Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on September 23, 2023.
Upper Whitewater Falls is not only the tallest waterfall in NC, but the highest waterfall east of the Rockies, though some may disagree with that title.
Regardless of where you stand on that dispute, there is no denying the beauty of this massive 411-foot waterfall.
Protected by Nantahala Forest, this waterfall is accessible by a short hike that leads to a viewing platform.
Our guide will share a few fun facts about the highest waterfall in NC, including how to see it, parking and safety info, and nearby places to visit.
If you’re looking for something specific, here’s how we’ve organized things:
- Is Whitewater Falls the Tallest Waterfall East of the Rockies?
- Driving Directions
- Parking Info
- When to Visit
- Upper Whitewater Falls Trail Info
- Places Nearby
Read More: Unique Things to Do in North Carolina
Upper Whitewater Falls
Is Whitewater Falls the Tallest Waterfall East of the Rockies?
The US Forest Service explains that Upper Whitewater Falls is the biggest waterfall in NC and the highest waterfall east of the Rockies, but there is some debate on this. Virginia’s Crabtree Falls (not the same as the one in Yancey County) is argued to be higher by folks there.
Another waterfall thrown into the debate is Glassmine Falls off the Blue Ridge Parkway, viewable from MP 362.
However, until we see anything official come out to say otherwise, Upper Whitewater Falls is NC Tripping’s pick for the highest waterfall east of the Rockies and in North Carolina.
Read More: Interesting Facts about North Carolina
It’s important to know that no matter which way you drive, the roads in this area are windy.
If you’re leaving from Highlands, Cashiers, or anywhere west of Upper Whitewater Falls NC, you’ll likely drive east on US-64 and down NC-107, passing Silver Run Falls along the way.
You’ll eventually cross the border into South Carolina. You’ll turn onto Whitewater Falls Rd (SC-130) and follow that road until crossing the border back into North Carolina. The road changes to NC-281 and is sometimes known as Whitewater Way.
From Sapphire, Lake Toxaway, and other places north and east of Upper Whitewater Falls, you’ll drive down NC-281 after meeting it via US-64.
We’ll share more about these nearby places shortly.
Read More: Beautiful Waterfalls near Asheville
We’ve never had an issue with parking at Upper Whitewater Falls during the morning or late in the afternoon. The lot holds about 50 cars, with some spots reserved for RVs and buses.
A parking fee of $3 per vehicle goes toward continued improvements of the park. We think this is a very reasonable amount, considering the beauty of the area and the ease at which Upper Whitewater Falls can be reached.
Picnic tables are also here if you would like to enjoy some lunch before or after seeing the falls.
Read More: Amazing Waterfalls near Brevard
When to Visit Whitewater Falls, North Carolina
As we mentioned, mid-morning and mid-day can get very busy at Upper Whitewater Falls. We suggest getting there as early as possible or visiting during a less busy month in the winter.
If you visit on a sunny day, you may get to see beautiful rainbows caused by sunlight reflecting off the falls. While we love rainbows, cloudy conditions are best for photos of this gorgeous waterfall.
Upper Whitewater Falls Trail Info
The Upper Whitewater Falls Trail runs for a quarter-mile from the parking lot along a paved, accessible path. It stops at the Upper Observatory, a wide and spacious viewing area. There are more than a few signs indicating the danger facing those who go off-trail.
Please don’t venture off-trail, as deaths and serious injuries have occurred here.
Read More: The Best Hikes near Asheville
From the Upper Observatory, you can continue down 154 wooden steps to the Lower Observatory. This will put you straight in front of the falls. You can keep going down more steps and descend 600 feet for half a mile, where you’ll meet the 76-mile-long Foothills Trail.
The Foothills Trail runs between Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina, with its major trailheads on the south side of the border. We’ll share a bit more about it in our “Nearby” section.
Ready to See Upper Whitewater Falls?
Upper Whitewater Falls was one of the first waterfalls that we visited in North Carolina. It’s still one of our favorites, even years and many more waterfalls later.
I don’t know if it’s the sheer size of these falls, the beautiful scenery around it, or the variety of ways to view them, but we’re absolutely hooked on this place.
If you’ve visited before, we’d love to know what you thought of Upper Whitewater Falls. Does it live up to the hype? In case you’ve never visited before, we’d love to know about your experience after you do make it out there. Please feel free to tell us all about it in the comments and share your photos in our Facebook Group!
Nearby Upper Whitewater Falls
Since it hugs the Jackson-Transylvania County lines and even the South Carolina border, there are some pretty interesting places near Upper Whitewater Falls.
Foothills Trail & Lower Whitewater Falls
This is one of the few times that we’ll mention another state, but we think you should know about the Foothills Trail and the lower half of Whitewater Falls.
The 76-mile Foothills Trail starts and ends in South Carolina, but parts of it pass through North Carolina. You can reach the trail from the Upper Whitewater Falls trail and the nearby Gorges State Park.
Lower Whitewater Falls
Lower Whitewater Falls sits across the South Carolina border, and accounts vary in its height. You can reach it via the Foothills Trail, with the trailhead located about 5 minutes away from Upper Whitewater Falls by car.
Accounts vary between 200 and 400 feet. If you’re familiar with this waterfall, we’d love to hear from you about how high Lower Whitewater Falls is!
Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park is 10 minutes away from Upper Whitewater Falls. You’ll pass its entrance if connecting to NC-281 from US-64.
You’ll leave the park’s property and venture into Pisgah National Forest to see this and two other notable waterfalls: the lesser-known Hidden Falls and the very popular Turtleback Falls. It’s about 3.5 miles to hike to and from these three falls.
Note that while it might be tempting to jump in the cold water, it is not recommended at either waterfall. Many injuries and deaths have occurred in recent years as Turtleback used to be a sliding waterfall.
Additional things to do at Gorges State Park include Bearwallow Falls, the Ray Fisher Place campground, and the Foothills Trail.
Read More: 100+ Hiking Trails in North Carolina
Cashiers also has some interesting shops, a great Farmer’s Market, and Whiteside Brewing. They have a diverse selection of brews and a great food menu to pair with your pint.
If traveling to Upper Whitewater Falls from Cashiers, you’ll pass Silver Run Falls. It’s reachable after a fairly short hike.
Sapphire is also 40 minutes away from Highlands to the west and Brevard to the east, in case you’re seeking even more things to do.
Sapphire isn’t too far from Panthertown Valley, which is home to 30 miles of amazing hikes. Schoolhouse Falls is the most popular of the valley’s waterfalls.
Read More: The Best Small Towns in North Carolina