I enjoy most hikes, and any hike is better than being indoors. But there are very few perfect hikes. The perfect hike, to me, is one that is not too strenuous, has a dramatic view as a payoff, is well-marked, and has some surprises along the way.
We found such a hike in Elkin, just over an hour north of Charlotte, straight up I-77.
We walked from Grassy Creek Vineyard and Winery to Carter Falls. The hike included the stunning Carter Falls, an “Enchanted Pine Forest”, and a glimpse, deep in the woods, of Elkin’s industrial past. These were some of the most well-maintained and well-marked trails that we’ve experienced.
Out and back was about 4.5 miles, including some rambling around the waterfall. Except for the descent to the lower falls, which was aided by a rope suspended between trees, the walk was easy.
If you want to see only the falls, you can park in a parking lot at the intersection of Pleasant Ridge Road and Martin Byrd Road. From there it’s just a half mile hike to the falls.
Part of this hike was on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which stretches 1,175 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks.
Elkin has become a successful and popular trail town because of the extensive network of trails running through it, and the welcoming attitude that the town shows hikers. Besides the Mountains to Sea Trail, you can also explore the Yadkin River “blue water trail” (by water), the Overmountain Victory Trail, the Elkin & Alleghany Rail Trail-Trail, and more. Learn about all the trails, as well as upcoming events, on ElkinValleyTrails.org.
Creating these trails takes a tremendous amount of commitment and cooperation. An episode of Away Message , the podcast from Our State Magazine, explores how Elkin became a trail town. It wasn’t easy. People have to come to agreement about where the trails should go. Private landowners have to be convinced to let trails go through their land. And people have to do the physical work of clearing a path and keeping it clear.
And the work continues. In fact, while we were on our way back from the falls, walking along Martin Byrd Road, we ran into Bob Hillyer, of Elkin Valley Trails Association, who was featured on the podcast, as he was fixing the fence wires on a farm adjacent to the trail.
If you listen to the podcast on your way to Elkin you’ll hike the trails with a profound appreciation of the work that went into developing them, and you’ll also know what the big pieces of concrete and steel near the waterfall are.Our library of hikes
We parked at Grassy Creek Vineyard and Winery, 235 Chatham Cottage Circle, State Road, North Carolina. Before or after your hike, enjoy a wine tasting or shop for a bottle or two to bring home. Trails are being planned to connect Grassy Creek with three other wineries. They’re calling the trail Camino de Vino.
The trail starts right next to the parking lot, and enters a hardwood forest.
The trail signs are large and easy to read. There are very few places where you’ll be unsure of where to turn, but when you are, look for the white blazes.
Don’t follow the Chappell Spur sign if you’re going to the falls, but I’m including it as a reminder to take your time and look around. There was something magical at the base of this tree that we completely missed on the way out, and didn’t notice until we passed it on our way back. We’ll show it to you at the end of this article.
Instead, turn right and follow the signs to Carter Falls. If you’re up for little extra walk, follow the signs for the Forest Bathing Trail. This trail was made with the Japanese concept of forest bathing in mind. The idea of forest bathing is that it’s meant to be done in solitude as a sort of nature therapy. Turn off your phone and listen to the burbling of Grassy Creek. It’s a half mile trail, so if you walked the whole thing and came back you’d add a mile to your trek. Read more about the Forest Bathing trail in Winston-Salem Journal.
You’ll cross over the peaceful, crystal-clear Grassy Creek on a small wooden bridge.
You’ll cross a road and just follow the sign for Carter Falls. Now you’ll enter a white pine forest of trees planted in lines. Is there something sort of eerie about these rows of trees? You be the judge.
You’ll leave the forest, walk along a field and across the dam of a small pond. Then you’ll re-enter the forest, which is known as the “Enchanted Forest.” Take it slow and look around and you’ll see why.
One of the first “magical” sightings was this charming gnome home. Keep looking around, on the ground and on the trees, and you’ll see a wonderland of woodland creatures, like this raccoon.
We don’t want to ruin the surprise, so we’re not including all the pictures we took, but we did see a couple of bears, a squirrel and a fox too. There are probably several animals that we missed. A fun challenge for kids would be to see how many animals they can spot. Our favorite might be this spooky bird skeleton.
The “Enchanted Pine Forest” exemplifies the cooperation that went into creating this trail system. The forest appears to be on privately owned land. Not only did the landowner agree to let the trail go through the land, but also added these fun, creative touches, transforming this part of the trail from just a nice walk through the woods into a whimsical adventure.
Exit the forest onto Martin Byrd Road. Turn left and walk about 100 feet. Then you cross the road and follow the sign that says “Carter Falls.” Follow the trail, which continues through the field.
You’ll reach Byrd’s Branch Campground, which you’ll pass through to remain on the trail. If the store is open, you can stop in and get a cold drink, ice cream or a candy bar.
Make sure to stay on the trail, as the playground and other facilities are for campers, but the sign on the restrooms at the camp office and store did say that hikers could use the port-o-pot on the campground, visible in the next picture.
Each birdhouse on the trail is different!
When you emerge from the campground you’ll be on Martin Byrd Road. You can walk on the trail next to the farm and stay off the road. In the distance in the above picture you can see the parking area for Carter Falls, at the intersection with Pleasant Ridge Road. This is where to park if you just want to walk to the falls. The parking lot has space for about 30 cars.
The trailhead is at the parking lot. You have a choice of the Carter Falls Trail, which leads to the upper part of the falls, or the Powerhouse Trail, which leads to the base of the falls. If you want to experience both the top and bottom of the falls, it doesn’t matter which trail you take, because you can make a loop of it. Each is about a half mile long. We took the Carter Falls Trail.
You’ll go down these “steps” to get to the upper falls. Enjoy the many views of the falls before either heading back, or heading to the lower falls.
If you’ve decided to make a loop of it, just turn left and walk in the direction that the water is flowing.
Now you’ll get to a decision point. You’ll see a steep decline with a rope suspended between trees. Holding onto the rope helps a lot on the descent, but it’s still going to be more than some people will be comfortable with. You can enjoy many excellent views of the waterfall without going down that decline. But if you can manage it, we highly recommend going for it.
From here you’ll see the best views of the waterfall. There’s even a sand beach.
You will need to climb back up with help of the rope. The climb back up is tougher cardiovascular-wise, but much less treacherous as far as balance. Then continue to the right to loop around.
Have you noticed large pieces of concrete and steel? These are remnants of Elkin’s industrial past. In 1914, Carter Falls Power Co. built a hydro-electric power plant at Carter Falls. Water flowed in a chute to the bottom of the falls, where a 150-horsepower dynamo created electricity that was carried to Elkin along power lines.
In 1924, the company that would become Duke Energy acquired the power plant and surrounding property, and eventually abandoned it in favor of other power plants, and the power plant by Carter Falls was destroyed.
Along the lower falls you can still see many remnants of the power plant.
You can go up the stairs onto this bridge and loop around back to the lower falls trail, or just go under the bridge. Either way you’ll see lots of large industrial “fossils.”
If the metal and concrete is a glimpse into the past, the sign for the “Bridge of Dreams” is a glimpse into the future.
The Bridge of Dreams will eventually go across Elkin Creek. On the other side of Elkin Creek is the grave of William Harris, a bodyguard of George Washington. A short spur trail will lead to the gravesite. Also on that property is Harris Fields Vineyards. The bridge, and Harris Fields Vineyards, will be part of Camino de Vino, which will connect four vineyards in all.
The Powerhouse Trail will take you back to the trailhead and parking lot, and from there you can retrace your steps to Grassy Creek Vineyard and Winery.
One last thing. Remember back on the Grassy Creek Trail, when I said that there was something at the base of the tree with the Chappell Spur sign, that I had missed on the way out? Here it is:
I can’t promise that you’ll see a magical little pine cone village at this spot, but keep your eyes open!
Visit ExploreElkin.com to learn about more to do in Elkin.Subscribe to Charlotte on the Cheap