A hike into ‘Paradise’

Three hikers admire the view from the top of the Paradise waterfall. Photo by Katie Marshall. 6/14/2014

Three hikers admire the view from the top of the Paradise waterfall.
Photo by Katie Marshall. 6/14/2014

With only one year left in college, I thought I had hiked all around western North Carolina. But there was one view I hadn’t seen: the aptly named Paradise Falls.

Located in the Nantahala National Forest, Paradise Falls is a natural wonder. Three tiers tall, this waterfall is tucked into a tight chasm of massive rock.

If you search this place on the web, you can find directions—but that’s about all. Locals know about this hidden gem, but information is hard to come by. Neither the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce nor the Nantahala National Forest offer details about Paradise. It’s off the beaten track and, quite frankly, not for the unadventurous. But if you want a real hike and an amazing view, this is your ideal getaway.

The path to Paradise Falls begins in an unmarked grassy lot on the side of the road. A single sign reads “Danger: Water Levels Can Change.”

No other signs appear as either welcomes or guides. Although easily distinguishable, the paths to Paradise interconnect and sometimes swirl around each other, not unlike the waterfall itself. You may find yourself at the top of the waterfall instead of the bottom, but you shouldn’t get lost.

Paradise Falls is tucked into this massive gorge -- truly a natural wonder. Photo by Katie Marshall. 6/14/2014

Paradise Falls is tucked into this massive gorge — truly a natural wonder.
Photo by Katie Marshall. 6/14/2014

An added bonus is the thick coverage of the trees. Even during the summer heat, the weather will feel cool beneath the canopy. That comes in handy too. After all, the inclines are steep and slippery, whether with leaves or water. The cover from the heat is a relief considering the hike’s intensity.

As a person with short arms and short legs, I often crab-crawled my way down slopes of roots, rocks and algae. Whenever possible, I hugged fallen tree trucks to keep my balance. By the time I reached the waterfall, my arms were a little weak, but the view was worth it.

Three other hikers were already relaxing at the bottom of the falls, hammocking and wading around in the wide swimming hole.

Other visitors camp in the area, host family picnics and rock-climb up the gorge. But no matter what you do, take a moment to enjoy the sight. After dipping my feet in the cool water, I remember finding a dry spot to hammock. The falls were to my left; the great expanse of the Nantahala National Forest, to my right.

I can’t say how long I sat there. The June sky was a perfect blue, and the crash of water drowned out any noise. It was serene and, well, a lot like paradise.

How to Get There

From Western Carolina University, take Highway 107 south until you turn left on 281 north. Follow 281 north, and you will go around Tanasee Creek Lake on the left and Wolf Creek Lake on the right. You will find a grassy parking area with the sign “Danger: Water Levels Can Change,” which is the public entrance to Paradise Falls. Down the street there are other entrances behind Wolf Creek Baptist Church, but those are on private property.

If You Go

When the water is high, you will get your feet wet. Water shoes would be a great item to bring because they would lend both grip and comfort through the wading areas.

If you’re unsure about the intensity of the hike, please bring food and water and remember to take breaks.

Most Importantly

Water levels can change without warning. Wolf Creek Lake drains into Paradise Falls, and if the overflow gates are open, the currents may be swift and strong. You can check the lake levels and scheduled releases at http://www.duke-energy.com/lakes/nantahala.asp. You should also be mindful of the recent weather. Heavy rains can raise the water and significantly strengthen the currents.

The bottom of the waterfall is beautiful enough for anyone, but if you venture to the top, be extremely wary of the edges. Hikers have injured themselves and even fallen because of the wet rocks and slick algae. Cell service is unavailable and the location is remote. Please enjoy the beauty of the falls as safely as possible.

For a picture gallery of my visit to Paradise Falls, visit this Flickr album.

The story was produced as part of the Travel Writing class, Summer 2014.