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Chasing 500

How waterfalls helped me endure a global pandemic and find my purpose in hiking again

By Stacia Bennett

It’s a damp, late spring morning. My friend Aby and I are following pink flags through a mountain laurel grove. While I wouldn’t exactly call this bushwhacking, it definitely isn’t a trail. This new State Forest hasn’t yet been developed, so while there are manways and paths, no official trails exist here. Aby and I are headed toward a waterfall that I’m stoked about. Because of how new this State Forest is, few people know about it yet and we expect to have the waterfall to ourselves. I’m brimming with excitement as we descend through the mountain laurel and eventually the rhododendron, my raincoat glistening with water droplets and a smile permanently posted on my face.

Aby and I doing a celebratory dance after finding the hard-to-reach Pinhook Falls

“In this moment of joy, it’s easy to forget that while we are traversing an isolated path in the mountains of North Carolina, the entire world is reeling, writhing even, in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. This isn’t just any spring morning— it’s May 2020.”

In this moment of joy, it’s easy to forget that while we are traversing an isolated path in the mountains of North Carolina, the entire world is reeling, writhing even, in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. This isn’t just any spring morning— it’s May 2020. I’m a brand-new ER nurse, working my first nursing job at the beginning of a global pandemic. Three months into my career and weeks into quarantine, hiking has become my one and only refuge from the horror I see daily at work. I let myself fully immerse into the forest. I smell the wet bark of the trees. I sink into the sogginess of the rain-soaked earth beneath my feet. I hear a few birds, then silence, then the dull static of more rain falling on the canopy above us. As we approach the waterfall, the distinct roar of water rushing over rocks fills my ears. 

A few years prior I’d stumbled upon a list of 100 waterfalls curated by the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC). Back then I was looking for something to do after two failed attempts at thru hiking the Appalachian Trail. When you’ve worked toward an all-consuming goal as singular and specific as “walk from Georgia to Maine” for two years straight, it’s easy to feel lost and lacking direction when you no longer have that goal. I needed direction, and I found it in the pursuit of waterfalls.

“When you’ve worked toward an all-consuming goal as singular and specific as “walk from Georgia to Maine” for two years straight, it’s easy to feel lost and lacking direction when you no longer have that goal. I needed direction, and I found it in the pursuit of waterfalls."

A photo of me at one of my earlier “bushwhack” waterfalls, Roy Taylor Falls, taken by my friend Aby

I started working on this list rather haphazardly, and after failing to find a few of the more obscure falls, I decided I needed a better plan. The CMC recommended a guidebook written by Kevin Adams to aid in completing this challenge. On my way to one of the more remote waterfalls I stopped at a hiking store in Highlands, NC and happened to stumble upon this exact book on the shelf. I bought it. I didn’t know that this purchase was going to lead me on a journey that I never could have imagined being on.

The CMC list includes 100 waterfalls, but this book? It lists nearly 1,000. I was absolutely mind-blown that this state I’d been hiking in for more than half a decade had so many waterfalls that I’d never heard of. As I researched some of them in more detail, I stumbled across The 500: A list of 500 different North Carolina waterfalls, curated by the author of the book I bought in Highlands, a list with a nearly cult-like following among waterfall enthusiasts in North Carolina.

Discovering this list introduced me to a community of people who call themselves waterfallers, and through this community I met Aby, the friend I was hiking with that morning in May 2020. Aby had been loosely working on completing The 500 for some time and had over 200 waterfalls under her belt. I had not even completed the original 100 waterfalls that I started on a few years prior. I wasn’t working on The 500, and at the time Aby wasn’t really sure she was, either. As we walked that morning, we talked enthusiastically, discussing our various reasons for getting out here multiple times per week, driving countless miles to hike or bushwhack to waterfalls. Aby told me that she wasn’t sure she would ever finish The 500, because some of the waterfalls require long and difficult bushwhacks that frankly just aren’t any fun. I whole-heartedly agreed, voicing my dislike of bushwhacking in general. “I just want to finish the 100 waterfalls I’m working on, and maybe hit the best ones on The 500, like the one we are going to today,” I said.

Photo of me at Reece Place Falls, taken by my friend and hiking partner, Aby

And man was it one of the good ones. Reece Place Falls drops 60ft through a narrow ravine and is truly a sight to behold. I was awestruck by it, and the day I saw it is when the seed was planted in my mind that maybe I did need to see all of the waterfalls on The 500 list, because if even a few of them were as magical as this one, they were deserving of the pursuit.

“Reece Place Falls drops 60ft through a narrow ravine and is truly a sight to behold. I was awestruck by it, and the day I saw it is when the seed was planted in my mind that maybe I did need to see all of the waterfalls on The 500 list, because if even a few of them were as magical as this one, they were deserving of the pursuit.”

Today, over two years later, Reece Place Falls is a little more popular than it was back then. My friend Aby (@abyontheloose) has now completed The 500 list. I have checked off more than 200 North Carolina waterfalls since then, more than double the number I’d been to that spring morning. Every single one of them, even the ones that didn’t really feel worth it at the time, has taught me something about myself, helped me grow as a hiker, and introduced me to an incredible community of people that I’m proud to call myself a part of. I no longer live full-time in North Carolina; I left my first nursing job and have pursued a career as a travel nurse. Still, I spend a lot of my free time researching waterfalls, mapping out waypoints, and planning hikes to see as many as I can on my frequent trips home. For now, I’ll continue to slowly pursue 500 North Carolina waterfalls.

 Enjoying the cool spray of my 200th waterfall, Rhapsodie Falls 

Stacia is a hiker and outdoorswoman who makes a living traveling full-time as an emergency room nurse but prefers to call the mountains of Western North Carolina home. She has a passion for long trails, abandoned fire towers, and remote waterfalls and can be found exploring one or several of these on her days off. She is a vocal advocate of body diversity and solo female travel in the outdoors through her online presence on Instagram @adventurelikeagirl and her personal blog of the same name.
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