Handpole Branch Falls

Handpole Branch Falls

Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35mm lens at 17mm, f/16, 3 seconds, ISO 100, polarizing filter.

Beauty Rating:
Trail and bushwhack
Handpole Branch
River Basin:
Little Tennessee
Very small
2,600 feet
Type and Height:
Continuous slides and cascades totaling over 400 feet high
Nantahala National Forest, Cheoah Ranger District
Hike Distance:
About 1.25 miles to the top
Hike Difficulty:
Photo Rating:
Waterfall GPS:
N35.28098, W-83.68208  

From the base of the upper 50-foot drop

Trailhead GPS:
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Driving Directions

The trailhead is the same as for Bartram Falls, Inside Passage Falls, Notch Falls, and Handpole Branch Falls.

Nantahala Outdoor Center is located on US 19/74, southwest of Bryson City. From NOC, drive about 6.65 miles southwest along Nantahala River (heading upstream) on US 19/74 and turn right on a paved drive leading a short distance to a picnic area. If you’re heading northeast on US 19/74, the picnic area is on the left, 0.85 mile from Wayah Road (SR 1310).

Hike Description

Climb the steps from the parking area and follow the path beyond the picnic tables up to the railroad tracks. Cross the tracks to the obvious path and follow it 100 yards to a junction. The yellow-blazed Bartram Trail goes right and left, while another path goes straight ahead and follows Ledbetter Creek upstream to Inside Passage Falls, Ledbetter Canyon Falls, and Notch Falls. Turn left on Bartram Trail. You’ll cross Ledbetter Creek on a sturdy footbridge in less than 100 feet. Take some deep breaths while admiring the creek. The huffing and puffing start now.

For nearly the next mile, the trail ascends steeply and continuously to gain a narrow ridge. At the point where the trail tops out on the ridge, take the overgrown old road that descends off the other (left) side of the ridge. (Continuing on Bartram Trail takes you to Bartram Falls.) You’ll soon cross Handpole Branch. Follow it downstream. After a short distance, the old road crosses again and heads away from the creek. From there, you’ll need to stay with the creek, following it downstream. You’ll soon come to a tributary on river right that drops over a 12-foot waterfall. The top of Handpole Branch Falls is a few yards downstream. Probably the best way down is to start on river left.


I’ve known this waterfall was here since I worked on the 2nd edition of North Carolina Waterfalls, but I didn’t have time to check it out then. I’m glad I was able to for 3rd edition. Although it’s not an overly attractive falls, it possesses a certain wildness that makes it appealing. Seeing it presents a challenge, however.

The waterfall starts as a steep 50-foot slide. From there, it falls continuously over little slides, free falls, and cascades all the way to the railroad at the bottom of the gorge. Technically, it’s among the highest waterfalls in the state. But since the stream is so small and tumbles over so many little drops instead of big ones, and since there is no place from which to view more than a little section at a time, it doesn’t come across as that big.

There’s no good way to climb down the slope to see all of the waterfall. It’s just a matter of choosing the route of least resistance, which undoubtedly will involve poison ivy, wood nettle, and butt sliding. It’s difficult and dangerous. And in order to stay legal, you’ll have to backtrack once you reach the railroad track at the bottom. It’s a level walk of less than 0.5 mile back to the trailhead along the track, but you’d be trespassing if you went that way.