Thompson River Basin
Of the four major rivers in the Lake Jocassee watershed—the Whitewater, the Thompson, the Horsepasture, and the Toxaway—the Thompson is the least known. Most people on NC 281 on the way to Whitewater Falls on the Whitewater River don’t even realize they drive over the Thompson on the way. And if they do, they have no clue that downstream is a waterfall that many consider as remarkable as Whitewater Falls.
According to Jim Bob Tinsley in The Land of Waterfalls, the Thompson River is named for an early settler, John Thompson. It was originally called the Jocassee River, after a Cherokee princess legend. For years, Crescent Resources, a land management company and subsidiary of Duke Energy (then known as Duke Power), owned the stretch of river from NC 281 to Lake Jocassee. Crescent also owned a huge chunk of the rest of the Lake Jocassee watershed. The company allowed public access for hiking, hunting, and fishing, but developing the property was always a possibility. Fortunately, during the 1990s, Crescent decided to divest itself of much of its holdings in the watershed, including property along the Thompson River. In one transaction, the Forest Service acquired most of the river from NC 281 to just above Big Falls.
Most of the Thompson is open to anyone who wants to explore it. A disadvantage—or an advantage, depending on your point of view—is that many of its waterfalls are difficult to reach. You won’t find any paved paths here. And if you get into trouble, don’t expect help anytime soon. Don’t count on your cell phone working here either.
The Thompson River begins on the east slope of Sassafras Mountain, on the border of Jackson County and Transylvania County. Before entering Lake Jocassee, it drops about 2,500 feet in eight miles—the shortest and steepest run of the four major rivers in the Jocassee watershed. Along its course are five major waterfalls and several smaller ones. All except one are on public land.
Most of the Thompson’s waterfalls are downstream of NC 281. Old logging roads follow most of the river between NC 281 and Lake Jocassee, but they tend to be high above the riverbed. Side paths lead to most of the falls. I’ll give directions from the trailhead on NC 281, but you can also access the river from below. During certain times of year, you can drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle on Musterground Road all the way to the river. The road crosses the river about a mile downstream from Big Falls. See the Lower Whitewater Falls listing for details about Musterground Road. Foothills Trail crosses the Thompson less than 0.5 mile below Big Falls. From the Bad Creek Access trailhead, it’s about 3.4 miles to the river.
The final mile or so of the river is in South Carolina. Several waterfalls are in this stretch, but I haven’t explored them. The best way to reach them is via Musterground Road, which runs high above the river along this stretch. Or you could reach the river on a boat ride on Lake Jocassee, then follow it upstream to the falls.
The river corridor is a fragile ecosystem supporting numerous rare plants. Without a developed system of trails, there is a greater danger that visitors will destroy this habitat. Anytime you leave the main trail, take special care to tread as lightly as possible. Don’t grab a clump of ferns while traversing a steep slope, and don’t step on moss-covered rocks if you can help it. And stay away from the spray zone at any waterfall, as it is often habitat for rare and endangered plants.
Owing to its short run through steep mountains, the Thompson has few sizable tributaries. Mill Creek is the largest, flowing from the south side of Sassafras Mountain and entering the Thompson a short distance below NC 281. Along its course are four named waterfalls. Reid Branch, flowing from Rocky Knobs, has one waterfall. Farther downstream is an unnamed tributary that has a high waterfall. I’m sure other waterfalls are on tributaries, but these are the only ones I’ve explored.