North Carolina Waterfall Names


I’ll be adding info about how some waterfalls in NC got their names. The info here now is about the culture of naming waterfalls.

Soapbox warning. This is probably going to upset some folks. I’m prepared for an assortment of rotten-fruit missiles. Please don’t throw too hard and try not to hit the kitties and chickens.

Hey, mister, you have any idea what that waterfall is called?

Back in the early 1990s when I was researching the first edition of North Carolina Waterfalls, I had to depend solely on printed material and firsthand communication for the names of waterfalls. At that time, The Internet did not exist for most of us. No smart phones, apps, Facebook, or blogs. I literally wrote the first edition by hand, because I had no clue how to use our brand new computer. My wife (ex-wife now) typed my handwriting into the computer for me. (Just one of the reasons she became my ex.)

In some ways, those days were easier. For one, I didn’t have to worry about finding a dozen names for the same waterfall. If a waterfall had a name, it was generally widely accepted and any other names attributed to it were historical or otherwise not generally used.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case today. Now we have hundreds of waterfallers crawling all over the mountains and many of them love to name waterfalls. All waterfalls. If it doesn’t already have a well-established name, they give it one. Trouble is, in many cases they are assigning names to waterfalls that do already have established names. And even if the names are not established, there’s a good chance that the waterfall has already been discovered and made public by others. And in my mind, that takes away the naming rights for any who come afterward.

Sir, remove your fingers from the keyboard and step away from the computer.

Before I go any further, let me say that there is no such thing as the Waterfall Naming Police. You can call a waterfall anything you like. You can publish that name in a book, map, or on your Facebook page. No one’s going to come to your house and confiscate your computer, topo maps, and Garmin.

But here’s the thing. With so many people assigning names to so many waterfalls, it’s chaos out there. It’s becoming very difficult to determine what waterfall someone’s talking about. I know the falls of NC as well as anyone, but I have a tough time figuring out some of the falls people are referring to. Often, I’ll have to ask the person to describe the waterfall and explain where the name came from. More often than not, I learn that it is a waterfall that I am very familiar with, but one that the person has decided to give their own name to.

Frankly, it is becoming tiresome seeing all these new names for waterfalls when I know they were first discovered by someone else years ago. And I know that sometimes these namers know that they aren’t the first person to find the waterfall. Many times people first learned about the waterfalls either from my book or Rich Stevenson’s website. I guess people are thinking that if we did not give the waterfall a name, it’s okay for them to do so.

And again, it is okay. You can call a waterfall anything you like. But if I’m choosing a name to go in my book or on this website, I’m going to go to the person or source from which I first learned about the waterfall as the first option for a name.

I got a plan.

For what it’s worth, here’s my proposal for all waterfallers. If you discover a waterfall that does not appear to be listed in any book, map, or website, you have the right to give it a name. But if you first learned about the waterfall elsewhere, you have no legitimate claim to it. (“Discover” really is not the best word to use. There is no such thing as being the first person to discover any waterfall. Trust me, at some point in history, someone else has seen it before you.)

You might think that I’m being a little oversensitive about this. Please understand, I honestly don’t care whether you call it Whitewater Falls or OMG Falls. It’s a free country and I want it to stay that way. But if you publish your name, either in a book, map, on the Internet, or on a wooden sign that you nail to a tree beside the falls, you are contributing to the chaos.

At this point, you might be wondering how we are supposed to know whether someone else has already discovered a waterfall we’ve found and made it public. You might not be able to know, but if you spend some quality time with Google, you might get a good idea.

But I don’t like birds.

In some cases, people have given a waterfall a name even though they were aware that it already had an accepted name. A good example is Bird Rock Falls on North Fork French Broad River. That waterfall has always been known as Bird Rock Falls. It’s even called Bird Rock Falls on the USGS topo map. But its new owners decided to change the name to Cathedral Falls, even though they knew it was known as Bird Rock. I’m sorry, but that waterfall is Bird Rock Falls and it will always be Bird Rock. I include the name Cathedral Falls as a secondary name out of appreciation to the owners for allowing the public to visit the falls.

Of course, the folks at Living Waters Ministry can call it whatever they want. It’s their waterfall, after all. I’m just saying that I’m disinclined to contribute to the chaos by acknowledging indiscriminate names.

I conquer thee!

I have to admit, I’ve never been fond of naming waterfalls in the first place, or anything else, for that matter. In a way, when we name landmarks, we are asserting our dominance over the land. We’ve conquered it and made it our own, and now we’re going to give a name that propagates this supremacy. I know, this sounds a little harsh and I’m sure many will disagree. But that’s the way I feel.

I have a particular distaste for how we obliterated most of the Native American names for landmarks. Very few Cherokee names remain for landmarks in western North Carolina. What gave the immigrants the right to change the names that the Cherokee had established generations earlier? Even the names for most of the landmarks on the Cherokee Reservation were changed.

It’s lonely up here.   

Yeah, I know, I’ve climbed really high on my soapbox. But this is my website and I can write what I want to. You, of course, are free to stop reading any time you like, but I hope you’ll stick around. Seriously, there’s some good stuff coming up.

My general disdain for humanity trying to exercise control over everything in its power is the primary reason for why I chose not to assign names to any of the waterfalls in the first two editions of my book. I discovered many of those waterfalls long before anyone ever heard of the term “waterfaller”. But I did not name any of the falls, choosing instead to assign “designations”. For example, I referred to an unnamed waterfall as “Waterfall on (enter creek’s name here)”. And if there were several unnamed falls on the same creek, I designated numbers for them, like “Waterfall #2 on Lower Thompson River”.

Now, 20 years after the first edition and 10 years after the second, I realize that this was a mistake. What I had intended to be treated as simple designations so everyone could tell the waterfalls apart became actual waterfall names in themselves. So now everyone calls that incredibly beautiful waterfall on Thompson River, Waterfall #2. No waterfall deserves to be called #2. It’s just a crappy name! (Forgive me. I love puns.)

So, I blew it. I didn’t anticipate the waterfalling explosion and how my choice would contribute to the problem of naming landmarks. I had no intention of my waterfall designations becoming actual names and I did not anticipate someone learning about a waterfall from my book and then assigning their own name to it.

I also did not fully grasp the power of the printed word. A book possesses a certain authority, whether deserved or not. Regardless of how poorly a book may have been researched and written, since it is a book, people tend to ascribe more authority to it than other information sources. I assure you, this is something I did not take lightly as I wrote the new waterfalls book.

The Internet is similar, though on a lesser scale. There are so many sites out there about waterfalls and much of the content is nothing more than regurgitated information taken from another source.

I wish I had known it was going to be this way. If I had, I would have assigned names for all the falls I had discovered. Perhaps that would have lessened the chaos we have today and helped lessen the number of wooden signs nailed to trees at waterfalls. In the new book I have corrected that oversight and will continue to do so with future waterfall discoveries.

Where’s my hammer and nails?

Oh, about those wooden signs. I’m sorry, but if you think you’re gonna nail a board to a tree at a waterfall and everyone is going to start calling that waterfall by your name, you’re…well, you’re probably on to something. It’s funny, signs are like books. Just something about the printed word. But if you do this on public property, as in a national forest, in my opinion you are littering. And if you do it at a waterfall that you didn’t discover and make public, you’re littering and contributing to the chaos.

A notable exception is a case like Katies Falls in the Ellijay community near Franklin. Someone attached a metal plaque to a rock at the base of the falls, with the name Katies Falls on it. When I first saw it, I was perturbed. What gives them the right to name this falls and desecrate this rock? The waterfall is right beside the road, so I’m thinking there’s no way they discovered it first. But as I read the words below the name, I realized I had jumped to conclusions. Jacob Moore, a resident of Ellijay, named the falls for his daughter. Moore died in 1933, so I’d say Katies Falls is an established name. Also, the waterfall is on private property, so the family certainly has a right to place this plaque.

This plaque was not there when I researched the second edition of my book. What if I had decided to assign my own name to Katies Falls? Maybe something like Slimy Slug Falls. Because it would be printed in a book, everyone outside of the Ellijay community might have accepted it. And what a dishonor it would have been to the memory of Katherine Allen Moore Rhinehart, who passed away in 2000.

I’m sorry, sir, we only have one ambulance. We can’t go to two waterfalls at once.

In some cases, indiscriminate waterfall naming can have even more serious consequences. A good example is Paradise Falls on Wolf Creek in the Canada region. Many years ago, I talked to some college students from Western Carolina University who told me the name. Subsequent conversations with several people confirmed it. It wasn’t until a few years after the second edition of my book that I learned the name is not correct. Locals have always referred to the waterfall on Wolf Creek as Wolf Creek Falls. Paradise Falls, to them, is a nearby Tanasee Creek waterfall located on private property. I’m guessing that at some point, some college student got the names confused and began calling the Wolf Creek waterfall Paradise Falls. The falls is a very popular hangout for WCU students and the name stuck.

Unfortunately, and to my chagrin, I’m more responsible for perpetuating the error than anyone. I printed the name in a book! All of a sudden, people who had no idea the waterfall even existed started calling it Paradise Falls. The serious consequence of this is that the local rescue squads sometimes don’t know which waterfall they’re supposed to go to when they get a call. The falls on Wolf Creek sees a disproportionate number of accidents. (I don’t want to stereotype, let’s just say that booze and college students aren’t a great combination at a waterfall.) When the rescue squad gets a call that someone is hurt at Paradise Falls, they can’t assume that it is the waterfall on Wolf Creek just because it’s more popular. For all they know, it could be a local person who is hurt on the real Paradise Falls.

If you are making an emergency call, make sure you state which creek the waterfall is on. If it’s the waterfall behind the church on NC 281, it’s Wolf Creek.

Seriously, I can be serious sometimes. Not real crazy about it, but I can do it.

I do take this very seriously. I’ve given names to many of the unnamed waterfalls in my new book and on this website in an attempt to prevent any additional chaos, but I’ve been extremely careful about it. I only named waterfalls that I discovered, or ones for which I was granted permission by those who discovered them first. I’m sure I made some errors in my assessments, but I did my best to make sure the info I provided is accurate.

If you feel that you have a legitimate claim to a waterfall—and assuming that you care to follow the proposal I’m making here—I’d like to hear from you. The last thing I want is to give a waterfall a name and find out later that someone else had discovered the falls before me. Don’t worry, I’ll be honest with you about whether I, or anyone else I know, have been there before. I have no agenda here other than curtailing the confusion from multiple names floating around.

Oh, don’t bother getting in touch if you want to name a little cascade or very small falls. With tens of thousands of little falls in western North Carolina, any attempt to organize them would be as futile as resisting the Borg. If it’s not at least 10 feet high, I generally don’t bother with it. And I’m talking about a 10-foot vertical drop, not length of run. Lots of cascades run for several feet, but they don’t drop enough to be considered a waterfall in my book.

For nerds only.

While there is no such thing as the Waterfall Naming Police, there is an official naming organization. The United States Board On Geographic Names is responsible for determining the official place names for landmarks in the United States. They determine what names to use on the USGS topo maps and any other official government publications. I follow their naming structure in the book and here on the website. And by the way, for nerds like me, reading their guidelines is fascinating stuff.

One bit of related trivia is that official government place names never use apostrophes. Look at the Rosman quad. You’ll see a Catheys Creek and Catheys Falls, even though both names are possessive—they were named after George Cathey, not George Catheys. I follow this same naming standard. The National Forest Service is not so fastidious, however, so if you use topo maps that are labeled as “MODIFIED FOR USDA FOREST SERVCE USE,” you may see some apostrophes.

Oh, crap!

And now back to that crappy name for the waterfall on lower Thompson River. As far as I knew, I was the first person to discover it and make it public, so I had decided to give it an appropriate name in my new book. But after a little digging, I learned that Rich had beaten me there by a few months. Even though Rich used my designation for it on his website, I didn’t feel comfortable naming it. That right belonged to Rich. However, Rich is a nice guy and he waived his right. I have chosen what I think is a very appropriate name for this beautiful waterfall. I think when you see it you’ll agree that Rich Falls is a perfect name!

Okay, I’m going to shut up now. Got some more naming to do!