Last weekend myself and two friends headed to Nantahala National Forest to photograph four waterfalls not so well known to the general public… yet. Located in more remote part of the Nantahala National Forest is an 8-acre clear body of water known as Balsam Lake. Just below that dam which forms the lake are four waterfalls, all located within a mile of each other on Wolf Creek.
The four falls are named Upper Balsam, Lower Balsam, Patricia, and Lauren Falls. None of these waterfalls are published in any of the waterfalls maps or guides which I have seen. After hiking the trails, I suspect very few people apart from a few locals and a handful of hardcore waterfall enthusiast knew of their existence. I only recently learned of them after local waterfall guru Kevin Adams published their location via his website earlier this year. The latter two falls, Patricia and Lauren, are named after Kevin’s wife and stepdaughter respectively. What makes the falls unique is the difficulty of the hike. While the hike isn’t much over a mile, most of the trail is barely a trail at all. It’s more like a mile long bushwhack through some pretty serious terrain, with a couple of creek crossings thrown in. The difficulty is enough to keep many people away, which makes the falls a rare gem as they are infrequently photographed. I’ve been wanting to complete this hike for a couple of weeks now, but because of the difficulty and dangers involved I did not want to venture out alone. After a couple of post on Facebook describing the hike and asking for some “volunteers” Not surprisingly, I didn’t get much of a response. That was until two friends, Milton and Dennis, contacted me late in the week. Milton and Dennis are former Army Infantry, and unlike most people they find these kind of challenges fun.
The trails for these waterfalls begins at the Balsam Lake Recreation Area in Nantahala National Forest. We arrived midday instead of early morning as rain was forecast for earlier in the day. When we arrived it was warm and partly cloudy. It seemed to be a perfect day for hiking.
The beginning of this hike is deceivingly easy. It’s a nice walk along side of Balsam Lake where you’ll encounter some nice fishing docks and some great scenery, particularly if you look back towards the parking area at the surrounding mountains which reflect off the lake’s surface. After about ½ a mile you’ll reach the dam which forms Balsam Lake. This is where things get much more difficult. Once you reach the dam you make a left turn into the forest. If you didn’t know there was a “trail” here it’s doubtful that you would even notice it. I put trail in quotations because it’s hardly a trail. While it obvious people have been here before there is no hard-packed easy to follow line through the forest. The ground here is soft, covered in brush, and as mentioned before more like a bushwhack. After hiking along the creek for a couple hundred yards you can hear and see the first waterfall, known as Upper Balsam Fall. Once you reach the falls you carefully work your way down the steep and slippery creek bank to the base of the falls. I used hiking poles to work my way down. My two fellow hikers used whatever tree branches and rocks they could reach.
Upper Balsam Falls is wide at the top, but quickly narrows at the bottom where the water is squeezed though a narrower chute and shot into the pool below. On the of our visit it was pretty impressive as the water level was quite high. The falls were loud enough that we had to raise our voices to hear each other.
We stopped at the creek bank long enough for me to take a few photos before continuing. From this point the hike only gets more treacherous. In order to continue on the trail you must cross the creek in the pool which separates the upper and lower falls. The brink of Lower Balsam Falls is literally feet away as you work your way across the creek. This is no rock hop either. The pool is several feet deep in places, and requires wading to cross. We packed everything that should not get wet into our packs, took off our boots, and started the crossing. On the first step I was reminded just how cold mountain creeks are in the spring. Goose bumps shots up my legs almost instantly. The first portion of the pool is calm and the bottom is covered in small gravel which is easy to walk on. The second half of the pool is solid rock covered in a nice slippery layer of sediment. We slipped around a little bit in this area, but didn’t have much trouble. It’s not bad crossing, but it might be a little unsettling for those who are accustomed to simply rock hopping small shallow steams during their waterfall hikes, especially consider there is another waterfall only feet away.
Once on the other side of the bank I took a few more photos while everyone dried off their feet and put their boots back on. Dennis, who had decided to become our “scout” ventured on ahead a little bit while I finished up shooting. Once Dennis returned we scrambled up another small steep section of the river bank and found a slightly more worn trail which continued downstream. A few minutes later we once again scrambled down the river bank to the bottom of Lower Balsam Falls.
Lower Balsam Falls is split in two sections by a rock which runs down the middle on the cascade. It’s a nice fall to photograph, but a little hard to compose as the right side of the falls moves with more force than the left side. The whitewater shoots out the frames on the right side of the shot, while the left side simply runs smoothly in the pool. I bet it’s even better in the fall. It’s defiantly a waterfall I’ll revisit in the third season.
We stayed at Lower Balsam Falls for about 20 minutes, just long enough to eat some of our food and get a couple of photos. As we were packing up our gear the sky quickly turned from partly cloudy to ominous. Shortly after it started to rain. For about 10 minutes we stayed nice and dry as the forest canopy acted as a nice umbrella, but even the canopy was quickly soaked and we started to get bombarded by nice large raindrops falling from the leaves and branches above. Dennis once again went on ahead for a few minutes, but by the time he returned the sky had opened up even more, and it was then downright pouring. All three of us were satisfied with what we had seen up until this point though, and we decided to forge on. I cussed the weatherman as we working our our way up the bank.
Once we reached the top of the river bank we gain continued down the trail, which again became not much of a trail. While there was definitely a path, the forest floor was again soft, the wet brush and rhododendron was brushing against us as we moved forward, ensuring that anything which wasn’t already soaked, was definitely wet now. There were also a few down trees crossing the path which I had to crawl under due to the size of my pack. About 15 minutes later we reached what would up being the end of this hike. Thoroughly soaked at this point we came to a point where there was to be another steam crossing. The issue was we had a hard time finding it. A beaver had downed quite a few trees in the area on both banks. We stayed in this area for about 10 minutes attempting to locate the crossing. Eventually Dennis decided go for it by crossing in the shallowest part of the creek we could find. While Dennis forged the rain also continued to dump on our heads.
About 10 minutes later Dennis had returned. He was able to locate the top of Patricia Falls but could locate no easy route to the bottom. It would likely turn out to be a complete bushwhack to the bottom. Standing there soaked we decided to turn back. It had been raining hard for a while, we had no idea what the hike ahead of us would be like, and it the creek was steadily rising due to the heavy rainfall. We had to get back to our first crossing before it became too dangerous or we would possibly find ourselves stuck on this side of the creek.
We hiked back past Lower Balsam Falls at a pretty quick pace while slipping and sliding around on what trail actually existed. The rain made what would normally be a challenging hike even more treacherous as mud started to form anywhere they wasn’t vegetation. My two hiking partners joked about how this reminded them of their military training in South Korea during monsoon season. Even while being soaked to the core they were still enjoying themselves. I was more worried about my gear. I recently bought a new hiking pack which up until this point had never seen rain. Images of waterlogged lenses kept flowing through my brain, which helped quicken my pace. After about 20 minutes we reached the crossing below Upper Balsam Falls. The creek had obviously swelled, and at that point we knew we had made the right decision about turning back. None of us bothered to take our boots off this time. Dennis completed the crossing first without incident. I was not as lucky. Doing my best to avoid the brink of the Lower Falls I waded into a deeper section of the pool than I had on the earlier crossing. I hit a nice slippery spot and right into the pool I fell, submerging about half of my upper body, and half of my hiking pack. I was able to quickly recover and get back on my feet, but earlier concerns regarding my pack and its ability to shed water quickly escalated from concerns, to downright fear. I scrambled my way to the opposing creek bank, quickly tossed off my pack, and slowly opened the compartment which contained my camera gear. Much to my surprise everything was completely dry. After my heart rate returned to normal we joked for a little bit about the situation we now found ourselves in, cursed the weather man again who had only predicted rain in the early morning, and took a group photo with a cellphone, which turned out blurry because the tiny lens kept fogging faster than we could wipe it off.
We continued our hike back up the creek bank and headed back towards the Balsam Lake Dam. Just like the rain had started, it quickly ended. When we reached the dam, it was no longer pouring, and by the time we reached the car it had stopped. The clouds disappeared as quickly as they came. The whole trip was a reminder of how quickly weather can come and go in the mountains, and how to never trust a weatherman. We proceeded to change clothes, dump the water out of our boots, and plan the rest of our day. We set out to photograph four waterfalls, but only saw two. It wasn’t a complete failure, but I’m still disappointed we didn’t make it to Patricia or Lauren Falls. We promised ourselves that we’ll return to capture the others. Hopefully on day when the weather is a little more agreeable.
I want to thank LowePro for saving me thousands of dollars in equipment damage during this trip. I still carry a lot of gear on these hikes, and for the longest time I couldn’t find a bag that was the right size and comfortable. That changed when I discovered the LowePro Whistler 350. Not only is it comfortable it also saved my gear. That fall into the creek could have been an absolute disaster, but thanks to this bag it wasn’t. If you’re looking for a good camera bag for your hiking adventures, I would recommend this one. I promise they don’t pay me to say such things, but I feel I owe them some thanks in this case. I’ll be writing a review on the bag here soon.