Sunday, August 11, 2013

High Falls Trek

The Cullowhee Native Plants Conference celebrated its 30th anniversary this year and the program was extra special (yep, we got to hear Doug Tallamy twice!). This was my fourth conference and I think the conference is a little bit better every year, and it was delightful to have even more activity choices this year. One optional activity was a hike along the west fork of the Tuckasegee River to High Falls (also known to some as Cullowhee Falls). We saw some cool plants along the way (really, what do you expect from folks attending a plant conference?) and I thought I’d share the experience.

High Falls
The trail was surprisingly close to the road which made for an early showing of non-native plants, including some invasive ones. We moved along quickly, anxious to get into the mixed hardwood forest that would lead us to the falls. The moist edges of the trail were home to some incredible stands of woodnettle (Laportea canadensis) in both bloom and fruit. Ferns and sedges were there too, and it was wonderful to see one of my favorite sedges in the wild: seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea).
Carex plantaginea

Before we got completely into the woods we passed through a sunny area with flowering raspberry (Rubus odorata). I was so captivated by the pink blooms that I forgot to see if it smelled good! The bees were having a great time there anyway. A little further down we found white beebalm (Monarda clinopodia).

Rubus odorata

A few Rhododendron (R. maximum) blooms decorated the trail and slowing down to take pictures allowed us to discover smaller treasures like the bright red fruit of painted trillium (Trillium undulatum). We also found a lot of mushrooms which were a source of great excitement since we’d just heard a fabulous presentation on mushrooms.

We got up close and personal with some of the woody plants as we went – ripping the leaves of Calycanthus floridus to smell the spicy fragrance and scraping the bark of a downed yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) to check for the wintergreen smell. Masses of smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) filled the sides of the path, but occasionally we discovered surprises like Clethra acuminata and spikenard (Aralia racemosa).

Aralia racemosa

One of the North Carolina NPS folks pointed out large-flowered ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii). The foliage was larger than what we find in Georgia and the flowers were ginormous! We pressed on, walking through waves of the smell that decomposing Galax urceolata gives off, desperate to escape the skunk-like smell and anxious to reach the falls after almost an hour of walking. 

Thurston Hatcher Falls

Finally, the rush of water reached our ears. Just off to the right was Thurston Hatcher Falls, a very picturesque cascade. A few folks declared themselves satisfied and stopped there. Here we caught a glimpse of the destructive force of high water. Recent rains had turned the river into a torrent earlier in the week, and the vegetation on the sides was torn and flattened.

Those of us that continued found even more destruction as we reached the base of High Falls. Luckily for us the water had subsided, but downed and stripped trees were tumbled like matchsticks. I found a tree trunk, I think it was a mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), that was polished like fine furniture. 

We rested a bit and several people went swimming in the perfect swimming hole at the base of the 200 foot falls. Then we turned around and hiked back to the van, discussing the plants and our adventure among us.

High Falls near Cullowhee, NC


  1. What a fabulous hike and the falls are stunning! I would love to attend the conference next year.

  2. What a lovely place - thanks for sharing it. Looks like that reddish orange mushroom is an Amanita jacksonii (American Caesar).

  3. Gonna have to go to this thing next year!