New stairs at Big Shoals officially open

Volunteers gathered at Big Shoals, a.k.a. Secret Falls, on Aug. 29 for a ribbon cutting ceremony marking the official opening of newly constructed stairs leading down to the falls.

The Highlands Trail Trimmers began the project in January to replace a failed set of steps that had washed away, said project leader Jim Chance.

A section of the newly installed stairs at Big Shoals Falls.

“It was dangerous and slippery, particularly before the debris from the old stairs had cleared,” he said. “It looked like someone backed up a dump truck and dumped a load of Timbers down the slope. There was also a lot of rebar sticking up like punji sticks. Due to the trail being in such poor shape people were making there way down the corridor as best they could, but they were trampling vegetation and creating erosion issues in the process.”

With help from the Oconaluftee Job Corps (OJC) in Cherokee and HTT volunteers like Mike King and Kevin Gates, Chance said it took 8 months to build new stairs.

The new stair system leads to Big Shoals falls.

The project includes 168 steps total, 143 timber steps in the main flight up from the lower landing, 10 rock steps from the lower landing to the upper part of the falls, and 15 to the lower part of the falls. Not to mention a 75’ rise in elevation with a slope of about 20%, said Chance.

The OJC team was supervised by Alan Chapman and Chance said their help was crucial to the project’s completion.

“The OJC team and built most of the steps in the most difficult section where we had to work our way through a ridge of rock,” said Chance. “The OJC students did most of the hauling, crushing, and filling of the timber cribs. There was also a private property owner that gave us permission to cross their property to haul in material.”

HTT and OJC volunteers involved in the stairs’ construction pose for a photo after the official ribbon cutting opening the stairs.

The property owner allowing crews to bring in materials was Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. The project was funded by raising $6,000 through GoFundMe and using materials salvaged from the stairs that washed away.

“About two years before HTT worked with Nantahala district on a grant proposal to hire a commercial firm to reconstruct the whole trail, but they were unable to obtain a grant,” said Chance. “When the grant proposal failed, HTT made the move to do the stairs portion and USFS gave us the go ahead.”

Directions from Highlands:

Head east from Highlands on Horse Cove Road and drive approx. 4 miles and turn right on Walking Stick Road.

Drive approx. 3 miles on Walking Stick Road to an intersection and stay right over a one lane bridge, do not turn left onto Rock House Road. Drive a quarter mile to FR 4567 on the right. This road is gated but visitors can park at the gate. Hike down FR 4567 a quarter mile to Secret Falls Trailhead on the left, marked by a small signpost. Follow blue rectangle trail markings to Secret Falls.

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