Wilson Creek Gorge may very well be the most beautiful and spectacular white water river you’ve never heard of.
For years I kept hearing how beautiful this place was, but had never penned it in on my to-do list. I would pencil it in, and then pass it by to hit some other place that I figured had more to see and do. Don’t do as I did and put it off for decades. Go and see it as soon as you can.
And it's not because it’s endangered in any great way and might not be here tomorrow. That’s not it, at all. The finest two and a half miles of it are completely in the hands of Pisgah National Forest, so there’ll be no housing or commercial development taking place there. That area is good and safe, unless you consider that the locals could love it to death, which is a distinct possibility.
But I can’t blame them for flocking by thousands every weekend to enjoy the place. Imagine one of the most beautiful whitewater streams in the eastern USA, and then understand that it’s accessible by an excellent gravel road along its finest section, and that most of the nearby folk are poor and can’t afford to travel very far to spend leisure time. This is a recipe for huge crowds, which in the past were often loud, unruly, and quite frankly dangerous.
But the National Forest Service installed some nice parking areas (which
fill up quickly on weekends) and staircases down into the gorge, and a couple of bathrooms. This alleviated some of the most extreme problems, but by all means not all of them. The addition of a visitor’s center by Caldwell County helped a lot, too. Plus, the National Forest Service added flush toilets to the Mortimer Campground and this took off some of the nastiest sort of pressure from the best stretch of whitewater.
Then the local Sheriff’s Department decided to keep two squad cars patrolling up and down the access road all day Saturday and Sunday, and this succeeded in stopping the very worst of the rowdy behavior that was making thing unpleasant for other folk trying to enjoy the Gorge. If you visit on a weekend, you can count on these deputies to be nearby from morning until sundown.
While there are no endangered animals in the Gorge, this does not mean that there is a shortage of wild plants and animals. These things are present in plenty. In an increasingly unique situation, though, all of the plants and animals are in ecologically decent shape. The forests are vigorous second growth of pines and cove hardwoods, and these are home to a tremendous variety of birds, including wild turkey, redwing hawks, screech owls, and many others. Bobcats, black bears, beavers, otters, mink, cottontail rabbits, white tail deer, and groundhogs are commonly seen in these forests.
The entire river, even the privately owned sections, is part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers system. From the spot on Calloway Peak where Wilson Creek begins, to the point where it enters the Johns River, it lies completely surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest, but with only a bit less than ten miles of its 23+mile length being in public hands.
When you are hiking the trails or spending time in the Mortimer area, it’s hard to believe that this spot was once home to a thriving community of hundreds of people and the location of both a textile mill and a large lumber mill. Both of these mills were washed away by floods in 1940 and never replaced. These days, unless you know precisely where to look, you’d never know that they were even there. It all looks like recovering wilderness, showing one the soothing hand of Mother Nature if only She’s given the opportunity to work Her magic.
The Wilson Creek Gorge is a place that I can recommend as highly and as confidently as any I’ve written about here on Summitpost. I will say that, unless you’re kayaking, it’s probably best to avoid the gorge on warm summer weekends. Unless, of course, you don’t mind the enormous crowds, clouds of chalky granite dust churned up on the road, heavy traffic as thick as in any urban area, and lots of very annoying noise. Some people can block that out. And kayakers are likely to hear only the roar of Wilson Creek at high water, and to even lose sight of the crowds in some of the bits of the river where the locals can’t park their cars to get out and look.
Directions to Wilson Creek Visitor Center from I-40
Take Exit 100 (Jamestown Rd.) in Morganton and turn right at end of ramp (if traveling Westbound) or turn left at end of ramp (if traveling Eastbound). Go to third traffic light and turn left onto Hwy. 181, North. Follow Hwy. 181 for approximately 12 miles to Brown Mtn. Beach Rd., which is on your right (the road sign is on your left). There is a white church on the corner of Brown Mtn. Beach Rd. Turn right onto Brown Mtn. Beach Rd. follow approximately 5 miles where Brown Mtn. Beach Rd. turns to the left into Pisgah National Forest. Turn left and the Visitor Center will be approximately 4-1/2 miles on your left.
Much of the river is in private hands. Please respect all private property. The best whitewater sections are in public hands. These 2.5 miles of the river are strictly policed and have many rules that are enforced by the county police and the Pisgah National Forest. Among these rules are:
no alcoholic beverages.
no overnight camping.
There are some private campgrounds in the areas, most notably at Brown Mountain Beach.
The Pisgah National Forest has the most excellent Mortimer Campground. There is also a roadside campground in the National Forest called Harper (no facilities at all).
Plenty of opportunity for back country camping free of charge on National Forest lands, no restrictions.