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Waterfall wonderland

Need a waterfall to soup up your autumn getaway? That splashing sound is closer than you think. And better than ever.

For the past several years, DuPont State Forest – two hours west of Charlotte – has offered a triple treat: three tumbling cascades that can be viewed in one morning's hike. Since February, waterfall-watchers have been able to add a fourth by stretching their walk another couple of miles.

At the 10,400-acre forest between Hendersonville and Brevard, three spots – Hooker, Triple and High falls – have been where visitors gathered to watch the Little River take succeeding plunges down a mountainside on its way to Cascade Lake.

Now, with a 35-acre gift from E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., you can walk from High Falls to the spot higher up the river where famous Bridal Veil Falls sends a spray of sparkling drops down a long, sloping incline of rock. Previously, Bridal Veil was accessed only by a two-mile hike from another section of the forest.

“Hike” is the operative word at DuPont. Though there are several parking lots on its edges, the only way into the forest is on foot or horseback unless you rent one of the forest's picnic shelters (or if you're disabled – you'll get a special drive-in permit).

Start at the Hooker Falls parking lot, by the Little River bridge on DuPont Road-Staton Road. (The road's name changes at the Henderson-Transylvania county line.) A quarter-mile trail leads to a handicapped-accessible viewing area and a small beach beside the 12-foot falls.

The scene might look familiar: It figured in the movie “Last of the Mohicans.” When his enemies were closing in, hero Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis, although a stuntman performs in this particular scene) soared off Hooker in a canoe and escaped.

Across the road, and a half-mile up the mountain, you'll reach three-tiered, 150-foot- high Triple Falls. A half-mile farther up is 120-foot High Falls. Go another 1.5 to 2 miles, and you're at Bridal Veil. The entire round trip is more than five miles, David Brown estimates. He supervises DuPont for the N.C. Forest Service.

Trails and roads are detailed and rated as easy, moderate or difficult in $8 waterproof maps available through www.dupontforest.com. You can also download a free maps from the Internet.

Vehicles are generally prohibited because there's not enough parking space to accommodate many cars, Brown says. They end up being parked roadside, destroying the vegetation the forest service strives to protect.

Not to mention wrecking the peace and quiet that distinguishes the forest from a public park, says a member of the auxiliary organization Friends of DuPont Forest. Chris McDonnell practically shudders as he utters the term “boom boxes.” The 400-member group helps build trails and sponsor events. It compiles information, offers information at kiosks and runs the forest's Web site.

DuPont's hardwoods and pines serve as a teaching forest for the state, illustrating good forest-management practices.

For most of the 120,000 visitors a year, however, the forest is primarily a beautiful spot – sometimes as backdrop for weddings, often the scene of family reunions. The head count, by the way, rivals the count at N.C. state parks, where average annual attendance varies from 70,000 to 1 million.

Though there's an impressive stone chimney at one shelter – a relic of an old mountain lodge – no open fires are permitted. Neither is camping. Swimming and wading are permitted in five forest lakes and in pools below the falls, but not at the top of the falls or the middle section of Triple Falls. Climbing on rocks beside the falls is prohibited.

Hikers, mountain bikers, marathoners and equestrians share the 80 miles of trails, which are largely maintained by volunteers, many of them from the Pisgah region of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association and the Pisgah Trailblazers, an equestrian club. Guided horseback rides are arranged through nearby Ultimate Ride Campground.

Anglers cast into the river and the lakes, the largest of which, Lake Julia, is 99 acres. Trout fishing around the falls is subject to a delayed-harvest rule: Whatever's caught October-May has to be released. Hunting is permitted in season in the forest, but the area around the falls is off-limits.

Track teams train in DuPont, and Hendersonville has its annual 26.2-mile DuPont Marathon here. The run, which attracts up to 500 entrants, will be Oct. 12.

“About one-quarter of our entire users are mountain bikers,” Brown says. That's about 25,000 cyclists annually, coming from a wide area.

“If you're in DuPont State Forest in March or April, you will see a bunch of Canadians,” says Woody Keen, a cyclist and Friends of DuPont Forest member. It's still snowing in Canada when wildflowers, including yellow and pink lady slippers, are getting ready to bloom at DuPont, he says. “The scenic beauty of the area, the climate, the weather, the waterfalls, those are big draws.”

There was a time all of this was largely unknown. The forest was the site of a DuPont X-ray plant, and only company employees enjoyed the falls and the recreation they provided.

In 1996, DuPont sold the plant and offered the state more than 7,000 acres, including Hooker Falls, on favorable terms. In 2000, after the Triple and High falls area came within a hair's-breadth of becoming a gated housing development, the state exercised its right of eminent domain and bought those falls and surrounding acreage for $24.5 million. In February, DuPont gave the state the 35 acres that gives new access to Bridal Veil Falls.

A wide assortment of the forest's fans pitches in on a continuing basis. Building construction technology classes led by Eric Hurley at Western Piedmont Community College, in Morganton, are responsible for many of the physical improvements. They include stairs that wind down steep rocks to Triple Falls, sturdy picnic tables at several locations and a pier at Lake Julia. “I love that place,” says Hurley, who played a British soldier in “Mohicans.”

Even non-hikers get a chance to “love that place” two weekends each year, when the Friends sponsor their Tour de Falls. They rent small school buses and operate a shuttle to Triple, High and Bridal Veil falls and Lake Julia. The $10 tours are on Mother's Day weekend and, this year, Oct. 18-19. The tickets go fast. Last fall, several hundred people had to be turned away.

Once on the buses, sightseers can get off at any stop and eat whatever picnic lunch they've brought, then hop on the next shuttle. “Every 20 minutes there's something going by,” McDonnell says.

Or, if they're mesmerized by the sight of a falls, they can do like Hurley: “I love just going down there and sitting on a rock.”

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