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Catawba Falls: Explore the Trail and Town of this Western North Carolina Waterfall Gem

Photographer Charlie W. (@thebeardedtraveler17 on IG) sets up a shot of the falls after hiking the upper Catawba Falls Trail. 

Catawba Falls reopens after a two-year construction project, welcoming hikers to be the first to explore this popular trail in Old Fort, N.C.

OLD FORT, N.C., June, 2024 – The Catawba Falls trail on the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest reopened on May 31, 2024, following a 2-year construction closure. The popular trail near Old Fort, North Carolina, underwent major improvements as crews added retaining walls, boardwalks, staircases and overlooks to greatly improve the trail and visitor safety.  In addition to the planned 40 miles of trails throughout this up-and-coming Trail Town, Catawba Falls is a unique waterfall experience like no other in Western North Carolina.  Pack up your camera, water shoes, and an extra water bottle, this waterfall adventure is one you’ll want to seek out in 2024.

Visiting Catawba Falls this summer? The improved parking access at the Trailhead boasts 30 parking spots including accessible parking. As Catawba Falls Trail has expanded into a fully unique, and awe-inspiring experience, you’ll want to book a weekend stay to immerse yourself in this side of the Pisgah National Forest. The Inn on Mill Creek Bed & Breakfast near historic Old Fort provides the perfect balance between a secluded getaway destination and close proximity to hiking and mountain biking trails, excellent birding locations, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and more. Located on seven private, wooded acres inside Pisgah National Forest, you have plenty of space to relax in one of six comfortable guest rooms and on the large property, which includes a two-and-a-half story Great Room, decks overlooking a pond, a walking labyrinth, and an organic orchard. 

“Catawba Falls has been a popular and beloved recreation for decades, and these upgrades will greatly improve the visitor experience,” explains James Melonas, Forest Supervisor for the National Forests in North Carolina. 

“This work addresses critical safety needs and protects the headwaters of the Catawba River, while increasing accessibility for hikers.”

“These improvements will lead to improved 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,” says William Kehler, Director of Emergency Services for McDowell County. 

The improvements consist of 580 stairs, three overlooks and a 60-foot observation tower to take hikers safely to the upper falls. Once at the upper falls, hikers can return to the parking lot on the new Catawba Falls Ridge Trail for a total loop distance of 3.5 miles. While the trail to the beautiful 205-foot cascading lower falls is still rated as easy, the trail to the 80-foot dropping upper falls and back is rated as intermediate due to the number of steps and elevation change. The quarter-mile route between the lower and upper falls is equivalent to climbing a 30-story building. Hikers with pre-existing medical conditions should use caution. All hikers should be sure to bring sunscreen (for changing tree cover and direct sun), as well as enough water to last the duration of the hike.

Conquered the Catawba Falls Stairs and the Ridge line trail in one go, and looking for a quick, comfortable place to crash?  Try Marion’s Holiday Inn Express, conveniently located right off the interstate and a great mid-point for starting any McDowell County adventure.

With King-size suites, continental breakfast and a pool, many athletes, outdoor enthusiasts and visitors are quick to book this convenient hotel.  

Once well-rested, grab a quick coffee at Seeker Coffee in downtown Old Fort, or snack on the award-winning cinnamon rolls and cookies of GoGo’s Cinnamon Rolls.  

Baked daily, the handmade Cinnamon Rolls of Gogos pair well with a black coffee to get your waterfall adventure started.

The work at Catawba Falls is just one part of the larger Old Fort Trails Project that is adding a wide range of trail improvements to this area of Pisgah National Forest.

“We are excited to see you back in Old Fort this summer,” says Lisa Jennings, Recreation Manager for the Grandfather Ranger District. “We know it’s been a long closure, and we appreciate everyone’s patience. It was critical that we met our timelines to open Catawba Falls by summer, however, as you plan your visit do be aware that limited construction will continue through late July as we complete the final components of the project.”

Prior to the Grand Reopening, the Town of Old Fort welcomed VIP’s from across the state, Washington DC, and various social media influencers to explore the newly reimagined falls.  

Photographers Thomas Mabry (@honeybadgerimages) and Jared Kay (@jared_kay_) set up shots of the lower Catawba Falls.

Short-term weekday closures are possible through July 2024 for visitor safety. Additional work is limited to the dam and upper falls viewing area. Safe, alternate routes are available to allow the falls to remain open, including the new quarter-mile Wildflower Trail.

This project was made possible by the Legacy Restoration Fund, established by the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act. Additional funding and support was provided in partnership with McDowell County, Camp Grier’s G5 Trail Collective, the National Forest Foundation, and the McDowell County Tourism and Development Authority. Work was completed by Tag Contracting, a local Old Fort small business. Learn more about Catawba Falls on McDowell County Tourism’s website:

For those wishing to explore more of the Catawba headwaters and the blueways of McDowell County, the newly opened Waterways is your go-to for kayak and paddle-sports, watersports, and maps.

Located in downtown Old Fort, hit up their location for the latest watersports-related beta. Maps and guides are also available at the Visitor Center in Old Fort, NC.  Want even more waterfall adventures?  After picking up your guides and maps, drive North to the Linville Gorge Wilderness area to explore the fantastic waterfalls, views, and scenery of Linville Falls, or hit the Blue Ridge Parkway and discover the iconic Crabtree Falls.

Whether you set your sights high on the parkway, or deep in Pisgah National Forest, exploring the newly reimagined trails of Catawba Falls is a must for Summer 2024.

Destination McDowell is the Tourism Development Authority for McDowell County, NC.  Lifting up outdoor experiences, Blue Ridge Parkway adventures, and small mountain town charm, Destination McDowell knows “No Boundaries” when it comes to finding the perfect adventure for you.

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