See Overview section.
I briefly mentioned the Whitewater River slot canyon in the third edition of North Carolina Waterfalls, although I had reservations about it. I had already started seeing publicity about the area in social media circles and information about it was listed on websites and in at least one book. I feared that regardless of what I did, in a short time the canyon would be a frequent destination among waterfallers. So I described the canyon a little, explained the safety and access problems, and didn’t show any photos. I didn’t give detailed directions, hoping that anyone who had the wherewithal to figure it out on their own would be able to visit the area safely and responsibly. I hope that has been the case, but today, much more info about the canyon is only a click away. Now I fear that there are many people going who are trespassing, putting themselves into dangerous situations, and not caring for the sensitive vegetation along the canyon rim. I suppose this was inevitable, considering how enticing this place is.
I don’t know whether it’s best to leave to canyon off this site altogether, or to provide a little information. My fear is that if I don’t provide at least a little info, people will attempt to visit the area uninformed and will end up trespassing or putting themselves into a dangerous situation. So I’m going to talk a little bit about it and show you some photos. For those who only care to read about and see places like this in photos, this is all you need. For those of you who won’t be able to sleep until you see it in person, I hope I’m providing enough information to convince you that the best way to see the canyon is to go first with a responsible person who has already been there.
The entire canyon is within Nantahala National Forest and it is entirely possible to access it without passing through private property. However, it’s not very practical to do so. The canyon lies immediately above Exit Falls. You could hike to the falls from NC 281 and then climb an insanely steep path that leads to spur paths leading down to the canyon, or you could follow another trail that turns off the Exit Falls trail a little farther downstream. But just getting to Exit Falls will take a big chunk of the day, especially considering that you would want to visit all the other waterfalls on the way. It’s just not practical to hike all the way to the canyon from NC 281 and back in a single day. Not if you spend any time enjoying the views and taking pictures.
You could hike in from above, which is a much shorter. But the only easy route passes through private property on the north side of the river. I definitely advise against trespassing. The people living along the route will likely see you. You could access it from the southern side, but it would require bushwhacking and knowing precisely where to go to avoid a small pocket of private property. The route to Exit Falls from upstream that I included in the book is no longer valid. It is now nearly overgrown and very difficult to follow, so I’m no longer recommending it for anyone.
So, the only viable options for seeing the canyon are to take the bushwhack route from upstream and avoid the private property, or to hike from below starting from NC 281 and plan on camping overnight. Yes, if you’re a strong hiker you could can do it in a single day from below if you don’t make any wrong turns or spend much time at any of the other waterfalls along the way. Either way, you really need to go with someone who has done it before.
The canyon begins with Entrance Falls, a long, cascading waterfall where the river narrows to only a few feet. A short distance downstream, Sculpted Falls drops 15 feet into a small, churning plunge pool. Below the falls, the river twists through a narrow, deep slot before reaching Little Canyon Falls, which is about eight feet high. The canyon opens up below the falls. A short distance downstream is the appropriately named Exit Falls, which marks the end of the canyon. The entire canyon is about 100 yards long and 30 to 40 feet deep in places. In a few spots, it’s only a few feet wide at the base.
Sounds like a cool place, doesn’t it? I’ve explored North Carolina’s streams extensively and haven’t found anything remotely similar. It looks more like Antelope Canyon in the American Southwest than anything in the East. But unlike Antelope Canyon, it has a river flowing at its base!
It’s impossible to explore the canyon from water level without rappelling (or using a rope ladder, as I did) and swimming. There simply is no way to get down there without a rope. Sculpted Falls will prevent you from following the river downstream, while Little Canyon Falls will stop you from going up. Even if you could climb down to the river, you wouldn’t be able to go anywhere without swimming, as the river fills the bottom from wall to wall. During low water, there’s an exposed ledge at the base of Sculpted Falls, but that’s it.
You can peer down into the canyon from a few spots, but you can’t see much of anything without getting perilously close to the edge. That’s where the real danger lies. The desire to get a view into the canyon can eclipse good judgement. Also, reaching most viewpoints requires you to cross the river above Entrance Falls and walk along the riverbed beside it. It’s easy as far as river walks go, but the penalty for failure is disastrous. If the water is up much at all, you cannot cross the river safely above Entrance Falls.
You can see a little of the canyon from near Entrance Falls and from near Exit Falls, but you can’t get a good idea of how awesome it is. There are only two viewpoints along the canyon rim, one on the south side and one on the north. There is no path to the north viewpoint and it requires a little scrambling and a lot of common sense to stay safe. It’s not a good idea to wander around the woods at the edge of the canyon looking for this viewpoint. Also, because there is no path on the north side, the mosses and other vegetation are much more susceptible to trampling.
The south viewpoint is much safer and easier to reach. And there is a scramble path through the rhodos that makes it less damaging to hike. But remember, once you get there, you’ll still have to get dangerously close to the edge to see anything. It’s a fine view, but it could be the last one you have if you aren’t careful or if a bee stings you while you’re on the edge.
The bottom line is that is entirely possible to see the canyon safely as long as the water is low enough to cross above Entrance Falls. In that case, it’s no more dangerous than any other waterfall where you have to get close to the edge to see anything. It’s also possible to see it without trespassing. But in order to do both, you’re going to need all your wits about you and exert a lot of effort. You really need to make your first trip with a responsible person who has done it before you.
Oh, I should mention the small waterfall that is upstream from the slot canyon. You can see it when you cross the river above Entrance Falls, but for a good view you’ll have to get closer. There is no trail to it and it’s probably easier to wade the river than to bushwhack along the bank. It’s not really worth it, but if you go, stay to the river-right side if you bushwhack. There is no good view of the falls from the river-left side.
A note about photographing the Whitewater River slot canyon.
If you read everything up to this point, you know that the slot canyon is not a place to take lightly. But if you are a photographer, I’m sure you’ll want to make photos of all aspects of the canyon. This is certainly possible for some people, as the photos on this page prove. However, before you grab your gear and head out for the canyon, I feel compelled to explain just a little about how I obtained these photos.
Some people will think I should stay quite because it will just encourage others. But I think it would be more irresponsible to show the photos without explanation. Some will think I shouldn’t show the photos at all, even with an explanation. To those people I say what a terrible world we would live in if nobody ever showed a photo, made a movie, or wrote a story about anything that wasn’t mundane.
I photograph for a living. I work hard trying to make the best shots possible. I go to extremes that some think are foolish, but which are always safe for me. I will do whatever I can to get the shot as long as it’s safe and doesn’t adversely affect the environment. And I won’t apologize for showing you the results.
The views of Entrance Falls and Sculpted Falls from the south rim of the canyon were straightforward. The water level was low enough that I could safely wade the river above Entrance Falls and then easily make my way down to the viewpoints. The principle consideration was just to make sure I was extremely careful considering I was shooting from the edge of the canyon. I did not hang over the edge as I sometimes do, so I did not need a rope for my tripod or myself.
The views of Sculpted Falls from the north rim required getting closer to the edge of the canyon, so I used a rope for my body and one for my tripod. My tripod was literally hanging over the edge.
The view from inside the canyon at the top of Sculpted Falls required me to scale Entrance Falls and swim the river to the top of Sculpted Falls. The water level was very low, otherwise there is no way I would have attempted it. I wasn’t sure how strong the current would be between Entrance Falls and the brink of Sculpted Falls, so to be safe I had a long rope that I could hold onto and make sure the current wouldn’t wash me over the falls. As it turned out, the rope wasn’t needed for that, but it did provide assurance that I did not fall over Sculpted Falls while I was photographing so close to the brink. Even with a low water flow, a rope is needed to scale Entrance Falls. While I was able to get down without one, getting back up safely is definitely rope territory. I wore a life jacket and helmet the entire time.
The views of Little Canyon Falls required me to rappel down a short cliff to reach the rock viewpoint. I also used the rope while photographing to keep my tripod and me from falling. It is possible to access this viewpoint from the top of Exit Falls without having to rappel. However, to do so you must cross the river literally on the brink of Exit Falls. If the water’s up, forget it. Even in low water, this is very dangerous, as the slightest error in judgement will result in disaster. Once across, you still have to climb up a very steep rock slope to reach the viewpoint. I’ve done it both ways, and coming down from above is definitely the safest, although it does require rappelling and then ascending the short cliff.
The views of Sculpted Falls from the base required me to scale the canyon walls to reach the river. Rappelling to the river would not be a problem for me, but climbing back out is beyond my skill set. So I used a special homemade rope ladder for this task. I lowered my camera pack down with a separate rope. Once I reached the river, I swam up to the base of Sculpted Falls and spent the night on the small flattish rock that is exposed in low water. I wore a life jacket the entire time and a helmet while I was climbing the ladder. The camera backpack I used is waterproof, so I could wear it while swimming the river. As with the shots from the top of Sculpted Falls, this is only possible to do in low water.