The trailhead is at the NC 281 bridge over the Whitewater River 7.75 miles south of US 64. A small parking area is on the north (river left) side of the bridge.
The upper trailhead that I mention in my waterfall book is no longer recommended to access the river. (See Hike Description) If you wish to access it anyway, it is located at the end of Heady Mountain Road (SR 1103) off NC 107. To reach the road from Cashiers, drive south on NC 107 for 5.7 miles and turn left on Heady Mountain Road. To reach it from the lower trailhead, drive south on NC 281 for 1.95 miles and turn right on Wiginton Road. You’ll cross into South Carolina along the way. Drive to the end of Wiginton Road at 2.2 miles and turn right on SC 107. The road becomes NC 107 in 1 mile. At 3.55 miles from Wiginton Road, turn right on Heady Mountain Road.
Follow Heady Mountain Road for 0.5 mile to a fork. Go right. In 0.2 mile, go right again at another fork. In 1 mile, you’ll come to the end of the public road at the Whitewater River. Park on the right side of the road. The property on the other (river left) side of the bridge is private. There is also a parcel of private property on the river-right side that is not marked well.
Because of their proximity and the likelihood that you will wish to see at least a few of them on your hike, I’m including hiking directions to Portage Left Falls, Wheelchair Accessible Falls, Big Ledge Falls, 55 MPH Falls, Merge Lane Falls, Bedrock Falls, and Exit Falls, as well as some waterfalls on side streams.
In the third edition of North Carolina Waterfalls, I recommended a shuttle hike between the upper and lower trailheads. However, since the book was published, the trail from the upper trailhead to Exit Falls (the uppermost major waterfall) has become almost fully overgrown and is very hard to follow. I no longer believe it is a practical option for accessing the Whitewater River waterfalls. The best option now is an out-and-back hike from the lower trailhead. If you wish to see all six of the major waterfalls on Whitewater River, it will require a long, tiring day. I don’t recommend attempting it in cold weather because you’ll likely have to spend some time wading the river and you may not have enough daylight hours in winter.
The short and easy route to Exit Falls from the upper trailhead is not an option for the public because it passes through private property, with part of the route passing several houses. If you have any ideas of taking this route, I strongly recommend that you reconsider.
Another important consideration is the difficulty of the hike. While much of the route is along maintained trails or old logging grades, you’ll have to do some bushwhacking. In some places, it will be easier to wade the river. Whitewater River is quite manageable in normal or low flows, with only an occasional portage needed to get around deep pools. But it has such a large watershed that it doesn’t take much rain to make it a raging beast. Don’t even think about wading the river if the water’s up.
A short path descends from the parking area at NC 281 to an old logging grade. Follow the grade upstream for about 0.3 mile to Waddle Branch. Lower and Upper Waddle Branch Falls are upstream. To continue the Whitewater River hike, cross the branch. In less than 0.1 mile, the trail turns right and climbs the bank away from the river. You’ll ascend steeply for 45 yards to another logging grade. The path now follows old logging-grade remnants for the next 0.5 mile. Sometimes, the route is obvious. Other times, not so much. If you pay attention, you should be able to follow it. At one point, it turns sharply right and ascends a little ravine to pick up the next logging grade. The trail comes back down to the river near the top of Portage Left Falls. A side path leads down to the base of the falls.
The trail continues beyond Portage Left Falls for a few hundred yards before petering out. From here, the best route is to bushwhack down to the river and follow it upstream. Wheelchair Accessible Falls is less than 0.2 mile upstream. If the river is low, you can climb up the falls and stay in the riverbed. Otherwise, you’ll have to make a nasty bushwhack to get around it.
Big Ledge Falls is about 0.25 mile upstream from Wheelchair Accessible Falls. The best route to it is to remain in or close to the riverbed.
A small stream flows into the Whitewater River on the river-left side between Wheelchair Accessible Falls and Big Ledge Falls. A short distance upstream on it is a waterfall. You can barely see it from Whitewater River. The stream has a low flow, and the waterfall appears to be small. I have not hiked up to it.
About 0.2 mile upstream from Big Ledge Falls is 55 MPH Falls. From the large pool at its base, you can follow a scramble path along the river-left side to the top of the falls.
From the top of 55 MPH Falls, a good path heads steeply up the slope, away from the river. Another path turns left off it and follows the river upstream to Merge Lane Falls. At 0.25 mile from the top of 55 MPH Falls, you’ll cross a side stream. Get out into the Whitewater River at this point to see Merge Lane Falls upstream.
From the side stream, the trail continues about 0.2 mile to a crossing of Democrat Creek. Hornet Falls is a short distance upstream. From the creek, it’s a little over 0.1 mile to Bedrock Falls.
Beyond Bedrock Falls, the trail forks in about 100 feet. Go left and stay with the river. In a few yards, a side path leads down to the top of the falls. The main path continues upstream, reaching Exit Falls after about 0.4 mile.
The least scenic of the upper Whitewater River waterfalls in my opinion, Merge Lane Falls still has its own charm. The only way to see it well is to wade out into the river, but chances are if you make it anywhere near this waterfall, you’ve already spent some time wading in the river. If you need a refresher that wading doesn’t satisfy, the huge pool is inviting.