The Transylvania Times -

Despite Dams, Toxaway River Remains Wild


Last updated 2/15/2021 at 2:34pm

The Toxaway River is one of the wildest rivers in North Carolina, known for it's steep gorges and rocky waters filled with boulders. (Courtesy Photos by David Whitmire)

On still nights from my house, I can hear Toxaway Falls at over 1.25 miles away when the river runs full. The Toxaway River is a loud river. In its 9-mile course from its beginning off the south side of Toxaway Mountain, until it is silenced by Lake Jocassee, it is not a chattering stream, it is a screaming torrent.

The Toxaway emerges from springs and creeks at an elevation of 3,900 feet, and it falls in 9 miles to the lowest elevation in Transylvania County, 1,100ft. That is a 2,800-foot drop, with a ridiculous average of 312-foot drop in a mile. Considering the river rests for 2.30 miles under Cardinal Lake and Lake Toxaway, the actual average is a drop of 417 feet per mile. It's truly a mountain river.

The river has a past marked by geographic wonders, climate extremes, cultural history and manmade disasters. But with all of its legacy, it is still a very river and will always be.

Geographically, the Toxaway River is the farthest northeast tributary of the mighty Savanna River. It begins from Toxaway Mountain, a geographic wonder itself, where four major watersheds begin that surround this Continental Divide Mountain. This, compiled with some of the highest yearly rainfall amounts in the United States – an average of 80 to 100 inches – makes for rivers that mature quickly and move fast. From its birth, the Toxaway flows for a little over 2 miles before hitting the lakes. Lake Toxaway was first built in 1902, completed in 1903 and was considered the oldest man-made dam in the Appalachians. Although dams alter all rivers, not many have impacted the character of the river downstream like that of the Toxaway.

When the original dam busted in 1916, an unnatural wall of water rushed down the Toxaway. The Toxaway being a gorge type river never could release this massive amount of energy by spreading out. So, what was left was a landscape altering maze of boulders and rock outcroppings that after 100 years have become the Toxaway River we see today. I am sure it was very amazing before the big flush, but today it's truly a wonder of the force of water and rock.

Weather even within our county can vary. Often rainy foggy days in Lake Toxaway can see Brevard as bright and sunny. The average 80-100 inches of rain Toxaway gets is almost half of Buncombe County, which sees an average of 44 inches, less than 50 miles to the east. The low-pressure systems pulling moisture out of the Gulf hits the southwest facing slopes, dropping their heavy loads as the clouds bank against them. On a visit into the Toxaway Gorges in summer, one would think of being in a tropical forest and not the Appalachians. The river cuts through the "blue wall," the name given to the southern escarpment, which rises steeply out of the foothills of South Carolina. Many rare plants not found elsewhere find this microclimate ideal. One of note is the Oconee Bell (Shortia galacifolia). It is thought that William Bartram, the famous botanist, first saw his first specimen on the Toxaway. With so much moisture and a mixture of the south face moderate temperatures, the Toxaway and its other cousins, the Horsepasture, Thompson and Whitewater rivers are gems of diversity.

Man's presence along this rugged river is often hard to spot. Even the landscape moving disaster of 1916 has healed to the point that anyone not knowing the history would think that event ever happened. The Cherokee lived on this land and followed the river's paths. The famed Eastatoe Trail was thought to have followed the Toxaway River up to the area now where Jocassee backs up to before turning east and crossing into the French Broad River near Rosman. Probably even the Cherokee knew the Toxaway River was too rugged to traverse. With cliffs and gorges along the way, travel up and down this river is a struggle even with today's modern rock-climbing gear. Although a few families lived in the gorge portion, its geographic challenges kept it safe from many human disturbances. The river and gorge can be an extremely dangerous environment. The most notable was in the spring 1936 when four members of the Fisher family who lived in the Quebec community drowned while seining fish at what is known now as the Fisher Hole. Before the new bridge was built over Toxaway Falls, several deaths and accidents occurred by folks wandering out too close to falls and slipping on rocks and going over. Once the river flows past Toxaway Falls, only one road, Auger Hole, and the Foothills Trail bridge crosses the river.

Today, we know this river will remain pretty much in its natural state thanks to the Gorges State Park. Toxaway River can be viewed and accessed through several trails in the state park. Keep in mind the roughness and remoteness of the gorge, which this probably the most rugged state park in North Carolina. The trails are your best advice to view the river safely. Any off-trail fishing, waterfall viewing or canyoneering should be done with someone experienced and not alone.

River Trails

Auger Hole Trail starts at the Frozen Creek Access of Gorges State Park. Follow the Auger Hole Trail/Road for approximately 3 miles, with a 6-mile round trip. The trail/road will ford the Toxaway River. Use caution when crossing after heavy rains. In general, it is about knee deep. There is a nice area for a picnic, with a little waterfall just upstream of crossing.

The Wintergreen Trail follows the Auger Hole Trail/Road for approximately 2.6 miles, turning to the right and heading upstream about a half mile before the Auger Hole Ford. Follow the trail for 1.1 miles to where the campsite and river meets, a round trip of approximately 7.5 miles.

Much of the Toxaway River as well as the nearby Horsepasture, Whitewater and Thompson rivers are protected within Gorges State Park. The safest ways to explore portions of the Toxaway River are via some of the trails within Gorges.

The Canebrake Trail starts at Frozen Creek access, where you will follow the Auger Hole Trail before turning left onto Canebrake Trail. Go for 4.25 miles and the trail will intersect with the Foothills Tail, where the Toxaway River runs into Lake Jocassee, an approximate 9.5 miles round trip. These trails will give you great glimpses of this amazing river. A stop at the overlook at Toxaway Falls is also a great way to view this treasure.

All these trails are moderate to strenuous, with the Canebrake Trail having the most gradient.

(Whitmire is co-owner of Headwaters Outfitters and is actively involved in local conservation efforts, such as the French Broad River cleanup and wildlife rehabilitation programs. He is also chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council.)


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