This lollipop hike in the Harper Creek Wilderness Study Area of Pisgah National Forest is a premier day hike or weekend backpacking trip with two wonderful waterfalls and plenty of great campsites. Harper Creek is a major tributary of Wilson Creek, which is protected as a National Wild and Scenic River. This region, within the Grandfather Ranger District, is full of big waterfalls and large creeks that originate from the slopes of Grandfather Mountain and surrounding peaks. The wilderness study area is one of two in this area, and although the first section of this hike is popular, the western portion of the loop feels like true wilderness. Your first stop is Harper Creek Falls, which boasts two incredible swimming holes amid an impressive setting. Many day hikers stop here and take full advantage of the swimming and cliff jumping opportunities. This hike continues following Harper Creek west, crossing the creek many times making navigation surprisingly difficult at times. South Harper Creek Falls is a 120-foot marvel surrounded by smooth cliff walls over 200 feet high. You can explore this waterfall from the base, the middle, and a cliff view across the gorge, but one false move could be fatal. The return along the Raider Camp Trail lacks excitement, but you’ll stay out of the creeks long enough for your shoes to dry out before one last crossing of Harper Creek. This loop may be enough for one weekend, but there are many other waterfalls in the area if you wish to explore further.
Camping – There are many dispersed campsites throughout the Harper Creek Wilderness Study Area. The best are the series of massive flat sites during the first mile of the hike, but these are close to the road and may be crowded. You’ll find many smaller campsites beside the creek further into the region.
Navigation - As you hike along the Harper Creek Trail beyond Harper Creek Falls, the blazes become infrequent or non-existent, and many creek crossings are not marked. As a general rule of thumb the Harper Creek Trail stays very close to the creek, only rising high and away from the creek at the two waterfalls. You’ll cross Harper Creek and side streams 14 times on this hike, 12 of them are likely wet fords.
Waterfall Safety – The Harper Creek Trail does not provide access to the base of either waterfall. For most hikers, the views from the trail will be sufficient as described below. You’ll come across scramble trails and climbing ropes that afford access to daring hikers, but none of these are maintained by the forest service. It is up to you whether you want to try any of these scrambles.
Mile 1.4 – At a Y-junction the MST/Harper Creek Trail turns right while the obvious forest road grade continues straight. Stay straight on the road grade towards Harper Creek Falls.
Mile 1.5 – A scramble trail on the left leads down to the base of Harper Creek Falls while the main trail ends at an overlook of the upper drops. There is no official trail to the base of this waterfall. The scramble to the base is steep and involves an open rock face at the bottom. There is a climbing rope anchored to the tree which you can use, but there is no guarantee this rope is in good condition. Otherwise you’ll have to improvise getting down to the base through dense vegetation or backtracking and creek-walking upstream. Once at the base you’ll see the spectacular Harper Creek Falls, a triple-drop waterfall enclosed by exposed cliffs. The lowest drop is a short slide, while the upper two drops are tucked between the cliffs at an angle. The pool at the base is massive and a popular swimming hole. Back on the trail continue straight to the overlook which shows a completely different perspective of the waterfall. The upper two drops plunge into a beautiful pool above the lowest drop. There is a way to get down to the pool above the lowest drop, but you are on your own here. It is hazardous and not for the faint-of-heart. There is no trail, only a steep rock face and a massive rope. Again, there is no guarantee this rope is in good condition. You’ll have to downclimb over 30 feet on wet rock and do the same thing back up. In the summer there might be many people trying this, but other times of the year you’ll be on your own with no one to help if you slip. If you get down you’ll get another perspective of the main drop into an enclave of eroded cliffs, and access to the beautiful, secluded pool.
Mile 2.2 – Back on the MST/Harper Creek Trail continue north passing high above the waterfall.
Mile 2.4 - After you pass the waterfall there are some campsites to the left beside the creek.
Mile 4.3 – Y-junction with the North Harper Creek Trail  (blue blaze) on the right. The MST turns right following the North Harper Creek Trail. The less obvious Harper Creek Trail turns left and immediately crosses Harper Creek (wet #3) onto an island, then crosses the creek again. Upstream is the confluence of Harper Creek and North Harper Creek. The next 1.5 miles is the most isolated section of the hike. The trail is overgrown in many spots. You’ll have to navigate 9 creek crossings, almost all wet. Many of these crossings are not marked well. Although only designated as a wilderness study area, this feels like true wilderness.
Mile 5.8 – You’ll see the massive cliff walls around South Harper Creek Falls ahead. There is no official trail to the base of the waterfall. Before the trail starts climbing high, a steep scramble trail leads to the creek and an obvious fire ring is on the other side. If you can negotiate down the bank and across the creek, it is fairly easy to get close to the base of the waterfall. You can only see the lower slide from here. Getting to the base is more difficult, and you won’t see much more because of the slope of the waterfall. Continue on the trail as it switchbacks towards the top of the waterfall. The trail here is heavily eroded with many blowdowns that are treacherous.
Mile 6.1 – Two trails branch off to the left of the main trail, which turns right. Take the second/upper more obvious trail on the left which takes you to the midpoint of South Harper Creek Falls. This looks like a dangerous area, but if you are not foolish and wander near the edge, you’ll be fine. (If the water level is high then the bedrock may be covered and this would be unsafe.) You are standing on bedrock in the middle of 120-foot South Harper Creek Falls. The 30-foot upper slide is directly above. After the brief flat section the water then slides over 90 feet to the bottom. Across the gorge cliffs soar high above the waterfall, an area which you’ll hike to next. Retrace your steps back to the main trail and continue climbing.
Mile 7.0 – The land opens up and ends at cliffs with a magnificent view of South Harper Creek Falls below. From here you can finally see both drops. The flat bedrock you were on earlier looks near vertical. It looks insane to stand on the waterfall where you did earlier from this perspective. To the right you can see the tower on Grandmother Mountain and Grandfather Mountain on the horizon. Retrace your steps and follow the Raider Camp Trail south.
Mile 7.1 – The old, trenched Raider Camp Trail rejoins the main trail on your right.
I did this loop backwards and I think going the route written here would've been better, especially for a first time in this area. The difference would be that the majority of the creek crossings, especially the sketchy ones, would've been completed earlier in the hike with fresher legs and mind. The creeks are all very high now and the crossings are more like fording. All were at least knee high and a couple times I was up to my crotch (I'm 5'11''). Trekking poles were a must. From Mile 3.1 to 5.8 the trail as noted was fairly overgrown, and sometimes took some time to determine where and if to cross (especially the island crossing). But instincts kicked and it became more of feeling the trail. There were a couple tree markings giving confidence when seen, but this section could use some love. Mile 5.8 to 6.35 was a rocky, downed-tree scramble, not for the faint of heart. Once you ford the creek the top of the falls though, I would say the remaining hike would be wonderful going the written directions.
This hike ended up being a good challenge on a beautiful day. It is definitely wilderness and I really enjoyed the solitude. Other than the 3 adventurous miles from 3.1 to 6.3, the trail felt very well graded, smooth and well marked. The views of Grandfather and Grandmother mountain and the South Harper Falls Overlook at 7.0 was definitely worth it. If you do the loop backwards while the creeks are still high, don't be ashamed to turn around at the top of South Harper Falls which would make a great 9 mile out and back.
Date of Hike: Tuesday, September 26, 2017
We hiked this as a leisurely two-night backpacking trip during some hot weather. Since we were out on weekdays, we only saw a couple of other people on the trail. Zach's description of the various crossings and intersections were really helpful, and basically spot-on. I think some recent trail work had been done on the first part of the north side of the loop there were some new blaze markers and all of the creek crossings were really well-marked. It has been dry for a while, and the crossings weren't bad at all, but definitely required water shoes or sandals, and poles would be helpful. The trail up to the ridge above the South Harper Creek Falls is in tough shape still. Lots of erosion, steep sections, and deadfalls. Be careful. We didn't attempt to explore the base of either falls, but we enjoyed the creekside campsites. Mosquitos were basically non-existent, which was nice. We saw evidence of coyote activity (scat), and a couple of impressive bear paw prints on the "island" around mile 5.2. A nice hike overall.