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Trail Access to North Carolina’s Catawba Falls Reopens with Safety Improvements

Two weeks ago, North Carolina’s popular Catawba Falls Trail reopened with new features meant to improve safety and accessibility. The trail, located in the Old Fort area of Pisgah National Forest, is known for its iconic waterfall views of up to 205 feet. But the scenic cascade is also known for drawing big crowds—an estimated 10,000 visitors per week, according to news reports—and two years ago officials decided to close the trail to make safety improvements after numerous incidents that resulted in hiker injuries and fatalities. 

“Catawba Falls has been the site of numerous rescues,” William Kehler, Director of Emergency Services for McDowell County stated in a press release posted by the U.S. Forest Service. “These improvements [increase] safety for not only the citizens and visitors to Catawba Falls, but also the first responders that are called to perform rescues. These improvements will save lives.”

As part of a collaborative effort spearheaded by the U.S. Forest Service, funded by the Legacy Restoration Fund and McDowell County, and supported by local small business Tag Contracting, crews added retaining walls, boardwalks, staircases, and overlook spots. The construction included 580 stairs, three overlooks, and a 60-foot observation tower to take hikers safely to the upper falls, as well as a new trail that returns hikers to the parking lot from the upper trails. 

“Catawba Falls has been a popular and beloved recreation for decades, and these upgrades will greatly improve the visitor experience,” James Melonas, Forest Supervisor for the National Forests in North Carolina, stated in the release. “This work addresses critical safety needs and protects the headwaters of the Catawba River, while increasing accessibility for hikers.”

The trail to the 205-foot cascading lower falls remains an easy-rated trail, while the trail to the 80-foot upper falls is considered appropriate for intermediate hikers due to the number of steps and elevation change—the quarter-mile stretch between the falls is equivalent to climbing a 30-story building. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the work done at Catawba Falls is part of the larger Old Fort Trails Project, which is steadily improving the accessibility and sustainability of trails in the area. 

All photos courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

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