Years ago, I found myself in the Old Fort area with some spare time.  I was with Bob, who suggested we make the short hike to Catawba Falls.  We drove over there, only to be greeted with dozens of “No Trespassing” signs at the trailhead.  The only reasonable access to the falls passes through a short stretch of private property before reaching the National Forest boundary.  When Bob had last been there, some 20 years earlier, the trail had been open to the public.  Unfortunately, sometime during the intervening years, that had changed.  We left disappointed, but hopeful that we might be able to visit the falls sometime in the future.


A few weeks ago, while browsing through Rich Stevenson’s excellent website,, I discovered that Catawba Falls is now open to the public!  The Foothills Conservancy ( recently purchased the property, securing public access.  However, the conservancy had to take out a private loan to obtain the necessary funds.  They are currently soliciting donations to reduce their outstanding debt.  If you would like to help with this worthwhile cause, go to the link above.


 I contacted Bob, and we immediately planned a hike.  Last Saturday, we finally made it up there.  After an easy drive to Old Fort, we followed Catawba Falls Road to the end.  There we found a small parking area, just before an old bridge over the river.  The bridge is gated, but the gate is passable to foot traffic.  The “No Trespassing” signs are all gone now, and the gate now features a sign that states that foot traffic is allowed.


We gathered our gear, and were greeted by our guide for the day, a black Lab named Spot.  I let Saucony play around and socialize with Spot in the parking area, before putting her back in the car.  I decided not to bring her on this hike, as I’d read that the “trail” between the main falls and the upper falls is steep and hazardous.  She was a little confused though, as she watched us head up the trail, with another dog, from the window of my car.


Spot ran ahead, while we strolled along an old roadbed running parallel to the river.  After a few minutes, we reached the National Forest boundary.  Not far beyond, we followed the trail down to cross the river.  The water level was fairly low, and it was easy to hop across on rocks.  From there, we continued upstream, climbing above and away from the river.  At one point, we passed a nice campsite near the river.  However, camping here is not currently allowed.  Part of the agreement made by the Foothills Conservancy is that this area is day use only, and no overnight parking is allowed.


We continued ahead, rock hopping a side stream before reaching a steep path heading down to the river.  I decided to check it out.  At the bottom of the path, I arrived at the base of a small but pretty waterfall.  Just upstream are the remains of an old dam.  Bob joined me there, and we spent a few minutes enjoying the falls and taking photos.


We climbed steeply back up to the trail, and immediately passed along the base of sheer rock wall.  Before long, we left the old roadbed and crossed another side stream.  From here, the trail was a bit rough, but still easy enough to follow.  A few minutes later, we arrived at a large sandbar at the base of Catawba Falls.


My first impression was one of disappointment.  While very high, the falls are also rather wide.  Although this was February, the water level was surprisingly low, and there wasn’t much more than a trickle coming down the falls.  This waterfall is very close to the river’s headwaters, and water levels change rapidly.  If you plan to visit this waterfall, I highly recommend going immediately after a significant rainfall.  Going in the winter will enable you to see more of the falls, but if the water level is low, it just isn’t very impressive.


Despite that disappointment, we decided to climb to the upper falls.  We followed the trail, which continues up the cliff alongside the falls.  The trail is very steep, but it wasn’t as bad as I had feared.  The worst section does have a rope anchored to a rock, which assists with climbing and descending.  By the time we reached the top, we both felt like we’d gotten a decent workout, even though the hike was only 3 miles roundtrip!


From the top, we followed a rugged path up the river.  Before long, the path split.  A prominent trail continued ahead to the right, but we dropped down to the left, to stay closer to the river.  This was the right choice, as we reached the river just downstream from the falls.  My first impression here couldn’t have been more different.  Wow!  Upper Catawba Falls isn’t nearly as tall as the main falls, but it’s much more attractive.  It features a sheer, 70’ drop, with a nice run of cascades at the base.  Bob was as impressed as I was.  He had been to Catawba Falls several times previously, but he had never made it to the Upper Falls.  We both stopped in our tracks to take in this sight before resuming our hike upstream.


Getting to the base was tricky.  We negotiated lots of slippery rocks, and hopped across the river at one point.  Bob made one misstep, and dunked a boot.  Despite that, it was worth the effort.  We reached a nice sandbar just short of the very base, and took in the view from there.  We spent the next 30 minutes or so exploring the falls and taking photos from various angles.  Although the cloudy day provided good photographic conditions, I had a lot of difficulty excluding the ugly gray sky from my photos.  As a result, I don’t feel like my pictures do this waterfall justice.  I have no regrets though, as it is one of the nicer waterfalls around.


We eventually headed back, following Spot back down the trail.  It was slow-going descending to the base of the main falls, as considerable caution was required.  Once down, the rest of the hike out was easy.  On the way, we passed several groups of hikers heading the other way.  Apparently word is out that the trail is now open!


We returned to the parking area, greeted Saucony, and parted ways with Spot.  We drove into Old Fort, where our lunch options consisted of McDonalds or Hardees.  So we grabbed a bit of McLunch, and drove over to the Old Fort picnic area.  The road to the picnic area was gated, so we pulled off the road, and walked from there.  This time we brought Saucony with us.  I wasn’t going to leave her in the car all day!


We had lunch at a picnic table, before starting our second hike of the day.  Our plan was to hike the Young’s Ridge Trail up to Kitsuma Peak.  This trail starts in the picnic area, but we weren’t sure exactly where.  We found a trail at the far end of the picnic area, and followed it up some steps.  We followed along a ridge below an impressive rock face, before descending down to Swannanoa Creek (not to confused with the Swannanoa River, which is nearby, but on the opposite side of the continental divide).  The path then turned to follow the creek under some nice Hemlocks.  These Hemlocks are healthy, as they were treated with pesticides before they could be infected by the blight. 


The trail quickly returned us to the picnic area.  That little excursion was nice, but it hadn’t taken us up Young’s Ridge.  We wandered back through the picnic area, and found the correct trail running along a stream not far from the parking area.  We followed this path up the valley, before eventually climbing away from the stream.  After a gradual climb, we topped out on the ridge.  Here the walking was easy, and we found a few winter views through the trees.  Unfortunately, some of those views included I-40.  Young’s Ridge is adjacent to the interstate, so traffic noise is present at times during this hike.


Eventually the easy stroll ended, and we ascended and descended several knobs.  Along here, we found a narrow view through the trees of railroad tracks emerging from a tunnel.  One final steep ascent brought us to the summit of Kitsuma Peak.  There is no view here, so we descended through a maze of trails.  We arrived at a rock outcrop, where we found a limited view obscured by trees, and a large group of hikers.  They had come up from the Ridgecrest Trailhead, which is adjacent to the interstate directly below Kitsuma Peak.  They left shortly after we arrived, so we stopped there for a break and a snack.


After a few minutes, we went searching for a better view.  We climbed back up towards the summit, but descended a side path back down to the left.  Here we found a rock outcrop, with a better view.  The vista included Greybeard Mountain and Seven Sisters Ridge.  Some of the peaks near Mt. Mitchell, including Clingmans Peak, were in sight.  In the opposite direction, we could see the peaks of High Windy and High Top.  Below, we looked out over Ridgecrest, the town of Black Mountain, and the interstate running towards Asheville.  In the farthest distance, we could just make out the hazy outline of the Balsam Mountains, despite the clouds.


We hung out for a few minutes, before beginning the 3-½ mile hike back.  On the way back, we passed several other groups of hikers and a couple of mountain bikers.  It was busy on this trail, particularly for a cloudy day in February!  Young’s Ridge provided a nice walk, but it probably isn’t one of the better hikes in the area.  There’s only one good view, and there’s no escaping the noise from the highway along several stretches of this trail.

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