If you live in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, or any of the surrounding area, you’re probably thinking “What waterfalls?” and you’re not entirely wrong. But, luckily, you’re not entirely right either. Surprisingly, there are some hidden waterfalls in the area perfect for those special occasion photos, and most are pretty easy to reach.
- What is a Waterfall?
- Summary of Waterfalls Near Raleigh, NC
- Tips for Viewing Waterfalls
- Waterfalls Within 30 Minutes of Raleigh, NC
- Waterfalls Within One Hour of Raleigh, NC
- Waterfalls Two Hours From Raleigh, NC
- Debunking a Few Myths
- Waterfalls Near Raleigh, NC – Wrap-Up
What is a Waterfall?
The official dictionary definition of “waterfall” is a little vague. Most dictionaries say a waterfall is “a cascade of water falling from a height, formed when a body of water flows over a precipice or steep incline.” Okay, so what’s a steep incline?
Well, a few sources will say it’s 5 feet minimum. Good to know, but does this mean a trickle of water down a 5-foot rock is a waterfall? And what if there’s a 3-foot fall followed by a slide into a 2-foot fall, is that a total of 5 feet?
Since it’s all sketchy, I made my own definition. A waterfall is water falling over something that’s at least 5 feet from where it starts the fall to where you can say the water is back on its normal track. Simple.
With the Piedmont area of North Carolina being relatively flat, that means most of the waterfalls in the area are created by old grist mill dams. Before you start poo-pooing it, these waterfalls tend to be consistent, and they create a backdrop for beautiful photos.
Summary of Waterfalls Near Raleigh, NC
Best waterfall for photos: Yates Mill Historic Place
Most consistent waterfall: Yates Mill Historic Place
Most accessible waterfall: Little River Rock and Lassiter Mill Park
Waterfall you can swim in: West Point on the Eno
Tips for Viewing Waterfalls
Waterfalls will be at their fullest after a good rain. If you want gushing water, head out no more than 5 days after a solid rain.
Sometimes they’re prettier when there is less water, especially waterfalls at old mills. You can see the rock dams behind the water which adds interest to your photos.
If you’re going to swim at some of the falls, be careful. The safest time to do this is when the water levels are low. Whirlpools can form at the bottom and reach out further than you think. Always watch children and stay away from the area directly at the bottom of the waterfall. Look for water that is flowing slowly further downstream. Also, be aware that water may look calm on the surface, but the current can be fast underneath.
When taking photos, verify the rocks are solid before you stand on them or ask your photo subjects to pose in that location. Set your shot first, then add your subjects so they’re not standing in a tight spot for extended times.
Waterfalls Within 30 Minutes of Raleigh, NC
I used the center of downtown Raleigh to set the 30-minute delineation. If you live in the area, you know that Raleigh is a sprawling city. You may be closer or further away depending on where you live.
1: The Dam at Lassiter Mill Park
3362 Lassiter Falls Cir, Raleigh, NC 27609
Photo Rating: 5
Near North Hills Mall, just past the junction of 440 and Six Forks Rd is Lassiter Mill Park. The park is tiny, with about 8 parking spots, just a strip of green along Crabtree Creek. The entrance road is also a cul-de-sac for a few homes and you’ll see their driveways and parked cars.
You’ll find several locals running or walking their dogs. Crabtree Creek Trail is nearby for a nice day of walking. Exit the park onto Lassiter Mill Road, go left over the bridge, and cross the street.
Of course, Lassiter Mill Park is also home to a pretty waterfall created for an old mill. There’s a plaque highlighting the history of the mill.
What I love about this waterfall is it’s easily accessible from the parking lot. There are stone steps that lead down, or you can just walk to the waterfall and head down the short, sandy beach area. There are several options for great photos where your subjects can safely stand and pose.
The waterfall has two sections with one filling an aqueduct that leads down to the bottom of the second section. When the water level is high, this is a spectacular engineering feat to see.
2: Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd, Raleigh, NC 27603
Photo Rating: 5
This is the prettiest waterfall near Raleigh in my opinion. Park as far to the back of the parking lot as possible (as far to the left of the AE Finley Center as possible). Exit your car and, facing the AE Finley Center, head to the left where you’ll see the trailhead for the Mill Pond Trail.
It’s an easy, short walk on a gravel road to the Mill and there is a paved ramp leading down to where you can view the waterfall. According to the park, it’s approximately 600 feet to the Mill from the parking lot. There are benches along the way to stop and rest.
The entire walk is pretty with a lot to see including a log cabin and several artifacts from the Mill.
This waterfall is a bit different from the others on this list because it feeds from Yates Mill Pond and not a river. This tends to make it more reliable.
At the bottom of the paved ramp is a small grotto with several flat rocks where subjects can safely sit or stand. There’s a small, wooden bridge that makes it easy to cross the small creek at the bottom. I’ve seen professional photographers here taking photos for special occasions.
Due to its accessibility, reliability, and cute grotto area, this is my vote for the most photogenic waterfall near Raleigh.
Historic Yates Mill Place has additional hiking trails and is one of my favorite places for families and beginner hikers in Raleigh.
3: Little River Park, Zebulon
1800 W Gannon Ave, Zebulon, NC 27597
Photo Rating: 3
This pretty little waterfall has a photo rating of 3 because it’s difficult to pose subjects at an aesthetic angle while getting the waterfall in the background. The height of the waterfall and distance from the subjects will pose difficulties.
There are two entrances to the park, one on either side of the river. The waterfall is more accessible from the parking lot off Water Plant Road.
This is another waterfall created by a gristmill dam over the Little River, called Moore’s Mill. You can see where the dam was damaged in the center. Prior to this, it looked like Lassiter Mill Dam. Due to the damage, it’s a shorter waterfall, but it meets my definition of five feet from where the water begins to fall to where the river continues.
On the far side of the park is a green meadow area and picnic table, perfect to let the kids run and have a nice day. The Water Plant side offers opportunities for fishing, a small beach area, short trail, and the waterfall.
Back in 2022, the town of Zebulon conducted a study and there is a proposal to expand the park to be the northern hub of a Greenway. It’s unclear where the project stands now, but I hope it’s something that can be achieved in the future.
4 and 5: West Point on the Eno
5101 N Roxboro St, Durham, NC 27704
Photo Rating: Small waterfall by the rebuilt mill 3
Photo Rating: Large waterfall over the Eno River 4
I’m cutting hairs on this one because it’s technically 38 minutes from downtown Raleigh. But I’m hoping you’ll let this slide because there are two waterfalls here.
Both waterfalls are accessed from the second parking lot. When you pull into the park, the drive is one way. Pass the parking lot with the sign that says “buses”. You’ll go past the white house which serves as the photography museum. At the bottom of the hill is another parking lot. This is the one you want.
From the lot, you can see the rebuilt West Point on the Eno Mill. There’s a small waterfall under the bridge that crosses Meadow Branch Creek which feeds into the Eno River at the mill. You can view it from both sides of the river. It’s not a gushing waterfall, but the setting against the bridge and mill is a pretty sight.
The larger waterfall is located on the Eno River itself. Go over the bridge at the West Point Mill and continue straight. You’ll hear and see the waterfall. This is a popular spot for swimming in the summer.
In my photos, the water was at almost full force because it had rained heavily two days prior. There were kids playing in the waterfall, but I wouldn’t have recommended that with the force of the water.
At the bottom, the water calms down and there’s a shallow that smaller children enjoy.
There are plenty of picnic tables, grass areas, and trails to enjoy an entire day at the park.
Both waterfalls are easy to photograph if you just want the waterfall, but difficult if you’d like to have subjects pose for pictures unless they are in the water at the larger waterfall.
Waterfalls Within One Hour of Raleigh, NC
6: Bynum Dam on the Haw River
Unnamed Road, Pittsboro, NC 27312 GPS: 35.788883063517105, -79.14269527827744
Photo Rating: 3
As you drive along 15-501, you’ll see a small parking lot off to the side. It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. Actually, it’s a large parking lot, but you don’t notice that until you pull in.
From the lot, head to the kiosk and start walking down the small trail. Be careful because poison ivy is common here. You’ll see the old lock for the dam. Walk across this and there are stone steps on the other side. Be careful, they’re steep.
At the bottom is a sandy area and access to the dam for great photos. You can get good photos of the waterfall, but it will be difficult to get subjects lined up at the right angle. There’s also a large tree stuck at the top of the dam which will mar photos.
When it’s going full force, the water is powerful. Stop for a second and feel the ground rumble under your feet. It’s pretty cool.
I’ve seen families set up for a cookout in the area, but most people stop by to fish or hike the Lower Haw River trail. This is one parking lot I’ve never seen at full capacity making it a hidden gem in my book.
7: Cederarock Park
4242 R Dean Coleman Rd, Burlington, NC 27215
Photo Rating: 4
This one is close to the one-hour time frame. From the center of downtown Raleigh, it’s actually an hour and 13 minutes, but there’s more than the waterfall at Cedarock (and yes, I spelled that correctly with one r and no space).
Cedarock is 500 acres of outdoor play area. There’s an equestrian area, trails, disc golf course, playground, camping, kayaking, and foot golf (apparently golf with a soccer ball). The park is beautifully set with plenty of parking, lots of sunshine, places to get out of the shade, volleyball nets, and plenty of picnic areas.
To reach the waterfall, go past the first parking and park in the lot by the playground and Obel’s Shelter. From the lot, there’s a small kiosk noting the beginning of the trailhead. As you face the playground it’s to your right. Follow the paved trail and continue straight. There’s a junction with the yellow trail leading to Elmo’s Gazebo, but ignore that and continue straight. It’s well-marked with a sign that notes the waterfall with an arrow.
You’ll walk straight to the old dam with the waterfall. There’s a small gazebo where you can stand and watch the water, or get closer via the rocks near the bottom.
The waterfall offers great photo opportunities, but be careful and test the rocks before you ask your subjects to stand on them. Several are loose and should be avoided.
This is probably the most unreliable waterfall on this list. Rock Creek which feeds the water over the dam is generally a low-volume, slow-moving creek. When it hasn’t rained recently, the waterfall will be a trickle.
Waterfalls Two Hours From Raleigh, NC
If you’re up to a drive, then you can visit some of the best naturally occurring waterfalls in North Carolina.
8: Hanging Rock State Park – Lower Cascades
2143 Hall Road, Westfield, NC 27053
Photo Rating: 5
Hanging Rock State Park offers a whopping 5 waterfalls, all naturally occurring. Personally, I think Lower Cascades is the most bang for your buck. The address above is for the Lower Cascades parking lot. There are several stone steps leading down to the waterfall so it’s not that accessible, but it’s worth it.
The remaining 4 are pretty but will be difficult to set up for a photo due to crowds and location.
Debunking a Few Myths
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few myths that are out there. I’ve seen a lot of notes about Lanier Falls, waterfalls at Eno River State Park, and others.
Lanier Falls is located at Raven Rock State Park and it’s a rapid rather than a waterfall. The park is honest about this on its website, but if you look at the map and get excited, it’s a one-hour drive and 2-hour hike down to what isn’t a waterfall.
Eno River State Park does not have waterfalls. Here again, they are rapids. Don’t get me wrong, the rapids on Buckquarter Creek Trail are exciting and fun to see, but it’s not a waterfall. There’s also a small dribbling of water that comes off Bobbitt’s Hole that I’m hard-pressed to call a waterfall.
Lastly, I’ve seen people mention Yadkin Valley and Elkin, specifically Carter Falls. Carter Falls is beautiful and well worth the trip, but it’s three hours from Raleigh, NC. This may be better as a weekend trip.
Waterfalls Near Raleigh, NC – Wrap-Up
There are great waterfalls near Raleigh, NC. Most are created by old grist mills, but this often offers reliable photo opportunities. You can also get close to several of the falls.
Always check the websites before you head out to ensure the parks are open. Visiting on weekdays will help avoid the crowds, but if weekends are your only option, try Sunday morning.
There’s a bit of a balance between going out right after rain where they’re gushing so hard you can’t see much versus no rain in weeks and it’s just a trickle. Personally, I find 4 to 5 days after a good rain usually hits it on the nose.
Try to take time to enjoy the parks, they have more to offer than just the waterfalls.