In most ways Allison Ridge is a typical southern Appalachian area. It's the eastern half of the gorge that yawns between itself and the slightly higher Chestnut Ridge to the west. The area is exceptionally rugged, ranging in elevation from a bit less than 1500 feet to surrounding summits in excess of 3200 feet.
The forest cover is also typical southern cove hardwoods. Most of the hemlock forests have succumbed, leaving some pines and the general mix of southern hardwoods to fill the gaps. This area has not been logged in roughly one hundred years, so the forests look pretty healthy and are on their ways to being respectable second growth forests.
The most amazing thing about Allison Ridge and the gorge below it are the various watersheds flowing out. The main tributary is the upper reaches of what later becomes the Catawba River. It comes down from the higher country, draining lush coves and rain-soaked peaks. The water quality is fine here, and the route down into the lowlands is a spectacular one. For this area has some truly impressive waterfalls.
The most well known waterfall here is Catawba Falls. It's pretty high, with a combined drop of about two hundred feet. But it's in the form of a number of cascades and not a single plunge. Almost everywhere you look there are waterfalls of varying volumes and heights. But the nicest waterfall I've seen in this watershed is the Upper Catawba Falls. It lies beyond the top of the lower falls and is accessible only by way of a very rough manway that combines an extremely steep route and some tough scrambling.
But the hike into this area is well worth the effort. For there aren't many waterfalls that match the spectacular setting of the Upper Catawba Falls.
The Upper Catawba Falls.
Directions taken from NCwaterfalls.com
The property is open to the public and getting to the trail head is easy. From west of Old Fort, take I-40 east down the Old Fort grade and
get off at Exit 73. (The waterfalls are way down there to your right when you are coming down the grade.) This is the 2nd exit for Old Fort. Before the exit ramp ends, take the right hand turn onto Catawba Falls Rd. If you are coming from east of Old Fort, get on I-40 west and get off at the same Old Fort exit. Turn left and go under the interstate. Take the 1st right that looks like you are heading up the off ramp for I-40 east traffic. This is actually 2 way traffic for a very short distance up to Catawba Falls Rd where you have to turn left. You may see signs for Catawba Falls Campground which is on Catawba Falls Rd. Drive 3 miles to the end of Catawba Falls Rd and park without blocking the driveway of the nice folks on the right side.
There is no camping or overnight parking allowed! This area will be patrolled by the McDowell County sheriff and strictly enforced under the agreement for access. Camp on the river back at the campground and walk the road to the trail head. The river will be on your left coming up the road, then it curves to the right where the road ends. There's a one lane bridge across the river with a chain link fence at the end preventing vehicle traffic, but there's a gap for foot traffic. Head towards the building on the right and walk to the left of it. The building is still private property so please respect that and stay out! Pick up the trail that heads up river behind the building. You may see 'Land for Sale' signs, but I believe that is for the property on the right side of the trail. The trail up to Catawba Falls is fairly easy with a little scrambling in a couple of places and about 1.5 miles one way. There are 3 stream crossings and you may have problems at the first one. Rocks have been positioned for a dry crossing, but if the river is up like it was on my October 2009 trip, you'll have to wade in the river. It's only maybe shin to calf deep, so be prepared. Wear shoes you don't mind getting soaked or bring a towel to dry your feet off if you have to take your shoes off. A hiking stick comes in handy for balance if you can get over on the rocks.