N.C. mountains | Great waterfall and wildflower hikes

Rainbow Falls, 150 feet high, is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Southeast.
Rainbow Falls, 150 feet high, is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Southeast. Courtesy photo

We asked Timothy Spira to name a half-dozen favorite hikes with one or more waterfalls that have good-to-excellent wildflower displays. He is author of “Waterfalls & Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians: Thirty Great Hikes (University of North Carolina Press; $24). Spira, a botanist who teaches at Clemson University, lives in Clemson and in Asheville, N.C.

▪ 1. The Tanawa Trail on Grandfather Mountain. “You hike through a variety of plant habitats, go through rock outcrops and a ridge with stunted vegetation,” Spira said. “You get into sheltered areas of dense forest with wonderful wildflower displays. For views and a wide diversity of wildflowers and other vegetation, this is a wonderful hike.” His tip? The richest wildflower displays are on a moderately difficult part of the trail that’s 1.6 miles out and back. Peak flowering is May through June. Another plus for this jaunt? “It’s the only hike in the book where the waterfall is at the trailhead, a pull-out at the Rough Ridge parking area at Milepost 302.9 on the Appalachian Trail.”

▪ 2. Linville Falls, south of Grandfather Mountain, is a 2-mile, mostly easy hike through an old-growth forest and along a river gorge that’s 2,000 feet deep in places. “This is a very powerful falls you can get very close to. The site is along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the National Park Services describes it as the Parkway’s most popular waterfall trail. Along it are three overlooks where you can peer down into the gorge, across it and up the Linville River. There’s a nice diversity of wildflowers along the trail.” Flowering season is April-September.

▪ 3. Graveyard Fields, on the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville. “It features an easy, 3.2-mile partial loop trail at elevations above 5,000 feet, with spectacular open landscape. The southern Appalachians are densely forested; Graveyard is an exception. The open landscape has scattered trees, meadows and low-growing scrub land. The two waterfalls are quite nice. In one area, there’s a diversity of wildflowers that bloom over quite a long season – May through early October. There are a lot of blueberries here, and late summer is great for picking them.”

▪ 4. Rainbow Falls, in Gorges State Park and the adjoining Pisgah National Forest. It’s a great waterfall hike, Spira said: “There are four to see along the trail, which is 4 miles roundtrip along the wild and scenic Horsepasture River. The best falls along the way is Rainbow – it’s very powerful, with lots of water crashing down to the pool at its base.” It’s well-named: “If the light is right, you can see a wonderful rainbow arching toward the base because the waterfall generates so much mist.” The wildflowers along the trail are also good; peak flowering is mid-April through May.

▪ 5. Pearson’s Falls, near Tryon and Saluda. The easy trail, Spira said, may be short – 0.6 miles – but is chock full of wildflowers. “What’s unusual is that the waterfall is owned by the Tryon Garden Club, which saved the site from development and now maintains it. This is a natural cove forest, kind of a wildflower heaven. If you’re really interested in flowers, this is a must – see it in early spring, with peak flowering late March through April.”

▪ 6. Deep Creek Falls, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a very scenic hike near Bryson City on an easy-to-moderate 2.4-mile loop trail. “The hike is along a very scenic creek that’s exceptionally good for wildflowers. There are three waterfalls to see.”