U.S. Route 64 between the towns of Highlands and Franklin, dubbed “The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway”, packs an insane amount of scenery in its 8 mile stretch through the Cullasaja River Gorge. Containing one of the highest concentrations of massive waterfalls in the state, the Cullasaja River is home to Sequoyah Dam Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Dry Falls, Bust Your Butt Falls, and the 250 ft tall Cullasaja Falls. Along the way, visitors can drive their vehicles beneath the 120-foot Bridal Veil Falls and walk behind the roaring water at Dry Falls. The highway itself lies along the Continental Divide and is believed to have been one of the routes originally used by Hernando de Soto during his expedition in 1540.
Mountain Waters Scenic Byway brochure from U.S. Forest Service.
Outside of the Blue Ridge Parkway, The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway is one of the most dramatic drives anyone can take in Western North Carolina. While this highway stretches for 604 miles from the town of Murphy to Nags Head in the Outer Banks, we’ll be focusing just on a small 8 mile long section. Between the start of the drive near Highlands to the outskirts of Franklin, this narrow, curvy stretch of highway descends a whooping 2,200 ft in elevation. There is no hiking necessary on any of these jaunts with Dry Falls containing the longest walk to an overlook at 0.4 miles long. With the exception of Cullasaja Falls, all of the waterfalls on this journey contain large lots and pull-outs for visitors to get out and enjoy the sights and sounds. Cullasaja Falls itself can only be viewed from a tiny 3 car pull-out on one of the most dangerous curves of the highway and is often full so its best visited during the early morning or late afternoon hours.
Sequoyah Dam Falls
Sequoyah Dam Falls Location | Google Maps
You can’t mention any of the waterfalls of the Cullasaja River without giving Sequoyah Dam Falls a nod first. While Sequoyah Falls is not technically a natural waterfall, it is in fact part of the headwaters to the Cullasaja River Gorge and the start of the days waterfall chasing adventure. This waterfall is part of the spillover to the Lake Sequoyah Dam, just west of downtown Highlands. The lake was formed in 1927 to provide hydroelectric power for residents after its development boom as a summer resort town in 1880. After the completion of the dam, construction of what became U.S. Route 64 between here and Franklin also commenced. Originally a rough, mud rut trail, this road was laboriously cut from the mountain side of the gorge to create a scenic shortcut between the two towns. Today the lake is surrounded by luxury homes and rentals mixed in with some of the original cottages adorning the shores of Lake Sequoyah. It’s hard not to look out onto the calm waters of this lake and wish you were out there fishing, rowing an oar in a canoe, or simply dangling your feet off a dock enjoying the cool mountain water.
Pull-off for Bridal Veil Falls on U.S. Route 64.
Bridal Veil Falls Scenic Area
Bridal Veil Falls Location | Google Maps
There are several waterfalls in North Carolina with the name, “Bridal Veil Falls”, but this is the only one you can drive behind. During the highways initial construction, planners designed the road to specifically travel underneath the 60 ft tall spray of Bridal Veil Falls. While a treat to drive under during the summer months, winter snow and freezing rain made it a treacherous drive for motorists. As the Nantahala National Forest expanded its boundary through the area, the highway was widened to create this unique Scenic Area for tourists to visit. It is a short several minute drive from Sequoyah Falls ti’ll you see signs for the pull over to Bridal Veil Falls. The waterfall has a large roadside lot on the westbound side of U.S. Route 64 that drivers heading east can also pull into.
Original highway going under Bridal Veil Falls. This would make one heck of a car wash.
Stopping by shortly after sunrise, I had the place totally to myself. This waterfall is a lot taller in person than it appears in photos I’ve seen online. While the spray we see is 60 feet tall, the cascades themselves go up twice as high to approximately 120 feet into the mountainside. Bridal Veil Falls technically does not emanate from the Cullasaja River, but is a small tributary that empties into it. Throughout most of the day, there are barriers blocking cars from driving under the waterfall, though occasionally the Forest Service opens it up for a brief period. Like most waterfalls of this size, Bridal Veil Falls has a shallow rockshelter below the precipice that is actively being formed by the splash back from the falls. As it is located adjacent to the highway, this place sees a lot of activity and can get packed pretty quickly so I would suggest visiting it either early in the day or later in the afternoon near dusk.
Initial view of Dry Falls as you approach the falls basin.
Dry Falls Scenic Area
Dry Falls Scenic Area Location | Google Maps
Now this next waterfall has a deceiving name that is anything like what it sounds. Dry Falls 75-ft plunge has to be in the running as one of the most spectacular waterfalls in North Carolina. Its deceptive name is a nod to the fact that visitors can walk a short path down to the base of this waterfall and actually go behind the rapids, all the while staying “dry”. To get here from Bridal Veil Falls, just continue heading west for a little over a mile until you see a Forest Service sign for Dry Falls. This initial sign is located about 30 yards before you reach the actual Scenic Area parking lot so be on the lookout. Heading there from Highlands, you have to drive past the first entrance to enter the lot as the parking area runs on a one-way lane. While this waterfall used to only support a small pull-out for a few cars, the Forest Service broke ground on this much larger and improved Scenic Area back in 2009. There is a small $3 fee to park here and walk down to the falls which is easily payable through an electronic fee station. Heck, to me it’s worth it just to have access to the new restrooms.
On most days you can stay “dry” while walking behind this waterfall.
The short 0.4 mile path down to the falls starts near the entrance to the lot. Before you head down, walk a few paces past the stairs to a quick overhead view of the falls. At this ADA accessible overlook, Dry Falls is perfectly framed through the trees. To enjoy a wet and wild experience at Dry Falls, walk down the staircase to the information kiosk and descend into the Cullasaja River Gorge via the paved boardwalk. During periods of intense rain, this gorge has been known to flash flood causing the Forest Service to temporarily close the trail at the gate near the end of the paved path. Even if you were to stop here, the view is stupendous. The tropical appearance of this waterfall is due to the fact that the Nantahala National Forest receives enough annual rainfall to classify it as a temperate rainforest.
One of the more unique waterfalls in North Carolina. Hike the end of the 0.4 mile trail to reach this picnic area.
With the gate open, we followed the trail the rest of the way until entering the cliff overhang directly behind Dry Falls. On most days, you could stay relatively dry back here, but not today. A week of steady rain has the waterfalls of the Cullasaja River bursting at the seams. The rapids are so full that I can lean over the railing and stick my hand in the waterfall. A truly awesome experience! At the far end of the trail, there is a small picnic area with a bench where visitors can sit back and enjoy the show. Again, having begun todays adventure shortly after daybreak, I get to enjoy Dry Falls all by myself. This scenic area experiences extremely high visitor volume during the middle of the day and on holidays, which can cause the parking lot to close for extended periods of time. Plan your stop here for early mornings or later in the evening.
The view of Bust Your Butt Falls most people get roadside while driving along U.S. Route 64.
Bust Your Butt Falls (Quarry Falls)
Bust Your Butt Falls Location | Google Maps
If you want to see sweltering crowds hunting cool breezes during the hot summer months then look no further than Bust Your Butt Falls. This popular swimming hole and natural slide on the Cullasaja River along US Highway 64 near Highlands is a local favorite. Surrounded by towering boulders of every shape and size that often get tangled with driftwood has given rise to this waterfalls many nicknames including Quarry Falls and Driftwood Falls. A short walk from several roadside pull-offs, this is by far the most visited waterfall on The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway. The drive from Dry Falls to Bust Your Butt Falls is roughly 3 miles long and passes by a little visited off-trail gem, Scandin Falls and the Ranger Falls Trail located in the Van Hook Glade Campground. Heading west, there is a sizable pull-off on your right hand side just before reaching the falls, otherwise the next pull-off is on the eastbound side.
That’s one heck of a water slide. Just be careful not to Bust Your Butt going down.
From the road, it takes a little bit of scrambling over some large boulders to reach the river just downstream from Bust Your Butt Falls. The rock debris has the added benefit of creating shallow pools closer to the riverbank that have some added protection from the deeper parts of the river. At only 15 feet tall it’s definitely among the smaller waterfalls of the Cullasaja River. Instead of one long slide, like those found at nearby Gorges State Park, Bust Your Butt has 4 short slides with each drop tumbling into a surprisingly shallow pool in between (hence the name). Swimmers should practice caution while swimming here as higher water levels can often hide large boulders just below the waters surface. For this reason diving is strictly prohibited. This waterfall is more of a hangout where you want to stop for a lunch picnic than it is a photography destination. While I was the only visitors upon my initial stop, by the time I packed up my gear there were nearly a dozen cars parked along the shoulder with just as many people roaming about.
Roadside overlook of Upper Cullasaja Falls just before it’s 250 ft drop.
Cullasaja Falls Location | Google Maps
Cullasaja Falls 250 foot drop is the mother of all waterfalls in the Cullasaja River Gorge and the last stop on todays waterfall adventure on The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway. You’ll find it by heading 2 miles west from Bust Your Butt Falls, heading towards Franklin. This is a tricky waterfall to see while you’re driving as it is below the highway. Adding to the drama of finding this waterfall is the fact that it is located on the narrowest, curviest and most dangerous part of the highway where it really pays to be alert. You’ll have to drive past the waterfall and turn back around to be bale to park at the overlook. There is really only one tiny pull-off capable of fitting 3-5 cars, but despite this cars try to jam on on the shoulder, consistently blocking up traffic at this spot. Other people also try to park at the next closest pull-off nearly 0.25 mile away and walk down the highway to reach the Cullasaja Falls overlook….. another BIG NO NO.
If you want to head down to Lower Cullasaja Falls, this is the trailhead.
Most casual visitors that make it to the main roadside overlook here might also be unaware that this is just one of two waterfalls making up Cullasaja Falls. From the large rock outcropping making up the overlook here, one gets a birds eye view of Upper Cullasaja Falls. Made up of zigzagging cascades coming down the mountainside like a snake, it is by far one of the most majestic waterfalls to photograph in the entire area. The best time to come see it is during fall when you can catch an image of it framed by all of the bright autumn colors. There is a little bit of scrambling here if you want to see moire of the mid section of the falls at the far end of the cliff overhang, but overall it is a great view. Seeing Lower Cullasaja Falls is another adventure altogether.
This is the 100 ft rock wall scramble down to Lower Cullasaja Falls near the roped section.
Now, the scramble down to Lower Cullasaja Falls is not for everyone. People have fallen down the side of the cliff and been seriously injured. The sheer drop down is not for the faint of heart and involves A LOT of risk. With that being said, I spent a fair amount of time researching this particular scramble to get familiar with it and made a deal with myself that if at any point it seemed dodgy, I would bail out. The small user made trail down is directly on the other side of the guard rail where cars pull-off. You can see it clear as day. Initially the trail begins a smooth descent below the tree canopy until it reaches a 100 ft rock scramble with a near vertical pitch. Working my way from rock to rock and carefully watching my footing, I made the painstakingly slow journey down the wall of boulders. Adding to the drama is the fact that the entire path is thickly lined with poison ivy. So watch where you put your hands. Just to put it into context, the base of the river is so far down that you can’t even see it until you’re two-thirds of the way down the cliff.
All 250 ft of Cullasaja Falls after making the journey down from U.S. Route 64.
As you reach the bottom of the rock wall, there is a small landing just before the hillside drops off again and you have to cross over to the right over a dangerous gap. At first it seems impossible to navigate until you notice the rope. Tied from a tree overhead, the rope acts as a guide to keep visitors from falling over the hillside and to show you the best way down. While I wouldn’t trust my life with this rope, it does help stabilize you as you navigate the lack of footing. As you reach the bottom of the rope aided descent, the rest of the trail eases down a muddy hillside to the banks of the Cullasaja River. The end of our YouTube Video above shows this specific section of the descent. Cullasaja Falls is an entirely different waterfall from this vantage point. At 250 ft tall, this waterfall is only 50 ft shorter than Londons’ Big Ben! With the river swollen from recent rains, the falls have completely engulfed parts of the lower cliffs you can normally see. There are two main channels of water that course around a large pile of rock debris in the middle of the falls basin. It’s a truly jaw dropping sight and one I’m glad I was able to see despite the grueling journey.
Up close view of Cullasaja Falls.
While this marks the end of our waterfalls journey on The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, there are more waterfalls to come as we continue to explore this tiny corner of Western North Carolina. Up next, we’re headed to another little known waterfall deep in the Nantahala National Forest named Secret Falls. A favorite amongst locals, Secret Falls is a 50 ft waterfall just south of Downtown Highlands. A popular swimming hole during the summer months, this “secret” waterfall has recently been folded into the official Nantahala National Forest trail system. Stay tuned as we tackle this 1.35 mile out & back trail to this awesome waterfall and as always, see y’all on the trails!