Driving DirectionsUpper Trailhead
To reach the upper trailhead from US 64 in Cashiers, drive 6.2 miles north on NC 107 and turn left on Pine Creek Road (marked as SR 1163 on the green sign and SR 1157 on the stop-sign post). Drive 1.9 miles and park on the right at Pines Recreation Area.Lower Trailhead
To reach the lower trailhead from US 64 in Cashiers, drive 8 miles north on NC 107 and turn left on the unpaved Shoal Creek Mountain Road (SR 1158). Go less than 0.1 mile and park on the side of the road just beyond the side road that forks right.
From the upper trailhead, the hike begins at the gate on High Falls Trail. You’ll descend on the gravel road for just under 0.2 mile, then turn right on the obvious trail. The trail descends a little over 0.6 mile to the falls. It is well graded and easy to follow but is steep in places and has lots of steps.
From the lower trailhead, take the side road that forks to the right off Shoal Creek Mountain Road. It has an orange gate. You’ll cross Shoal Creek on an auto bridge at 0.1 mile and come to a fork at 0.2 mile. Go left and ascend gradually for 0.4 mile. The trail swings around a ridge, then descends gradually for over 1 mile to a side path on the right. The side path leads to a view of Rough Run Falls. From the side path, it’s another 0.3 mile to High Falls. When you get close to the falls, you’ll have to scramble along the rocks to reach the base.
Most of the lower trail is not on Duke Energy property. The landowners allow public access provided visitors follow these conditions: no four-wheelers or other motorized vehicles, no littering, no camping, no campfires of any kind, no fishing or hunting. In other words, conduct yourself as you would anytime you’re on another person’s property. Break these rules and access for everyone could be denied.
Of all the changes that have occurred regarding waterfalls in the last decade, the opening of High Falls to the public has to be among the most welcome. Hikers could always access the falls from the lower trailhead without much fear of getting into trouble, but there wasn’t anything official about it. Now that Duke Energy has built the new trail from the upper trailhead, High Falls is becoming well known and is open to the public. The property owners at the lower trailhead have chosen to allow access for everyone, despite the increase in visitation. They are to be commended.
If you aren’t familiar with High Falls, you might be in for a disappointment. Most days of the year, it is nearly dry. The flow of West Fork Tuckasegee River is diverted from the Lake Glenville dam to the powerhouse farther down NC 107. Unless you visit during a heavy rain, the only thing you’ll see is a big cliff with a trickle of water falling over it. In dry conditions, it could be nothing more than a big, wet rock. However, it is an impressive sight even during these times, as evidenced by the beauty rating of 7.
In 2001, American Whitewater explored West Fork Tuckasegee River for its potential for whitewater kayaking. In 2003, the group signed an agreement with Duke Energy for periodic dam releases. The releases began in 2013. Currently, there are seven planned releases annually, each release lasting from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Click here to get the current Duke Energy dam release schedule. From that page, click on West Fork Tuckasegee River Bypass Releases to open the current PDF.
There is no way I can adequately describe what it’s like to experience a dam release at High Falls. Get there early, before the release starts. One minute, you’ll be looking at a mostly dry cliff while wearing dry clothes. The next, you’ll see a raging torrent and your clothes will be soaked from the spray. You’ll discover that the vantage point you chose to photograph the falls once the release began is far too close. You’ll have to back up to get away from the spray and heavy water flow. In 1938, two years before the dam was built, Scenic Resources of the Tennessee Valley described High Falls as being “among the three or four most beautiful and impressive cataracts in the Tennessee Valley Region.” Visit the waterfall during a dam release and you won’t question that assessment. In fact, during a release, far more water goes over the falls than the normal flow before the dam was built.
If you do visit during a release, you’ll need to understand a few things. First, it takes about 30 minutes for the water to get from the dam to the falls. So, for a release scheduled to occur at 10 a.m., the water won’t go over the falls until close to 10:30. And the releases don’t always occur on schedule. I’ve seen the water go over the falls at 9:20 a.m. for a scheduled 10 a.m. release. So you’ll want to arrive early to be sure of catching it as it happens.
Another thing to prepare for is that you will get wet. You cannot get close enough to the falls for a good view without the spray bombarding you. And the spray will prevent you from photographing the falls well. You’ll have to wipe the lens constantly to remove the water.
The most important consideration is that once the release happens, you can’t cross the river. If you hike from the upper trailhead, you’d better remain on the river-left side or you’ll be hiking back out to the lower trailhead and hitching a ride to the car. This happens quite often because people don’t realize how powerful the current will be after the release. And don’t expect that you’ll be able to cross back over once you see the water first come over the falls. While it does appear to happen slowly, the upper section gathering water before it goes over the lower part, you probably won’t have time to cross back over safely. I’ve witnessed people getting scuffed up pretty badly trying to get across in a hurry. A broken leg or even being carried away by the current are definite possibilities.
High Falls is known to some as Cullowhee Falls. I have no idea how or when that name started, as it has been listed in print as High Falls since at least 1938. An older name is Tuckasegee Falls. It’s listed that way on the USGS 1935 Glenville map. I’ve also seen it captioned on a historical photo as Lower Tuckasegee Falls. I don’t know whether Onion Falls or the waterfall immediately upstream of High Falls was considered Upper Tuckasegee Falls at that time.