You're Invited: Join the movement to protect our beloved, shared outdoor spaces.

April 23, 2024, 7:18 p.m.

A Journey Through Time & Nature: Exploring the Reimagined Catawba Falls

Catawba Falls Antique Postcard

This month's G5 Trail Collective "Trail Tracker" collaboration continues the story of the Catawba Falls. As we approach the Grand Reopening of Catawba Falls, we want to share the rich culture and history of these falls, and why this waterfall is an integral part of Old Fort, NC's history and future.

Located in Pisgah National Forest at the edge of McDowell County and just below the Eastern Continental Divide, you will find Catawba Falls. Fed by the serene Catawba River, this behemoth of a trail cascades through a series of rocky terraces, 120-ft lower falls, and dramatic 80-ft upper falls. This stunning natural feature has long been a cornerstone of the landscape, attracting those who appreciate its majesty and power. As part of ongoing efforts, the G5 Trail Collective has begun to share the transformative enhancements made to our beloved Falls, aimed to preserve its ecological beauty and as a catalyst for economic growth in Old Fort.

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Stamped by History

Historically, Catawba Falls served as a passage for the indigenous Cherokee and Catawba tribes, woven into their network of trading and communication trails. Later, as European settlers and generations to follow expanded into the region, the fall's potential was harnessed through various industries, including a small-scale hydroelectric dam and milling operations. However, these were eventually abandoned, allowing nature to reclaim its territory and making way for a rugged destination for local adventurers. For many years, private ownership restricted access to Catawba Falls and the rugged terrain surrounding it. The US Forest Service acquired the site from the Foothills Land Conservancy in 2006.

Early Photographs of the Dam Construction at Catawba Falls in Old Fort, NC.

In fact, during recent construction efforts, workers unearthed rail timber, signage, and old logs buried beneath the trail, dating back about a century. Imagine that—a communal escape so loved, it relies upon and tests through trial and time the infrastructure from a world most of us have never known. It's a testament both to the resilience of folk and the need for a few updates, if there ever was one.

Catawba Falls Power Building -This rare photograph from the archives shows the little known power generating station erected next to the falls.

Revitalizing for Safety and Accessibility

In 2021, Catawba Falls was selected as a Great American Outdoors Act project as part of the historic investment in recreation infrastructure on public lands. The upgrades, set to be completed by May 30, 2024, are designed to stabilize the historic trails, protect the surrounding natural areas, and provide clear, safe hiking paths. Catawba Falls has been known as a dangerous and deadly site due to its poor access and dangerous user-created routes between the lower and upper falls. The newly constructed stairs, boardwalks, and a viewing tower are built into the cliffs to provide stable and sustainable access to both the lower and upper falls. These improvements are expected to reduce the burden of search and rescue operations by approximately $1 million annually.

But, the revitalization of Catawba Falls is more than safety. It’s part of a larger initiative to foster economic growth through the Old Fort Trails Project. Since the initiation of these improvements, Old Fort has welcomed the opening of 13 new businesses, indicating a vibrant revival fueled by enhanced recreational infrastructure. The project not only aims to improve safety but also to bolster local economic conditions by promoting increased tourism and reducing the financial strain on emergency services.

In response to community concerns about changes to the landscape, we assure you that the construction has been designed with the utmost respect for the natural environment. The enhanced trail system maintains clear views of the falls, ensuring that visitors can continue to enjoy the site’s historic beauty while benefiting from improved safety features.

Approaching the upper falls of Catawba will be a new experience for all. Photo Credit: Brandon Thrower

A Bright Future Awaits

As Catawba Falls prepares to reopen this summer, it stands as a testament to successful collaboration among community, state, and federal partners. This landmark project enhances safety, access, and local economic growth, securing Catawba Falls as a sustainable destination that honors its natural and historical significance.

The US Forest Service invites you to join them this Summer as Catawba Falls reopens and experience the thoughtful integration of preservation and modern innovation that will continue to inspire awe and appreciation for generations to come.

Catawba Falls -Photo Credit Brandon Thrower

Be sure to follow all of the Catawba Falls updates on the G5 Trail Collective website here: