Hiking to Lower Whitewater Falls

By:Staff Writer

Date:8/15/2014

Trail Sign on the Bad Creek Foothills Trail
Trail sign directing paths on the Bad Creek Foothills Trail.

What’s striking is the quiet.

The rustle of leaves through aged trees and the soft padding of footsteps on dried pines are the only noises that reach your ears. The sounds amplify the longer you walk, while shadows play along a thousand shades of green in the panorama of the forest.

You’re hiking 4.8 miles round-trip to the overlook at Lower Whitewater Falls. From everything you’ve heard, these falls are the biggest and most majestic in the park and worth every step of the hike.

Your adventure begins with a gorgeous 30-minute drive northwest from the entrance of ​Devils Fork to the entrance of the trail located off Bad Creek Road. The sign in the parking lot points the way: “BAD CREEK FOOTHILLS TRAIL ACCESS.”

The initial climb of the trail leading away from Bad Creek is short and easy. At the top, you turn left and find yourself facing an odd, open area covered with wispy grass and small trees. A lightly worn trail leads toward a thicker bunch of trees. As you near it, you see that the trees form a shadowy tunnel leading into the forest.

Taking one look back at the open area, you walk into the woods.

It’s like entering Alice’s Wonderland. The trees are closer together and look as though they were frozen in the middle of a twirling dance. They bend every which way as you walk along the narrow trail. They seem to duck and weave around each other with each passing step.

After a steady descent through the dancing woods, you’re taken aback by the sudden change of scenery. Without warning the trees have tripled in height and stand straight up. The woods have spread out and the sun shines through to the forest floor. The sound of rushing water reaches your ears. 

Bridge over Whitewater River
A bridge crosses over the Whitewater River.

A few minutes later, you’re standing on a bridge above the Whitewater River. You cross the bridge and step off the beaten path to dip your hand in the moving water. It’s cool to the touch and refreshing after the first mile of your trek. Immense trees tower on either side of the gently flowing river and cast shadows over portions of the water.

You pause for a while and decide it’s time to move on, thinking that if the river leading to the falls was this stunning, the falls must be surreal. Excitement builds with each step as you make your way through the curving trails and steepening inclines.

The dirt beneath your shoes is a rich, reddish-brown, and there are fewer pine needles underfoot as you get higher up into the Blue Ridge Escarpment. The trees are more curiously spaced as they fight to grow tall despite the steep terrain. Roots begin to act as stairs in the trail and tree branches become helping hands as the rumbling of the falls grows louder.

Overlooking Lower Whitewater Falls
View of Lower Whitewater Falls from the Bad Creek Foothills Trail overlook.

You watch your step as the ground curves downward, but then all of a sudden you look up. A few small stairs lead to a wooden, railed overlook, but before you go up them, you pause because of what you see in the background.

​Lower Whitewater Falls cascades down the plain gray rocks of the mountain, and for a moment, it takes your breath away. You bound up the steps to the edge of the rail for a better look.

The creamy, white cascades flow powerfully down the rock face. The sound is distant, but thundering. You can see the tiered rock face leading down to the splash pool below and the water changing from a smooth, clear river into a gush of moving froth.

It’s hard to take your eyes off the falls, but eventually, you stir. Filled with a sense of wonder, you turn your face toward the trail, but as you do, you’re filled with joy, knowing it was worth every step.

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