A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Whether we’re gazing up at the 200-foot Flat Creek

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Whether we’re gazing up at the 200-foot Flat Creek

Our State Knows Best: Waterfalls

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.

Whether we’re gazing up at the 200-foot Flat Creek Falls near Tuckasegee or taking a cool (OK, ice-cold) afternoon dip beneath the 12-foot Hooker Falls near Brevard, our North Carolina waterfalls inspire awe. And lucky for us, we’ve got hundreds to hike to and explore. In Transylvania County alone — the state’s official Land of Waterfalls — there are more than 250. But if you want to make the most of your waterfall-hunting adventure, you’ll need advice from the folks who know them intimately.

“I’ve always been captivated by waterfalls,” says Tommy White, an award-winning photographer based in Boone and Blowing Rock. “The exploration involved in finding them and the challenge to capture their majestic beauty have always been something I personally connected with.”

We asked White and Craig Miller, the owner of Miller’s Land of Waterfalls Tours, to share what makes North Carolina’s cascades so special, the secrets to capturing stunning waterfall photography, and their personal favorites to visit.

Our experts

Tommy White
Award-winning photographer based in Boone and Blowing Rock
Craig Miller
Owner of Miller’s Land of Waterfalls Tours in Rosman

What makes North Carolina’s waterfalls stand out from other states’?

Craig Miller: North Carolina’s waterfalls are always running. Unlike falls out West, like Yosemite Falls, that rely on snowfall in the winter, our waterfalls are spring-fed from our water table underneath the ground. They can get a little weak in the summer, but they’ll never dry up. Plus, the water is very clean!

How do you find the extra-special ones?

Craig Miller: Some you won’t find on a map, and you have to be ready to hike. Get away from the crowded areas so you can experience the sound and the beauty without a bunch of other people.

OK, OK, keep your secrets! When is the best time to visit?

Craig Miller: The crowds lighten up after Memorial Day, which is when the streams are usually at their fullest. I also advise going early in the morning and during late winter and early spring to avoid a bunch of people. Our driest months are July, August, and September.

Our cameras are packed, and we’re ready to go! Where should we set up?

Tommy White: For waterfall pictures, photographing on land is a lot safer, and you don’t run the risk of taking a nasty spill in the creek or dumping your camera in the water. A good place to start is from the bank. Anytime you photograph from the bank, what you’re looking for is to create a nice diagonal line. So rather than photographing the waterfall straight on, try to photograph the waterfall so it starts on the upper left corner and the river flows to the bottom right corner. A successful visual flow has lots of interest and pulls the viewer deeper into the frame. And if you’re looking for soft, dreamy-type waterfall images, full sun could be a deal-breaker. Personally, I go for the soft golden light just after sunrise.

Are there any tricks to setting up a quality shot?

Tommy White: First, find a strong main subject. Composition is what drives your image, so try getting down lower and putting something in your foreground — like wildflowers or trees that are blooming — to tell the story of the landscape around the waterfall. Second, get an interesting angle of view. I always encourage beginners to utilize their cell phones. It’s usually right in your back pocket — somewhere real handy. When you’re photographing waterfalls, most of the time, you have your camera on your tripod, and it can be a little cumbersome to navigate around and find the angle of view you desire. With your cell phone, you can run around, and in less than a minute, you can take several different angles: high, low, vertical, or horizontal. This way, you can weed out the not-so-appealing compositions, have a little more fun, and come away with something you’re really excited about!

What about camera and phone settings?

Tommy White: Light constantly changes in the morning, so to start, set your ISO at the lowest setting. If you want to show energy in the water, a shutter speed of a quarter of a second to two seconds will create a smooth flow in your image and give your shot a lot of visual impact — and even cell phones will do that nowadays. If you want your image to have that soft, silky, dreamy kind of feel, use a longer shutter speed. This will help create lines and texture in the water.

Where in our state should we go to see waterfalls? Any hot spots?

Craig Miller: If you can hike, Gorges State Park is a good place to visit — it has access to Rainbow and Turtleback falls nearby. There’s also DuPont State Recreational Forest, which is home to Hooker and Triple falls.

Tommy White: Brevard by far has more waterfalls than any area around — it’s just packed full of them: Looking Glass Falls is among the popular ones. Another good spot is Panthertown Valley, which is home to Schoolhouse Falls. Raven Rock and Catawba falls are good ones, too.

But which falls are your favorite?

Craig Miller: Over the past 20 years, I’ve been to about 200 waterfalls in the area. There are so many that I enjoy, and Flat Creek Falls in Nantahala National Forest is one of them. It’s a 200-foot waterfall, so it’s not actually flat. I also like Raven Rock Falls and Reece Place Falls in Transylvania County.

Tommy White: The one I’ve shot the most would definitely have to be Looking Glass Falls near Brevard. Mingo Falls in Swain County is an enormous 120-footer. Another fun one is Catawba Falls near Old Fort: There are two — an upper and a lower — and I love both of them.

This story was published on Jun 16, 2020

Tamiya Anderson

Tamiya Anderson is a Concord-based writer and former Our State intern who is proud to call The Tar Heel State home.