Bearwallow Falls Trail | 0.2 Miles
Gorges State Park Grassy Ridge Area | Google Maps
The trip to see Upper Bearwallow Falls is so quick and moderately easy that if you don’t pay attention, it’ll be gone in a flash. After hiking the Rainbow Falls Trail to see the parks giant splashers such as Rainbow, Turtle, and Hidden Falls, we decided to close off the day by stopping by the last known waterfall within this park. Bearwallow Creek, whose entire length runs almost exclusively through the boundaries of Gorges State Park, helps to support an ecologically rich region which is designated as being of national significance by the Natural Heritage Program. This organization identifies natural areas on land and sea within North Carolina that contain the best rare species populations, habitats, and communities in need of being preserved. As of a recent biological study, Gorges State Park contains nearly 125 rare plant and animal species, including 12 which are considered endangered. And to think that when Duke Energy first purchased hundreds of thousands of acres in this region, they were unintentionally helping to regenerate what would become a coveted future public lands project.
Driving along Grassy Ridge Road to the Bearwallow Falls trailhead, you will have undoubtedly seen the unsightly and massive power lines that cut this state park into two distinct areas, with Grassy Ridge in the west and Frozen Creek in the east. In Duke Energys’ defense, the damage began nearly 70 years before they took ownership of the land. One of the most devastating natural disasters to occur to the landscape of Gorges, took place in 1916 when the dam holding back Lake Toxaway broke. Scouring the land and leaving piles of debris nearly 20 feet high, it was the first of several events that would forever change the region. Ruining much of the soil for agricultural purposes, most locals sold their land to the Singer Sewing Company, which promptly took the opportunity to log most of it. This left an already scarred landscape completely barren. Or so it was thought.
Just taking a look around at the forest surrounding Bearwallow Falls, I’ve noticed that some of the trees do not look as big or as tall as other state parks in North Carolina. In some areas it resembles a tree farm, with a lot of it having a “fresh” and uniform appearance. Thats because this is considered a second growth forest which has only been growing since the 1950’s. This is around the time that Duke Energy became interested in the potential of the Gorges steep terrain and high rainfall for creating hydroelectric power, prompting them to purchase large tracts of land extending from Sapphire, North Carolina, to Salem, South Carolina. Meanwhile, conservation studies conducted in this part of the Jocassee Gorges in the 1970’s, began discovering the truly unique and rare environment that existed here as it was starting to rejuvenate. Deciding that it no longer needed these 8,000 acres for future hydropower projects, Duke sold the land to the state in the 1990’s. This created a 100,000 acre conservation corridor, spanning 80 miles along the North and South Carolina border.
Making our way down the gravel trail, we climb atop the wooden boardwalk spanning the cliffs beside Upper Bearwallow Falls. Unlike the trail to see Rainbow Falls, which takes visitors up close to the falls, here we get a distant view. Though I don’t think we’ll see any fish jumping down the falls, this river is teeming with them. All of the streams in Gorges State Park are Wild Trout Waters. By definition, designated Wild Trout Waters must be open for public fishing access, and must support wild trout populations of sufficient magnitude for fishing.
Only wild and semi-wild strains of hatchery fish may be planted in Wild Trout Waters, if at all. Along with rainbow trout, brown trout, and smallmouth bass, the parks pristine waters and unique ecology help to support a growing population of green salamanders. These mottled green and black amphibians tuck themselves into rock crevices within damp environments. They became a threatened species when decades of commercial logging and mining began polluting the streams throughout its native range in the Appalachian Mountains.
Some of the best fishing here can be found in the rugged, backcountry streams of the Frozen Creek Area. With Bearwallow Creek being the largest river in Gorges State Park, it contains several waterfalls including a miniature version of this one. Visitors interested in seeing the Lower Bearwallow Falls can do so by taking the 7.2 mile Auger Hole Trail from the Frozen Creek access point. Unlike the distant view we have here, hikers must undertake a stream crossing over the front of Lower Bearwallow Falls as it spills into a natural pool over the trail. The terrain is steep and the near vertical slide of Upper Bearwallow Falls shares a lot in common with the 200 foot Stone Mountain Falls in Roaring Gap, North Carolina.
Though not many plants can handle the strain of being perched on a vertical cliff near running water, ferns are made especially for this. Tucked into the crevices surrounding Upper Bearwallow and the other 20 plus waterfalls in the park, ferns including the Gorge filmy, Appalachian filmy, and dwarf filmy ferns require the constant humidity of the falls spray to thrive. If all of this sounds like something you might experience in a rainforest, that’s because technically, we’re standing in one. By scientific standards, the 85+ inches of rain this area receives annually classifies it as a temperate rainforest. It may even shock some to discover plants plants thriving in this mountainous, yet humid environment also growing in the tropics. Pringles aquatic moss, which attaches itself to rock crevices under running water, is not only one of the rare plants found within Gorges, but can also be found growing in regions of Mexico.
With all of that information to digest, its easy to see what makes Gorges State Park such a special place. Wether your a science buff that enjoys learning all of these tid-bits of information, or an outdoors enthusiasts that just loves going for a hike, theres a lot to appreciate by standing in awe of a roaring waterfall. To explore more of the Jocassee Gorges Region, I’ll be heading out of state into neighboring South Carolina to visit one of the hundreds of secluded waterfalls in the Jocassee Gorges Wildlife Management Area. Stay tuned for our upcoming article on Twin Falls and until next time, see y’all on the trails!