Understanding Listings


Waterfall listings follow one of two formats. Partial listings include a paragraph or two about the waterfall but don’t provide much detail. They may or may not include photos and directions. A waterfall has a partial listing if it’s not accessible to the public, if it’s size or beauty is unimpressive, or if it’s listed as a waterfall in another source but really isn’t one. Full listings follow the format described below.

Name. The most accepted name is given at the top of the listing. Any additional names that are used with some regularity are listed under the main name. Following the style established by the United States Board on Geographic Names, I’ve spelled all waterfalls and other place names without apostrophes.

Determining whether a waterfall name is “officially accepted” or just bestowed by a small population segment sometimes proved futile. Whitewater boaters, for example, have names for every bump on their courses, and many of them are called falls. I have tried to avoid names that are not well known and accepted outside the paddling community, but I may have included some that shouldn’t be here and excluded others that should. For more insight, see NC Waterfall Names.

A smiley face following the name indicates a recommended waterfall, based upon easy accessibility, beauty, or both. I have not given smiley faces to waterfalls that require long or difficult hikes even if they have high beauty ratings.

Beauty Rating. Ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 10. Beauty is subjective, and ratings reflect external conditions that might not apply to your visit. A waterfall’s beauty changes according to how you feel, how difficult it is to get there, how photogenic it is, preconceived notions, and many other factors. Some people like free-falling waterfalls best, while others prefer cascading falls. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible. Waterfalls rated from 1 to 3 aren’t worth visiting unless conditions are optimal or you happen to be close by. Those rated from 4 to 6 are worth the effort and might be quite nice in optimal conditions. Falls rated from 7 to 9 always look good and are spectacular in the right conditions. The few falls rated 10 have qualities that elevate them above all others, no matter the viewing conditions.

I’m prepared for backlash regarding the ratings. (I’ve been getting it for since the first edition of North Carolina Waterfalls!) People tend to be defensive about “their” waterfalls, and I expect some of the ratings will step on a few toes. I don’t mean to do that. I’ve tried to be objective and to take all North Carolina waterfalls into consideration when making ratings.

I’ve been interested to note how my beauty ratings have changed since 1994, when I published the first edition of North Carolina Waterfalls. Some of the falls that received low ratings in the first book get high marks now, and vice versa.

Accessibility. This field indicates if access is over a trail or if the waterfall is viewed roadside, and whether or not the waterfall is accessible to disabled persons.

River. If the name of the watercourse is unknown, I list it as a tributary of the first downstream river.

River Basin. This field indicates which of North Carolina’s 17 river basins the waterfall is in.

Watershed. Most waterfalls look their best in high water, and some dry up completely during droughts. The watershed designation describes the drainage area above the falls, so you can make a decision on whether or not it’s worth visiting. For instance, in a drought, you’d probably waste your time visiting a waterfall with a watershed listed as “Very small.”

Elevation. The approximate elevation at the top of the waterfall is given in feet. I obtained the elevations from the United States Geological Survey 7.5 Minute Series topographical maps. Note that I provide the elevations only for making general observations and comparisons. You’ll be able to place the waterfall on a topo map, but the elevation is not scientifically accurate. Also, note that the elevation is given for the top of the waterfall, while the GPS reading is for the viewing point.

Type and Height. Here, I indicate any obvious traits, such as whether the waterfall is a straight drop or a series of drops. But too many variables are in play to categorize waterfalls accurately. An even harder task is determining their height. Do you include cascades and drops above and below the main drop? In the case of steep, sliding falls, do you measure the altitude difference or the length of the run? If several main drops are separated by short distances of flatter water, do you include all the drops as a single measurement, or do you list them individually? If separate, how much space must be between them, and how flat does the water have to be? Where do you begin measuring at the top of the falls, and where do you stop measuring at the bottom?

Few waterfalls exhibit conditions that allow an objective height measurement. But that is not to say that every measurement is wrong. Many published heights are accurate but carry a qualifier. So what about the measurements in this book? If a published height appears to be accurate or is from a reliable source, I give it here without a qualifier. Otherwise, the measurements are approximations. In all cases, measurements should be used only for comparison purposes.

Landowner. For waterfalls on public lands, I list the appropriate forest or park as landowner. Those on private property are listed as such.

County. This field is self evident.

USGS Map. Listed here is the United States Geological Survey 7.5 Minute Series topographical map that includes the waterfall. These maps are recommended for any off-trail hiking. Anytime I use the word topo or quad, I’m referring to these maps. With few exceptions, the spellings I use for natural landmarks follow these maps.

Many trail maps have topographical lines, but most are on a much smaller scale. For example, some of the popular Trails Illustrated maps have a scale of 1:70,000. This is fine for providing a general idea of the topography but not for off-trail navigating. You need the 7.5 Minute maps, which have a scale of 1:24,000.

For national-forest lands, the best topo maps are those that carry the designation “Modified for USDA Forest Service Use.” These maps show national-forest boundary lines, Forest Service roads, and many other features not on standard maps. And they are typically more up to date. However, they are still outdated, as most were produced in the late 1980s. The Forest Service has discontinued these maps, so once current stock is sold, that will be it. Serious waterfallers will do well to stock up while they are still available.

Hike Distance. All distances are one way to the waterfall. You can return from some waterfalls via an alternate route, but when backtracking you need to double the distance given to obtain the total distance for the hike. I measured trail distances using a calibrated rolling wheel or by counting paces. For bushwhacks or creek walks, I estimated the distances or used mapping software to obtain an estimate.

Hike Difficulty. Difficulty ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a smooth, flat trail and 10 being a tortuous route. These ratings are subjective. What is easy to you might be agony to me. I based trail ratings on an adult in good physical condition, so you should factor in your age and fitness. The ratings do not consider trail length. If a trail is flat, it’s rated easy whether it’s a hundred feet or 10 miles. Some trails have two numbers. The first gives the rating for the majority of the trail, while the second indicates that some sections are more difficult.

Typically, any hike that requires bushwhacking or creek walking gets a rating of 10. Some hikes of this kind are not difficult, but you should be aware that anytime you leave the trail, the odds of getting hurt increase substantially. The ratings reflect this.

Photo Rating. Photo ratings follow the same 1-to-10 system as the beauty ratings, but the application is different. Strictly from an on-site visual standpoint, a waterfall’s beauty doesn’t change tremendously according to weather or seasonal conditions. Yes, a particular waterfall might look better with autumn leaves all over it, but its beauty rating remains the same. Not so with photography, where the photographic potential of a waterfall varies according to viewing conditions. That gorgeous waterfall you took multiple shots of on your last visit might not warrant even a snapshot today, all because the sun happens to be shining. The ratings reflect a waterfall’s potential. For instance, if the waterfall makes a horrible subject on a clear day (due to contrasty lighting), I tried to determine how it would look on an overcast day (with even lighting) and rated it according to that.

Of course, photo ratings are subjective. I like to photograph certain types of falls better than others, and I look for certain elements when choosing the best waterfalls for photography.

Compass. By using the compass angle and a chart of the sun’s position throughout the year, you can see exactly where the sun will be relative to the waterfall. You’ll know whether it rises behind the falls, in front of it, or to the side. This information, used in conjunction with the canopy description and sometimes the general text information, will let you know the best time of day to photograph the waterfall.

You can obtain charts showing the position of the sun and moon from a number of websites and smart-phone apps.

Canopy. Use the canopy listing with the compass angle to determine the best time of day to photograph. Waterfalls with a “closed” canopy have full foliage cover in the summer and can sometimes be photographed at midday regardless of the sun’s position. The canopy blocks most of the sun and helps alleviate contrast problems. That’s not always the case, though. If the sun is high in the sky and shining through a little hole in the canopy, you’ll still have problems. Waterfalls with “partial’ canopies present contrast problems unless the sun is low and to the side. The same is true of most waterfalls with “open” canopies, except that they often photograph acceptably when the sun is shining directly on them, providing even illumination.

Waterfall GPS. The GPS coordinates for the principal waterfall viewpoint are given in decimal format. If your device is set to use a different format, you’ll need to change it or convert the coordinates. GPS converters are widely available on the Internet.

I have a love-hate relationship with people using GPS coordinates to find waterfalls. For those who know how to use them, they can be extremely helpful. But for others, they can lead to trouble. Just having coordinates for a waterfall is useless if you don’t know how to get there. You can’t just strike out through the woods in a beeline to the waterfall. In some cases, you have to follow trail directions. In situations where there is no trail, you have to know how to read a topo map and follow the lay of the land. In nearly every case, the route you take will be a meandering one. The worst thing you can do is enter coordinates into a GPS unit and start blithely heading in that direction. That ranks up there with not worrying about getting lost because you carry a cell phone.

Note that the GPS coordinates are for the main viewing point, not the location of the waterfall itself. Sometimes, these points can be far apart.

Trailhead GPS. In my perfect world, everyone would read the “Directions to Trailhead” section, pull out a good printed map, and navigate their way to the trailhead using these. They would then have a much greater sense of the area they’re visiting. They’d know how the trailhead lies in relation to other roads and geographic features. Such knowledge might allow them to incorporate other sights into their visit, since they could clearly see them on the printed map. They might even decide to take a different route or perhaps return by a different one, since they could see the options at a glance. And having this sense of place would allow them to better retain knowledge of their journey and make it more rewarding.

But since I don’t live in this perfect world, I’ve provided GPS coordinates for the trailheads. Go ahead and plug them into your smart phone or on-board navigation system and let it tell you how to get there. Just keep in mind that many Forest Service roads are not shown on mapping apps.

Directions to Trailhead. I provide driving directions to the trailheads and in some cases directly to roadside waterfalls. Keep in mind that my mileages may vary from your readings due to differences in our odometers. To be on the safe side, assume a margin of error.

I use the following abbreviations for roads:

I—Interstate route
US—national highway route
NC—major state route
SR—secondary state route
FR—Forest Service route (note that some Forest Service signs and maps use FS to designate these routes)

Hike Description. This section gives a detailed description of the hike to the waterfall. Please understand that trail conditions constantly change. Some trails receive regular maintenance, while others do not. The easy stroll I made to a waterfall might be a nightmare for you because trees have fallen across the trail.

While I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, I’ve no doubt made mistakes. If you run across errors, please let me know so I can correct them on the updates page of my website. But before you contact me, make sure you’ve followed the directions to the letter, without skipping ahead. By far the biggest reason people can’t find a waterfall is because they didn’t follow the hike description.

Overview. In this general-comments section, I provide pertinent information about the waterfall. Sometimes, I elaborate on information listed in the other fields.