From the junction of US 64, US 74A, and NC 9 near Bat Cave, head west on US 74A toward Asheville. At about 3.9 miles, park on the right at Florence Nature Preserve.
The trail begins directly across the road from the lower end of the parking area. Take the steps down the bank into an orchard. Follow along the right side of the orchard and garden and reach the woods. You’ll quickly come to a small creek crossing, which should be easy in all but very high water. Immediately beyond the crossing, you’ll cross Hickory Creek on a footbridge. Turn left after crossing. The trail swings around and follows the creek upstream for a short distance, then swings away and climbs moderately through a forest with a dense understory of Carolina rhododendron, which blooms in May. After 0.7 mile from the footbridge, you’ll cross a small stream. High above and out of sight is Little Bearwallow Falls. The trail ascends more steeply now and uses switchbacks to gain the slope. After about 0.35 mile from the creek, you’ll come to a short set of stone steps. The trail forks soon after the steps. Go left to arrive at the falls in another 0.1 mile.
Here’s another jewel we can thank a land conservancy for. Conserving Carolina (formed by a merger of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Pacolet Area Conservancy) not only acquired the waterfall and Little Bearwallow Mountain, from which the creek flows, but also built the trail to the falls so the public can enjoy it. The conservancy also owns Florence Nature Preserve, which is accessed from the same trailhead.
The waterfall is impressive when it has a good flow, sliding over an enormous cliff. But it needs a lot of water to look its best. In summer, it’s just a big, wet rock. You can see the falls from the parking area and from the orchard at the start of the hike. Look high on the mountain across the gorge. Through binoculars, you can see how high the flow is and decide if you want to make the hike.
While hiking after a heavy rain is recommended, you should be careful about going when the flow is too high. The creeks flowing through Hickory Nut Gorge have a habit of becoming raging torrents. If you go during very wet conditions, don’t be surprised to find the first small creek crossing impassable. If you find the first crossing possible but a little dicey, I would caution against continuing the hike unless you’re certain the creek flow will not increase. Otherwise, you might find yourself stranded on the way back.
In spring, the trail to the falls might be more exciting than the waterfall. It passes through a rich cove forest carpeted with numerous species of wildflowers, including at least three different kinds of trillium.
Wildcat Rock Trail, which leads to the falls, opened in 2017. The trail features sustainable design that protects the rare species and sensitive natural habitats found along the route. Peter Barr, the trails coordinator for Conserving Carolina, designed the trail in 2014 and managed its construction over the following four years. In 2018, the Coalition of Recreational Trails bestowed Conserving Carolina and Barr their annual achievement award for trail design and construction for the Wildcat Rock Trail. Senator Richard Burr and Representative Mark Meadows presented Barr with the award on Capitol Hill.