Balsam Falls

Balsam Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/8, 0.5 second, ISO 200, polarizing filter.

Beauty Rating:
Trail and bushwhack
Wolf Creek
River Basin:
Little Tennessee
3,480 feet
Type and Height:
Two-level cascading falls about 20 feet high
Nantahala National Forest, Nantahala Ranger District
Sam Knob
Hike Distance:
A little over 0.5 mile
Hike Difficulty:
Photo Rating:
Waterfall GPS:
Trailhead GPS:
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Driving Directions

The trailhead is at Balsam Lake Recreation Area on Charleys Creek Road (SR 1756). From the east, turn off NC 215 onto Charleys Creek Road 3.2 miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow Charleys Creek Road 5.3 miles to Balsam Lake. From the west, you can access Charleys Creek Road from NC 281, some 8.4 miles south of NC 107. From that direction, it is 5.4 miles to Balsam Lake.

Hike Description

I’m giving directions here to the four waterfalls that are close together on Wolf Creek: Balsam Falls, Lower Balsam Falls, Patricia Falls, and Lauren Falls. The hike begins at the parking area at Balsam Lake Recreation Area. Mallonee Trail begins across the footbridge over Wolf Creek at the upper end of the lake. Follow the trail a little less than 0.5 mile to the dam.

Along the way you’ll see Balsam Lodge on a ledge above the dam on the far side of the lake. The lodge is open for renting from April 1 to November 1. If you’re a renter, you could also reach the waterfalls from that side, but the access road for the lodge is closed to everyone else, including hikers. During the winter it seems to be in a gray area regarding access, but the Forest Service official I spoke with didn’t even want me to mention that the road existed. Since you’ll know the road is there if you open your eyes, I figured I should mention that you aren’t supposed to hike it. To be honest, you wouldn’t gain much by going that way anyway.

At the dam, a path turns left and follows the creek downstream. It’s only a little better than a full bushwhack, but if you pay attention you should be able to follow it okay. It leads less than 0.2 mile to the base of Balsam Falls. The last few feet on the steep rock are a little dicey.

Once you reach the base, you won’t be able to see the falls well without crossing to the other side, and you’ll have to do that to see the other waterfalls. You’ll cross by wading the pool. The brink of Lower Balsam Falls is at the downstream end of the pool, so I hope I don’t have to tell you stay away from it. If you cross several yards away from the brink, you should be okay in normal flows. If the water is up, turn around.

Once across, scramble up the path on the steep rocks. Be careful, this is a good spot to break a leg. Crawl through the rhodos for a few feet and you’ll come to a switchback in another trail. To the right is the path leading up to the lodge. Go left and in a few yards you’ll see another scramble path on the left that leads down to the base of Lower Balsam Falls.

Continue straight to reach Patricia Falls and Lauren Falls. The path may be a little hard to follow, but just keep following the route of least resistance. If you managed to stay on the path, you’ll soon intersect another path. Turn left and follow that path down to the creek. Once at the creek, head downstream. There is no trail, but it’s not difficult. After you cross a small branch, you’ll need to cross Wolf Creek. This will likely be a wade during normal flows. The brink of Patricia Falls is just around the bend in the creek, so you’ll want to cross just after you come to the small branch.

Once across Wolf Creek, you need to climb up the little ridge. You may find a worn route that leads up and over the ridge and down the bank on the river-left side of the falls. I don’t recommend that route unless you’re very confident in your scrambling abilities. If you didn’t break your leg back at Balsam Falls, here is a great opportunity for it. The safer route is to continue up the ridge and make a wide swing around to reach the base. You’ll find no trail for that.

Lauren Falls is a short distance downstream from Patricia Falls. Follow the creek down on river left toward the top. You should find a worm path that descends to the base. If you are among the lucky ones and made it this far without breaking anything, you’ll get one final splendid opportunity on the descent. When you reach this point and think that I didn’t give you enough warning, please try to remember that the Hike Difficulty rating scale is based on 10 being the most difficult, not least.

If you followed the leg-breaker down to the base, you’ll come out first on a ledge near the base of the falls. Be careful, anything remaining in one piece is in jeopardy here.


Balsam Falls is a pretty little waterfall with a nice, large pool. And for those who don’t mind a mild bushwhack and getting wet, it’s fairly easy to reach. But it does have a couple of features that warrant caution. The scramble down the bank to the base requires close attention. And the pool wade deserves serious consideration. Those who are used to wading in pools like this will wonder why all the fuss, but just look downstream and you’ll see why. There’s another waterfall down there! Yes, you can cross safely if you use common sense and the water level is not too high. But those are two big ifs and I’m just not comfortable giving a thumbs up to this hike.

Nearby Waterfalls