With a name like “Waterfall Creek”, how could it disappoint? Located in the Big Ivy section of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, the mossy creek descends the western flank of Bullhead Ridge below Craggy Dome and Craggy Pinnacle. To no one’s surprise, it hosts some pretty spectacular – you guessed it – waterfalls!
My initial run-in with Waterfall Creek was actually a fluke and piggybacked a failed exploration of Carter Creek, which is just beyond the neighboring ridge. A few friends and I believe there are sculpted rock and/or slot canyon formations somewhere in Big Ivy. From what I’ve seen in other slot canyons around WNC, the geology surrounding Big Ivy is very reminiscent of it.
Judging from topo maps, I actually thought Waterfall Creek had the least amount of potential compared to the neighboring creeks like Carter or Bearwallow. One afternoon I originally set out to explore them, but unfortunately neither Carter or Bearwallow really have the water needed behind them to be worth the effort – even in high flows for the area.
Getting to Carter creek was no joke, either. Feeling defeated after the bust, I decided to bushwhack over the ridge to Waterfall Creek and check out a spot where two lines on the topo map come together with a tributary. Then I could bushwhack up the mountain to the Douglas Falls Trail and back out to my Jeep.
Easier said than done, though. After getting “cliffed” out several times, I found a way to descend a 40ft rock wall by hanging and sliding in a parkour-style descent. When I landed on Waterfall Creek, about 160ft downstream from the confluence, I was in front of this small but scenic 10ft small falls.
Just before the confluence, I was treated to this 30ft drop:
Just above this waterfall is another 40ft drop, surrounded by a wrapping rock wall:
These were the rock formations that I had been searching out in the Big Ivy. Unfortunately, by that time I needed to make it out before dark. I made a GRUELING bushwhack up the tributary of Douglas Falls with a game plan to return and see the rest of the creek.
That following weekend, a return trip was made with fellow explorer Wilton Jordan. The plan was to hike to Douglas Falls, head downstream to the confluence with Waterfall Creek (where I was the week prior), head upstream from there until we reach the upper sections of the Douglas Falls Trail, and finally head back to the parking via the Douglas Falls Trail.
The Douglas Falls Trail begins very clearly at the south end of the parking. It meanders gently for about 0.6 miles until reaching the base of the 80ft Douglas Falls. Since my subsequent visit a week prior, an impressive amount of ice had formed on this side of the ridge.
From here, we headed downstream via river right through the boulder garden. Initially there was a small resemblance of a path from people exploring the moss ridden rocks, but it faded pretty quickly. Shortly you should cross under a tree root “arch”, which is something to see in of itself!
Just beyond the tree arch and boulder garden, the going gets tough. Be prepared to be frustrated as you make your way down the next ~675ft through undergrowth hell because it’s insanely thick in there. The best bet is to stay as close to river right as possible and try to aim around the thickets. You may have to do a bit of “surfing” to get through here.
Around 275ft downstream, there is a ~50ft slide waterfall with an ~8ft drop at the top. Near the base of the waterfall is a really cool fissure room between the boulders on river left.
If you walk into the obviously large crack on river left, it will open to a room with no roof! You could also bushwhack around to the top and walk right up to it, like a giant hole in the earth.
At the base of this waterfall, it is important to cross onto river left. Staying river right will start to push you away from the tributary and lead you to a series of cliffs tucked into the mountainside. Friends of mine, who have previously made it to the bottom sculpted rock waterfall, reported walking on top of rhodos over cliffs.
In ~175ft, you’ll come to a small, less than 10ft, rock outcropping/wall. The tributary flows down it in a cascading fashion.
There is more than one way to get down from here, so do what is the easiest for you. Just make sure you that can return the same way you came and stay river left. This part will try to lead you away towards river right because it appears easier, but it will only end with you walking on rhodos over drops.
Once past this section, the wrapping rock wall and upper waterfall should be visible. One could follow the rock wall tightly down to the base of the upper drop, where it is much more open and easier to walk to the top of the sculpted rock waterfall below. On my trip with Wilton, the wall was covered in long icicles that were crashing, so we came straight down through the thicket until we landed at the base’s open area.
It was stunning how much ice had formed in just one week between visits. I was utterly blown away and simultaneously mesmerized. Not to mention, this particular waterfall is one of my favorites in Big Ivy. Aside from the rock wall, I particularly enjoy the moss covered old growth tree that broke over a SUV-sized boulder.
Right behind the base of this waterfall, is the brink of the sculpted rock waterfall. The tributary that Douglas Falls is on enters on river right as a ~100ft multi-cascading waterfall. It is quite an experience to stand somewhere and see three significant water features as you spin in a circle!
Getting to the base of the sculpted rock waterfall from here is a bit dicey – you’ll have to cross the tributary waterfall to get around the bowl-shaped wall. Crossing it in ice was a risky maneuver. Once across, you’ll be able to reach the base river left.
This is my favorite waterfall in Big Ivy so far. I absolutely love everything about it – the old growth and new growth side by side, the sculpted rock, the blue and emerald water, everything! It is very photogenic and I may have gone a tad overboard with the number of shots I took between both visits.
Unfortunately there is no good way to get around the upper rock wall. In order to proceed upstream, you’ll have to follow the wall back up the mountainside you came down until a point where you can go around the wall itself, then drop back down into the gorge. If you thought it was bad getting down this far, it’s even more dense and thick above the upper wall.
After ascending then descending around the wall, we stayed in the creek the rest of the way. Waterfall Creek is surprisingly calm and mellow right above the rock wall. It gently meanders through some scenic cascades for around 650ft until it reaches a small, 12ft waterfall with an interesting rock formation.
While not big, this small fall is quite unique. The UFO-esq rock splits the creek as it falls over it. On river left, a 45 degree slanted and moss covered wall rises for about 35ft.
The next major waterfall isn’t for another 0.25 miles upstream. For the most part there are only small, but scenic, cascades along the way. In about 270ft, there is a cascade with a small hint of sculpted rock to it.
In about 0.1 miles upstream, a huge hemlock forest emerges on river right. I’ve never seen so many standing hemlocks next to each other and it was an impressive cluster. An unmarked tributary comes down through it and forms a waterfall similar to how the tributary that Douglas Falls is on forms a waterfall at the confluence with Waterfall Creek. I unfortunately wasn’t able to get a good photo and was running out of ambition to bushwhack over there.
Once you pass the Hemlock forest, the next ~55ft waterfall is 350ft upstream. For the most part, we stayed river right and/or rock hopped in the creek. It isn’t until you get close to the waterfall that the terrain gets rocky and steep again.
This was the tallest waterfall we saw on the creek that day and my second favorite of the whole run. In a rare moment, I actually enjoy the dead fall old growth – it gives the waterfall scale without really distracting too much from it. It also has a lot of different aesthetics going on, offering a ton of photographic opportunities.
From here, we headed upstream via river right. In about 350ft another feeder tributary enters the creek on river left, but it doesn’t have much flow even in higher waters. After the confluence, it gets steep again. You’ll gain about 200ft in elevation but in only 525ft worth of creek. About right at the 4558′ elevation mark is the next 25ft waterfall.
This waterfall is a gorgeous, wide wall that spreads the creek thin and was half covered in ice during our visit! The upper stretches of the Douglas Falls Trail was only about 160ft above this drop. Getting out and around this waterfall was the hardest part of the entire hike. I cannot stress enough how dense these thickets are. River right is definitely the better choice, but I remember thinking to myself, “How are we even going to get into the woods, it’s so thick.”. We ended up scrambling half way up the waterfall and then just sort of “surfed” onto the tops of the thickets and “rolled” our way over and up until we reached the trail. It was terrible and I would never want to attempt that in full summer growth.
At the trail, Waterfall Creek forms a continuous series of cascading drops, known as Cascade Falls, as it moves upwards until the headwaters filter out. It’s hard to pinpoint or describe an exact, distinguishable drop but it is still a series of falling water that goes on for a bit.
At this point, it’s 1.3 miles back down the Douglas Falls Trail until you reach the base of Douglas Falls and another 0.6 miles from there to the parking.