waterfall on Steel Creek
7-30-06 - Steels Creek Falls is an amazing place. There's really not much else like it around this area. The only time I have been in is 2006 and it was when creek levels were low which can make creek walking easier than usual. There's a lot more dry rock to climb around on. Remember that if you read this in the future and water levels are higher. You might not be able to safely get to the good views. A rainy day visit would be suicide because of the slippery rock. Even on a dry day during higher water flow, the spray might wet some of the rock areas you would need to be dry to get the view in the above picture. The hike as I describe it here is for experienced off trail scramblers only and is about a mile one way. This is not the place you want to do your first off trail trek.
Directions: Access to this waterfall is from FR228 off of NC181 north of Morganton. From where the 4 lanes on NC181 north turn to 2 lanes, drive north on 181 for about 14.5 miles and look for the 1 lane gravel FR228 on the left. This is a seasonal road and the gate is locked from January 1st to April 1st. From the Blue Ridge Parkway and NC181 intersection near MP312, head south on 181 for 11 miles and turn right on to FR228. Drive just under 4 miles to the end of this road to the parking on the left. You'll pass a couple of side roads, but just stay on the main one - it's pretty obvious. There are several overused primitive camp sites along Steels Creek near the end, so expect other vehicles and people on a warm summer day.
Begin the hike by heading up the old road along the creek to a swimming hole below a small cascade. You can't miss it. You have to cross the creek at this point to continue on the trail. The easiest way was above the cascade when we were there. If the water is up, you may have to get your feet wet or you might not be able to cross at all. After crossing, look for the paths that head away from the creek and hook up with the Mountains to Sea Trail a short distance away. Kevin Adams describes continuing up this trail to a view of the falls in his NC Waterfalls guide book but Harry and I wanted to try coming in off trail from below the waterfall. We had decided to just head up the creek at the crossing to see what we could see and maybe reach the base of the falls that way. We were successful and were even able to get back up to the MST from here. All of that is described below.
Back to where the trail crosses the creek, we picked our way up the creek and came to a very large pool below where the creek takes a left and begins to head up towards the falls. We were on the right side of the creek at this point and had to cross to the left side in front of the deep pool to continue. This is one of those places where creek walking is no longer an option, so we had to scramble up in the woods on a faint 'path' on hands and knees. It's steep at this point. Stay close to the creek without falling over the cliff and the path will become more obvious. The only way back down to the creek that we found was near the base of the main waterfall. It should be very obvious. The land doesn't just fall off and you can butt slide down holding on to trees and such. If it's been raining recently, even this may be too dangerous.
If you make it down, you should be at some nice little cascades below the falls. We could see where the waterfall was, but the water flow was hidden in the carved out rock. I've posted a series of pictures in a gallery that describes what we did and saw once we got back down to the creek. Click here to the 1st one, then click 'next' to view the rest in the series. Once we got back to creek level, we headed down creek towards the deep pool I mention above to see what we missed, then continued up the waterfall to the top. The waterfall is in 2 sections as shown in the pictures. I couldn't find any images online before we went, so I had no idea what to expect. What a pleasant surprise - it's such a fascinating little place with the potholes and carved rock. The main pool is very deep and cold! Here's a shot with me swimming at the bottom of the falls. The water is over my head here.
If you've made it to this point, you are surely going to want to climb up to the upper falls. It's either that or go back the way you came and try to scramble up to the MST. It's way up there on the left side of the falls. If you are at this point in that photo, look up to the left at about 10-11 o'clock and notice some foot/hand holds up the slippery moss to the tree roots to your right. It's fairly obvious at this point that people have been scrambling up this way. I'm not saying it's safe, but it's the only way up I saw. Once up to solid ground at the tree, the scramble path leads up towards the MST. Next is the upper section of the falls.
More potholes! The only way to get this view is to creep down a big slanted rock to the clearing that Kevin mentions in his book. You'll see the steep path down to it. If you slip here you will die, so use your best judgment. This series of small falls is about 30' high which gives you an idea of the size of the potholes. We didn't see any safe way down, so we didn't even try. We picked up the MST to the top of the waterfall for a view, then took the trail back to the vehicle. What I thought would be maybe an hour or so in and out turned out to be a 3-4 hour adventure. You would think I would know better than that by now. I found out later that there is even more cool stuff above Steels Creek Falls - like Beverly Hillbilly Falls. I'll get back there one of these days.
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