Thanks to a change of heart, a trail to the hidden jewel Carter Falls has just opened along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) near Elkin in Yadkin Valley wine country.
An Our State magazine cover story about the MST says for decades developers and others have had an eye on Carter Falls, which was on land owned by local attorney Dan Park and used by him as a personal retreat. Until 2018 Dan had rejected any offers to purchase the falls and surrounding property. Many people, including Elkin residents, were unaware of the falls existence.
Fortunately, according to an article in the Elkin Tribune, Park decided “I would really love to see it being looked after…it is just a beautiful piece of land and it still is, and I think the trail people will preserve it.”
Seizing the opportunity, the state stepped in with Connect North Carolina Bond money appropriated during the McCrory Governorship and carried on by Cooper’s Administration to purchase Carter Falls and the 43 acres surrounding it. Park also donated an 11-acre easement in the area.
Volunteers with Elkin Valley Trail Association (EVTA), led by retired businessman Bob Hillyer and retired physician Dr. Bill Blackley, spearheaded the local effort to protect the falls and the idea of connecting the trail to the MST. The partnership has included Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Wilkes County Commissioners, the Town of Elkin, NC State Property Office and NC Division of Parks and Recreation.
A 3.1 mile trail from Isaac’s Trailhead starts about three and a half miles from Elkin, a small tourism community northwest of Winston-Salem. The trail follows Grassy Creek and then courses past the Grassy Creek Vineyard spur and on through the forest to Byrd’s Branch Campground and then to Carter Falls Trailhead. From the trailhead at the Falls it is about 0.25 miles through the forest to a trail about 40 yards up stream of the Falls. The walk along this section of the trail is level, wide and smooth. At the end of this walk there is a run of 40-food wide cascades that drop rambunctiously about 60 feet.
From there four relatively short serpentine switchbacks leads down to the falls pool. Near the bottom, walking can require hand holding small trees for balance. Many groups of children and older folks have made this trek down without significant problems but it is a steep descent the last 30 feet. Caution around waterfalls is always the rule. Making the trail handicap accessible and building a bridge spanning 160 to 200-feet are part of the plans.
“The Carter Falls area is set between two wilderness cliffs with the falls rumbling down the middle of a native forest uncut for over 60 years,” said Dr. Blackley. “If you love the outdoors, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Hiilyer said, “We’re going to keep working hard to pull together Carter Falls with all the pieces for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in this region that are attracting state and national attention and visitors to our community.”
In addition to the MST, the Yadkin River Blue Water Trail runs through Elkin where there is a good boat dock and landing, boat rack, campground and easy access to provisions and downtown amenities. Also, the Elkin Municipal Park is the site of a national marker delineating this site as the eastern terminus of the historic Overmountain Victory Trail. Segment 6 of the MST stretches 70 + miles from Pilot Mountain State Park to Elkin, on to Stone Mountain State Park and Devil’s Garden on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“Elkin is a small community role model of how to build economic development through a marriage with outdoor enthusiasts,” said Kate Dixon, Friends of the MST executive director. “You couldn’t have a better place to complete another link of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.”
Elkin is also at the epicenter of the Yadkin Valley wine country, which is North Carolina’ first federally recognized American Viticulture Area. Each year more than 25 wineries participate in the Yadkin Valley Wine Festival when Elkin Valley Trails Association also hosts the Yadkin Valley Tour de Vino road bike rides of 25, 50, 71 and 100 miles. Elkin also in now completing phase III of the Elkin Creek and Iron Falls Mountain Bike Trails that will offer approximately 7.5 miles of trail. In addition, six outfitters are currently available to provide and/or shuttle kayaks and canoes for multiple paddle legs, some running concurrent with the MST route for a change of pace, pun intended.
To reach the Carter Falls trailhead from Elkin downtown, take US Hwy 21 North Business; at US Hwy 21 and Brookfall Dairy Road turn left; go about a mile and turn right on Martin-Byrd Road that winds around and through Byrd’s Branch Campground. At the end of Martin-Byrd there will be a fenced gravel parking lot for 15 cars. The base of the falls is 0.25 miles away.
An alternative is to park at Isaac’s Trailhead and walk about 3 miles to Carter Falls one way. Along the way is a half mile spur to Grassy Creek Vineyard where a hiker may purchase a glass of wine.
(Photo Courtesy of Joe Mickey.)