Photo of Justin Hopkins hiking at the remote Bluff Falls in Gorges State Park, N.C. by: Thomas Mabry

Justin Hopkins hiked to every waterfall in Tennessee and North Carolina

In April, Justin Hopkins became the first to complete the 500-waterfall challenge in Tennessee and North Carolina. He bagged the challenge in under three years, amounting to approximately one waterfall every two days. For Hopkins, it was both a daunting physical challenge and a much-needed refuge from devastating personal loss.

What inspired you to begin chasing waterfalls?

Actually, the inspiration came after my nephew Owen passed away from childhood cancer. Basically, it was a brain tumor that he had at the base of his brainstem. It’s a type of cancer they have not found a cure for, a very rare type, and he passed away before he even made it to age one.

Why do you think that that was your response to Owen’s passing?

Whenever anything has gone wrong in my life, any time any turmoil or just any distraction in life has come about, I always go to the woods. 

I even named a waterfall that I found after Owen on one of my trips, one of the only ones that I named. I found several waterfalls that were undocumented. I’m not one to give names or to disclose any information on where I found them, but I did want to name at least one after him.

Do you keep some locations secret to protect them from being overrun?

Yes. There are some places that may not be too far away from a very good tourist area, and if it’s on the tributary of a creek next to a pretty popular hiking trail, and someone knows it’s up there, before long there’s gonna be a worn path, trash, graffiti on the rocks. It’s not a risk that I’m willing to take. 

You tackled another kind of challenge through these 500 hikes.

Through the 500-Waterfall Challenge, I also found sobriety. Of course, that’s a challenge every day that I go through, and that I succeed in every day. And I know this might sound a little corny in ways, but just to challenge myself to be a better father, to be a better husband, find ways to do that. Every week, make time to be that better man and that better father.

What actually qualifies as a waterfall?

That’s a lively debate among waterfallers. Everybody has their own conception of what a waterfall is…  I went to some waterfalls and would say, “Good Lord, that’s a waterfall?” And then I’d pass up something big that doesn’t appear on a map and think, “Holy cow, how in the world has that not even been named? 

What lessons did you learn from the experience?

Well, for me, I believe that everybody should spend time outside. A lot of people’s problems, whatever they stem from, can benefit from being outside.  Whenever you get away from anything that’s bothering you in life, when you get away from all the turmoil in society these days—if people would just take a step back, turn off their phones, turn off their TVs, go outside, go sit out by a river somewhere, they would be surprised what they would find. Maybe they could find a calm in their life, something to ease their pain in a sense just by going and sitting by water. Water is a very powerful source. It’s a very powerful force of nature, too. I believe there’s a lot of healing in water.