Western North Carolina has seen some of the hottest days of the year this past week, topping out in the 90s, and the heat is expected to last through Labor Day weekend.
Fortunately, the mountains are also riddled with cold streams, lakes and waterfall pools perfect for taking a dip to cool off.
Most trails on national and state parks, and national and state forests are now open after months of COVID-19-related closures. But land managers still urge caution when heading outdoors and into wading pools.
Also, take heed before visiting some of the popular places to cool off, which can be extra crowded this weekend. Skinny Dip Falls, which can be accessed by a 1/4-mile trail starting at Milepost 417 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, is always crowded during the summer. The trail and waterfall are actually on U.S. Forest Service land.
Jump Off Rock on the Nantahala River just upstream of the NOC is a cool spot for swimming or splashing. (Photo: Courtesy of Carson Davis Brown/NOC)
“Visitors should be prepared for Labor Day traffic and have a second location picked out in case there isn’t any available parking at Skinny Dip,” said Adrianne Rubiaco with the U.S. Forest Service.
Take extra caution to maintain social distance, according to CDC guidelines when splashing around at the base of this beautiful waterfall, and when outdoors, follow these rules by the CDC, U.S. Forest Service and Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services:
- Stay home if you are sick.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow. Throw used tissues in the trash.
- Keep hiking groups to one or two people.
- Per CDC coronavirus guidelines, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from everyone at trailheads, parking lots and on the trails.
- If you are approaching others on the trail, step off to allow 6 feet of passing distance.
- If approaching someone from behind, pass them on the left. Call out before passing to allow other hikers or runners to move aside for a 6-foot-space distance.
- If you are outdoors with a friend or family member, do not share gear, food (especially not reaching into the same trail mix bag), or water and refrain from physical contact.
Sliding Rock off U.S. 276 in Pisgah National Forest, perhaps the most famous place to get an icy cold dip, has reopened, but it can close at a moment’s notice due to weather conditions and water levels, Rubiaco said. This is a fee area with lifeguards.
She said to check Sliding Rock on Facebook or Twitter at @SlidingRockNC for the latest information.
People take turns cooling off by going down Sliding Rock in the Pisgah National Forest in Brevard June 21, 2018. (Photo: Angela Wilhelm, /[email protected])
And that uber-popular destination – Looking Glass Falls – on U.S. 276 in Pisgah, near Brevard, should be avoided for swimming, Rubiaco said.
The falls are easy to view from observation platforms, and for those not averse to stair climbing, can easily access the falls by descending stairs in a few minutes. But the Forest Service discourages swimming and wading there.
“We don’t recommend that people swim or wade in the pool at the base of Looking Glass Falls due to the swift current from the falls, and the rocky bank leading from the viewing platform to the pool can be hazardous,” Rubiaco said.
DuPont State Recreational Forest in Henderson and Transylvania counties is also a popular place for waterfall watching, and many people do swim in the pool beneath Hooker Falls. However, park ranger Sarah Patton said there are no designated swimming areas in the state forest.
Visitors to DuPont State Recreational Forest sit on the bank of the Little River at the base of Hooker Falls Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Photo: Matt Burkhartt/[email protected])
“Swimming or wading within 300 feet upstream from the top of a waterfall is prohibited. Diving or jumping from any waterfalls, rocks, or overhangs into any body of water is also prohibited,” Patton said. “There is limited parking at all of our access areas, including the Hooker Falls access area, and no roadside parking at this time.”
There are also limited bathrooms and a higher than usual number of visitors expected this weekend, from locals to out-of-state travelers, Patton said, and offers these precautions:
“The Visitor Center, picnic areas, and public restrooms are temporarily closed due to COVID-19. A limited number of portable toilets are available,” she said.
“Be mindful that traveling can increase the likelihood of spreading and/or contracting COVID-19. It is best to stay local and to stay safe. Visiting crowded areas may increase the risk of exposure for you and others,” she said.
“Avoid peak visitation times by visiting early in the morning or late in the evening. Consider visiting on a weekday rather than during the weekend or holiday.”
Following are some WNC places to cool off this Labor Day weekend
1. Deep Creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
From Asheville, take I-40 west to U.S. 74 West/Great Smoky Mountains Expressway to Exit 67/Bryson City. Take Depot Street east to Deep Creek Road (turn left). Drive 2.3 miles to the park entrance. It is a little more than an hour’s drive.
Highlights: Bring your own tube or rent one for about $6 from numerous outfitters just outside the park entrance. There is an upper Deep Creek area with stronger rapids and a lower area that is calmer and more suitable for children. Carry tubes up the trail and float down to the picnic area. Or just wade in the usually cold, mountain-fed creek. There are also short trails to three scenic waterfalls – Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls.
Information: Call the park at 865-436-1200 or the Bryson City-Swain County Chamber of Commerce at 828-488-3681 or www.greatsmokies.com/chamber for a listing of tube rental companies.
2. Davidson River along U.S. 276 in Pisgah National Forest
This area is part of the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway. About 45-minute drive from Asheville. Take I-26 East to Exit 40/Asheville Airport. Take N.C. 280 west 16 miles to the entrance to Pisgah National Forest on the right. Coontree Picnic Area is 3 miles past the ranger station. If coming from the Blue Ridge Parkway, turn onto U.S. 276 at Milepost 412 and go south 10 miles.
From left, Ivette Cruz, Robert Marks and Adeline Hines float down the Davidson River in the Pisgah National Forest in Brevard June 21, 2018. (Photo: Angela Wilhelm/[email protected])
Highlights: Tube rentals at entrance to forest, Sycamore Flats Picnic Area, cool, clear, gently flowing stream with places to picnic, wade and swim. Looking Glass Falls is 3 miles farther down the road.
Information: Call the Pisgah Ranger Station at 828-877-3265.
3. Hunt Fish Falls in Linville, Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest
From Asheville, take I-40 east to Old Fort to U.S. 221 north to the intersection with the parkway. Drive south on the parkway for 6 miles to Milepost 311 and turn left onto State Road 1518/Old Jonas Ridge Road for 1.7 miles. At a fork, continue straight onto FR 464/Edgemont Road and go about 6 miles on a gravel road to the parking area on the left.
Highlights: Scenic, 10-foot waterfall on Lost Cove Creek with large swimming pool at its base and large rocks for picnicking. It is a nearly 1-mile in, 1-mile out trail, considered moderate to difficult because of steepness. Nearby is Mortimer Campground and other Forest Service and parkway hiking trails.
Information: Call the Grandfather Ranger Station at 828-652-2144.
4. Courthouse Falls in Transylvania County of Pisgah National Forest
Highlights: Courthouse Creek Falls is a refreshing spot with a large pool at the base of a 40-foot the waterfall for swimming or wading (but not jumping). It is popular because of the less-than 1-mile hike. However, due to a logging project in the area, the road leading in to the waterfall – FSR 140 – is closed. But the waterfall can still be accessed by a longer hike.
Related: Logging in Courthouse Creek area closes Forest Service road
It is near the Blue Ridge Parkway. From the parkway intersection with N.C. 215 at Milepost 423, a mile south of the Devil’s Courthouse Overlook, drive 6.7 miles south. Turn left on Forest Service Road 140/Courthouse Creek Road.
Courthouse Creek Falls is a popular destination in Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County. Courthouse Creek Road, which leads from N.C. 215 to the trailhead, will be closed to vehicles until Dec. 31 for logging operations. (Photo: Karen Chávez/[email protected])
Park here, but not blocking the gate, and hike in 3 miles on a dirt and gravel road. As soon as you cross the bridge, look for the short trail to the waterfall to the left.
While there are ropes leading up to the top of the falls, the ropes and trail are not sanctioned by the Forest Service. Do not climb on rocks or jump from the falls.
Information: Call the Pisgah District Ranger office at 828-877-3265.
5. Jump Off Rock, Nantahala River
From Asheville, take I-40 west to Exit 27 onto U.S. 74 west toward Waynesville. Drive 50 miles. Eight miles west of Bryson City, the four-lane highway splits into a two-lane in the Nantahala Gorge. Stay on U.S. 74. After five miles you will see the Nantahala River, and NOC’s Nantahala Outpost. There is a small pull-off for Jump Off Rock is another five miles upstream.
Highlights: One of the best ways to enjoy this refreshingly cold swimming hole is to raft or kayak in, or take a guided rafting trip with the NOC where guests can stop at Jump Off Rock. The outdoor outfitter also rents rafts and duckies. Beginning Labor Day, Sept. 7, NOC is offering 20% off fully guided and rental trips Monday-Friday on the Nantahala with code THNKS20, said NOC marketing director Jan Wojtasinki.
“Other than that our campus is a great place to dip your feet in the river or wade in the calm pool just above the Founder’s Bridge. We do not recommend guests swim there as the current is swift,” he said.
Information: Visit noc.com or call 828-202-9347.
Waterfall safety tips
- Heed posted warning signs indicating danger.
- Stay on established trails.
- Do not climb on rocks around waterfalls. Rocks can be slippery and it’s easy to lose your balance, especially with bare feet.
- Never play in the water above a waterfall.
- Never jump off waterfalls or dive into plunge pools at the base of waterfalls. Rocks and logs can be hidden beneath the surface of the water. Often waterfall pools have swirling water or currents that can drag and keep even strong swimmers underwater.
- The best way to enjoy a waterfall is from a safe distance.
Source: U.S. Forest Service
Karen Chávez is an award-winning outdoors and environment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network. She is the author of “Best Hikes with Dogs: North Carolina,” and is a former National Park Service ranger.
Reach me: [email protected] or on Twitter @KarenChavezACT
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