Last Updated on July 26, 2021
Last Updated on July 26, 2021
If you plan to visit Western NC, please check beforehand to see if the area is safe following the recent flooding. Officials have closed some sections of Pisgah National Forest (including Forest Heritage Scenic Byway and Blue Ridge Parkway stops) to keep visitors out of danger. Please respect signage and local guidance.
Carter Falls in Elkin is one of the newest public access waterfalls in North Carolina, after many years of remaining only a locals’ secret swimming hole. While it’s an easy-to-reach waterfall from the namesake trailhead, there are multiple options for you to reach the Yadkin Valley waterfall.
They range from really short from that Carter Falls Trailhead or a nearby campground to longer options that include an area vineyard and another along the Mountains to Sea Trail.
In this guide, we’ll break down each option, including some interesting info about Carter Falls, how to get there, safety tips, and much more. Here’s how we’ve organized the guide, in case you want to find something quickly:
- Carter Falls Facts and History
- The Carter Falls Hike (4 Options and Parking Info)
- Can You Swim at Carter Falls?
- Safety Tips
- When to Visit AND Avoid Crowds
- More Things to Do in Elkin (and Its Surroundings)
If not, keep reading about the amazing Carter Falls in the Yadkin Valley, one of our favorite regions of North Carolina.
This post is part of our series on Elkin and its surroundings in Surry and Wilkes counties. Since it’s not too far from the High Country, we’ve also included it in our guide to waterfalls near Boone, Blowing Rock, and Banner Elk.
Carter Falls Facts and History
Carter Falls is a 50-foot series of upper and lower falls that flows through Big Elkin Creek.
Before it was a waterfall that we could all hike to and enjoy, Carter Falls was used as a source of electricity for the Town of Elkin. A hydro station was built here in 1914 and helped power the town for many years.
The station was retired in 1967 and a local lawyer eventually bought the land that surrounds the falls, owning it until 2018. He eventually acquiesced to countless requests and allowed the State of North Carolina to purchase the land.
Local conservation organizations (including the Elkin Valley Trails Association) led the effort to connect this waterfall to the town’s excellent trail system and the Mountains to Sea Trail that runs from Clingmans Dome to Jockey’s Ridge.
The Carter Falls Hike (4 Options)
Thanks to Elkin’s well-connected trail system, here are four options for you to reach Carter Falls, from shortest to longest:
- Carter Falls Trailhead: Carter Falls Trail Head, Elkin, NC 28621
- Byrd’s Branch Campground: 225 Martin Byrd Rd, Elkin, NC 28621
- Grassy Creek Vineyard Trailhead: 235 Chatham Cottage Ln, State Rd, NC 28676
- Isaac’s Trailhead: 400 E Carter Mill Rd, Elkin, NC 28621
Thank you EVTA for creating this map that visually outlines the journey.
From the Carter Falls Trailhead (or Powerhouse Trailhead)
1 mile roundtrip
The shortest Carter Falls hike is from the Carter Falls Trailhead, which shares a parking lot with the Powerhouse Trailhead. The lot can hold about 30 cars and can easily fill up on busy days.
To Upper Falls
The Carter Falls Trail begins on the right side of the lot and will take you through a mostly shaded trail.
You’ll then hike a couple of switchbacks before reaching the portion of the trail that sits alongside the top of the falls (aka “Upper Falls”).
This is the most picturesque section of Carter Falls, and the best view is to follow the steep descent to its base. This is one of two sections where we suggest you proceed with caution. Proper footwear is a bonus here.
At the base of upper falls, you’ll get a couple of viewpoints, with one right next to it.
After enjoying the base and grabbing as many photos, videos, and selfies as possible, you’ll climb back up to the trail and continue on the Powerhouse Trail or backtrack via the Carter Falls Trail.
To Lower Falls
Both trails are the same distance back to the parking lot and because you still should see the lower falls, we suggest you continue on the Powerhouse Trail.
There’s a stairway you can climb or walk under and eventually, you’ll reach a soon-to-be constructed “bridge of dreams.” This will cross Big Elkin Creek someday in the future. You can actually purchase a Dream Ribbon to help build the bridge.
Lower falls will be the next major landmark, with a couple of options for seeing it, too. There’s a spacious platform for you to view lower falls from a distance.
There’s also a narrow walkway that will take you right next to Lower Falls. Proceed with caution here, as recent rainfall and other factors can make this option slippery.
After Lower Falls, you’ll follow a few inclined switchbacks and some slight incline before the trail straightens and mostly levels out. You’ll pass a footbridge and what looks like an abandoned structure on the left before eventually reaching the parking lot.
From Byrd’s Branch Campground
1.2 miles roundtrip
If you’re camping at Byrd’s Branch Campground, this is another easy option to reach Carter Falls. From here, it’s a little more than 1/10-mile to reach the Carter Falls Trailhead.
From the Grassy Creek Vineyard Trailhead
4.5 miles roundtrip
Grassy Creek Vineyard & Winery welcomes you to start your Carter Falls hike from their trailhead. If you like wine, we think you should end your day here with a tasting inside or a glass (or bottle) outside.
As for the hike, you’ll follow white blazes from the trailhead through hardwood forest that will eventually take you over Grassy Creek via a wooden bridge.
Shortly after, you’ll join the Mountains to Sea Trail, which will twice cross Martin Byrd Rd. The stretch of trail between Martin Byrd Rd passes through private land that’s been decorated with interesting creatures on trees and even a tiny “gnome home.”
The second time you cross Martin Byrd Rd, you’ll turn left and follow the road while keeping eyes out for a “Carter Falls” sign. You’ll reach a field that will then take you through Byrd’s Branch Campground toward the Carter Falls Trailhead.
Mountains to Sea Trail from Isaac’s Trailhead
6 miles roundtrip
From Isaac’s Trailhead, you’ll follow Grassy Creek for about 1.5 miles before meeting with the Grassy Creek Vineyard Trail. During this part of your hike, note that you will be walking along and adjacent to multiple privately owned properties.
Please be respectful and leave no trace.
For a diversion, you’ll also meet a Skull Camp Trail spur about a mile into your hike. You can follow it for 0.4 miles to Bridge St in Elkin. Across the road is Skull Camp Brewing, makers of tasty smoked food and delicious beer and wine.
Can You Swim at Carter Falls?
For a long time, locals have enjoyed Carter Falls as a somewhat secret swimming hole.
You can swim at Carter Falls, but due to various factors, we DO NOT recommend it. They include sharp rocks (and sometimes glass) at the bottom, occasional brush and trash that welcome snakes and other wildlife, and the sheer strength of Big Elkin Creek after periods of heavy rainfall.
Before its official opening to the public, fewer visitors meant less likelihood of injuries. As the waterfall rises in popularity, we hope that all who visit will keep safety in mind above everything else.
Speaking of safety, here are a few tips to help you enjoy Carter Falls:
- Wear proper footwear: This means closed-toe shoes with good tread.
- Load up on bug spray: This is crucial during warmer months, as the mix of shaded hardwoods, humidity, and this being the South bring the mosquitos out.
- Don’t stand on the waterfall: You may see someone doing this when you arrive. It may seem tempting even if water levels are low. However, we personally don’t recommend this. If you need further convincing, even waterfall expert Kevin Adams doesn’t recommend standing at the top of a waterfall. He explained why during our interview for NC Travel Chat.
- Walk slowly downhill: There are some steep sections near Carter Falls and
- Be mindful of snakes and other wildlife: We haven’t found any reports of venomous snakes being spotted at Carter Falls or along the hike, but just want to mention that you may at least see some nonvenomous ones near or at the waterfall.
When to Visit AND Avoid Crowds
Having visited this waterfall on multiple occasions, we’ve found the best time to be early in the morning, before 10:00 am, or later in the afternoon, after 3:00 pm.
If you arrive early enough, you may have the place to yourself. With its rising popularity, that may not happen during warmer months. Arriving as early as possible also helps your photos of Carter Falls, as the sun starts hitting it pretty early.
For the most colorful hike and clearest water conditions at Carter Falls, we suggest warmer months and not after periods of intense rainfall. The water turns brown in color when it has rained a lot, so keep that in mind, too, when planning your visit.
Ready to Visit Carter Falls?
We’re grateful to have Carter Falls and can’t thank the EVTA enough for their tireless work connecting it to our Mountains to Sea Trail. This organization’s work is just an excellent example of a community coming together to remain connected to the outdoors.
Hopefully, we can all continue enjoying this amazing waterfall and the great trails that lead into it.
Have you ever visited Carter Falls? What do you think of this wonderful place? Also, if you have any pre-2018 memories here, we’d love to read about them in the comments.
More Things to Do in Elkin
Beyond Carter Falls, here are some other fun things to do in Elkin and its surroundings in both Surry and Wilkes counties.
There are some truly impressive wineries here, even kid-friendly ones like Elkin Creek and Grassy Creek. The Surry County Wine Trail features a few of our favorites and spills over into Mount Airy and other neighboring towns.
Downtown Elkin is pretty cool, too, and home to great restaurants like Southern On Main and Angry Troll Brewing. We also love Skull Camp, which we mentioned earlier. This place serves its own wine, beer, and yummy smoked food.
We also frequently visit the area for Stone Mountain State Park nearby. If you like hiking, then you’ll love the Stone Mountain Loop to Stone Mountain Falls. A short drive away from the Stone Mountain Loop and an even shorter walk will also take you to Widow’s Creek Falls.
Just a bit further up US-21 from Carter Falls and Elkin are some interesting Blue Ridge Parkway stops. Little Glade Mill Pond (Milepost 230) and Doughton Park (MP 238-241) are about 30 and 40 minutes away, respectively.