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How to See Whitewater Falls in North Carolina and South Carolina

Learn how you can hike to Upper Whitewater Falls and Lower Whitewater Falls in Nantahala National Forest.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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Upper Whitewater Falls plunges 411′ into the Jocassee Gorge. Along with another 400′ drop at Lower Whitewater Falls about two miles downstream, Whitewater Falls is the tallest waterfall in North Carolina – maybe. Arguments arise about whether the 811′ Whitewater Falls is the tallest, but no one argues about its beauty.

Observation decks at Upper Whitewater Falls and Lower Whitewater Falls allow visitors to see the spectacular natural features. But the waterfalls are in a remote part of western North Carolina and the South Carolina Upcountry. Getting there is easy enough – once you know how to get there.

Keep reading to find out how to see Whitewater Falls in North Carolina and South Carolina.

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Map of Whitewater Falls

How to use this map: Click the icon in the top-left corner to open the Map Legend, then click on any of the legend items to display more information. If you have a Google account, click the star beside the map’s name to save this map to your account, then access the map from your smartphone during your trip.

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Upper Whitewater Falls is silky smooth while cascading over the rocks surrounded by lush green trees in Nantahala National Forest.
Spectacular view of Upper Whitewater Falls from the overlook just a quarter of a mile from the parking lot.
Upper Whitewater Falls is silky smooth while cascading over the rocks surrounded by lush green trees in Nantahala National Forest.
Spectacular view of Upper Whitewater Falls from the overlook just a quarter of a mile from the parking lot.

Upper Whitewater Falls

The Whitewater River meanders 14.6 miles through Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. Beginning near Cashiers, the river is one of the spectacular natural features in the state – but also one of the most inaccessible because of the rugged terrain.

After the river passes beneath NC Highway 281, it plunges 411′ at Upper Whitewater Falls. It’s a cascading waterfall, often leading to disagreements over whether it’s the tallest east of the Mississippi – or even the tallest in North Carolina.

READ MORE: Road Trip on the Scenic North Carolina Waterfall Byway

The U.S. Forest Service maintains an excellent parking lot with a hiking trail to a scenic overlook at the waterfall. Visitors must pay a $3 parking fee, but it’s worth the fee. Privy restrooms are available – it never fails that as soon as you hear a rushing waterfall, you’ll wish you went to the restroom.

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A 1/4-mile paved trail provides an accessible path to the upper overlook. It’s a gradual climb through a small field and takes only a few minutes to cross leisurely. I could hear the roar of crashing water long before I could see the waterfall. It was all I could hear by the time I reached the trail’s end.

The upper overlook provides a moderately good view of Upper Whitewater Falls. But if you’re up for some exercise, you can climb down the wooden staircase to the lower overlook. 154 wooden steps, to be precise – I counted.

The lower overlook offers a spectacular view of Upper Whitewater Falls. The cascading waterfall is surrounded by untouched nature in the national forest. And the echoing roar of the waterfall drowns out all other sounds.

Did You Know? There are more than a dozen waterfalls on the Whitewater River between Cashiers and Upper Whitewater Falls. These lesser-known waterfalls are smaller but still spectacular. Visit the Highlander Hiker outdoor shop in nearby Highlands for help finding the waterfalls and pick up a copy of The Summer Times by Nancy Turner.

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Lower Whitewater Falls

After Upper Whitewater Falls, the Whitewater River continues through the Nantahala Gorge and across the South Carolina border. At Lower Whitewater Falls, the river plummets another 400′ – making the total height of Whitewater Falls 811′.

By the time the Whitewater River dumps into Lake Jocassee, the river falls more than 1,500′ across the Blue Ridge Escarpment.

Did You Know? You can see the end of the Whitewater River, where it dumps into Lake Jocassee – but only by boat. Rent a boat through Devils Fork State Park and spend a day exploring one of the clearest freshwater lakes in the country. More than a dozen waterfalls around the lake make it an exciting and gorgeous place to visit.

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The parking lot to Lower Whitewater Falls is maintained by Duke Energy at their Bad Creek Water Reservoir. There are no restrooms or parking fees.

From the parking lot, hike a spur trail that descends to a river crossing above Lower Whitewater Falls. Then, the trail ascends the shoulder of Whitewater Mountain before plunging nearly 300 feet in elevation to the Lower Whitewater Falls Observation Deck.

The 4.2-mile out-and-back trail is moderately difficult, with over 700 feet in elevation change. But it’s a well-maintained section of the Foothills Trail, a 77-mile trail between Oconee State Park and Caesar’s Head State Park.

Essentials Packing List

Before you hit the trail, be sure to pack the best gear. Here’s a list of essential things to pack for hiking to the Lower Whitewater Falls Overlook:

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Upper Whitewater Falls is a 411′ tall cascading waterfall.
Upper Whitewater Falls is a 411′ tall cascading waterfall.

Is It the Tallest Waterfall East of the Mississippi?

The U.S. Forest Service claims, “Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies.” It’s not – no matter how you qualify the word “waterfall.”

Crabtree Falls is often considered the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Over a series of five cascading waterfalls, Crabtree Falls plummets over 1,200′ through George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. And then there’s Amicalola Falls in Georgia – the name is a rough translation of the Cherokee word “tumbling” – a cascading waterfall 729 feet tall.

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But even if you remove the word “cascade” from qualifying a waterfall, Whitewater Falls is still not the tallest east of the Mississippi. Glassmine Falls is a freefalling waterfall near Mount Mitchell. A sign at the Blue Ridge Parkway overlook claims the waterfall is 800′ tall, but you’ll need some binoculars to see the distant and inaccessible waterfall.

READ MORE: 7 Waterfalls Near Highlands, NC

Although Whitewater Falls is not the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi, Upper Whitewater Falls is the tallest in North Carolina.

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

A footbridge along the Foothills Trail crosses a river near Lake Jocassee.
A footbridge along the Foothills Trail crosses a river near Lake Jocassee.

Hiking to Whitewater Falls on the Foothills Trail

The Foothills Trail is a 77-mile hiking trail connecting Oconee State Park and Caesars Head State Park through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Established in 1981, the trail winds through several South Carolina state parks, the Jocassee Gorge, and the Whitewater River.

And it’s possible to see both waterfalls with a vigorous hike on the Foothills Trail.

The Upper Whitewater Falls parking lot is the best place to park to hike this section of the Foothills Trail. From the parking lot, descend the 154 steps of the staircase to the lower overlook and take a short spur trail connecting to the Foothills Trail.

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The Foothills Trail descends about 400 feet into the gorge and crosses the Whitewater River below Upper Whitewater Falls. The trail follows the river around Whitewater Mountain to the Lower Whitewater Falls overlook.

The 7.8-mile out-and-back trail includes a whopping 1,500 feet in elevation change, making it a difficult trail even for avid hikers. Be prepared to spend an entire day on the hike, bring plenty of water, and pack comfortable hiking shoes.

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How to Get to Whitewater Falls

Upper Whitewater Falls is located near NC Highway 281. To use GPS navigation, enter the following coordinates: 35.028883, -83.016169

From Cashiers, Highlands, and Franklin: Take NC Highway 107 in Cashiers southbound. Continue across the South Carolina border and turn onto Wigington Road. Road signs point toward SC Highway 130 and Whitewater Falls. Then, turn onto Whitewater Road, continue across the North Carolina border, and you’ll see the parking area on the right.

Pro Travel Tip The Wiggington Overlook is one of the most spectacular scenic overlooks in South Carolina. The overlook features a view of Lake Jocassee from the Blue Ridge Escarpment – the definitive edge of the Appalachian Mountains.

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From Brevard, Hendersonville, and Asheville: Take US Highway 64 from Brevard toward Cashiers. In the small community of Sapphire, turn into NC Highway 281 and follow the signs toward Gorges State Park. Continue past the park to a parking area on the left – if you cross the South Carolina border, you’ve gone too far.

From Clemson, Seneca, and Walhalla: Take South Carolina Highway 11 – also known as the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Byway – from Walhalla toward Devils Fork State Park. Turn left onto SC Highway 130 and follow the signs toward Whitewater Falls. After crossing the North Carolina border, you’ll see the parking area on the right.

From Upper Whitewater Falls to Lower Whitewater Falls: Turn left onto NC Highway 280 and drive across the South Carolina border. Turn left into the Bad Creek Hydro Pump Station. The reservoir and hydroelectric power station are operated by Duke Energy – the gate is typically open during daylight hours for visitors. Continue on Bad Creek Road to a rough parking lot on the left.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Where is the largest waterfall in North Carolina?

Upper Whitewater Falls is the tallest cascading waterfall in North Carolina, tumbling 411′ through the Jocassee Gorge in Nantahala National Forest.

Where is Whitewater Falls in North Carolina?

Whitewater Falls is near the North Carolina – South Carolina border on NC Highway 218, about 20 minutes from Cashiers, NC.

Are there any fees to visit Whitewater Falls in North Carolina?

Visiting Whitewater Falls in North Carolina is free, however, you must pay $3 for parking at the Upper Whitewater Falls parking lot.

How long of a hike is it to Whitewater Falls?

From the Upper Whitewater Falls parking lot, it is a 1/4-mile hike to the scenic overlook.

Can you swim in Whitewater Falls in North Carolina?

No, there are no safe places to swim in the Whitewater River between the waterfalls. Several people have been critically injured in the rocky gorge. The U.S. Forest Service asks people to please stay out of the water.

How do you get to the bottom of Whitewater Falls?

A 2.1-mile section of the Foothills Trail leads to the bottom of Lower Whitewater Falls, the smaller of the two cascading waterfalls on the Whitewater River. It’s not possible to safely reach the bottom of Upper Whitewater Falls.

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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