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Catawba Falls Trail in Old Fort is Open Again! (How to Reach a Beautiful Western NC Waterfall)

Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on May 30, 2024.

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Catawba Falls reopens after years of safety-focused maintenance. Our NC travel guide shares how you can hike to this beautiful Western North Carolina waterfall near Asheville!

Catawba Falls in Old Fort (near Asheville) is easily one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Pisgah National Forest. This waterfall is also very easy to reach as it is along I-40.

The 100-foot-tall mossy falls require a steady climb along the Catawba River.

Because there are two distinct sections, Catawba Falls is typically referred to in terms of “Lower” and “Upper” Catawba Falls. Multiple highlights along the way complement those gorgeous cascades, making this one of our favorite hikes in North Carolina.

We’ll share info about the Catawba Falls trails, including when to visit, safety info, and more. Here’s how we’ve organized this guide, in case you’re looking for something specific:

  • Where is Catawba Falls?
  • When did Catawba Falls Reopen?
    • Safety First
  • Hiking Catawba Falls Trails from Start to Finish
    • Our Recommended Route
    • The River Trail
      • The Wildflower Trail
    • The Ridge Trail
  • Before You Visit
    • Leave No Trace Reminder
    • Safety Information
    • When to Visit AND Avoid Crowds
  • Where to Stay Nearby
  • Things to Do Nearby (Old Fort, Asheville, and More!)

Read More: 75+ Great Hikes near Asheville

Where is the Catawba Falls Trailhead and Parking Lot?

Address: 3074 Catawba River Rd, Old Fort, NC (Directions Below)

Catawba Falls

Catawba Falls is located in the Grandfather District of Pisgah National Forest, just outside the town of Old Fort and about 40 minutes east of Asheville. Here’s a quick breakdown of driving directions to the Catawba Falls Trailhead and Parking Lot, depening on which way you’re traveling from:

  • From Asheville (I-40 East): You can quickly reach Catawba Falls via I-40 and after hopping off at Exit 73 (Old Fort exit). Before the exit ramp ends, there will be a road to your right (Catawba River Road).
  • From I-40 West: Take Exit 73 and then:
    • Turn left on Catawba Ave/Bat Cave Rd
    • Turn right onto Catawba River Rd, which is also the I-40 East exit ramp.
    • At the Yield sign, continue onto Catawba River Rd.

Follow the three-mile Catawba River Rd until it ends at the Catawba Falls Trailhead parking lot. You’ll find a large new parking area and a restroom at the trailhead when you arrive.

You can visually plan your trip to Catawba Falls with the following maps we’ve created with Google Maps:

Read More: 75+ Fun Day Trips from Asheville

When did Catawba Falls Reopen?

Catawba Falls NC was closed from May 2022 and reopened on May 31, 2024. 

During this time the US Forest Service performed maintenance to ensure public safety, improvements, and the addition of two Catawba Falls trails—the Ridge Trail and the Wildflower Trail.

After years of anticipation, Catawba Falls reopened on May 31, 2024. We were lucky enough to visit and preview the trail improvements, including the Ridge Trail and Wildflower Trail additions.

Some work may be needed and limited safety-related weekday closures could happen as necessary.

Safety First

Safety was the reason for this closure. During a preview event we attended, every single local officials we spoke with noted the many emergency rescues from Catawba Falls over the years led to the decision to close the trail.

The closure and construction of this massive structure by the US Forest Service were divisive topics among many hikers and outdoor lovers like us. Personally, I was torn because I feared the structure would diminish the beauty of Catawba Falls.

However, I feel that the US Forest Service (and the local contractors they hired) did an excellent job of creating a way for visitors to view the falls safely with minimally invasive construction.

Catawba Falls Safety Reminder Sign Image by NC Tripping

The structure also includes numerous numbered rescue points and safety signs. The rescue points have been added to assist emergency workers when a rescue becomes necessary.

The improvements and new structures addressed those issues, but throughout this guide, we will repeatedly remind you to be safe and responsible when visiting Catawba Falls.

Hiking Catawba Falls Trails

Catawba Falls Ridge Trail Entrance

Catawba Falls is a 100-foot waterfall that can be reached via two main trails:

  • The River Trail (1.4 Miles One Way includes 1.1 Miles to the base of Lower Falls, Yellow Blaze, and 0.3 Miles up 580 stairs and a boardwalk to Upper Falls, Blue Blaze)
Catawba Falls Wildflower Trail
  • The Wildflower Trail (0.25 Miles, Red Blaze): This Trail is an offshoot of the River Trail and reconnects with it closer to the base of Lower Falls.
  • The Ridge Trail (2.1 Miles One Way, Purple Blaze)
  • The River Trail and Ridge Trail Loop (3.5 Miles and up to 3.75 Miles if you add the Wildflower Trail)

Our Recommended Catawba Falls Hiking Route

Personally, I’d suggest starting on the River Trail and ascending the steps to see Upper Falls. The stairs may be tough to climb, but they could be rough on your knees on the way down.

That’s why we recommend returning to the parking lot via the Ridge Trail after going up to Upper Falls. The distance may be 50 percent longer, but the Ridge Trail return is a much steadier descent than the River Trail.

For even more details, here’s a breakdown of the Catawba Falls trails from start to finish, starting with the River Trail.

The Catawba Falls River Trail

Distance: 1.4 Miles One Way
Difficulty: Easy to the base of Lower Falls and Intermediate if you climb to Upper Falls

Catawba Falls Trail Bridge
  • When hiking the Catawba Falls River Trail, You’ll spend the first half-mile on mostly flat terrain.
  • A footbridge at the start of the trail helps encourage visitors even after heavy rainfall.
  • From there, the remainder of the River Trail is a steady uphill and elevation will increase 465 feet from beginning to end.

Read More: 25+ Amazing Waterfalls near Banner Elk (within 2 Hours’ Drive)

Catawba Falls Stone Dam
  • Catawba Falls River Trail highlights include:
    • Interesting stone foundations
    • A former power dam that now offers a waterfall on its own. It can be found approximately one mile into your hike, which means you’re almost there!
  • After passing the electric dam, the trail becomes a little rocky.
  • After 1.1 miles, you will reach the base of Lower Falls, with the new 580-step structure on its right. Depending on recent rainfall, the falls will either dribble over multiple tiers of rocks or gush.
catawba falls north carolina
Lower Falls before the Closure of Catawba Falls.
  • You can look up at Catawba Falls from the pool at its base or climb the steps (0.3 Miles or 580 steps) for a closer look from the bottom all the way to Upper Falls.
Catawba Falls With New Structure 2024 Image by NC Tripping
Lower Falls with the New Structure.
  • The stairs may seem neverending and cumbersome but the views are rewarding at every landing.
Catawba Falls US Forest Service Stair Structure Image by NC Tripping
  • Gorgeous views of Lower Falls below and mountains in the distance (Green Knob and Kitsuma Peak) made me stop along the way, even though I knew the ultimate reward of Upper Falls awaited.
Kitsuma Peak Green Knob Views from Catawba Falls Stairs Image by NC Tripping
  • After ascending the stair structure and another small set of stairs, the trail will relatively flatten and lead to Upper Falls.
    • To reach the base, you may need to hop on a few rocks and cross the stream, so I recommend waterproof boots or water shoes, especially for this terrain.
Catawba Falls Upper Falls Image by NC Tripping
  • Once you reach the base of Upper Falls, you’ll be tempted to stay a while, as long as it’s not too crowded. This is where you can connect to the Ridge Trail to return to the Parking Lot, which we believe to be the easier route back.
    • Crowd Note: The relative ease of visit that the stair structure has created will lead to even more crowds than before, so follow our advice and arrive as early as possible and/or during the week.

The Catawba Falls Ridge Trail

Distance: 2.1 Miles One Way

Catawba Falls Ridge Trail Image by NC Tripping

The Catawba Falls Ridge Trail is a steady climb if you start from the parking lot and a much easier descent than the River Trail if you choose to return via the stairs.

If you’re returning via the Ridge Trail, be careful and stick to the edges, especially on switchbacks and any other steeper sections. During dry conditions, the natural surfaces and gravel could become loose, making it easy to lose your balance.

Speaking of switchbacks, the final third of

Highlights along the Ridge Trail include:

Read More: Colorful Fall Hikes in North Carolina (+ 20 Beautiful Places to Explore!)

Things to Know Before You Visit

Before you visit Catawba Falls, we think you should know these important things, starting with its location.

Leave No Trace

Before we share more about Catawba Falls, we want to remind you to leave nature as you found it. Pack out what you pack in and leave no trace. In fact, if you see some trash, give our waterways and the planet a hug by taking it with you.

Read More: 25+ Beautiful Waterfalls near Boone (within 2 Hours)

Safety Information

structure at Catawba Falls
  • Proper footwear with good tread is recommended, even though much of this hike is fairly flat and easy.
  • Bug spray and sunscreen are recommended.
  • Please follow the signage and stay on the trail.
  • Do not climb on historic structures, no matter how tempting that selfie or “ussie” may seem.
  • Please be careful on the rocks at Catawba Falls. In some sections, it’s fairly steep and can be slippery.
  • Social Trails: And as tempting as it might still be to go off-trail, it is not recommended for your safety. Why?
    • Venomous snakes and other critters are more plentiful off-trail.
    • Most importantly, even with the new safety measures in place, emergency services find it difficult to reach Catawba Falls. Deaths have occurred there, and we want to prevent future injuries by discouraging social trails and reckless behavior on the waterfall’s rocks.

When to Visit AND Avoid Crowds

Catawba Falls yoga

Summer is a great time to visit all of North Carolina’s waterfalls, but you’ll especially love Catawba Falls during this time. That’s mainly because of the rhododendrons, but the cool air coming from these falls is also a wonderful way to escape the heat.

Of course, Catawba Falls is also an excellent winter hike. Tree foliage can sometimes hide the viewing area at the base of the falls. In winter, that is revealed.

Catawba Falls River Trail Image by NC Tripping

Thanks to trail improvements courtesy of the US Forest Service, Catawba Falls is also impressive after a big rain.

Note that there is a large parking lot, but this is an incredibly popular trail since it is easy to hike and reach the falls. We highly suggest you plan to arrive early (especially on weekends and during warmer months) or you may be waiting for a parking space.

Read More: 4 National Forests in NC (Things to Do + Why We Love Them!)

Where to Stay Near Catawba Falls NC

River Running Through Catawba Falls Campground NC
This river is just feet away from our Catawba Falls Campground tent.

And if you are interested in camping near the falls, we have stayed at Catawba Falls Campground. This is one way we beat the crowds when visiting the area, but make sure you book in advance, especially on weekends and warmer months.

There are plenty of tent sites, RV sites, and a couple of cabins available.

Catawba Falls Campground Old Fort NC Photo by NC Tripping

The campground is on the same road as the falls, which makes it easy to access and gives you a head start on people driving from further away.

Read More: Airbnbs in North Carolina

Things to Do Near Catawba Falls NC

There are quite a few places within an hour’s drive of Catawba Falls. From the trailhead, you can reach the following places within a reasonable drive:

Here are some more, which we’ve organized by the time required to reach each from the Catawba Falls trailhead.

  • Old Fort
  • Black Mountain
  • Asheville
  • Lake James State Park

Read More: 10+ Great Things to Do in Chimney Rock Village (and Nearby)

Old Fort

9 minutes (4 miles)

Old Fort North Carolina

Known for its pre-Revolutionary War history, Old Fort is a great mountain town with some hidden gems. In addition to Catawba Falls, Andrews Geyser brings people to the town.

The manmade geyser pulls its water supply from Mill Creek and sometimes shoots up as high as 80 feet. It’s a great place to rest, have a picnic, and cool off!

Read More: 25+ Wonderful Waterfalls Near Blowing Rock (within 2 Hours)

Black Mountain

12 miles | 19 minutes

Black Mountain near Catawba Falls NC

Black Mountain is one of the closest towns to Asheville on the east side of I-40. Lake Tomahawk Park and Town Square are a couple of awesome spots if you’re there for a day.

Oak and Grist, one of our favorite North Carolina distilleries, also calls Black Mountain “home.”

Asheville

28 miles | 35 minutes

Wedge Brewing Asheville NC

We mentioned Catawba Falls was near Asheville and at just 26 miles east, you’ll find it a convenient drive from Western NC’s largest city. And if you haven’t visited Asheville yet, here’s a snapshot become you come and stay.

We’ve been exploring the best things to do in Asheville for years, including its breweries, amazing restaurants (including those from acclaimed chefs), and hanging out at iconic spots like Biltmore Estate.

Read More: How to Enjoy Christmas at Biltmore

Lake James State Park

30 miles | 37 minutes

Lake James State Park near Asheville NC

Lake James is one of the most popular places to get on the water in Western North Carolina. It’s fun for boating and fishing but also for hiking and camping, too.

Of course, many folks come to this lake for a picnic or for a day hanging around its beaches!

Ready to Visit Catawba Falls?

Catawba Falls was one of the first waterfalls in North Carolina that we visited in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And while there are tons more to explore along the Blue Ridge Parkways, we keep coming back for the easy hike and beautiful water rushing through the moss-covered rocks.

If you are looking for a new waterfall to visit or haven’t marked this one off your NC bucket list yet, please give Catawba Falls some thought. If you arrive early enough to beat the crowds and have this place to yourself for a minute (or longer), its beauty and relative isolation will blow you away.

More Things to Do Nearby (NC Travel Guides)

We’ve included this amazing waterfall and its surroundings in many NC travel guides. Here are a few of them.

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