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Exploring the Waterfall ByWay

Dry Falls in the nc smoky mountains

The Waterfall Byway begins just north of Brevard, NC, famous for its music center and white squirrels and nicknamed the “Land of Waterfalls.” The 98-mile drive follows Rte. 64 from Rosman to Murphy, NC, with more than 200 waterfalls along the byway. Here’s what to expect as you take this journey to see some of the Smoky Mountains’ most beautiful natural wonders.

Toxaway Falls
“Toxaway falls” by Jeff Heard is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Toxaway Falls

Ironically, the first waterfall you come to on the Waterfall Byway, Toxaway Falls, is the only one not created without human intervention, be it accidental. When 24 inches of rain fell over a few days in 1916, the man-made dam holding back nearby Lake Toxaway was breached and over five billion gallons of water tore the once verdant and lush gorge floor down to its stunning striped bedrock.

At the falls, there is a gravel-covered pullout that serves as the parking area and can fit 3 to 4 cars. If coming from the opposite direction, you’ll have to pass over the falls and turn around to park. You must then cross several lanes of roadway on foot and press against the far side of the bridge, under which flows the 150-foot waterfall. Considering the need to cross a busy road and no defined look-out point, this may be one for the more agile adults.

Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park
“Rainbow Falls” by alexanderglerch is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Hidden Falls

Farther on in Sapphire, NC, you will come to a trio of stunning falls in the Gorges State Park: Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Hidden Falls. The three share a state-of-the-art visitors center with immaculate restrooms, a gift shop and a small museum.

Several trails of varying length and difficulty snake through the grounds from the visitor’s center to the trailheads, allowing you the option of a longer hike. But, if you are interested in saving time and energy,  you can also drive to the trailhead. There you will find a spacious parking lot, sheltered picnic tables with charcoal grills and more restrooms. Camping is also allowed on the grounds.

The trail to Rainbow Falls is 1.5 miles long, sometimes through a smallish creek. The cascade, named for the rainbow you can sometimes spot in the mist, stands at a majestic 150 feet. Getting there takes less time, as it is mostly downhill, but you still have to hike your way back out.

To reach Turtleback Falls, you continue on the Rainbow Falls trail an additional quarter of a mile. With a more gradual slope reminiscent of a turtle shell, these falls were once a popular place to go sliding. However, with an increase in injuries and even fatalities, visitors are cautioned not to attempt it. It is definitely not safe for children. However, just a few feet from the trail is Hidden Falls. With a small 10-foot-tall waterfall and a calm swimming hole, this is the perfect place for the whole family to enjoy.


Back on the road, you will pass through Cashiers (pronounced “Cashers” by the locals). The road becomes narrow with tight curves and uneven pavement here. Eighteen-wheelers are prohibited and buses and RVs are strongly discouraged on this part of the drive.

Now would be an ideal time to swing into Sugar Cloud Baking Company for gourmet donuts made fresh daily. You can practically smell them from the road! Once you’ve replenished your energy, you will continue on Rte. 64 until you reach Highlands, a well-heeled tourist community with rows of shops, boutiques and restaurants. Wild Thyme restaurant, with an impressive wine list and four full walls of wine, has a vibrant outdoor patio that is pet friendly.

Bridal Veil Waterfall in the Smoky Mountains
Bridal Veil Falls outside of Highlands.

Bridal Veil Falls

Once you are back on the road, you will travel a short 2.6 miles to Bridal Veil Falls. Situated literally along the side of the road, these falls are unique amongst the rest. There is off-road parking and no walking required. Named for the way in which the falls lightly cascade off the rock formation overhead, these falls allow you to stand behind them and stay dry. This is a really cool place to take selfies and family photos.

Dry Falls in the nc smoky mountains

Dry Falls

About a mile ahead on the Waterfall Byway, your next destination is Dry Falls, which offers a well-tended parking lot with restrooms, and the trek to see the falls is less than a quarter mile. However, there are dozens of stairs, often at relatively steep inclines, that may prove difficult for those who get winded easily.

The stepped walkway runs alongside the waterfall, so you are enjoying its beauty the entire time you approach. Once at the base, there is plenty of room in the large cave-like area behind the cascade. The falls are magnificent as they thunder overhead, creating an echo chamber that delights the kiddos.

The optimistically named Dry Falls spits and drips enough on you behind the falls to cool you down for the climb back out. For those who can’t venture down, there is a wheelchair-accessible ramp that leads to an overlook with views just as breathtaking.

Bust yer butt falls
“Quarry Falls” by Jim Liestman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Drift Falls (Bust Yer Butt Falls)

Three miles after Dry Falls you will discover Drift Falls, situated on the Waterfall Byway but on privately owned land. Most locals and visitors know these falls and sliding rocks as “Bust Yer Butt Falls” and do not seem to make the distinction that the land is not publicly owned. There is room for about 10 cars parked on both sides of the road, and there also seems to be more parking opportunities in front of some of the boarded-up buildings flanking the trailhead.

Cullasaja Falls in the Nantahala National Forest
“Cullasaja Falls” by Frank Kehren is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Cullasaja Falls

Your next waterfall destination is Cullasaja Falls where your endurance will be put to the test. There is no official trail to speak of, but waterfallers brave the almost-vertical climb in and out to visit the breathtaking cascade. With a small pullout with room for no more than 4 cars on the shoulder of Rte. 64, it gets a little dicey navigating the edge of the narrow two-lane road.

Glen Waterfall in the Smoky Mountains
Glen Falls

Glen Falls

Glen Falls is your final waterfall destination and a very short drive off of Rte. 64. When you leave the main road, you will take an immediate right down a hard-packed dirt road to the trailhead. The sign is visible, but you may question if you’re going the right way. You are.

A beautiful hike through the fragrant forest, the trail is about 1 mile each way and one of the most popular waterfalls on the Waterfall Byway.

When the Waterfall Hunt is Over

When you emerge from the final trek to Glen Falls, you will be ready for a tall cold beer, and just a short way up the road, Franklin’s Lazy Hiker Brewery hits the spot. Situated on Rte. 64 and just off of the world-famous Appalachian Trail, this stop is very popular with waterfallers, visitors and thru-hikers on the trail.

The brewery boasts a 15-barrel brewhouse, a disc golf course, an outdoor music venue, outdoor seating and a healthy number of beer taps named for sites you recognize, such as Bridal Veil Pale Ale and Dry Falls Doppleback.

On the wall at Lazy Hiker is a board inviting  thru-hikers on the world-famous Appalachian Trail to leave a message for other hikers. It’s a very cool read. And the ceiling is hung with the hiking boots of those who were injured or defeated and quit the Appalachian Trail.

Parked just outside, the Hiker’s Kitchen food truck is a popular destination in its own right, and the owner, Joe P., is always happy to show you how he rolls whole potatoes with the skin on to make his perfectly seasoned, hand-cut fries.

Even with stopping to explore all of the cascades along the way, this road trip can be accomplished in a day. You can tailor your personal experience to your interests, activity level, adventurous spirit, and abilities. But even those who just take the drive and admire the waterfalls from the roadside, lookouts and parking lots will appreciate the wonder and beauty of this mesmerizing land and enjoy the full experience of the Waterfall Byway.