Located in the Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, Tough Hill Branch may be one of the most picturesque creeks the area can offer. As the rocky waterway passes through the southern flank of Tough Hill Mountain, it descends into a boulder choked gorge that boasts several unique waterfalls.
Although the gorge itself is short, it makes up for that in exceptional beauty and jammed packed features. In only a 0.25 mile stretch, there are at least 6 – 8 waterfalls (depending on your own personal definition), a bonus waterfall along the approach in, and at least one more even further upstream than all the others.
But make no mistake, there’s a reason Tough Hill Branch has earned its moniker. Navigating the creek requires rock hopping, wading, and some creative scrambling in places. This trip report covers only the meat of the gorge and is just shy of 6 miles round trip.
The approach of this hike requires about 0.6 miles of road walking from the parking pullout, which is located on Rackett Branch Road in Globe, NC. Because the last drive-able section of the road crosses onto private property, it’s best to park on a section of the road that is still within the national forest boundaries.
From the intersection of 221 and the Blue Ridge Parkway near Grandfather Mountain, head south on 221 for 0.5 miles and turn right onto Edgemont Road. From there follow Edgemont Road for 8.1 miles before turning left onto Globe Road. Remain on Globe Road for 0.8 until you come to the intersection with Rackett Branch Road. At the intersection, Globe Road curves right and continues on and if you remain straight, you’ll cross onto Rackett Branch Road. The parking pullout is about 1.1 miles from the intersection and occurs on the outside of the road as it bends to the left.
The exact GPS pinpoint of the parking is (36.08220, -81.75251).
Continue down Globe Road for about 0.6 miles, at which point you’ll see a residential house on the right. From there the road turns left and will enter the national forest property again. In another 0.5 miles from the house, you’ll come to a closed gate. 0.3 miles from the gate, you’ll reach a junction with an old road – just continue to follow the main road that you’ve been on thus far. After another 0.2 miles, you’ll come up on an open canopy field that is completely overgrown with tall grass. At this point split right, off the road, and begin to make your way diagonally right through the tall grass for about 180ft until you come to a stream. This is Tough Hill Branch. Cross the stream and continue through the tall grass towards the right. This is actually a logging grade but it is severely overgrown at this section. In a little less than 200ft, the logging grade becomes far more defined and actually begins to resemble a full blown road. The GPS for this spot is (36.08865, -81.74418).
Once you make it onto that part of the logging road, the rest of the approach is easily followed along this grade. Continue for about 0.2 miles until you reach a junction with another logging grade – turn right and begin to follow it down the spine of the ridge. In roughly 250 yards the grade will intersect another grade that is switchbacking down the mountain – just stay straight through this junction. About 85ft after that will be another junction with a very faint logging grade. At this split, turn right and follow the more obviously defined grade.
This is the northern flank of Tough Hill Mountain. Continue down the logging grade as it wraps south and then east around Tough Hill. By now, the creek will be paralleled with the grade, but deep below you as this is also where the gorge section of it begins. On my trip we followed the logging grade to the bottom of the gorge and went upstream, but I know of others who have dropped off the grade here to the creek and followed it downstream. The choice is yours.
If you decide to continue on the grade and go upstream, then follow the grade for 0.5 miles to the final junction with another logging road that descends down to your left. At this intersection, continue straight for about 500ft and it will spit you out onto Tough Hill Branch. The best way down is to go river left briefly and then scramble down the hillside. If you aim it just right, you’ll end up at the base of the first waterfall about 50 yards above the confluence with Gragg Prong.
This waterfall may only be about 12ft tall but the setting is superb. The mossy grotto it falls into is both delicate and photogenic. The fragmented rock shelf really adds a lot of character and depth, while more boulder piles line up on river right above the drop.
From here, continue upstream by scrambling the boulders river left. At this point moving forward, the next several waterfalls occur one right after the other. The best way to negotiate the creek is to rock hop and scramble in whichever way is easiest for you.
The second waterfall is about 12-15ft tall. It feels encased by the boulders surrounding it and is rather interesting with the split flow. Not to mention it took a much better photo than I thought it would!
The third waterfall is about 20 yards upstream from here. I ascended the second drop on river left.
This 20ft drop was gorgeous and exceptionally photogenic. It is a long slide with several mini cascading ledges. On river right, a huge boulder towers next to the waterfall, along with smaller boulder piles surrounding that.
The next feature is about 180ft upstream. It’s a small cascade around 10ft and looks like it’s pouring out of a keyhole. The river right side has a vibrantly green mossy wall that looks steeper than what it is. To get above here, I scrambled the wall and went right over the brink of the waterfall. Other people in my group decided to bushwhack around this wall, but they reported it was quite difficult and shrouded with poison ivy.
Directly above that cascade is the base of the next waterfall. Beware, getting into the base of it can be risky if you cannot get out. It is completely surrounded by huge boulders and an impressive overhang on both sides, but the one on river left is amazing. The rock face can be steep to climb and the crack formed between the boulders on river left is wet with seepage, making scrambling in and out slippery. Exercise caution going to the base of this one.
This waterfall may be my favorite on the whole stretch. The overhangs, which I apparently didn’t really get a composition of in my photos, is stunning. There are about 3 fallen logs which make it frustrating to photograph this beauty, but it’s still very mesmerizing.
I noticed what looked like a faint path from the top of this drop on river left and it went up the hillside. Geographically speaking, it seems like this would lead right up to the logging grade used on the approach down. It’s very possible that it’s a spur from the grade but I didn’t notice it on the way down.. but I wasn’t looking for one either.
Above this drop, the creek enters a series of slot-like cascades as it narrows between rising rock structures on each side. We traversed it via river left.
Once past the cascades, a huge rock shelf emerges on river right as the next waterfall becomes visible. At some point before reaching the base of the next drop, you’ll need to cross to river left.
This 25ft waterfall is a stunner. It falls into a mossy cove-like formation on river right, while the river left side has a huge and open rock face to scramble around on. The shape and greenery here reminds me of Gingercake Falls, which you can read about here.
To continue, scramble up the rock face on river left. Immediately upstream, the creek enters another series of rocky cascades.
We remained on river left to continue past the cascades. The next waterfall is a few yards further up from there.
The most obviously prominent feature of this 25ft waterfall is the 40ft bluff that shadows it on river left. That rock really accentuates the details of the waterfall and completely dwarfs the scale of it. Overall this may be my second favorite on the whole creek. Shortly upstream from here is the next waterfall.
This waterfall comes in at around 45ft and has a ton of detail going on with it. The drop pours over several rocky ledges and dips through some pothole formations as well. Unfortunately it’s hard to do this one justice because it can be awkward to find a good composition to encompass all of it.
At this point, you’ll be at the head of the gorge and beyond the meat of the creek. The next waterfall past here is about 0.3 miles upstream and the creek really begins to mellow out now. Instead of trudging through a boring section of the creek, we decided to ascend the hillside on river left and link back up with the logging road we used to approach the creek.
Once on the logging road, begin to retrace your route back the way you came in. The final waterfall of this portion of the creek occurs right around the 2200′ elevation mark. I didn’t notice this on the way in (probably because I wasn’t looking for it then) but a faint spur path will actually take you to the last waterfall from the logging grade. If you’re right above the 2200′ elevation mark, then you should be able to find the faint path back down to the creek.
The GPS point where I found the spur leading down is (36.08717, -81.74218).
If you end up at the top of the waterfall, then scramble down the rock face on river right to the base.
This waterfall is the biggest of the whole trip and one of the coolest in terms of geology. The 50ft drop features several potholes forming along the rock face of the waterfall. But because the rock is so wide, it spreads out the creek’s flow and can make it feel like there is little to no water coming over it. Regardless, this is certainly an unique feature that you wouldn’t want to miss out on!
Retrace your steps back up to the main logging grade and reverse the route you took in back to the car. There is at least one more waterfall further upstream from where the hike reaches the creek, but I have yet to check it out and unfortunately cannot provide further beta for it other than I believe it occurs near the 2600′ elevation mark.