The Whitewater River has always been unfamiliar to me. I’ve seen Whitewater Falls, “the tallest falls east of the Mississippi”, on many occasions. And that was about all I knew of the river.
Somewhere along the way, I’d heard of “Lower Whitewater Falls.” But I never investigated how, or if, it was distinct from “THE” Whitewater Falls. For all I knew, the “Upper” part was what you see from the Forest Service overlook off NC 281, south of Sapphire, and the Lower Falls is viewed by descending the stairs from the overlook.
Well, I was mistaken, and so I recently devoted an afternoon to a better understanding of Whitewater geography.
Technically speaking, “Whitewater Falls” is a misnomer. It’s not on the map. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names, the tall falls you find on postcards is simply “Upper Falls,” while “Lower Falls” is a couple of miles down the Whitewater River in South Carolina.
With a drop of about 200 feet, Lower Falls is impressive. I finally saw it last month after a two-mile walk from a trailhead on Duke Power’s Pumped Storage Facility at Bad Creek. I had driven past the Bad Creek entrance many times. Due to the imposing gate, the chain link and the barbed wire, I assumed the place was strictly off-limits to wood tramps like me.
Once again, I was mistaken. So I brazenly steered my way through the gate and past the bizarre Bad Creek reservoir. I found the trail and commenced to walking. To reach the observation deck for Lower Falls, you have to cross a footbridge over the Whitewater.
On the east side of the river, the Foothills Trail leads north to the Upper Falls.
On the west side of the river, another trails meanders through old growth toward a twenty acre tract of virgin forest, the Coon Branch Natural Area. This path finally gave me a chance to get acquainted with the Whitewater River. The day was too short, though, so I’ll have to find the gigantic Fraser magnolia on a later date.
Once upon a time I might have known, but I had since forgotten, that the Whitewater begins near the High Hampton resort in Cashiers. Driving along NC 107 toward South Carolina, you’ll cross the river. Silver Run Branch flows into the Whitewater just a short distance downstream from Silver Run Falls.
The final stretch of the Whitewater River is the part that I will never see, since it is lost forever beneath the waters of Lake Jocassee, built by Duke Power in the 1970s. Among the worlds lost to the Jocassee damnation was the trail of the French botanist Andre Michaux who explored the Keowee and its headwaters in 1878 and 1788.
Somewhere between the Whitewater and the Toxaway Rivers, he took notes on one unusual plant. The subsequent efforts of botanists to find the Shortia galacifolia described by Michaux continued for a century before the mystery of the Oconee Bells was finally solved.
Michaux’s second, and last, trip along the Keowee and Whitewater was in December 1788. Over the next few days I’ll post some entries from the journal he kept on that expedition.
For all stories on Andre Michaux http://gulahiyi.blogspot.com/search/label/michaux
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