Descending the northern flank of the iconic Sam’s Knob, located in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest, is an even more impressive and lesser known feature: Sam Branch. This anomaly creek passes through a near continuous series of drops as it loses more than 800′ of elevation over the course of a half mile – forming several significant and photogenic waterfalls!
Sam Branch’s surprisingly strong water flow, despite the high elevation, is what makes it stand out. Most any other creek at this height would be a trickle. Other notable features are the deep and crystal clear pools littering the entirety of the creek. If you have the right conditions, Sam Branch can be a swimming hole after swimming hole type of adventure. Because the last waterfall on the creek, Sam Branch Falls, tops out at 5000′, the view from up there is one of the best any waterfall in the state can offer!
But everything worth having requires sacrifice and hard work. Many people regard this hike as one of the hardest in the state. To do the full run, it’s only 1.6 miles but the creek walking section is technical. It requires high level skills of boulder scrambling and is about the limit of what you could do without needing more advanced gear like ropes. I recommend taking this on only if you’re comfortable negotiating slippery rocks and getting wet.
However, this hike also offers the opportunity to see two nice waterfalls in a half mile that won’t require creek walking or boulder scrambling. Wash Hollow Falls is the next drainage over and only a few more minutes from Lower Sam Branch Falls, which is where the easy part of the trail ends. Those two waterfalls can be done as a quick stop when you’re just passing by the area and limited on time.
The trail head begins at a pull off on NC-215 N, about 4.1 miles north of its intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway near Devil’s Courthouse. The pull off occurs on the hairpin turn right before reaching the popular Sunburst Falls and is big enough to park several full sized vehicles.
The trail starts on the outside of the curve and begins by heading straight up the hillside. This section is just over 100′ long but super steep and cluttered with tree roots. It’ll connect to a flat, overgrown logging road. Turn left here and follow it for nearly 0.25 miles before it reaches Lower Sam Branch Falls.
Lower Sam Branch Falls is really a series of multiple drops and slides for the first ~250ft up the creek. Where the logging road meets the creek is at the brink of the very last drop, which there is a rough scramble path down to on river right. There’s also an old cable tie from previous logging operations where the creek meets the trail, pictured below.
Wash Hollow Falls is only about 200ft from this point. Cross the creek, very carefully, and the old logging road will pick up again on the other side. Follow it to the base of the waterfall, passing a large fire ring on your way over.
Wash Hollow was one of those waterfalls that pleasantly surprised me when I first saw it. The 35ft drop was much bigger than I was anticipating and the overall setting is really great. Between this and Lower Sam Branch Falls, it makes for a really rewarding quick stop if you’re passing through the area.
When you follow the old logging road back to Sam Branch, there will be a rugged scramble path on your right leading down the to base of the drop you crossed earlier.
Lower Sam Branch would be near impossible to ascend by scrambling the creek bedrock. To begin the upward trek of the creek, you’ll have to cross back to the river left side of Lower Sam Branch, where you came in from, and look for a rugged scramble path leading up. It will be steep and swing a little bit away from the creek, but you’ll never be more than an ear shot away.
After about 375ft, the faint path will dump back out onto the creek, just beyond the brink of a big drop. You’ll pass a huge boulder at this point too, which if you scramble out past, the waterfall the path finishes above looks like this:
The closest GPS reading I was able to get for this point is (35.34025, -82.89699). From here moving forward, Sam Branch will be your trail. The creek is boulder choked and the best plan of action is to scramble those boulders up the creek as much as you can. The more willing you are to get your feet wet, the easier it is. There will be sections that you just can’t scramble up and through, which most of those sections have faint scramble paths leading up on river left. A good general rule of thumb with Sam Branch is to stay river left, but there are a couple spots where river right will make the most amount of sense. You’ll need good terrain judgment on this creek.
Sam Branch never really stops tumbling over something the entire hike up, and it gets more boulder choked and rugged the higher up you go. Some of the first couple photogenic drops you’ll pass look like these:
The waterfall in the last photo is one of those spots where there will be a faint path circumventing it on river left. It seems that the initial push of the creek features the type of waterfalls that wildly cascade down piles and piles of collapsed boulders.
Around 600ft from the top of Lower Sam Branch Falls, where the initial river left path ended in the creek, Sam Branch begins to take on a more dramatic shape. By this point, the creek is starting to curve under an infamous cliff face and climbing spot known as Victory Wall. The high rising cliffs and increased boulder sizes creates a narrow and rocky gorge. Here are what some of the drops looks like as you make your way to the pit of the rock gorge under Victory Wall.
These two drops, pictured above, look very similar to each other and feature oddly deep pockets that make great swimming holes. From here, you should begin to see Victory Wall popping above the canopy line on river right. After these two waterfalls, Sam Branch enters a long narrow rock chute as it passes through the pit of this gorge-like feature. The scrambling here may be precarious but river left is the way to go.
Scrambling up here is tricky but when you get to the top, you’ll have one of my favorite views on any creek I’ve ever seen. If you look downstream, you’ll see Victory wall pop out of the canopy, with the rock chasm and waterfall tumbling below, all in one shot! The forestry here also makes for good fall colors.
The waterfall directly in front of this spot is also a stunner. Be careful not to make the mistake and climb over on river right. From the bottom it looks promising, but it will cliff you out at the top and force you to cross in a potentially dangerous place. It’s best to take the bushwhack route around on river left. It’s dense, but safer.
After passing Victory Wall, the landscape begins to mellow out a bit and the scrambling/rock hopping gets a little less demanding. Keep making your way up via the path of least resistance, bypassing the creek only when you need to.
When you get to the waterfall in the photo above, you’ll need to cross the creek and bypass it on river right. On my most recent visit in August 2020 there was flagging tape leading the way. Below this point, the small falls is very photogenic, which is pictured below.
After these sets of drops, the creek begins to get more technical again as you approach closer to the final drop. The next stretch of waterfalls on the creek are my favorite of the whole run.
From here, Sam Branch Falls isn’t much further. But you still have a couple more waterfalls to negotiate first.
The waterfall pictured below is one I really enjoy because of the deep pool and neat sculpted rock under the water’s surface. When you get to this point, Sam Branch Falls will be the next significant drop.
As they say, save the best for last. Sam Branch Falls is the most dramatic waterfall on the entire creek. It takes a lot to reach this near 100′ drop, but the effort will be graciously rewarded. It sits inside another rocky gorge with an impressive wall on the river right side. Standing about anywhere is tricky, so getting photos requires come precarious perching.
To get to the view from the top, you’ll have to get as close to the base as you can via river right, then cross onto a big boulder on river left. It’s precarious scrambling up to here and requires getting your feet wet. From there, you can find a faint scramble path leading up the hillside on river left. It’s very steep and muddy, but short.
After taking in all the greatness that is Sam Branch, you get to relive the whole adventure for a second time as you back track your entire route all the way to the parking!