Protecting Waterfalls


Some people think outdoor guidebooks and websites cause harm by bringing people into the wilderness, and that those people will destroy the very reason the wilderness is so appealing in the first place. I agree with that reasoning to a point, and I admit to having mixed feelings about including some of the information on this site and in my book. If we did not live in the information age—when people can touch their phone and find everything imaginable—I don’t know if I would have approached it the same way. It has become evident to me that people have an insatiable desire to get outdoors and experience everything they can, and that they are looking for information about places to go and things to see. Unfortunately, some books and especially websites provide information that is inaccurate at best and dangerous for both people and the environment at worst.

I think we need to encourage more people to go outside, especially children. That’s the only way we can protect the natural areas we have left. As for the skeptics, I ask, how can you expect people to support environmental legislation if they never experience nature? Yes, some trails might become overcrowded. But the answer to overcrowding in the wilderness is not to keep people out. The answer is to make people aware of other areas that are not well known. And to create more wilderness areas while we still can.

Nature guidebooks and websites serve another useful purpose besides exposing people to the outdoors. That is, they inform readers how to have the least impact on the environment. For instance, most guides include information about no-trace camping. As a teenager, I had never heard that phrase. I learned about no-trace camping from a hiking guide. Seasoned hikers sometimes don’t understand that most people don’t have a clue what to do once they get 30 yards from the car. They need and want information. Outdoor guides provide that information.

My goal with this website and my North Carolina Waterfalls book is to equip readers with detailed and accurate information so they can enjoy waterfalls and wilderness while taking care to preserve them for those who follow. I don’t think excluding numerous waterfalls or evading honest information for the sake of political correctness is the way to go about it. That said, I will admit to excluding waterfalls—some quite impressive—that I suspect few people know about. You can see photos for some of them (but not directions) on the “Secret” Waterfalls page. It’s not because I want them just for myself. Some are so environmentally sensitive that I thought it best to let them be. And some, to be honest, affected me in such a way that it just didn’t feel right to expose them to the world. I harbor no illusions that they won’t show up eventually on someone’s Facebook page, but at least my conscience will be clear.

I won’t get into all of the ways that we should conduct ourselves if we really care about the environment. But I do want to touch on some important topics that apply specifically to waterfalls. Most waterfallers genuinely care about nature and do everything they can to protect it.

I hope you don’t think I’m preaching. I’m only trying to make everyone aware of some of things that can cause harm to waterfalls and the flora and fauna associated with them. Oh, except for those two soapbox warnings. Yeah, I guess I’m preaching there. Sorry, I learned it from my momma.

Soil Erosion. Waterfalls often occur in steep ravines covered in a thin soil layer. Probably the most damaging thing you can do at a waterfall is climb on the banks and dislodge the soil. Try to stay on the main paths. Photographers in particular should think about this, since they often climb around trying to find the best vantage point. After taking a picture and packing your gear, take a glance back at your shooting spot. Does it look like you’ve been there?

Impact on Plants. Plants blanket the southern Appalachians. It’s impossible to hike the woods without trampling a few, but you should be careful to impact them as little as possible. I purposely avoid hiking in some areas during spring, when I know wildflowers grow on the slopes. When hiking these areas in other seasons, I’m still very careful not to dislodge the soil if I can help it, as this impacts the plants even if they aren’t above ground.

It’s especially important to be careful around waterfalls. That’s because a unique natural community called the “spray cliff” exists at many falls. Constant moisture from waterfall spray and the general sheltering from sun and wind create a relatively stable environment with a fairly constant year-round temperature. Many plants that grow in this environment are extremely rare. Some are known from only a few sites in the world. Many of the rare plants of this environment are bryophytes, including mosses and liverworts. That mossy rock you’re about to step on could be home to one of the rarest plants in the world! It’s best to treat all plants growing near waterfalls with extra care.

Creek Bed Disturbance. Sometimes the easiest way to reach a waterfall is to walk through the creek bed, called “creekwhacking.” It’s fun, especially in summer. But we should be careful not to disturb the rocks when we do this. Dozens of critters live under those rocks and depend on them for their survival. Kick one out of place and you might cause several of them to die.

I know, it’s impossible to creekwhack without disturbing a few rocks. I’m not suggesting that we stop walking in creek beds. We just need to be aware and disturb the rocks as little as possible.

Soapbox warning! Do not read the next section if you don’t want to hear me rant.

Not disturbing creek beds applies to those dang cairns, too. I’m sorry, but you don’t impress me with your ability to remove rocks from a stream bed and stack them up. All you do is upset me by leaving a sign of humans at the waterfall I’m trying to enjoy. And I hate to think about all the critters you dislodged when you picked up those rocks. I know, some people don’t see the harm and think those cairns are really cool and make a woo woo artistic statement. They make a statement, all right. But it’s more reflective of the selfishness and ignorance of the “artist” than anything to do with imparting a positive emotional connection to the creation.

Need to mark a trail junction? Fine, have at it. But please try to use rocks that are not buried in the soil or resting on the stream bottom, so as not to disturb any more critters than necessary.

Cigarette Butts and Other Litter. (Soapbox warning, take two.) If you want to destroy your body by filling it with carcinogens, that’s your business. But as soon as you throw your cigarette butt on the ground—or worse, in the creek—you make it mine. As far as I’m concerned, you are just as much trash as the item you’re tossing. The hiker coming after you doesn’t want to see your litter. And the fish that swallows your cigarette butt thinking it’s food certainly doesn’t want to suffer an agonizing death from suffocation. I make no apologies for my stance on littering. People who litter are ignorant, selfish, insensitive boneheads! (You’re welcome, mom.)

I have friends who smoke and hike to waterfalls. They pack out their butts. Not only that, many of them carry plastic bags with them to pack out the litter they find along the trail, as I do. It’s not a big burden and it makes you feel better by leaving the waterfall better than you found it. I know some people who will even hike out big litter items like tires that have washed downstream. They are my heroes.

A Very Beneficial Thing. Want to do more than pick up cigarette butts? Become a member of a local land-protection organization. Even better, participate in some of the group’s activities. Local and regional land trusts do a tremendous job of protecting land that includes waterfalls. The local guys know the land and what’s important, and they have the connections to make things happen. A large organization might pass over a small tract because it doesn’t have national significance (rare plants or animals, for instance), but a local land trust will work to protect it for the benefit of the local community. And they’ll get their hands dirty with it by building and maintaining trails, providing public access, restoring habitat, and generally caring for the land so it remains unscathed.

There are dozens of worthy organizations you can join. I encourage you to spend some quality time with Google locating those that operate in the regions you are fond of. Here are a few of the groups I’ve worked with and highly recommend. All of these groups are active in North Carolina waterfall country.

Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy
Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina
Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust