From US 19 in downtown Bryson City, turn north onto Everett Street (the main drag) and follow it out of town. Outside town, it’s called Fontana Road. When you enter the park, it’s called Lakeview Drive. If you just stay on the same road and don’t take any turns, you’ll get it right. From US 19, it is 8.7 miles to the end of the road at a parking area on the right. The trailhead is the same as for Upper Bear Creek Falls.
The hike begins on Lakeshore Trail, which is a continuation of the road. In about 0.1 mile, you’ll come to a tunnel. Yes, Lakeshore Trail passes through this 0.2-mile-long tunnel. See the Overview section for more information about it and the road. Beyond the tunnel, the roadbed changes to a trail. Tunnel Bypass Trail soon comes in from the left. Horses and claustrophobic hikers use the bypass. Mountain laurel is abundant here, as it is along the entire route. If you’re hiking in May or early June, its blooms are a special treat.
Shortly beyond Tunnel Bypass Trail, you’ll come to Goldmine Loop Trail on the left. Swing to the right around the ridge, remaining on Lakeshore Trail. After an easy section, you’ll ascend moderately for over 0.5 mile, cross a ridge, then descend for over 0.5 mile to a trail junction. Whiteoak Branch Trail goes right (more like straight ahead). Turn left to remain on Lakeshore Trail. You’ll descend for about 0.1 mile to an old road. Turn sharply right on it and hike 50 yards to a bridge over Gray Wolf Creek. The road turns right beyond the bridge, while Lakeshore Trail, your route, goes straight ahead. The trail follows an easy course for about 0.25 mile, then makes a sharp right turn around a ridge and descends moderately for about 0.7 mile to a T junction at Forney Creek.
At the T, Lakeshore Trail goes left. Turn right and follow Forney Creek Trail upstream. In less than 0.4 mile, you’ll reach Bear Creek Trail, on the left. Take it. You’ll immediately cross Forney Creek on a wide auto bridge. In less than 0.2 mile, you’ll cross Bear Creek on an auto bridge. Beyond the bridge, the trail swings away from the creek and ascends moderately for 0.3 mile to a left switchback beside Welch Branch. A little footbridge spans the branch, but don’t cross it. You’ll need to turn left on the switchback to remain on Bear Creek Trail. You’ll soon swing back into the Bear Creek drainage.
At about 0.4 mile from the switchback, at a point where the trail turns right, you’ll hear Bear Creek Falls and barely glimpse it through the trees. In winter, you should see it without any trouble. No trail leads down to it, and there are no good indicators for where to leave Bear Creek Trail. GPS for this point is N35.47257, W-83.57304 . (To see Upper Bear Creek Falls, you would continue on the trail from this point.) It’s less than 0.2 mile down to Bear Creek Falls, most of the route through fairly open woods. When you get close to the creek, you’ll have to wade through the typical rhododendron jungle.
The waterfall is not far upstream from where Bear Creek Trail crosses the creek. You can follow the creek upstream to it, but it will be slow going in the creek bed—and even slower if you try to wade through the rhododendrons on the bank.
Since the hike is nearly 5 miles, and since part of it has a difficulty rating of 10, you may wonder if Bear Creek Falls is worth it. In all honesty, it probably isn’t for most people. I think it’s beautiful, and I love the photo opportunities. And I really like the spooky tunnel at the start of the hike. But those 4.5 miles in between are rather boring.
If you’re planning to see Upper Bear Creek Falls, you might consider creek walking up to it, rather than climbing back up to the trail, then bushwhacking back down to the creek. But the creek walk is long and difficult, and if you’re not very comfortable with that sort of thing, it’s best to go back to the trail.
Speaking of the tunnel, if you aren’t familiar with the history of Lakeview Drive, you’ll no doubt wonder what the heck is going on. Why would someone build a 1,000-foot-long tunnel wide enough for two lanes of traffic, only to use it for a hiking trail? Good question. The answer is that the U.S. government reneged on a 1943 agreement to build a road from near Bryson City to near Fontana Dam as part of mitigation for damming the Little Tennessee River to create Fontana Lake. The lake flooded sections of NC 288, and a new road would provide an access route around the lake and generate needed tourism income for the county.
The state of North Carolina upheld its end of the bargain by building a road to the park boundary. The National Park Service began its section of the road in the 1960s but stopped after the construction uncovered rocks that, when exposed to air and water, created sulfuric acid runoff detrimental to aquatic life and vegetation. The Park Service’s viewpoint was that further construction would be harmful to the environment and the overall wilderness aspect of the Smokies. Furthermore, the road was no longer as important as it was in the 1940s because NC 28 on the south shore of Fontana Lake provided a suitable route around the lake. Several cemeteries were blocked from road access because of the lake, but the park provided boat access for family members.
For decades, many in Swain County fought for completion of the road, while many others fought for a cash settlement for the county. The official position of the National Park Service was for the cash settlement. Powerful people on both sides of the fight shook their fists. Finally, through the efforts of Congressman Heath Shuler, a settlement was made. On February 6, 2010, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the U.S. Department of the Interior would pay up to $52 million into a trust fund for Swain County.
The long fight is over, and for most people the hatchet is buried. However, old feelings die hard, especially when the government is involved. If you want to see Bear Creek Falls, you’ll have to drive by a particularly opinionated sign erected many years ago by an obviously disgruntled Swain County resident.
For waterfallers, the “Road to Nowhere” saga has resulted in a unique hiking experience. How many waterfall hikes start with a walk through a tunnel? It’s long enough that it’s dark and spooky in the middle, which for me makes it even more appealing. You might want to bring a flashlight, just in case you hear something go bump.