Secret Falls

Also known as: Big Shoals

Secret Falls

Despite being called "Secret" for a long time, the falls isn't much of one - it's an easy hike to it now - but I can see how locals might have wanted to keep it that way. Nevertheless, there is now an official Forest Service trail to the falls, which was called "Big Shoals Trail" after it was designated. After speaking to someone in the Forest Service office who also remembered it as such, and seeing as it is on Big Creek, I believe the original name of the falls is probably Big Shoals, but the name Secret Falls persists - even into Kevin Adams' most recent edition of his North Carolina Waterfalls book. So I'll go with the prevailing winds here and call this (not so) Secret Falls.

Whatever you call it, it's one of the finest waterfalls in the area! A relatively large creek pours over a nearly vertical bluff into a big, deep, beautiful pool, complete with a sandy beach, before spilling over some smaller cascades and into a dark, rocky cove. This is a must-visit if you're in the Highlands area.

On my last visit, despite the high water levels and plenty of private development upstream, the water was absolutely crystal clear. So I commend the property owners who take care of the waterway - they're doing a great job.


  • Height: 50 ft
  • Elevation: 2385 ft
  • Stream: Big Creek
  • Landowner: Nantahala National Forest
  • GPS: 35.004516, -83.171363

Hike Information

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 1.3mi
  • Tread Condition: Some Obstacles
  • Climbing: Climbs Moderately (380 ft)
  • Type: Out-and-back


GPS Directions & Map

From Current Location or address:

Driving Directions

From the main intersection of US 64 and Main Street in downtown Highlands, go east on Main Street, which turns into Horse Cove Road (S.R. 1603) after one block. Follow Horse Cove Road up over the ridge and down the mountain; this part is narrow, scenic, and curvy. After 3.7 miles, turn right onto Walkingstick Road, which is unpaved. Go about 2.5 miles, cross a stream, and bear right at a fork. Go 0.4 more miles and turn right onto FR 4567. The signed trailhead parking area is at the start of an old grassy logging road on the left after another 0.2 miles.

Trail Description

Finding the route to the falls used to be a bit tricky due to private property boundaries. But the Forest Service has recently built a graded trail all the way to the falls. Just follow the moderately strenuous blue-blazed trail about 0.65 mi to the falls!

The trail starts on the old grassy road behind the gate at the back of the parking area. On a level course, it loops through a side cove on the old road, and then turns left, downhill, on more of a trail. Parts are a bit steep, but fairly smooth. At the bottom of the descent the trail crosses two small streams one after the other. The first one is obnoxiously deep - you might want to look around for a log to cross on (or practice your long jump before you come!). There is a decent log bridge at the second crossing.

Past the stream crossings, the trail ascends moderately about 80 ft up a low ridge for a hundred yards or so. At the top of the ridge, bear left downhill just past a large white pine tree. You should start to hear the falls. Descend to a point near the top of the falls; the trail curves right, then left and down some log steps before coming out at the base of the falls - which is a great place for hanging out and wading.