Middle Creek in the Black Mountains


I’ve had my eye on Middle Creek since the late 1980s. The topo map showed it to have excellent potential for waterfalls and I’ve viewed parts of the watershed from a distance along the Blue Ridge Parkway thinking there has to be something in there. And I knew that Middle Creek Falls existed because a former Mount Mitchell State Park ranger told me about it. But for whatever reason, I didn’t explore the creek until winter of 2017.

Of course, after seeing it I’m upset that it took me so long. Over its entire distance, it’s one of the more remarkable watersheds in the mountains, although the waterfalls can’t compare with rivers in the southwest portion of the state. A unique feature is the high elevation of the creek’s source, Balsam Cone. At over 6,600 feet high, it is the fifth highest mountain in the East.

Of course, there are no waterfalls that high. The headwaters for the north prong of Middle Creek begin on the extremely steep slopes that run between Balsam Cone and Potato Hill. Everything is covered in deep, lush moss on these slopes. The spruce-fir forest is thick and dark. Near the summits, everything is moist most of the time. At around the 6,000-feet elevation, little rivulets begin forming under the moss mats. A few hundred feet lower, definable branches start. Around 5,600 feet, the waterfalls begin.

At this elevation, the waterfalls aren’t remarkable, even if they are very tall. The creeks are just too small. But at 5,400 feet on the north prong of Middle Creek, two branches come together at a major waterfall, Galvladi Falls. One of these branches starts from the north side of Balsam Cone and the other from the south side of Cattail Peak. The south prong of Middle Fork flows down from the southeast side of Balsam Cone. I have not explored the south prong except for Middle Creek Falls, which is right at the confluence of the two prongs. I have no doubt that there are more waterfalls on it.

The entire watershed for Middle Creek is in the Middle Creek Research Natural Area, set aside for biological research with no logging permitted. The upper elevations harbor old-growth forests. A very rare tree, the mountain paper birch, grows on the talus slopes and landslide scars of the high elevations just below the spruce fir forest. If you hike Middle Creek, you’ll see dense stands of it, but you probably won’t find it anywhere else in North Carolina outside of the Black Mountains.

If you wish to explore the entire run of Middle Creek, including either the north or south prong, you’re looking at a long, very strenuous adventure. A fit person who has a lot of experience in off-trail hiking could do it in a long summer day, but there wouldn’t be any time left for smelling the wildflowers or taking pictures. If you attempt it, you’ll need to leave a car at the lower trailhead and start from Mount Mitchell State Park the minute the gate opens. Do not attempt the hike in early spring or late autumn when the days are short. You won’t make it.

When I explored the creek, I hiked in from the picnic area at Mount Mitchell State Park on Deep Gap Trail (a.k.a. Black Mountain Crest Trail). The trail passes through the state park all the way to Cattail Peak, which is beyond where I needed to drop off, just north of Balsam Cone. Camping is not allowed in the state park section of this hike, so I waited until I had cleared the park boundary and entered Pisgah National Forest before setting up camp. Well, before I retired, that is. There is no setting up a camp here, as the slopes are just too steep and there are no flat spots for setting up a tent. I wouldn’t want to, anyway, as it would be too damaging to the mossy ground. A hammock would be the ideal way to go, but I had only a sleeping pad with me so I laid it out on some rocks and spent a restless night. This gave me a full day to follow the creek downstream, which I needed.

If you just want to see the best waterfalls, I wouldn’t do what I did. I’d recommend hiking in from below up to Guyot Falls and backtracking. You’ll see most of the good stuff and you can do it in a day. I give detailed hiking info in each waterfall profile.

I reached out to the local community for help in finding names for the waterfalls I discovered. I haven’t been able to find any names for most of the falls, established or otherwise. The only waterfall that I’ve heard a name for is the one on south prong Middle Creek, just upstream from the confluence. I’ve heard it called Middle Creek Falls, so that’s what I’m going with. I chose the names for the other waterfalls. If anyone knows of an established local name for any of them, please let me know and I’ll make the change.