Don’t Go Chasin’ Waterfalls…Or Do!
I spend enough time traveling the great state of Tennessee to know that it’s one of the most beautiful places in the country in general, but our cozy little corner in particular is really something special. Nestled among the peaks and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains and criss-crossed by the narrow paths of the Appalachian Trail, there’s no shortage of natural beauty or outdoor adventure in and around the Tri. Getting in a hike is one of my favorite ways to exercise; surrounded by the peace and tranquility of nature, taking in fresh air and wildlife, it hardly feels like a workout at all! That is, until I find myself on the wrong end of a steep incline and realize I can no longer breathe. But like life, eventually you crawl your way over the hard part and get to enjoy the view from above, or at least have time to catch your breath.
What better way to literally chill out after a long hike on a hot day than by making your end destination a gorgeous waterfall? Bearing safety in mind (I cannot emphasize this enough), there’s more than plenty waterfall hikes of varying difficulties within an hour or so of the region. So why not lace up your boots, pack some snacks and make a day of it? Hiking to a waterfall is a perfect activity in a group, as a duo or alone, but again, I must insist if you plan on getting in the water, bring a life jacket and water shoes and take ALL the necessary precautions. We humans think we’re the top of the food chain, but Mother Nature is always quick to remind us with freak disasters that she’s going to reign supreme.
For a quick and easy hike that’s not too far off the beaten path, check out The Blue Hole. Located on Holston Mountain in Carter County, this once hidden gem now has adequate parking and stairs in place for easy navigation down to the falls. Technically 4 small waterfalls, the main attraction is the deep, blue pool at the bottom of the main falls. You’ll be hard pressed to find colder water anywhere else, with the small, azure swimming hole hovering around Arctic temperatures even in the dog days of August. There are small unmarked trails leading away from the falls themselves, but I wouldn’t recommend exploring too far, as it seems they land on private property fairly quickly. The Blue Hole was a legendary smooching and swimming spot for my parents when they were dating, and then when I got in high school I carried on that tradition. Going now, there’s a little less swimming and a lot less smooching, but I have discovered a newfound appreciation for the beauty and legacy that lives on in that place.
Another spot with minimal effort but maximum reward is Elk River Falls just over the state line in Elk Park, NC. A quick trip from the parking lot pops you out at the tip-top of the 50ft waterfall; a unique birds-eye view that you don’t get a lot on your average waterfall hike. The large pool at the bottom is surrounded by large rocks for sunbathing, snacking and hunting for crawdads. And while many people make the insanely stupid decision to jump from the top of the falls, I hope none of you are as willing to roll the dice; every summer there are always tragedies at this beautiful space, from severe injuries to death because some daredevil wanted to get a cheap thrill. It’s just not worth it!
A heavily trafficked but moderate climb is Linville Falls, again located barely across the NC state line in Burke County. While there are several landings along the climb to the top which offer a variety of views of the towering falls, it’s difficult to get up close and personal the way you can at the others I’ve discussed. It’s definitely more of a tourist attraction, especially in the fall for all the leaf lookers, heavily congested with foot traffic which also makes it a little hard to connect with the nature aspect for me. However, the reason I listed this site is because of its close proximity to Linville Falls Winery. The winery is located adjacent to a Christmas tree farm, and features a tasting room inside a stunning villa. There is typically live music and lots of room to roam and relax. The best way, in my opinion, to enjoy a hike to this waterfall is by getting your exercise in early, then finishing the day relaxing with a glass of wine and a group of friends.
The last group of cascades I’ll have room for is Red Fork Falls on Unaka Mountain in Unicoi. This is another set of smaller falls and one large main one, which is located about a half mile in. The trail itself crosses several creeks and is the most difficult I’ve mentioned, but the dizzying 60ft waterfall is worth the trek. Surrounded by lush greenery, you’ll feel like you’ve escaped Tennessee to the rainforests of Costa Rica. With this hike being fairly remote, I would suggest a good pair of all terrain water shoes and taking a buddy in case of an emergency. But all in all it’s manageable and worth the trip. Cooling off in the creeks along the way is honestly a refreshing aspect to this more difficult journey.
There are dozens more falls around East Tennessee and Western North Carolina that I wish I had the time and space to cover. A quick google search will provide you with those options as well as detailed directions guiding you every step of the way. So get off the couch and get your butt outdoors! You won’t regret breaking a sweat and getting some Insta-worthy pics of the natural beauty of our hometowns!