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How to See Elk River Falls (Trail and Safety Tips)

Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on September 20, 2023.

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Elk River Falls, NC (also known as Big Falls) is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in North Carolina, but it’s also among the most deadly. This 50-foot waterfall near Banner Elk sits inside Pisgah National Forest and is reachable via a short and relatively easy 1/3 mile hike one way (2/3 mile round trip).

This is also a great place to picnic, chill out on the rocks, and admire a truly epic waterfall. As a result, Elk River Falls is a very popular place to visit for people on the North Carolina and the Tennessee side of the nearby border! 

Our guide shares more information about how you can also enjoy Elk River Falls, the trail, and more things to do nearby! 

Here is how we have organized this guide to Elk River Falls: 

  • About Elk River Falls, North Carolina
  • Where is Elk River Falls? (Driving Directions)
  • Before You Go: Waterfall Safety Tips
  • Leave No Trace Reminder
  • How to See Elk River Falls (Trail Info)
  • Nearby Waterfalls, Hikes, and Places to Go

You can scroll ahead to any section below or continue reading a breakdown of Elk River Falls.

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

About Elk River Falls

Elk River Falls

Elk River Falls is located in the Avery County town of Elk Park, about 12 miles (25 minutes) from Banner Elk and very close to the North Carolina-Tennessee border. It is considered part of North Carolina’s High Country which includes Boone and Blowing Rock, in addition to Banner Elk.

The waterfall sits within the Appalachian Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest.

The cascading Elk River forms Elk River Falls off a sheer 50-foot rock into a pool of water. Dangerous currents form at the waterfall’s base and flow over a set of boulders into a calmer, shallower pool.

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

Where is Elk River Falls? (Driving Directions)

Elk River Falls rock view

As we mentioned, Elk River Falls is located near the North Carolina-Tennesee border. Most travelers to Elk River Falls come from Banner Elk from NC Highway 194.

  • Turn right (north) onto US Highway 19 E until you reach Old Mill Road.
  • Drive 0.4 miles and turn right onto Elk River Road.
  • The parking area for the falls will be 4 miles at the end of the road.

Note to only park in the designated area and not alongside the private residences. 

You can visually plan your trip to Elk River Falls with our Western North Carolina Map and our North Carolina Travel Map.

Read More: 20 of the Best North Carolina Road Trips (Scenic Byways and Highways)

Waterfall Safety Tips

Elk River Falls warning

You will see many signs along the way but we want to stress this—Please NO jumping from the top of the waterfall. It is tempting for the free-spirited, but there are tons of hazards underneath the water that you can’t see.

Locals have told us that officials have sent divers under the waterfall. They’ve found bits of metal, car parts, and lodged trees.

The pool in front of Elk River Falls is also NOT a place for swimming or diving. The currents immediately in front of the waterfall at its base are extremely strong and elk river falls deaths have occurred, even with strong and healthy swimmers.

Elk River Falls swimming area

If you do want to swim, the area behind the boulder is shallow and calm, but we personally have chosen to just admire Elk River Falls from dry land. 

Read More: Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster (7 Important Tips Before You Go!)

Leave No Trace Reminder

As always, no matter when you visit Elk River Falls, please remember to “leave no trace.”

Any trash you bring with you, please take it home with you. This includes cigarettes, diapers, water bottles, and anything that could damage our natural ecosystem.

Whatever you bring for your visit, remember to take it with you. Be considerate so that the next person (or animal) can enjoy this awesome waterfall.

Read more: 20 Beautiful Waterfalls near Boone, Blowing Rock, and Banner Elk

The Elk River Falls Trail

Elk River Falls waterfall

The hike to reach Elk River Falls is very short (1/3 mile one way) and should take the average person five to 10 minutes to complete.

  • After parking, you’ll start following the river downstream until you reach some large boulders and plenty of caution signs warning visitors to not swim. 
  • Along the way, there are plenty of roots and occasional slippery sections, so please be mindful as you hike this trail.
  • You’ll reach the top of the waterfall and more signs urging no jumping. Please practice caution here, as these rocks can be unpredictably slippery.
Elk River Falls top of waterfall
  • From here, take a series of stairs down to the bottom of the falls.
Elk River Falls stairs
Working our way back up the stairs.
  • You’ll traverse across a boulder that juts out in front of the falls. This boulder can be full of people on busy days, so be careful and walk slowly, especially if you brought small children.
Elk River Falls picnic spot
  • You’ll find that it is a very popular spot for picnics! 

You can enjoy a view up at the waterfall for as long as you feel comfortable. The trip back is just as short as the way down to the waterfall.

Make sure you take as many photos as possible because this is such a beautiful waterfall.

Read More: Amazing Hikes near Boone and Blowing Rock (45 of the Best!)

Ready to Visit Elk River Falls?

While you should remain cautious, this High Country waterfall is one of our favorites to visit. It’s beautiful, powerful, and easily accessible from some of our favorite mountain towns.

A visit to Elk River Falls North Carolina is a fun addition to any mountain vacation in our opinion!

Have you ever visited this waterfall? We’d love to know what you think about it.

Let us know in the comments section below or by email. Don’t forget to share your Elk River Falls adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group.

Nearby Waterfalls, Hikes, and Places to Go

Here are some places nearby that you can either group together with your visit to Elk River Falls NC or use as a base for your adventures.

Read More: 20 of the Best Day Trips from Boone (Within a 2-Hour Drive)

Waterfalls Park

Distance from Elk River Falls: 10 miles (17 minutes)

Waterfalls Park Newland

Waterfalls Park is a roadside set of waterfalls in Newland, a small town near Elk Park. This set of falls is absolutely fantastic and definitely worth a visit after Elk River Falls.

There are several picnic tables and the area is maintained by the Newland Volunteer Fire Department.

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

Distance from Elk River Falls: 12 miles (25 minutes)

Banner Elk Restaurants Sorrentos

Banner Elk is about 25 minutes away from Elk River Falls and is an adorable small town. Sitting in the heart of Avery County, Banner Elk is most well known for its quaint downtown, awesome restaurants, and its access to both Sugar Mountain Ski Resort and Beech Mountain Ski Resort.

Those are two of the many things to do in Banner Elk during ski season and throughout the year!

We highly recommend you ride the Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster, walk around or play at the Banner Elk Greenway that runs around Tate-Evans Park, and say hello to our friends at Apple Hill Farm

Read More: Winter in North Carolina (and 10+ Great Things to Do)

Sugar Mountain Ski Resort

Distance from Elk River Falls: 16 miles (35 minutes)

Sugar Mountain Ski Resort

Sugar Mountain is the largest of our ski resorts in North Carolina, with 125 acres of skiable area, 21 slopes, a snow tubing park, an ice skating rink, and a public racing program. All these features make this a wonderful winter getaway, but there’s even more.

During parts of the summer, you can go mountain biking at Sugar Mountain or just ride the ski lift up to the top and back down.

Read More: Winter in Boone (20 Great Activities, Snow Tubing, and More!)

Beech Mountain

Distance from Elk River Falls: 18 miles (40 minutes)

The Town of Beech Mountain is home to another great ski resort and more fun in its surroundings. Like Sugar Mountain, Beech Mountain Resort has lots to offer during the summer months!

Take a scenic chairlift ride up to the 5506’ Skybar and enjoy watching the mountain bikes as they boof off the trails. Save some room for lunch as the brewery at the base of the mountain has a delicious menu! 

Beech Mountain is also home to the Land of Oz, which opens for just a few weekends each year.

Read More: 80+ Tasty North Carolina Breweries (The Best of the Best!)

Grandfather Mountain

Distance from Elk River Falls: 20 miles (40 minutes) to the Private Attraction, 18 miles (30 minutes) to Grandfather Mountain State Park

Things to Do at Grandfather Mountain NC

Grandfather Mountain is a must-visit when in Western North Carolina. To visit, we recommend going to the attraction, which does require advance tickets and timed entry.

Once you secure tickets, walk across the Mile High Swinging Bridge, check out the animal habitats, and even drive the same route that Forrest Gump ran! 

If you are an expert hiker, then the Grandfather Mountain State Park entrance might be for you. The Profile Trail is one of the most strenuous hikes in North Carolina complete with ladders and ropes, but the views are well worth the effort! 

Read more: 40+ North Carolina State Parks Sites and How to Enjoy them All!

Roan Mountain (Carvers Gap Entrance)

Roan Mountain Carvers Gap NC Rhododendrons

Roan Mountain is another great place near Elk River Falls. There are multiple ways to enjoy this mountain but we prefer hiking the Appalachian Trail portion from Carvers Gap on the North Carolina side of the border.

You can hike to multiple mountain balds, including Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald. Epic views await on clear days and during the early summer, keep an eye out for beautiful rhododendrons and flame azaleas!

Read More: 100+ of the Best Hiking Trails in North Carolina

More Things to Do (High Country Travel Guides)

Beyond those nearby places, here are some North Carolina travel guides that cover more High Country attractions.

2 thoughts on “How to See Elk River Falls (Trail and Safety Tips)”

  1. Please drive slowly on Elk River Rd. This neighborhood loses beloved pets EVERY year from impatient drivers. Dogs, cats, ducks and almost a horse.


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