Courthouse Falls 8-3-16
Update 7-14-17 - I drove north on NC 215 from Balsam Grove a couple of days ago and discovered the DOT is replacing the narrow bridge just after the right turn on to FR140 to go to Courthouse Falls. NC215 is one lane with the movable stop lights to direct traffic through this area, so be very careful! The bridge about a mile farther north on 215 at the Summey Cove trail head is also being replaced and the same one lane scenario is here. Plus, there is now nowhere to park for that trail while the work is going on. Completion is scheduled for mid October of this year.
You can still turn on to FR140, but it appears you now have to look out for logging trucks. This area was selected for a big restoration project which will include timber harvesting, road and trail improvement, and wildlife habitat improvement. The logging has begun, but I don't have any details on how long it will last. Three plans were presented (one plan being to do nothing) to the public for discussion and the final decision was announced in September 2013. Here it is. The entire plan can be found online at this link. Two items that really stood out for me when I read it were (1) the Summey Cove Trail will be decommissioned and (2) FR140 will become a seasonal forest road meaning it will be closed from Jan 1 through some time in March.
Courthouse Falls is one of my favorite waterfalls and I never get tired of going back. It is set in a beautiful small cove and is fairly easy to get to once you make it up the gravel road to the trail head. The hike is less than 1/2 mile and the area can be popular on a warm summer day. Go early if you want good photos. The pool at the base of the falls is deep and the water is clear and very cold. If you like primitive camping, there are a few dispersed campsites along FR140, a few more walk in sites at the end of FR140 and other primitive back country sites scattered about, but no camping right at the waterfall.
Directions: From the Blue Ridge Parkway, head south down Hwy 215 for 6.5 miles. Look for the 2nd sign indicting 'narrow bridge ahead', and turn left on FR140 just after the bridge. From Hwy 64, turn north on NC215 at Headwaters Outfitters. Drive 10.2 miles up 215 (passing the waterfalls at Living Waters) and turn right on FR140 just before the bridge. Drive up the gravel road for 3.0 miles - crossing 4 bridges along the way - and park in the wider area just after the bridge across Courthouse Creek. The trail head is on the left. On my last visit in early August 2016, there were 2 trail head stakes here - one for the orange blazed Courthouse Falls trail and one for the blue blazed Summey Cove Trail which continues past the waterfall.
The hike to the 40 ft falls is easy to moderate for the most part and follows Courthouse Creek down to the waterfall. A few minutes into the hike, the trail crosses a wet area on a foot bridge. In another short distance you'll notice a steep trail down to the creek, that people use to access the top of the waterfall. There's nothing to see down there, so keep going until you see glimpses of the falls down through the trees. Keep going until you see 2 orange blazes on a tree on the left. Just past that are more orange blazes and a trail that cuts back hard to the left down to the base of the waterfall. You'll have a view of the waterfall through the trees as shown in the next photo. Be careful farther down this trail as there are some slippery areas from seepage. The trail ends at a set of steep wooden steps that take you down to creek level. In late July 2016, a huge dead hemlock fell down towards the pool at the base of the falls and damaged the stairs. If they haven't been repaired when you go, be very careful descending these steps. The part that was left still seemed sturdy when I was there a week after the tree fell, but that can change. The tree missed the deep pool at the base of the falls and looks like it's going to be here a while. But now to get a clutter free shot of the waterfall, you have to stand in the creek in front of all this mess and shoot with a very wide angle lens.
Courthouse Falls from the trail
If FR140 happens to be closed, another option for hiking to the falls is to take the Summey Cove Trail from NC215. The Summey Cove Trail is on the latest NatGeo Pisgah Forest trail map - trail #129 - and is 2 miles one way. The new forest plan calls for this trail to be decommissioned, so the trail won't be maintained once that happens. The other trail head is at a bridge a little over a mile past the bridge at FR140 if you are heading north on NC215. Park on the wide grassy shoulder on the left. If you are coming from the Parkway, the bridge is the 1st one you come to - about 5.25 miles down. Look for a yellow sign indicating 'narrow bridge ahead'. Cross the bridge and park on the right. The trail forks almost immediately from the start - stay to the right - and begins by heading slightly up hill. It then crosses a wet weather area, which can be confusing, but becomes more obvious after this point. It then starts heading more up hill with an elevation gain of 500'+ in less than 1/2 mile from the trail head. The trail then descends some 400' in the next 1/4 mile towards Summey Cove Creek. Before the creek, there are a few wooden 4x4 steps that end at an overgrown logging road. The trail crosses the road and continues down towards the creek. At another point past the steps, the trail comes to a fork. Take the blue blazed trail to the right - the one to the left is fainter.
From the creek, the trail is more or less level as far as mountain trails go. It follows a ridge line with Courthouse Creek 200' somewhere down below to the right. The trail then crosses Mill Station Creek on a foot bridge and comes out to a nice campsite. Keep heading up the trail and you'll soon come to a side trail to the right and will spot a small cascade on Mill Station Creek. Pass this and in a short distance will be the side trail to the right that takes you down to Courthouse Falls. If you continue on Summey Cove Trail for another 1/4 mile, you'll come out at FR140 at the point where you would have parked if the road were open. Below are 2 more photos of Courthouse Falls, then a video of Courthouse, Cody and Chestnut Falls.
If you are adventurous and like creek walking and/or bushwhacking, there's another small waterfall very near Courthouse Falls on Mill Station Creek. Cody Harris emailed me about it in 2004. I tried once to find it, but apparently didn't give it a very good effort. Didn't find it, but on my July '05 trip to Courthouse I gave it another shot and I did find it - right where Cody said it was. It's a nice little 25' falls! I made a return trip in early August 2016 to update pictures and add better directions. Check your map and find where Mill Station Creek flows into Courthouse Creek not too far down from Courthouse Falls. If you were to keep straight on the Summey Cove Trail past Courthouse Falls, the creek on the left is Mill Station Creek. There are 2 ways to get to Cody Falls. The first is to creek walk down from Courthouse Falls to where Mill Station Creek comes in, then head up Mill Station Creek a hundred yards or so to the waterfall. When I did this in August 2016, there was a lot of forest debris that had fallen or been washed down not too far below Courthouse Falls. Experienced creek walkers shouldn't have a problem, but expect slippery rocks, some knee high wading, and the usual hazards one would encounter creek walking. The other option is to descend the steep bank down from the Summey Cove Trail to Mill Station Creek below the waterfall. If you are standing on the Summey Cove Trail at the point where the Courthouse Falls Trail cuts to the left, face the creek and begin the descent at about a 45° to the right towards the sound of the waterfall. About 1/2 way down - which isn't far - bear to the left and look for the big rock. Walk to the left in front of it, then continue descending towards the creek. As you can see in the picture below, you don't want to come out at the rock wall that surrounds the waterfall. It's still steep behind and to the right of where I'm standing for that photo, but flattens out enough below that to where you can safely get down. Avoid the steep areas or you risk serious injury!
There's also an Upper Courthouse Falls. To get here, keep going on FR140 past the parking area for Courthouse Falls for 0.2 miles. There's a gated road straight ahead which is the one to the waterfall - park here without blocking the gates. There's also a gated road to the left that will take you to Mill Station Creek if you like exploring. The road (trail) to Upper Courthouse Falls follows the creek passing a couple of primitive camp sites (if they haven't been closed by the FS) and ends at 0.7 miles. Cross the creek to the right to get to the base of the falls. Courthouse Creek here takes a hard left here up a long length of sloping bedrock which is beautifully colored when wet. To get to the top of the falls, don't cross the creek, but look for the steep trail up, then look for a side path in a short distance that leads out to the rock at the top of the falls. Just up creek is a really nice small waterfall with a deep swimming hole.
small waterfall just above Upper Courthouse Falls
Upper Courthouse Falls
If you are really adventurous and have some experience creek walking and following faint trails, you can continue up this old trail that follows Courthouse Creek to Red Rock Falls. This section of Courthouse Creek is really spectacular.
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