You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone in North Carolina who loves waterfalls as much as Casey Marcum. In 2012, after ditching a career in mortgage and banking, relocating to the Triangle from Nashville, and recovering from a serious head injury, Casey Marcum went on a hike that changed his life. He found himself captivated by the natural beauty of waterfalls, and he's spent the last four years trying to see as many as possible—his count is up to 452 across North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. At Raleigh's REI, where he works as a senior outdoor school instructor, Marcum delivers in-depth presentations about his experiences with waterfalls and related hikes. Marcum recently shared with the INDY his wealth of waterfall-related knowledge, including how to stay safe and find the waterfall trip that's best for you.
INDY: How did you become interested in waterfalls?
Casey Marcum: As a kid, I used to love going out into the mountains and creeks by myself and getting lost in it all. When I moved out here, I went on a backpacking trip and saw the mountains. It kind of rekindled my childhood fascination with being outdoors. It's funny, when you're an adult, and you get so sidetracked by your job, everything that's put on you, social media—it's just go, go, go and immediate gratification. When you can step outside and just hike and spend time just with yourself, it's almost like being a kid again in some ways. You can just get away from everything, and you discover a lot about yourself. Everything I learned, from reading maps to reading a compass to planning trips, I self-taught. Out of all the four hundred waterfalls I've been to, almost all of them were solo. I just disappear by myself and leave people a list of where I'm going.
How did you know where to start looking for them?
The beauty of this map [Outdoor Paths Publishing's Waterfalls of North Carolina] is it gives you GPS coordinates of the waterfalls, so you can put them in your phone or GPS device, so you at least know generally where they are. Most of them have trails, but not all of them. A lot of them are just complete bushwhack, out in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes there's rappelling and climbing involved in them. After the easier ones, there were some of them out in the Smokies that were twenty miles round-trip to get to one waterfall. So some of them, you can knock out ten of them in a weekend, some weekends I might get two. As you get further and further along, the waterfalls get further and further out, so it takes a lot more time to find them.
What are some of the risks of these expeditions?
There's so many, depending on the time of year. People may not be aware of their own abilities when it gets to hiking outside, what kind of terrain they're comfortable with, or, when in a dangerous position, if they know it or don't know it. People are drawn to go to tops of waterfalls, which is a terrible, terrible, dangerous place to go. I always tell my classes the pictures suck, and you're just in an incredibly dangerous situation with water and wet rocks. One wrong move and you can fall out.
What, to you, makes a really good waterfall?
I love the ones that very few people go to, or they're more difficult to reach, because the area itself is still very pristine, you still have all the mosses and flowers growing on the rocks, whereas you go to the waterfalls that are easy hikes that everybody goes to, all that stuff is gone. People climb on them, people leave trash, you get the wrong crowd for it. The people that work for it, that walk five miles to get somewhere, are typically not the people that are leaving trash. For me, it's not just the waterfall—it's the challenge of the hike to get there.
What are some other resources you'd point people to if they want to go on their own waterfall trips?
I always point them to Kevin Adams [a naturalist and wildlife photographer], and his books, and this map. There is a website, ncwaterfalls.com—Rich Stevenson put that together. It's incredible. It has driving directions. Essentially, if you put in a waterfall and you add "North Carolina," his site is probably going to come up first. He has pictures along the way of the hike, and he updates that site very frequently. I try to avoid the whole, "Give me a list of ten waterfalls I absolutely have to go see," and then they go. I want them to do a little bit of research. In Kevin's book [North Carolina Waterfalls], he'll give it a beauty rating, he'll give it a hiking difficulty rating, best times to see it, all those types of things. I want people to read those hiking descriptions and go, "Is this something I really want to do?" Or can they read that hiking description and go, "Yeah, not interested at all"?