Red Rock Photography | A trip to Cullowhee Falls

A trip to Cullowhee Falls

February 07, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

A Trip to Cullowhee Falls

2015 was certainly full of adventures, one of which was quite epic, but also extremely hard on me. It was the trip to Cullowhee Falls. In April, I decided to head to Glenville, NC and witness the dam release of the Tuckasegee River and the resurgence of High Falls on the Tuck, also called Cullowhee Falls. The 150 foot tall Cullowhee Falls was once one of the most impressive and powerful waterfalls in Western North Carolina, now it is just a trickle in comparison. When the river was dammed up stream to create Lake Glenville, the falls lost their glory. Now about four to five times a year the dam is released to restore the class 4 and 5 rapids below the falls for whitewater kayaks to run. I decided to go to the first release of the season. 


I ventured out well before sunrise, leaving home around 5 am to get to the trail head early. I was the first one in the parking area and started hiking just after 7 am. I had never been on this trail and only had reports from other hikers as to the difficulty. The trail was only ¾ of a mile so it was not too intimidating. However, the trail descends 750 vertical feet in that ¾ mile. Translation, that is one steep descent.

The trail was not bad the first ¼ mile or so, but once it started going down it was a challenge for me. For those of you that do not know me well, I am not a tall individual. Even more descriptive, I have very short legs. I am about 5ft-6 but most of that is torso, someone else got my fair share of legs. Plus, I have a good bit of excess sexiness on my belly. I tell you this because whoever helped build the trail to Cullowhee Falls was likely about 7ft-7. There are stairs built out of logs and flat rocks for the last ½ mile of the trail, and the rise of each of the steps had to be 18 inches, way too big for my comfort. I was just thankful that I took my hiking stick to help me with the drop of each step with my short legs. It was not easy, and then the thought hit me of how much fun it was going to be getting out of here.


Once I reached the brink of the falls, I was relieved, not much farther now, I thought. Then I looked down the trail and saw the steepest section of the entire ¾ mile. It just kept going lower and lower, oh I was not looking forward to the return trip to my car. This is the "before" image as I was descending next to the falls, compare it to the "after" shot from the same spot on my way out below. 



This was the final descent.

I finally made it to the base, and noticed a few people across the river already sitting up on a rock and waiting for the dam release. There were no other cars in the trailhead parking lot so I wondered how they got there. Apparently, there is a much flatter trail that comes upstream but the trailhead is not highly published. It is longer, closer to 1-½ miles but I would gladly go that way as opposed to the descent of hell.


Two other hikers had caught up to me as I neared the falls so there were 5 or so people there to start. Before long there would be 30 or more people at the falls. I have since connected with several of the other adventure seekers that joined me that day, which is one of the most positive things to happen on this trip. 

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I set up and started shooting some "before" photos to have a reference, I wanted to put a "before and after" together to show the incredible difference. I had no idea what I was about to see. This shot is 16 photos to capture the details of the falls. 



We had to wait until almost 10:30 am before the water from the release reached us but when it did, it was simply astonishing. The volume of water was so much greater than I could have imagined. I see why the kayakers come in droves to run this section of the river now. That is a whole lot of water.



About 45 seconds to a minute later a lovely smell accompanied the water. All of the loose sediment was washed up from the riverbed and was not very pleasant. The water was a wonderful dookie-brown color and as I said in my video at the time, smelled like someone flushed god’s toilet.


 It took almost an hour for the water to clear up, but when it did, I was envious of the position of the people on the other side of the river. In my chosen spot I was directly in the spray zone. The spray from the falls made shooting very difficult, as I had to keep my camera body covered and constantly had to wipe mist off of the lens. The river was too high for me to change and get to the other side, and if I had gone there before I would have to wait for the close of the dam at 4 pm to get back across and up to the car. The kayakers began running the river, as one after another, put in below the falls to run the several miles of class 4 and 5 rapids. I got a few shots of them as well as a few of the falls in all of its' glory. 



Unfortunately, I did not get the wonderful photos I had hoped for, just an amazing experience. I stayed until around 1 pm and then started heading up the trail. It was as challenging as I feared but I simply took my time, really, really slow. The word Tuckasegee is Cherokee for "slow moving like a turtle." I imagine that the Cherokee Native that named the river had a vision of the future, where they saw me hiking out of Cullowhee Falls, and then named the river after my hiking speed.


This is the "after" photo from the trail near the brink of the falls that I mentioned above. 

After about 45 minutes I was back to the car and my adventure was complete. Unfortunately, the steep steps, and the nature in which I lead with one leg down all the way to the falls, caused me to injure my back. I sprained my Sacro-Iliac joint and was out of commission for a few weeks. The things I do for my passion.



 I do plan to go back to Cullowhee Falls, but next time I am going to find the other trail. It has to be better for a short legged, chubby fellow, such as myself. However, I will wait until the second release or later, I could do without the smell next time too.




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