English Falls

English Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/11, 4 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Beauty Rating:
9
Accessibility:
Path and bushwhack
River:
Tributary of North Fork Catawba River
River Basin:
Catawba
Watershed:
Very small
Elevation:
3,480 feet
Type and Height:
Free falls and cascades about 50 feet high
Landowner:
Appears to be on the border of Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest, Grandfather Ranger District
County:
McDowell
USGS Map:
Linville Falls
Hike Distance:
About 0.25 mile
Hike Difficulty:
10
Photo Rating:
10
Compass:
345°
Canopy:
Closed
Waterfall GPS:
Trailhead GPS:
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Driving Directions

From US 221 near Linville Falls, drive south on the Blue Ridge Parkway for 4.5 miles to Milepost 322. About 200 feet north of the milepost there is a space on the left (east) side of the road for a single car to park. If you can’t squeeze in there, continue south on the parkway for 0.1 mile where you’ll find places on the left to pull over.

Hike Description

I’ve been to English Falls at least five times and have used three different routes to get there and four to get back. I still have more exploring to do, but I think I have the way pretty well figured out. Regardless of the route you take, you’re going to get a workout and you need to pay careful attention at a few spots if you want to come back unharmed.

You should also read the hike description for Upper English Falls. It will add more perspective and will be necessary if you wish to see both waterfalls on the same hike.

Begin the hike by walking along the parkway to the Milepost 322 marker, which is on the west side of the road. A guardrail is on the east side. You want to enter the woods at the start of the guardrail. There is no official trail here, but enough people have been here to create a path.

The path is not graded, and it twists around the trees, but you should be able to follow it easily enough. The path descends to a point near the top of the cliff that runs several hundred feet on the river-right sides of the falls, although you may not realize you’re that close. You’ll reach a point where you need to turn right off the path and descend the cliff. That point should be obvious enough if you pay attention, since so many people have used it recently. The GPS reading for the junction is N35.91327, W-81.96156 .

I didn’t know the river-right cliff route existed when I made my first two trips. I knew the rim path was there because I followed it back from the falls on my first hike, but I had no idea that it was possible to get down through the cliff on the river-right side without rappelling or rock climbing. Fortunately, Mark Oleg alerted me to a video that Brett Haas had posted where Brett had followed this route. Thanks guys!

Taking this side path down through the cliff is the shortest route to the falls. But it’s also the most difficult and the most dangerous. And it has gotten more dangerous as people have gone this way and stripped the ground of vegetation. If it’s raining or has rained recently, I recommend you avoid it. Even when dry, you’ll likely descend much of the route on your butt. You may find ropes for part of the way, but you are always taking a chance using a rope that has been left out for any amount of time.

Even if you make it safely down for 95% of the route, the other 5% may stop you. The path comes out a sheer cliff about as high as NBA guard. You can shimmy down part of it, but the only option to reach the bottom is to jump or descend on a rope that you bring with you. (Even if a rope is there, don’t use it. For the cliff, you will need to trust the rope with your full weight, unlike the other sections where part of your weight will be on the ground.) Once you reach the bottom of the cliff, and if you didn’t break a leg on the way down, turn left and walk a few yards to the falls.

  • People ask me all the time if this route to English Falls is as bad as some claim it to be. I’ve heard some people say it’s horrendous and others say it’s no worse than many other waterfall hikes. The truth is that they are both right. For some people, the hike won’t be a problem. For others, it could kill them. People have been seriously hurt here. All I can do is explain it as best as possible and hope you assess your abilities honestly and exercise good judgement.
  • If the river-right cliff descent is too extreme for you, you can reach the falls easier from the river-left side. Continue following the rim path down to the creek, cross, and then work your way up through the woods away from the creek. I haven’t been this way in a few years, so I can’t say for sure what you’ll find. When I was there, there were faint paths all over the place, but none obvious enough to follow well. A high cliff extends from the river-left side of the falls as well. I found one spot well away from the creek where you can safely descend through it. You climb down through a notch at the steepest section, and then bushwhack down along the base of the cliff to the falls. It’s tough, but easier and safer than the descent on the river-right side. Finding this notch to descend through is simply a matter of walking along the top of the cliff until you find the way down.
  • You can descend part of the cliff to the base of Upper English Falls. There is one spot where you can get through the cliff on river left, near the creek. It descends to a point near the base of the upper waterfall. To find the spot, you’ll have to work away from the creek a bit, but not too much. Chances are, you’re just as likely to miss it and just descend along the creek, which may be just as easy anyway. And I’ve heard from a couple of people that it’s relatively easy to access the upper falls from the river-right side, but I haven’t checked it out yet. Regardless, you can’t safely access the base of English Falls this way.
  • For those who don’t want to have anything to do with descending the cliffs but still want to see the falls, the best suggestion I can make is to swing wide away from the creek on river left. I’m assuming the cliff peters out at some point, where you could easily get around it. Forget trying this on the river-right side. I’ve done it and it’s just not a safe or practical way to go.
  • I suppose I’ll mention one other option, but only so I can dissuade anyone who may consider it as a shortcut. It’s possible to climb the river-left side of English Falls to get between Upper English and English. On my first trip, I did this on the way back. But there’s a huge catch. There is a point near the top of English Falls where you must maneuver around a projecting rock and make a short hop over nothingness. If you fall, you die. Beyond this point, you must climb on the waterfall itself, crossing the creek in the process. While that is easier than maneuvering around the projecting rock, it’s still not advisable since you are literally crossing the creek on the waterfall.
  • I didn’t make any written notes about doing this and I couldn’t remember much about it, so when I hiked to the falls recently, I wanted to go this way again and record it thoroughly. When I reached that projecting rock near the top of the falls, I did my best impression of Indiana Jones on the rope bridge in The Temple of Doom. You know, “Oh shit!” I’d like to think that my mind is still as sharp as it was a few years ago, even if my body isn’t, but all I knew for sure was that there was no way I was going to try that maneuver again. And I hope to goodness you don’t either!

Overview

I’ve long known this waterfall existed. I intended to include it in the second edition of North Carolina Waterfalls, but a landslide on the Blue Ridge Parkway forced a road closure before I made the hike. When I finally did hike to it for the third edition, the waterfall presented perhaps the most difficult challenge of any I’ve researched—not because of the hike difficulty but because of the challenge of deciding whether or not to include it in the book.

English Falls was at that time among the most pristine waterfalls I’ve seen in North Carolina. Every square inch of everything was covered in thick, lush moss. A substantial spray-cliff natural community is behind the falls. On my first visit, I saw no footsteps or any indications of human presence whatsoever, although I know the waterfall is not a secret, especially to the locals. And for the first time at any waterfall, I saw a young box turtle sitting directly under one of the drops of the falls, as if it were a kid playing under a garden hose. I was so careful not to trample the moss and vegetation that I spent a couple hours photographing the scene, a task that ordinarily would have taken half the time.

I left thinking this one wouldn’t go in the book, as is the case with several other waterfalls I’m keeping secret for some of the same reasons. However, it wasn’t long before I saw a video of English Falls on Facebook, posted by a fellow waterfaller. I knew that once the hard-core waterfalling crowd got wind of it, it would be open season. So, I decided to include it and appeal to the integrity of all who visit it. Please tread lightly. Is that shot worth it?

My first visit was in June of 2015. I returned around mid-May of 2017. There were obvious indications of people visiting the falls, but it wasn’t alarming. But when I returned in mid-June 2017, there had been a significant change. In only a month, I could see a sizable increase in the trampling and soil dislodging and there was now a well-worn scramble path on the river-right side.

Of course, you can’t hike to a waterfall without stepping on the ground. My steps contribute to the trampling as much as anyone’s. The best way all of us can minimize the disturbance is simply to remain on the established path. Don’t stray from it for photos, even a few feet. If you stray at English Falls, you’ll be stepping on a mossy rock or loose, fragile soil. If we remain on the established path, English Falls will remain a beautiful, lush waterfall for everyone who visits.

And to the person who carved their initials on the tree at the base of the falls…

I’m often asked to name my favorite waterfall in North Carolina. I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you without hesitation which one I think is the most photogenic. It’s English Falls. There aren’t many North Carolina waterfalls that offer so many compositional options. It comes with a catch though. The waterfall needs water. The creek is very small, so you need to visit during wet periods. Also, for the best photos, you need to visit on an overcast day. I take that one step further and prefer to visit on rainy, foggy days. That said, please heed my advice in the hike description about taking the river-right route to the falls when it’s wet.

Some of the compositions that show the entire waterfall will necessarily have to show some sky as well. The white sky of an overcast day doesn’t look good in the photos, but on a foggy day, you can get away with it. The fog adds an ethereal affect that works well. While you may be tempted to scramble around looking for photo vantage points, I can assure you that it isn’t necessary. I made every photo shown here from the established path.

English Falls is named for the English family, who farm the land downstream from the falls.

All the info above, including the hike description, was updated on 9/27/2020. The info below is the update I gave on 11/29/2018. I think it’s important to leave that update in place for all to read. I have modified it slightly for clarification.

I have seen many social media posts about English falls over the past several months. Some of them are factually incorrect. Until now, I have chosen not to respond, but the scuttlebutt has reached the point where I’m afraid it could negatively influence and impact the visitor experience. So, I am providing this update to clear up any confusion you may have because of these postings.

I will not comment on the motivation behind these posts, nor will I give any opinions about them, or address anything that doesn’t specifically relate to your hike. The notes I make below address specific comments made on social media that could cause problems with planning and completing a visit to English Falls.

  • The Park Service is not planning to ban parking on the Blue Ridge Parkway within three miles in both directions from the trailhead. If this changes, I will let you know right away.
  • There is no “illegal” trail to English Falls if you begin your hike from the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is Park Service property that has no special provisions, at least not as of now. As such, it is open land for anyone to walk on. You are free to go wherever you like on your hike to English Falls.
  • The Park Service does not like for people to install ropes along the path at English Falls, or at any other waterfall. They view it as if they leave the ropes in place, it would be endorsing the route and it exposes them to liability. It is also considered maintaining an unofficial trail, as well as littering, both of which are citable offenses. However, if any ropes are in place, it is perfectly legal (if not advisable) for you to use them.
  • Hiking the path down the cliff on river right does less damage to the lush vegetation around the base of the falls than the bushwhack route on river left. The river-right route drops you out directly at a good vantage point of the falls. The one on river left requires more scrambling around at the base. However, if you are careful, you can tread lightly on the river-left side.
  • The route on river left is far easier and should be achievable by most everyone who feels comfortable with bushwhacks. It is, however, more difficult to follow the route without getting twisted around.
  • English Falls is not “special” regarding its access, environmental situation, or Park Service policy. These situations apply equally to many waterfalls on Park Service property.
English Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/16, 3 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/11, 1.3 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 25mm, f/22, 6 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/16, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24m, f/22, 4 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 22mm, f/22, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 22mm, f/22, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/22, 3 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/11, 1.6 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 2.5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

English Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 20mm, f/16, 1.3 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 22mm, f/22, 2.5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/11, 3 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 3 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/11, 3 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/11, 2.5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 4 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 3 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

English Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 36mm, f/16, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/11, 2 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

English Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 4 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 24mm, f/11, 2.5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

English Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 32mm, f/16, 8 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

English Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 68mm, f/16, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

English Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 125mm, f/16, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 58mm, f/16, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 85mm, f/16, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 100mm, f/16, 5 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 78mm, f/16, 4 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 45mm, f/16, 4 seconds, ISO 200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 45mm, f/18, 1/15 second, ISO 3200, polarizing filter. Photographed in rain.

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