Upper Whitewater Falls (How to See NC’s Highest Waterfall)

Last Updated on April 13, 2021

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Upper Whitewater Falls is 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 North Carolina‘s highest falls, including how to see it, parking and safety info, and nearby places.

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

This post is part of our series covering the best things to do in North Carolina. We’ve also featured it in our guides to the best waterfalls near Brevard and waterfalls near Asheville.

Upper Whitewater Falls

Is Whitewater Falls the Tallest Waterfall East of the Rockies?

Upper Whitewater Falls from the Upper Observatory

The US Forest Service explains that Upper Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies, but there is some debate to 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.

Driving Directions

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, you’ll likely drive east on US-64 and down NC-107 until crossing 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.

Parking Info

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.

If you arrive late in the morning or early in the afternoon, you may have crowds to contend with, especially when tour buses roll in during the summer and fall and on weekends.

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.

If you are a frequent visitor to the area, you can also pay a $15 annual fee. That money will get you access to Dry Falls near Highlands, as well as Whiteside Mountain near Cashiers.

Picnic tables are also here if you would like to enjoy some lunch before or after seeing the falls.

When to Visit

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

Upper Whitewater Falls Trail Beginning 1

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.

Upper Whitewater Falls from the Upper Observatory
From the Upper Observatory.

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.

Upper Whitewater Falls from the Lower Observatory
From the Lower Observatory.

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 it, 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

Foothills Trail sign at 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 about 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 on how high Lower Whitewater Falls is!

Gorges State Park

Rainbow Falls at Gorges State Park near Upper Whitewater Falls
Rainbow Falls.

Gorges State Park is 10 minutes away from Upper Whitewater Falls. You’ll pass its entrance if connecting to NC-281 from US-64.

We loved hiking through this state park to Rainbow Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls near Brevard. It’s a massive 150-foot waterfall with multiple vantage points along the trail.

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 places to visit at Gorges State Park include Bearwallow Falls, the Ray Fisher Place campground, and the Foothills Trail.

Cashiers

Cashiers Village on the Green near Upper Whitewater Falls
The Village Green.

The mountain town of Cashiers is about 20 minutes away from Upper Whitewater Falls. The center of town is home to The Village Green, a beautiful place for a walk at any time of the year.

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 easy quarter-mile hike.

Sapphire

Sapphire is a lovely town near Upper Whitewater Falls, mostly known for the amazing skiing found at Ski Sapphire Valley.

This Jackson County town is also recognized for the links you’ll find at the Sapphire National Golf Club. If you’d like a nice view overlooking the course, visit Sapphire Mountain Brewing.

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.

More Waterfalls in North Carolina

More Things to Do in Western North Carolina

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