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Steels Creek & Burnthouse Branch Waterfalls

posted Jul 14, 2014, 8:52 AM by Justin P   [ updated Jul 28, 2014, 5:05 AM ]
Saturday, I headed back to the Wilson Creek area of Pisgah National Forest to find a couple of the more remote waterfalls in the area.  I had attempted to find Waterfall on Burnthouse Branch on Memorial Day, but was unsuccessful.  This time, I was heading back with Chris, who had already been, so was hoping for a more successful trip.  We left the Chapel Hill area around 730 and headed west on I-40.  We got off the interstate in Morganton and headed north on NC-181.  In about 17 miles, we turned left on Forest Road 228 and proceeded to the end.  Although this road seemed pretty remote, there were a lot of people camping at the spots near the end.  After parking, we got our stuff ready and started hiking the Steels Creek Trail (#237).  The trail was a continuation of the road for about a quarter-mile to a nice swimming hole below some cascades along Steels Creek.  We had to cross the creek here, and managed to stay dry, though rock-hopping was a bit tricky.


Once across, the trail headed up and joined up with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  Right after this, the trail headed down to the creek, then headed up again through a lot of poison ivy and stinging nettle.  We passed through this area, trying to avoid the noxious plants, and soon came to the waterfall on Steels Creek.  A short, but very steep, scramble path led down to a big rock with views of the upper portion of the waterfall.  A rope was available to help us get out onto a big rock to view the waterfall.  This waterfall is really cool and unique in that there are a bunch of big potholes in the rock.


Swimming here, however, was not a good idea as the rocks were too steep to easily climb back out of the water.  We relaxed here for a little while and got some pictures.  We hoped for a bit of cloud cover to improve the lighting, but it never came, and soon we headed back up.  At the stream crossing on the way back, we decided to just get wet, rather than trying to rock-hop back across, and then take a dip in the nice swimming hole.  The water was a little cold, but refreshing on a hot and humid day.  After drying off, we returned to the car and headed to our next destination.  We followed the forest road back to NC-181, turning left and then an immediate right onto Forest Road 982.  After the road crosses Upper Creek on a one-lane bridge, we turned left on Forest Road 197, following the road as it parallels Upper Creek for about a mile and a half to the end and parking at the huge jeep mound.  We got our stuff together and started hiking along the unofficial trail.  It starts out quite easy, a continuation of the forest road, but gets progressively harder.  In about a half-mile, there’s another primitive camping spot and then it starts to become more like a trail.  This trail was also a bit overgrown with poison ivy and stinging nettle, but we were determined to make it to the waterfall.  After a while, the trail becomes very narrow and steep as it hugs the cliff above Upper Creek.  As we got near to the waterfall, it became even more steep , heading up via switchbacks, then down just as steeply to a spot where we had to rock-hop across Burnthouse Branch.  Right across the stream, we met an older man who was camping out here.  I don’t know who was more surprised to see other people in this remote area.  From here, we could start to see the waterfall, but needed to rock-hop along the creek to get the best view from the base.  The waterfall is rather interesting.


The water flows in two streams down a steep cliff face, then tumbles over huge moss-covered rocks, making its way into Upper Creek.  Right near the base of the falls, there was a crawfish clinging to the moss along a cascade.  He was not happy to have visitors and swung his claws around in displeasure.


We had a late lunch/early dinner at the falls and then started to make our way back.  Talking to the gentleman camping, he told us that if you bushwhack up to the top of the falls, there are even more moss-covered rocks that the water flows through, but it was too late for such a strenuous endeavor.  So we started hiking back.  Fortunately, on the way back, the trail gets progressively easier and we made it back in about an hour.  Hot, tired, and sweating from the hike, we changed into bathing suits and took a dip in Upper Creek right by where we had parked.  The water was quite cold, but it washed much of the dirt and sweat off.  By the time we got out of the water, it was after 7, so we changed and headed back to NC-181 towards Morganton. We were all hungry, so a huge dinner at Las Salsas was in order.  After dinner, it was dark and we could see the Super Moon on the drive home.