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May 22, 2024, 6:12 p.m.

Catawba Falls Trail set to reopen May 31st, 2024

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Two-year construction project improves safety, accessibility on popular trail in Old Fort, N.C.

OLD FORT, N.C., May 21, 2024 – The Catawba Falls trail on the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest will reopen on May 31, 2024, following a 2-year construction closure. The popular trail near Old Fort, North Carolina, underwent major improvements as crews added retaining walls, boardwalks, staircases and overlooks to greatly improve the trail and visitor safety.

“Catawba Falls has been a popular and beloved recreation for decades, and these upgrades will greatly improve the visitor experience,” explains James Melonas, Forest Supervisor for the National Forests in North Carolina. “This work addresses critical safety needs and protects the headwaters of the Catawba River, while increasing accessibility for hikers.”

The project is the result of long-term collaborative planning efforts, beginning in 2006 when the U.S. Forest Service acquired the site from the Foothills Land Conservancy. Between 2010 and 2016, trailhead parking and restrooms were added, and the trail to the lower falls was upgraded including the installation of two bridges. The work completed since 2022 has addressed the dangerous path along the cliff edge between the lower and upper falls. Many serious injuries and deaths occurred on this route and at the upper falls.

“Catawba Falls has been the site of numerous rescues,” says William Kehler, Director of Emergency Services for McDowell County. “These improvements will lead to improved safety for not only the citizens and visitors to Catawba Falls, but also the first responders that are called to perform rescues. These improvements will save lives.”

The improvements consist of 580 stairs, three overlooks and a 60-foot observation tower to take hikers safely to the upper falls. Once at the upper falls, hikers can return to the parking lot on the new Catawba Falls Ridge Trail for a total loop distance of 3.5 miles. While the trail to the beautiful 205-foot cascading lower falls is still rated as easy, the trail to the 80-foot dropping upper falls and back is rated as intermediate due to the number of steps and elevation change. The quarter-mile route between the lower and upper falls is equivalent to climbing a 30-story building. Hikers with pre-existing medical conditions should use caution.

Catawba Falls Stairs

Visiting Catawba Falls for opening weekend? The gate will open at 8 a.m. Friday, May 31. Due to limited parking on site, shuttles will run on Friday and Saturday between downtown Old Fort and Catawba Falls. The U.S. Forest Service and partner organizations will be on site 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Friday to answer questions and celebrate with the community. As you visit, have an alternate plan if parking areas are full, and be considerate of not parking on private property along Catawba River road.

Catawba Falls View Expand

The work at Catawba Falls is just one part of the larger Old Fort Trails Project that is adding a wide range of trail improvements to this area of Pisgah National Forest.

“We are excited to see you back in Old Fort this summer,” says Lisa Jennings, Recreation Manager for the Grandfather Ranger District. “We know it's been a long closure, and we appreciate everyone’s patience. It was critical that we met our timelines to open Catawba Falls by summer, however, as you plan your visit do be aware that limited construction will continue through late July as we complete the final components of the project.”

Short-term weekday closures are possible through July 2024 for visitor safety. Additional work is limited to the dam and upper falls viewing area. Safe, alternate routes are available to allow the falls to remain open, including the new quarter-mile Wildflower Trail.

This project was made possible by the Legacy Restoration Fund, established by the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act. Additional funding and support was provided in partnership with McDowell County, Camp Grier’s G5 Trail Collective, the National Forest Foundation, and the McDowell County Tourism and Development Authority. Work was completed by Tag Contracting, a local Old Fort small business. Engineering and structure design were provided by project managers at the U.S. Forest Service National Forests in North Carolina and TGS Consulting Engineers, with input from McDowell County Emergency Management.

The reopening of Catawba Falls coincides with the Trails and Trains Festival, May 31-June 1, in Old Fort. For more information, visit