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Trail Guides

Visiting The Not-So Secret Falls of Highlands, North Carolina

Guide to visiting secret falls in Nantahala National Forest North Carolina hiking trail waterfalls

A favorite amongst locals, Secret Falls is a waterfall deep in the Nantahala National Forest just south of Downtown Highlands. A popular swimming hole during the summer months, this 50 ft waterfall on Big Creek plunges into a serene oasis before continuing down a second set of cascades on its way into Georgias Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. This “secret” waterfall has zero signs directing tourists to its location, making it a spot that rarely gets more than a handful of visitors at a time. Recently folded into the official Forest Service trail system as the Big Shoals Trail #402, its 0.75 mile length is undergoing several improvements including two bridge crossings and a new staircase leading from an overlook down to the falls basin.

Big Shoals \ Secret Falls Trail | 0.75 Miles

Big Shoals Trail Location | Google Maps

Nantahala National Forest Map

Secret falls waterfall Nantahala National Forest North Carolina hiking trail

Approximate route of 0.65 mile long Secret Falls \ Big Shoals Trail.

Getting There

Despite its name, Secret Falls location is not so much of a secret anymore. Originally named Big Shoals Falls, Secret Falls local reputation has elevated it to being a regional waterfall chasing destination I’ve wanted to see for quite some time. Unlike some of our other scenic stops to view Whitewater Falls, Silver Run Falls, and Glenn Falls… its’ out-of-the-way setting and lack of signage still makes it a destination that sees only a trickle of daily traffic. With that being said, I was able to easily find the trailhead using Google Maps, which led me directly to the trailhead parking lot even with little cell phone reception. From the main intersection of US 64 and Main Street in downtown Highlands, go east on Main Street, which merges into State Road 1603. After 3.7 miles, turn right onto Walkingstick Road, which is a rough gravel road that enters the National Forest. Go about 2.5 miles, cross a stream, and bear right at a fork. Go 0.4 more miles and turn right onto Forest Road 4567. The signed trailhead is at the start of a gated old logging road on the left of a large clearing.

Trailhead near the back of the parking area.

Secret falls waterfall Nantahala National Forest North Carolina hiking trail

First creek crossing with debris and rocks to help skip across.


Secret falls waterfall Nantahala National Forest North Carolina hiking trail

Second creek crossing this time with a tree log to avoid getting wet.

 The Trail

What kept this trail a secret for so long was the fact that much of it passed through private property. Portions of the watershed above Secret Falls is now under development and a lot of the area is being turned into a luxury mountainside community. It used to be a pretty sketchy hike in from what I’ve read, especially the scramble down from the precipice of the falls to the natural pool. Through obtaining easements and following the natural grade of the hillside, the Forest Service was able to create this new family friendly hike that anyone can enjoy.  From the gate, the path follows the overgrown logging road which quickly narrows into more of a trail. Surrounded by steep cliffs, thick stands of rhododendrons, and towering pines makes you feel like you’re in a world all of your own. At 0.25 mile this trail quickly begins descending into a richly wooded cove with two stream crossings. The first stream is pretty shallow and lined with rocks and debris to aid in the crossing.


Secret falls waterfall Nantahala National Forest North Carolina hiking trail
Backcountry campsite currently being used to house equipment and material for trail maintenance by Forest Service.

Secret falls waterfall Nantahala National Forest North Carolina hiking trail

First view of Secret Falls as we made our way down the staircase.

The second stream is a few feet wider and has a stronger current so the Forest Service constructed a makeshift log bridge across this section. Both of these unnamed creeks are minor tributaries of Big Creek and aid in creating the powerful waterfall at the end of this hike. The headwaters of Big Creek itself emanate from Whiteside Mountain. One of the more interesting aspects of this waterfall is the fact that all of this water travels 300 miles southeast from here, crossing through the Tallulah Gorge and eventually draining into the Atlantic Ocean near Tybee Island, Georgia. Super fascinating in my opinion. At 0.50 miles you’ll enter a wide clearing under a stand of pines that was previously used as a backcountry campsite. The campsite is currently being used by the Forest Service as a base camp to house all of the equipment and tools needed for a current round of trail improvements, including the new staircase down to the banks of Big Creek. Not entirely completed, the staircase descends the bluffs overlooking the falls for the last 800 feet of the journey. This is where you’ll get your first earshot of the roaring rapids as Secret Falls comes into view about halfway down the steps. 

Secret falls waterfall Nantahala National Forest North Carolina hiking trail

The swimming hole at Secret Falls just below the 50 ft drop.


Secret falls waterfall Nantahala National Forest North Carolina hiking trail

Another 15 ft waterfall with cascades downstream of Secret Falls.


 Secret Falls (50 ft)

Like all of the classic waterfalls in the Highlands area, Secret Falls plunges down a near vertical cliff with several ledges and slides before finally being funneled into a small chute. The sandy beach surrounding the natural pool at the bottom of the falls is picture perfect. As the weather begins to warm up, the large boulders dotting the creek bank will be full of people jumping in and out of the water. It seems that locals have made a small bridge of sawn off logs leading from the beach to the falls so you can get close to Secret Falls without getting into the water. Deeper just below the falls, the stream gets shallow as it nears a second waterfall that drops another 15 ft at the far end of the cove. A small trail in the back of the area leads to a better view of these cascades as Big Creek disappears downstream into a dark hollow. 

 Secret falls waterfall Nantahala National Forest North Carolina hiking trail

One of the best swimming holes in the Highlands & Cashiers Area.

Overall, if you plan on visiting any of the waterfalls in the Highlands & Cashiers Area then you definitely need to put this one on your list. It is quick, easy, and totally worth the effort. Up next, were driving further west into the Nantahala National Forest to check out one of the most scenic spots along the Appalachian Trail. Built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower located in the southern Nantahala National Forest is one of only a handful of stone towers found along the Appalachian Trail. Standing at an elevation of 5,342 ft, visitors can expect to see panoramic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to the north and the rolling hills of Georgia to the south. This popular stop for thru hikers and casual weekend visitors is the perfect place to catch a mid-afternoon break and enjoy a picnic lunch while soaking in the views. Stay tuned for this upcoming article and as always, see y’all on the trails!


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