This is a beautiful, wide, spreading waterfall composed of numerous little cascades, free-falls, and slides. Spray-cliff plant communities thrive in some of the nooks and crannies of the bluff the water falls over. It ends in a big, deep pool which makes a great summer swimming hole. A pile of river stone sits on the river right side of the falls at a shallower portion of the pool. There are big boulders in and surrounding the pool, some of which are covered with moss.
The falls has a much different character in lower water flow, but the size of the Thompson River watershed ensures there's always a good bit of water coming over the falls. This one is highly recommended to those who can manage the fairly difficult trek required to reach it.
- Difficulty: More Difficult
- Length: 3.1mi
- Tread Condition: Very Rough
- Climbing: Climbs Steeply (700 ft)
- Type: Out-and-back
From the junction of US Hwy. 64 and NC Hwy. 281 west of Lake Toxaway, NC, go south on NC 281 for 3.6 miles (passing the Gorges State Park entrance on the left). An intersection with Brewer Rd (SR 1189) is to the left. Turn left and park in the wide spot on the right side of Brewer Rd. at the intersection.
An old gated logging road/trail leads uphill from the NC 281/Brewer Road intersection (FS 87, Thompson River Road, but it's not signed).
The short description of this hike is as follows: Follow the old Thompson River Rd. all the way to its end at a rocky tributary stream. Continue on the old road bed/trail on the other side until you reach the side path to the falls on the left. Descend the bank via the side path to the river at a point just downstream from the waterfall. Rock-hop/scramble upstream to the base of the falls.
Since none of the trails in this area are signed, a more detailed description is in order. Although you "just" need to stay on the main trail nearly the entire way, the route is not signed nor blazed, so side-paths can cause confusion if you're not paying attention.
Start by hiking up the Thompson River road/trail behind the gate. This climbs for a short distance as an overgrown gravel road with a clear path down the middle, then begins descending toward Reid Branch. You'll hear, but not see, the waterfall on Reid Branch over to your left. After about a mile, you'll reach a well-worn side trail on the right leading to High Falls. Continue straight on the old road, which is a clay canyon in spots. You'll descend through a couple of switchbacks to a ford of the Thompson River after about another quarter mile past the High Falls trail.
You will get wet at the ford, so bring your water shoes. If the water is very high, you won't be able to cross at all. On the other side, the road resumes more as a trail without the gravel. You'll pass Unmentionable Falls on the left - a small but pretty cascade - which has a side path leading to it. Continue straight.
You'll pass through a great campsite, then start following the river downstream at a higher elevation. 0.4 mi. past the ford, another old road leads right at a fork, uphill. Keep left on the main trail. Next, a side path to Simon Falls (which you'll hear and maybe glimpse below you) is on the left in just a few hundred feet. Continue straight on the main path.
About 3/4 mile past the fork, you may notice another old road leading to the right. Keep straight/left, and then cross a larger, rocky tributary stream. This one should be possible to rock-hop. FS 87 officially ends there, although the old main road/trail continues nonetheless on a moderate climb once across the tributary. Just keep going on that.
The side "path" to Rich Falls is about 1/2 mile past the rocky tributary, just beyond where the road/trail swings to the right around a ridge and begins descending. You'll hear the falls below. It was marked with flagging tape on our visit in July 2016 (but don't count on that). It's well-worn now, but it's just a dirt chute with some rhododendrons to hold on to as you plunge straight down the mountainside. Use extreme caution if you attempt this, and try not to overly accelerate the damage that is occurring to the forest floor.
The "path" veers right at one point through an opening in the forest and into a drainage, which is easier to descend through due to roots and rocks exposed by running water. It comes out on the Thompson River's big rocks a short distance below the falls. A moderately challenging (but short) rock hop upstream is required to reach the big pool at the base of the falls.
Return to your vehicle on the same route. Remember, it's all uphill on the way back and you still have to make that ford again!