness from the prolonged exposure to the cold air without being able to fully escape being wet this entire time.
Capt was able to successfully retrieve the 100-ft rope with a return knot from the brink of Captain Falls – now three waterfalls above us. However, there was virtually no anchor point at the base of Notch Slot Falls. The rope wasn’t long enough to make it down all four falls inside The Notch. There is a fallen log dangling above Notch Falls and I’ve even seen a rope tied to it a few years ago. But how long has that dead fall been hanging there? After seeing it from the top down, there was no way that log should ever be used for any type of support.
Without much option, we decided to anchor our last rappel around two fallen logs at the plunge pool where they crossed each other – UNDERWATER. I strongly encourage everyone to NOT repeat that. For us, we had to do what was necessary to return from the slot canyon. For those who want to attempt this rappel, do not count on that dead fall to be there on your trip, or for it to even hold up on your rappel. For your own safety, bring enough rope to rappel all fours with one line.
Since our anchor is questionable at best, we didn’t tie a true knot, we double looped both ends of the rope around the underwater logs and feed both ends through our ATC – making it much harder to feed it smoothly through the next waterfall. To make matters worse, because there so much extra line at the bottom of the falls, the current was twisting the line – making it almost impossible to feed through the rappel without stopping in the falls to untwist it. Regardless of the set of circumstances at hand, we were not to be denied.
After Capt’s rappel, the tension of all five of us rappelling against the anchor point wedged the rope against the dead fall in a way that wasn’t retrievable. Again faced with no option, Capt climbed back UP Notch Falls, retrieved the ropes and anchored them on an even more precarious spot against their branches above the water. Then down he went for the second time! Once safely at the bottom, Capt was able to successfully retrieve the rope. Leave No Trace.
Now back in familiar territory, we breathed a sigh of relief! The hardest part of our journey was over. All that was from here left was the casual ~0.7 mile hike downstream through the Ledbetter Creek Canyon. To some, this creek walk is one of the hardest waterfall hikes in WNC. But compared to what we had just endured, this was the home stretch.
I won’t go into detail of the creek walk downstream – as I have a more detailed trip report on that section of Ledbetter Creek that you can find here.
It does appear that the upper sections of Ledbetter Canyon Falls has pushed some of its dead fall more out of the way than how it was during my last visit in August 2018. I used this opportunity to photograph the canyon a little better. Unfortunately due to time, we did not rappel the middle tier wall – which was supposed to be the main event of our trip. The unexpected sections within The Notch was more than enough to leave this group satisfied with the day’s adventure!
Enjoy the leftover photos from the remainder of our hike through one of the most scenic and unique creeks in Western North Carolina!
The Ledbetter Canyon is impressive.