At Big Falls—widely, though unofficially, known as Elk River Falls—the Elk River drops some 50 to 65 feet in a broad waterfall downstream of Horseshoe Bend. Set within the Pisgah Game Land and Pisgah National Forest, Elk River Falls is easy to reach and an unforgettable sight, though caution is warranted for any visitor.
Elk River Falls lies in the Unaka Range of the Southern Appalachians. The waterfall falls within North Carolina, though it’s only a stone’s throw from where the Elk River rolls into Tennessee. A drive down to the end of the well-maintained Elk River Road leads to the Elk Park parking lot and a sign for Big Falls. The trail down (Big Falls Trail 172) is only about a half-mile long round-trip, though the sections are steep and rocky.
The initial descent is quite easy, leading you in no time to an overlook of the plunging curtain of whitewater. That viewpoint is a worthy goal in and of itself and should be the turnaround point for those with limited mobility. The steeper section, which incorporates roots and steps, leads from that vantage down to large, flat rock ledges and boulders along the large and handsome plunge pool underneath the falls.
This is a great place to hang out and enjoy the ambiance from the safety of the riverside rocks. It’s understandably popular, especially on hot summer afternoons. The cool microclimate of the falls is mighty welcome at such times.
Many visitors decide to take a dip but bear in mind that this is a risky area that’s seen multiple deaths and more than a few freaky close calls. Indeed, the U.S. Forest Service terms it “one of the deadliest scenic attractions in Avery Co., North Carolina.” Injuries and fatalities have resulted from people leaping from the waterfall brink, and from swimming in the river above the falls or in the plunge pool, churning with strong currents. Even those simply venturing too close to the water’s edge and losing their footing have gotten into trouble. The river and pool around the falls can look deceptively calm, but even strong swimmers may be overwhelmed.
So it’s really best to simply enjoy Elk River Falls from a secure rock viewpoint. Reasonably safe soaking and wading can be done downstream of the plunge pool in shallows walled off by boulders. There are gentler cascades along the main flow of the river here as well.
Elk River Falls is definitely worth a look, a beautiful expression of how rugged and well-watered the Unaka highlands are. Just remember to err on the side of safety and not push your limits on a visit—no matter what other visitors might be doing.
Another dramatic waterfall lies along the Elk River not far downstream of Big/Elk River Falls. This is Twisting (or Twisted) Falls, also called Compression Falls: shorter than Big Falls but occupying arguably an even more striking, cliff-walled setting. A short but very steep trail affords access to this plunge, also popular—and also dangerous.