See Overview section.
A number of North Carolina’s waterfalls would be just as home in a history book as in a guidebook. Linville Falls and Toxaway Falls are high on that list. But Mitchell Falls would top the list for some, all because of a single event that occurred on June 27, 1857.
On that date, Dr. Elisha Mitchell fell to his death over Mitchell Falls. The tragedy ensured that Mitchell’s name would be honored not just in the waterfall and creek, but also on the highest mountain in the East. U.S. Senator Thomas Lanier Clingman had challenged Mitchell, claiming that he, not Mitchell, had first measured the highest peak in the East. Mitchell’s final trip to the mountain was an effort to prove that he had indeed measured the highest peak before Clingman had.
Mitchell was unable to verify that he was the first, but his death eventually eliminated resistance from those on Clingman’s side. Of course, Mount Mitchell is named for Mitchell, whether he was the first to measure it or not. Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies and the third highest in the East, honors Clingman.
Mitchell Falls is as private as private gets. It’s located on a huge hunting reserve. All accesses from below are gated, and armed patrols keep out trespassers. This property is the largest and probably the most significant remaining tract of undeveloped private land in western North Carolina. It is hoped it will be protected in some manner and that the public may be able to visit at least parts of it.
A glance at the Mount Mitchell quad might have you thinking you could easily slip down from above for a quick peek. I have some advice for you: Don’t. I’ve done it, and I can tell you it’s not worth it. Aside from the fact that it’s illegal to go there without permission, it’s an absolutely wicked hike. I speak from experience.
I have a theory that Dr. Mitchell’s death is a result of the wicked terrain. The going is so rough in places that it makes sense Mitchell would have walked through the creek bed as much as possible. Mitchell’s pocket watch had stopped at 8:19 that evening. Although it wasn’t yet dark outside, the light would have been severely diminished in the deep creek valley. It’s possible that Mitchell inadvertently stepped on a slippery section of the creek, lost his balance, and slid over the falls. I can tell you from experience that Mitchell Creek is among the slipperiest in western North Carolina.
Mitchell Falls is not very high and there is a deep pool at its base. I know of waterfallers today who have purposely gone over waterfalls that appear more dangerous, just for fun. Most references I have state that Mitchell hit his head on the way down and drowned in the pool.
I’ve visited Mitchell Falls twice, having obtained special permission from a caretaker to work on a photographic history project. I also explored the creek above the falls, following the drainage from the crest of the Blacks. The waterfall is far downstream of the Mount Mitchell State Park boundary. It is unlikely you would get permission today to hike to the falls from above, but there is one way you might see the falls by coming in from below. The Swannanoa Valley Museum in Black Mountain occasionally offers guided hikes to the falls. Visit www.history.swannanoavalleymuseum.org for more information.
I’ve collected historical photos of Mitchell Falls and learned some interesting things from them. The most interesting thing is that people had just as much trouble correctly identifying where they were 150 years ago as they do today. I have four historical photos captioned as Mitchell Falls that are not Mitchell Falls. I’m pretty sure that at least one of them is a waterfall a short distance upstream of Mitchell. I have no clue about the others. But I’m betting that every stream on the west slopes of the Black Mountains contains waterfalls. I can see how easy it would have been for someone to get confused by which stream they were on and what waterfall they were looking at. I made the same mistake on my hike coming down from above. I stupidly left my old photos of the falls in the car and wasn’t able to verify that the waterfall I had found was Mitchell. It wasn’t. I had missed it by only a short distance.
The entire history of Mount Mitchell is fascinating reading for geeky types like me. For a good introduction, I recommend A History of Mt. Mitchell and the Black Mountains by S. Kent Schwarzkopf. For a more thorough treatment, I highly recommend Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains by Timothy Silver.