Upper Falls, Upper Whitewater Falls
From the junction of NC 281 and US 64 west of Lake Toxaway, drive south on NC 281 for 8.5 miles and turn left at the sign for Whitewater Falls. The road leads a short distance to a large parking area. A small fee is charged for parking.
From the turnaround at the lower end of the parking area, a paved path leads to an upper overlook of the falls. Ignore the inaccurate sign that says it’s 0.5 mile to the falls. It’s actually less than 0.25 mile to the overlook. The path isn’t level, but it might be doable for strong-armed persons in wheelchairs.
From the upper overlook, a set of steps (154, to be exact) descends the slope to a lower viewing deck. Those who can make the climb should do so, as the view is spectacular.
If you can see only one waterfall in North Carolina, Whitewater Falls is a good candidate. To many people, it’s the most spectacular waterfall in the East. It’s also among the highest. Many publications have listed it as the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. That claim is debatable, but no one who sees Whitewater Falls argues against its beauty.
If you haven’t been to Whitewater Falls in a long time, you’re in for some surprises. The first thing you’ll discover is a sign regarding the fee for parking here. The waterfall is part of a system instituted by the Forest Service in which up to 80 percent of collected fees are used to improve visitor services. At Whitewater Falls, the fees have helped fund the large paved parking area, modern restroom facilities (a grand improvement over the malodorous portable toilets that once stood here), new pavement on the path to the upper overlook, picnic shelters, and the elaborate stair system leading down to the lower viewing deck. Those who visited Whitewater Falls decades ago when it was relatively unknown may lament the “improvements,” but the explosion in the number of visitors has made them necessary.
Another change occurred with the rerouting of Foothills Trail. It used to pass from the NC 281 bridge over the Whitewater River to the upper overlook, then down the path to the lower overlook. Now, the trail runs behind the restrooms and below the parking area, avoiding the crowded overlooks.
The old route of Foothills Trail followed part of the original route of NC 281, then known as Bohaynee Road (among other spellings). The road crossed the Whitewater River on a ford above the falls and then skirted the edge of the gorge to the present upper falls overlook. When you hike to the falls, you’re walking the original roadway.
Many people hike the old road from the upper overlook thinking it will take them to the top of the falls, but it doesn’t. If you’re thinking about leaving the road and scrambling to the brink, remember this: If you fall at Whitewater Falls, you’ll die. Local emergency squads don’t perform rescue operations here. They only get the unpleasant duty of hauling out bodies. Tragically, they have to do that all too often. Whitewater Falls claims more lives than any other waterfall in the state.
From the lower overlook, a short spur trail descends to meet Foothills Trail, which then continues the descent and arrives at the river a short distance downstream from the falls. No trail of any kind leads to the base of the waterfall. It would require a dangerous scramble to get there. Also, a number of rare plants grow in the spray zone, and any trampling would destroy them. So, for your sake and the protection of the plants, please enjoy Whitewater Falls from the upper two overlooks.
If you visit in the spring, you’ll see pretty yellow trillium growing around the picnic area. The flower is often mistaken for yellow trillium, Trillium luteum. Look closely and you’ll see that the petals are shorter, more rounded, and a lighter yellow. This is pale yellow trillium, Trillium discolor, a rare plant that grows at only a few sites in the Savannah River watershed. Please enjoy its beauty without disturbing it.
Whitewater Falls has been listed at 411 feet for as long as I can remember. I have no idea when, how, or by whom it was measured. Typically, when I see a number like this, I take it seriously. If the measurement were 400 feet, I would assume it was just a guess. With that said, after exploring the falls from afar and up close, top to bottom, I have a difficult time seeing how this waterfall could be that high. The contour lines on the topo map clearly show a drop in elevation of over 400 feet, but I think some of those lines are for the downstream cascades. And topo maps aren’t always precise.