Top Five Waterfalls Near McDowell County

McDowell County has the best of both worlds. Part of the county lies in the foothills of Western North Carolina and part lies in the mountains, just a short trip to Asheville or the Blue Ridge Parkway.

One thing the area is known for is natural beauty and that includes a multitude of scenic waterfalls in close proximity to Marion, Old Fort, Lake James, Linville Falls, Nebo, and Little Switzerland.

Here is our list of the top five waterfalls in and around McDowell County. Each is just a short drive from anywhere in the county. They are accessible in hikes varying from easy to moderate.

Catawba Falls during the peak of summer in Old Fort, North Carolina. Located in McDowell County.

1: Catawba Falls 

For many years Catawba falls was hidden away on private property, not accessible by the public. Until recently, around 2010, Congress was petitioned to acquire the land and extend the borders of Pisgah National Forest to include this incredible landmark. The endeavor was successful and now Catawba Falls is open and enjoyable for everyone, quickly becoming one of the most popular waterfalls in Western North Carolina.

 

The beautiful, 100 ft., multi-tiered waterfall is located at the end of a moderate, 1.3 mile hike through shady forests with lots to look at. Back in the 1900’s, structures were built along the river to harness its hydroelectric energy and the old stone-made buildings still stand, empty and watchful. When you reach the falls, a large pool resides at the bottom, perfect for swimming in hot summer weather; though be warned! Attempting to climb up the falls is NOT a good idea and many people have been injured and killed trying to climb up and around the water. 

 

The upper part of the falls can be accessed via a very steep “trail” to the right of the waterfall, though it is very treacherous due to the incline and erosion. Plans are in place to make the upper falls more accessible for viewing. 

Overall, this is a wonderful hike offering many beautiful views of the falls and the national forest area. 

2: Tom’s Creek Falls

This 80 ft. waterfall is conveniently located a short drive from highway 221, just over a mile away from the busy road and very easy to find. But as soon as you get on the trail, you notice the peace and quite surrounding you for the simple 1/2 mile hike to get to the falls. When the water is low, the shallow pool below the falls is perfect for wading, and you can even go right up to the falls among the rock formations, though you shouldn’t attempt to climb the falls or go to the top of them. 

A new observation deck has also been installed recently, providing extreme ease of access and would even be a great place to spread a picnic blanket! There is also evidence of an old mill, as the moss-covered stone structures that used to hold the water wheel still stand off to the side. Large boulders and rocks scattered about are good for climbing to get a better view, and this would be a great place to take your children and/or dogs for a daytime adventure. It’s perfect for those who are looking for something scenic with a short and gentle hike.

3: Crab Tree Falls

These gorgeous falls are located a little ways off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Marion, and just above Emerald village. The areas around the falls provide plenty of opportunities for adventurers, offering a campground for those looking for an overnight endeavor, and a picnic area just south of that for daytime stops, with many lovely mountainous views. 

 

The trail-head to the falls begins at the campground and although the trail is one big loop, it’s divided between left and right (or Loop A and Loop B). The whole loop altogether is about 3 miles, but Loop A is a bit shorter and easier. Loop B, to the left hike is a little longer and is said to be slightly more strenuous and both loops meet at the waterfall. 

 

During the early summertime there are many beautiful wildflowers in bloom, decorating the trails and after a good rainfall, the 70 ft waterfall roars with power. If you’re careful, you can walk right up to the falls where there is a shallow wading pool. There is also a lone birch tree rooted in a small island in the center river just below the falls, providing some great photo ops. The trail crosses a bridge directly in front of the cascade of water and there’s a nice comfy bench built into the bridge perfect for a rest before the return trip. This hike can easily be completed in a day and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring along a picnic lunch. 

4: Hickory Branch Falls

This waterfall has a lot of history behind it. The land it resides on is part of one of the first sections of land to be made part of Pisgah National Forest when it was first established in 1901. The trail to get to this 30 ft. waterfall starts in the Curtis Creek campground which has recently been expanded and remodeled. The best time to visit would ideally be between April and December, as the the trailhead lies behind the gate to the campground and if you decide to visit during the wintertime, the gate will be closed. Though, it’s not far to park outside the grounds and walk the 0.3 miles to get to the beginning of the trail. 

 

From the trailhead it’s a moderate 1.5 mile hike to reach the falls. Along the path you will see Rhododendron, Hemlock, and Mountain Laurel trees-just to name a few-and plenty of beautiful wildflowers in the springtime and summer. The falls themselves provide some wonderful photo ops, running over the stones and surrounded by the shade of the forest. 

Overall, this is a lovely day hike with a beautiful view of one of McDowell County’s best waterfalls. 

Linville Falls

5: Linville Falls

One of the most photographed waterfalls in North Carolina, Linville Falls offers a variety of views and adventures for people of all ages. Conveniently located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and with miles of trails to hike, this trip is a must. The 90 ft. waterfall cuts a path through Linville Gorge, sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians”, and its beauty and power can be appreciated from 5 different overlooks. Only one of the trails is marked strenuous and hiking in the area would be safe for children, though if bringing pets they must be kept on a leash. 

This waterfall is particularly popular in the Autumn when the surrounding forests are bursting with hues of red, gold, orange, and purple. Each of the five vantage points provide a breathtaking glimpse from both the left and right side of the river, some up close, and others further away. Although it may look tempting, swimming is prohibited because the currents are too strong, and there are some low rock walls to provide a bit of a barrier. 

If you ever get the opportunity, visiting this waterfall is highly recommended and you most certainly will not regret it!