What is it about waterfalls that draws our attention like few other natural wonders do? Maybe it’s the feeling of discovering something so powerful in the wild, or feeling the power of that water tumbling over rock? Whatever it is, hikers have sought out these natural wonders across the U.S. for years. Luckily for those of us in the Tar Heel State, NC waterfalls are abundant. In fact, western NC’s Transylvania County is nicknamed “the land of waterfalls,” and has over 250 cascades within its borders alone.
9 Magical NC Waterfalls and Where to Camp Nearby
These waterfalls in North Carolina make great destinations for hikes, summer swimming holes, and even lend their names to our beer (Catawba Brewing, anyone?) There are so many great NC waterfalls, it can be daunting to pick one for your next hike. We’ve managed to round up nine of the most magical North Carolinian waterfalls, with some spots where you can pitch your tent nearby.
An important note on safety: it’s important to always stay on the trail when hiking to waterfalls. Tragically, deaths do occurs near waterfalls in the state every year. As well, when hiking or camping near these falls, be sure to practice Leave No Trace policies to avoid damaging the ecosystem around the waterfalls.
1. Whitewater Falls—Nantahala National Forest, Pisgah District
The highest waterfall east of the Rockies, Whitewater Falls tumbles 411 feet to the pools below. Because of the rugged terrain surrounding the falls, the area receives few visitors and remains wild and undeveloped.
If you’re not up for a hike, an excellent view of the falls can be seen from the upper lookout at the end of the parking lot. Wooden steps lead to a lower overlook, offering the best view of the falls. For those looking to stretch their legs, a half-mile spur trail leads to the Foothills Trail, running parallel to the Whitewater River. This trail makes for a scenic hike, but take note that there are no views of the waterfall from this trail.
Just west about half an hour is the Ammons Branch campground, nestled in the Nantahala National Forest. The grounds’ four sites are free and claimable on a first-come, first-serve basis, but offer few options in terms of amenities.
2. Rainbow Falls—Gorges State Park
Of all North Carolina’s waterfalls, Rainbow Falls is probably has the most fitting name. These falls careen over a smooth rock face, and when flowing in high volume, can spray enough mist to create their own rainbow. To reach the falls, follow the popular Rainbow Falls trail in Gorges State Park for 1.5 miles until it dead ends at the falls. Most people stop here, but it’s possible to continue upstream about a quarter-mile to Turtleback Falls. Please use extreme caution on this trail and do not swim in the Horse Pasture River. Water levels can rise unexpectedly and deaths have occurred when hikers and swimmers are swept over the falls.
There are eight primitive campsites at the Ray Fisher campground within Gorges State Park. Once the trail leaves Gorges State Park and enters the National Forest, however, campers will find that there are free, first-come, first-serve campsites along the trail—albeit lacking amenities. The signs will indicate when you are entering and leaving state park property.
3. Skinny Dip Falls—Pisgah National Forest, Grandfather District
Just a short walk from the Blue Ridge Parkway (nearest to mile post 417), Skinny Dip Falls is a beautiful waterfall plunging into a scenic, forested swimming hole. This popular waterfall is usually packed in the summertime, but for good reason. The ice-cold water makes a refreshing escape from the southern heat, and the numerous soaking pools located just downstream from the falls are the perfect place to hang out on a hot day.
You’ll probably pass the Mount Pisgah Campground on the Blue Ridge Parkway while heading to these falls, making it a perfect basecamp for your waterfall hikes. Both RV and tent sites are available; 53 sites be reserved in advance (which is highly recommended during the summer and fall) and 72 are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The campground has flush toilets and hot showers so you can refresh yourself after a long day of swimming and hiking.
4. Looking Glass Falls—Pisgah National Forest, Grandfather District
One of the most popular NC waterfalls, Looking Glass Falls is beautiful year-round, whether frozen solid in the dead of —its name comes from the mirror-like quality of the frozen falls—or gushing with water during the dog days of summer, when the plunge pool below makes a perfect swimming hole.
Located on the roadside in the Grandfather District of the Pisgah National Forest, the 60-foot Looking Glass Falls is easily accessible by both the young and those with limited mobility. A short stairway leads to the bottom of the falls for a closer view.
Just a short drive from the falls is the popular Davidson River Campground, offering 133 standard electric and standard non-electric campsites. The campground is divided into 8 mostly-shaded loops and has restrooms with flush toilets and hot showers.
5. Mingo Falls—Eastern Cherokee Reservation
Located on Cherokee-owned land just a few miles from the North Carolina entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Mingo Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in southern Appalachia. This beautiful waterfall tumbles nearly 200 feet down a rock face and boulders, and can be accessed by a short quarter-mile trail that leads to a wooden viewing bridge in front of the falls. The trail is short but challenging, and the trail’s stone steps can be slippery after a rain. Locals say that the best time to visit the falls is in the morning, when the crowds are sparse and the falls can be shrouded in fog.
There’s no shortage of campgrounds near Mingo Falls, being situated in close proximity to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Our recommendation for camping near the falls, however, is the Cherokee/Great Smokies KOA. This campground has RV camping sites, tent sites, and deluxe cabin lodging with full amenities, including an on-site general store, swimming pools, playground, and even a dog park.
6. Douglas Falls—Pisgah National Forest, Appalachian District
There are two ways to reach the base of Douglas Falls’s 70-foot drop; the first is a steep and difficult seven-mile hike down from the Craggy Gardens Visitor’s Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The second (and highly recommended) route is to approach the falls from the Big Ivy area of Pisgah National Forest, where it’s a short and easy hike to reach the falls. It’s best to visit after a strong rain, as the falls can slow to a trickle during the dry months.
There are plentiful primitive camping options in the Big Ivy area of Pisgah National Forest, but they won’t come with many amenities. From these roadside dispersed campsites you can easily reach the parking area for the short one-mile hike to the bottom of Douglas Falls.
7. Hickory Nut Falls—Chimney Rock State Park
Chimney Rock State Park is a popular destination for hikers and sightseers. The peak of the namesake Chimney Rock draws thousands of visitors annually with its 365-degree views of the western North Carolina hills, but that’s not the only major attraction in the park. Hickory Nut Falls, one of the tallest NC waterfalls, is situated in the park at a staggering 404-feet high (the second highest east of the Mississippi), and once served as the backdrop for a few scenes in the movie The Last of the Mohicans. An easy 0.75-mile trail leads to a viewing platform at the bottom of the falls where visitors can look up and experience the full power of the waterfall.
Before you go, know that certain areas of Chimney Rock State Park are privately owned (including the Chimney Rock Mountain) and entrance fees may be charged.
If you like to fall asleep to the sound of rushing water, Hickory Nut Falls Family Campground is a choice spot. This seasonal campground (open from April 1- October 31) offers campsites for RVs and tents at the edge of the river. There’s also an on-site laundry, campground store, shower house and playground. Campers report that the campsites are in close proximity to all things outdoors in the area.
8. Linville Falls—near Linville, NC
There are two trails that will take hikers to Linville Falls, and both trailheads can be found about 1.5 miles off of the Blue Ridge Parkway (nearby mile post 316.4). These trails lead to a total of five viewpoints at both the base of the waterfall and above it. The impressive falls move in several steps, and are best enjoyed from every angle. There’s a twin set of upper falls which flow down a small gorge and converge to create a show-stopping 45-foot high volume waterfall that empties into the Linville Gorge. No swimming is allowed in the water, as the current is too swift.
Linville Falls campground is located at milepost 317 of the Blue Ridge Parkway within hiking distance of the Linville Gorge. The campground has RV and tent camping and offers flush toilets and drinking water but there are no showers and no electric, water, or sewer hookups. The campground is situated under a dense pine canopy and surrounded by giant rhododendrons.
9. Graveyard Fields—Pisgah National Forest, Pisgah District
Graveyard Fields is a beautiful and popular hiking spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 418.8). There are two waterfalls to see here, both captivating in their own right. The Lower Falls is just a third of a mile from the parking area, and is an easy hike on a paved trail. This pretty waterfall can be seen by the footbridge above it or even explored in the water by foot. Lower Falls also serves as a popular swimming hole in the warmer months. To reach the Upper Falls, continue straight on the trail until you reach the falls. The total loop to see both waterfalls is about four miles.
Situated between a number of wilderness areas perfect for trail running and hiking, the Sunburst Campground is just a 10-mile drive from the trailheads in the Graveyard Fields. This campground rests directly on Queen Creek, a tributary of the nearby Logan Lake, and is ideal for those looking to paddle around NC after viewing some falls. The nine primitive campsites offer quiet camping in a former logging camp, and each site comes with a picnic table, tent pad, and lantern hooks. Flush toilets are available in the bath house, and firewood is available for purchase.