Tuesday, July 12, 2016

After a relaxing week of vacation, I wanted to end it with a quality hike before the dread of returning to work fully settled in. My last day of vacation also happened to be Father's Day and since my own dad is still on the mend from knee replacement, I chose to hike with the next best dad I know, Steve.
The kiosk at the trail head entering the Green River Game Lands.

Steve and I have shared many great trail memories and with the recent release of Kevin Adam's updated North Carolina Waterfalls book, I had plenty of ideas of where to go. As much as I tried to get Steve to chose the days direction he left the final decision to me and my heart settled on the tiny town of Saluda, North Carolina.
A deer enjoying the morning sunshine.

Saluda is home to many great waterfalls from the pay-to-play Pearson Falls, the mighty Big Bradley Falls, and the more obscure Pacolet Falls...that's right, I know about it too...anyway, our course would almost certainly guarantee we would be the only people on the trail that day.
After a mile, we reached the old barn and our left turn toward Little Cove Creek.

Facebook is a great tool if you know how to tune out the bad and pay attention to the good, and one good thing to come my way lately is the friendship of Andy Kunkle. Andy shares my passion for waterfalling and has the distinct honor of discovering some waterfalls with one even bearing his nickname, Fungi Falls. He also happened to notice on topographic maps Little Cove Creek followed a similar course to the creek that is home to Big Bradley Falls. In other words, thar's waterfalls in them thar hills.
Stinging weed dominated the creek banks. 
Indian Pipes  popping out of the forest floor.

Steve picked me up early that morning and even gave me a break from driving duty allowing me to enjoy the scenery and settle into story telling. Our laughter and stories made the hour and a half trip a short one. Before we knew it, we approached the Saluda exit and the "curviest paved road in North Carolina" to reach the Green River Game Lands for the start of our hike. It was a hot morning and crowds of people were gathering at the tube rental places along the river. Once Steve was parked at the trail head we were alone for the rest of the day. I stuffed a few beers in my pack for a toast and we were off for some bushwhacking and creek wading.
Life is everywhere if you pay attention.
This would be our trail for the day.

The trail starts as a level road through open fields that quickly had Steve mumbling about how it would be so much better if they just would let us drive but after finding some fresh blackberries and a deer walking right out in front of us, his mood improved. We eventually reached the familiar old barn and cabin from our hike a few years back to the base of Big Bradley but instead of taking the right we took a hard left in search of the waterfalls on Little Cove Creek.
Steve was excited to see Milton Bradley Falls.
He was more excited to see this snake though!

The trail continues to be an open road and the heat was really beating down on Steve and I as we were already a mile into the hike. There was still plenty to see with many wildflowers blooming and our first creek crossing of the day. I made no attempt to keep my feet dry and the cold water felt good as it soaked into my tennis shoes. After the creek crossing the directions said to take an angled approach to the far right corner of the field and enter the woods. The trail is non existent at this point and we waded in the weeds working toward the woods and an obvious creek coming down the mountain. Once at the woods, there isn't any obvious path but a short distance away I could hear the creek. I told Steve our best bet would be to just wade and rock hop and when we entered the creek I made note of a pile of dead logs to know where to get out on the way back.
The top of Milton Bradley Falls. You can see the design in the rock here.

There's something nice about just being in the woods with no clear trail. Kevin had mentioned easy open woods walking on the left side of the creek and we found an overgrown but old logging road to follow next to the creek. At a tangle of dead trees, we met with the only trouble of the day. I crossed over the brush watching for snakes but somehow alerted some hornets to our presence. Steve got the worst of it being stung twice and dropping our guidebook in their nest while he retreated! We gave them a few minutes to calm down before retrieving the book without further issue.

Our faint logging road eventually swung away from the creek and we went back to our creek wading moving upstream. Lining both banks were tall and potent stinging weed. Steve and i already were itching from brushing some and rinsed our legs off as best we could in the water. It didn't seem like it was very far but creek wading is slow going sometimes but through the trees I could see the first waterfall of the day, Milton Bradley Falls.

Steve beside one of the numerous cascades on Little Cove Creek.
We climbed this cascade using the natural water soaked stairs.

I'm always amazed how much better these waterfalls are in person than I've seen in pictures, and Milton Bradley Falls was no exception. At around 35ft high it would be the tallest waterfall we would see that day and it cascaded eloquently down to a small pool at its base. I couldn't think of a better time to share a beer with Steve and we lightened my pack by emptying  two sweetwater blues before spying the steep scramble path we would take next to the falls to continue upstream. Steve took the lead and he was climbing along the rocky cliff when he told me to hold up. The tone in his voice made it clear he had spotted a snake. A few minutes of thrashing around and he had captured his prize, a baby water snake that was unusually friendly. We took a few pictures before turning him loose and searching for the rope that was supposedly there to assist us over the rock face at the brink of the falls. Steve dug it out of the weeds and was quick to scale the rock face and vanish from sight. I took a more cautious approach and slowly inched up the rock before leveling off at the top to discover the rope tied to a dead log! I looked back over the ledge knowing I would have to go back the same way later. The rocks at the top of the falls has some neat swirls and we rested for a few minutes before continuing the wade upstream.
Beautiful lichen along the creek.
Bradley Cooper Falls.

I can't stress enough that this hike isn't for everyone. There isn't a trail to be seen and the only sane option is to stay in the water unless you just enjoy the burn of stinging weed. We made good timing for the most part but there are quite a few trees laid over the creek that gave us some up and over workouts and we were constantly on the lookout for bees or snakes. Aside from the named falls, there are many beautiful cascades on the stream and I was constantly stopping to take pictures. After some rock hopping and more downfall, Bradley Cooper Falls came into view. I was impressed with this waterfall as well and found it photogenic despite a few dead logs at it's base. Steve ran over to the base and filled his water bottle saying he would make women jealous by drinking from Bradley Cooper! The name of this falls came from a movie he was in called the Hangover. The day the falls was discovered the man who found it had a hangover.

Steve drinking from Bradley Cooper.
High above Bradley Cooper Falls. Heading upstream.

It wouldn't be a true Strickler/Horton outing if there wasn't some misinterpretation of the directions and instead of turning onto the side stream we were supposed to follow to the next two falls, we instead spotted a rope running above the top of the falls and continuing upstream. We followed the razor thin path using the rope to get around the cliff and found a more defined trail appearing out of nowhere....someone was coming in from upstream. Whoever this someone was, had money and rope, and Steve and i followed the ropes up and around countless obstacles. We both were having the time of our lives. We finally came to a monster boulder that blocked the entirety of the creek with a small spout of water squeezing underneath it making a nice little rock shelter and waterfall. The trail past this area levelled off and it was soon clear that we had made a wrong turn. I fetched the book from my pack and realized my mistake before having to confess to Steve. He took the news in stride and we headed back to to find the right creek.
The upper reaches of Little Cove Creek.
Sat down to have a look at my directions and found a photo op.

At the top of Bradley Cooper Falls we hugged the narrow ledge trail and swung onto a side stream. Literally a few feet in we crossed over the third named waterfall of our hike, Mary Lou Bradley Falls. The trail really gets close to the brink of the falls and caution was exercised continuing on by us both. I told Steve we would check it out from the base by more conventional methods on the hike back but we had one more waterfall to see, the unique Cavern Falls. The next half a mile of creek wading was the toughest of the day but I was determined to see Cavern Falls and visit the small cave behind it. A seemingly endless stretch of fallen trees and narrow rock chutes and boulders guard the final approach but when I lumbered into sight of the falls, I was in awe.
Steve climbing around some of the more scenic obstacles.
We found a beach.
More creek climbing.

Cavern Falls is one of the most interesting waterfalls I've seen and there is a killer swimming hole at its base. To enter the cave behind the falls, I had to wade the swimming hole that was waist deep on me so poor Steve was in to his chest. We both tool turns exploring the narrow chasm and finally settled on a rock in front of the falls to dry off and reflect on an incredible day. Four quality waterfalls and he had finally got to see a snake on a hike, I felt like he had a pretty good Father's Day even with a few bee stings.
Cavern Falls.
Steve celebrates arriving at Cavern Falls.
The narrow entrance to the cavern. Passing through here guarantees a soaking.
The author at Cavern Falls.

Our hike back seemed to take less time and we made a quick stop at the base of Mary Lou Bradley Falls for a few pictures and made the mini rappel at Milton Bradley Falls without incident. The area where we met the hornets was avoided by wading to the far side of the stream to bypass the area completely and we were rewarded with the best raspberries I've ever put in my mouth growing in abundance on the bank. Reaching the car, we brushed off as best as we could before searching for some lunch. Steve spied a Jack in the Box and was perhaps the happiest  I had seen him all day. While in the drive-thru I discovered six ticks crawling on me and I'm sure onlookers got a laugh at us both inspecting each other for more in the middle of the busy parking lot. In closing, many thanks to the pioneers such as Andy Kunkle and his band of bandits that not only continue to make new discoveries but are willing to share that information with the rest of us. Until next time, happy trails.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

I'm finally getting around to knocking the dust off my keyboard and writing a few blogs of some of my many hiking trips so far this year. If I wrote one for every single hike I would do nothing but blog so I try to narrow it down with a few key criteria; does the story need to be told, will the reader find it interesting, and is it informative for someone thinking about taking the hike themselves. One of those hikes that made the cut was our trip up Sarvis Cove in search of Buzzard Rock.
The old forest road heading up Horse Creek.
Shane ready for a day of torture...I mean hiking.

Last year, Amy and I took the Buzzard Rock hike on from the long winding forest roads out of the Rocky Fork in what ended up being a sixteen mile day during some peak autumn foliage. Unfortunately, just as we arrived at the rock some low lying clouds swept in spoiling our dreams of long distant views but giving us some cool photo opportunities. In the research for that trip, I found mention of a shorter route leading to the rock coming out of Greene County and Horse Creek park. Time went on and other hikes fell to the wayside and eventually Buzzard Rock started creeping back into my mind.
Shane staying dry but barely.
Jesus in the sign.
My picture of John in the sign.

My friend John has worked diligently to improve his map reading skills so I shot him a message about checking on a possible route out of Horse Creek and within a day he had sent me not one, but two different routes to Buzzard Rock. I told Shane of our plans and promised a long and grueling day and I believe I could hear him packing his bags while I was still on the phone with him. We met in Johnson City and the three of us piled into my truck for the trip down to Greeneville and Horse Creek Park.
The sign was broke in half so I fixed it.
Shane with the hiking title belt.
Beware of Bigfoot.
The beginning of the end of our good mood for the while. The straight climb up Sarvis Cove.

Horse Creek Park is a nice place to start a lot of good hikes such as Squibb Creek and Pete's Branch Falls but it's seclusion is also prime territory for less than upstanding citizens to meet up. For once, I was thankful Shane had a gun. The parking lot was empty on our arrival and we stepped out to some cool temps but sunny skies. I was excited that it looked like I would finally get a good view from the rock.. if John's map skills proved to be true. The first part of the trail is an old forest road that is used by high clearance 4x4's and will eventually lead you to a few yards from the Appalachian Trail at the top of the mountain, but not knowing what shape the road was in and our desire to explore led us to hike up the well worn road along the creek. Early on our biggest challenge would be keeping our feet dry for the long day on the mountain at several difficult creek crossings. Some of the crossings required bushwhacking along the stream and jumping from rock to rock or even moving rocks to make our own makeshift bridges to continue on.
The small waterfall in Sarvis Cove.
Rest break selfie. Look at the trail behind us. Straight and up.
Shane passing through downed limbs on Sarvis Cove.

The forest road eventually splits at a large brown sign indicating trails to the right and the main jeep route turns left and leads up the mountain. We took the right fork heading toward Pete's Branch, Poplar Cove, and Sarvis Cove. Someone has took some time shooting up the forest service sign and John paused for some pictures of his head filling in the missing parts. The first signs of spring were starting to show in deep mud puddles along the road with frog eggs sporadically floating in the pools. The trail to this point was still very familiar to me since I've hiked to Pete's Branch a few times. Another creek crossing and the Pete's Branch spur trail is to the left and signed as we continued straight and into Poplar Cove. The hike was still easy and we blazed through the early stages passing some downed trees and listening to some rowdy cascades down through the thick laurel.
Air Estep takes flight.
A near cairn along the trail.

When we arrived at the Sarvis Cove trail marker I found that we only were 2.5 miles from the end of the trail where it meets the Appalachian Trail at the top of the mountain. Early on the trail crosses the creek a few times but the smaller stream was easy for us to keep dry but soon the trail swings to the left side and begins a long steep climb leading straight up the drainage next to the stream. Shane had made the mistake of running on Friday preparing for his first race of the year and his legs started tiring on this stretch but we all took advantage of rest breaks and we spent most of the day laughing and giving each other a hard time. About halfway up the cove, we passed a nice waterfall about ten feet high but the sun was directly over it so I snapped a quick picture before continuing the now very slow climb up the mountain. Lots of tree limbs covered the trail and it looked as if it had been some time since someone had hiked it. I was beginning to wonder if there was ever going to be a switchback at all and soon thereafter the trail swung left and away from the creek and began winding higher around a ridge. Through the trees we could see our progress as the scenery of distant views of Greeneville began to unfold and with it, gave us a renewed energy. We had noticed scratching along the trail disturbing the leaves for most of the hike before we found a nice turkey feather revealing the culprit and giving me a new decoration for my hat. The trail switched back to the right and continued to rise and we started to see trace amounts of snow accumulated on the leaves. John checked our elevation progress and noted we started seeing snow at the 3200ft mark and we began at around 1707ft, despite the progress we still had a lot of climbing to go.

Shane is as tough as they come. Sarvis Cove is hard!

My turkey feather!

Switchback on Sarvis.
As the trail climbed, we saw less leaves and more snow coverage of the ground and John kicked in his Snow Jesus power pushing to the lead and setting a tough pace for Shane and I to keep. He had retired his trusty taped running shoes and unveiled a new deep tread shoe that gave him an unfair advantage. OK, I'm lying, he's in better shape than us!  I started noticing large boulders strung across the mountain and I told Shane and John I thought we were nearing the top and the Appalachian Trail...unfortunately, there were a lot more boulders to pass before that would happen. The trail wasn't as steep but tired legs kept us moving slow and we passed several more switchbacks before coming to a huge boulder in a turn that I climbed to take an extended break. Shane and John were behind me and I looked down on them approaching the boulder proclaiming that I was now King Sarvis and would be addressed as such. I think if Shane had the energy in him, he would have killed me. About half a mile more of hiking and the trail suddenly leveled and I could tell we were fast approaching the ridge line. Off to the left I could see a huge wall of rock and I decided it was the perfect spot for lunch. When we pulled even with the rock wall I could see the jeep road ending just a few feet ahead, we had arrived at the Appalachian Trail intersection. Knowing we had the majority of the climbing behind us, it made it easier for us to settle in to our lunch and our mood instantly improved. We had a nice spread of food including gourmet cheeses, summer sausages, and even some turkey sandwiches. Shane and I played on the rocks while John trekked below to take our picture and King Sarvis conquered another, for lack of a better term, perch.
Snow Jesus engage!
All hail, King Sarvis!
Creepin' Jesus.
At long last, the end of Sarvis Cove.

After lunch and bouldering a bit, we meandered through a grassy bald and onto the AT, the familiar white blazes gave us a renewed spirit and a blazing hiking speed. The trail was level and worn and I thought of my friend Ben who had hiked the trail way back in 2008 and of Scott Jurek that set the speed record at 46 days 8 hours last year. It's always amazing to me how many points of interest the trail passes by and we found a large split rock right beside the trail that we all gave more than a moments gaze to. Sadly, the level trail ended and we climbed up a suprisingly difficult grade that crossed over an old forest road several times as it approached the top of the ridge. The small clearing at the top offered no views surrounded by taller trees but it did give us a treat in the form of a grave marker for a former thru hiker that had chose the area as his final resting place. The fact that he had friends willing to bring him all the way up there was even more impressive. Our hard work climbing the mountain was taken from us as we started downhill for awhile before leveling and coming to a trail intersection labeled as Big Rocks Bypass. We stayed on the AT and swung through the rockiest section of trek so far before climbing slightly and finding the side trail to the summit and highest point of our day on the 4900ft Big Rocks. The views weren't the best here with deep views into Greeneville and over to Viking Mountain and the towers but I knew what was to come and the skies were still perfectly clear. John broke out his map and compass and noted that we would eventually leave the AT and strike out across the ridge line to meet an old forest road to continue to Buzzard Rock. This was the first time the off trail section was mentioned and I felt a little nervous it would be our demise from reaching our goal.
Appalachian Trail time!
Split rock along the AT.
Thru hiker memorial. Very powerful reminder of the impact the trail makes on people and the quality of friends you make by hiking. Very thankful for my hiking buddies.
Nearing Big Rocks.

Back on the main trail we ambled along passing swampy pools and snow drifts. Anywhere the sun could touch the snow was melted and the afternoon temperatures were pleasant as we approached a large field near the area called Big Butt. The Appalachian Trail swings away from the field and I explored the area finding that it leaves the ridge and begins to descend rapidly. Rejoining Shane and John, we crossed the field and found that our off trail portion was going to be easier than we had thought finding a four wheeler path that was well worn through the surrounding scrub. We were now on the spine of the ridge and the hiking was easy at last. I scanned the surrounding mountains and could see over to Wolf Laurel Ski Resort and the looming Big Bald on the horizon, I knew Buzzard Rock was getting close! The four wheeler road steadily winds downhill and soon it met up with the familiar forest road that leads to the rock. I was in a zone and left John and Shane to their conversation that faded as I put more distance between us. Through the trees and in a curve, I could see the edge of Buzzard Rock just through some laurel. I scampered through the trees and onto the rock greeted with as stunning of a view that I could have ever asked for.
Rocky terrain near Big Rocks.
John checking our progress on the summit of Big Rocks.
Survey marker at Big Rocks.
Field near Big Butt.

I snapped a few pictures before realizing that Shane and John could easily pass by without seeing the small side trail leading to where I was. I came out to meet them and let them take the lead to watch their reaction to seeing the view for the first time. Smiles and laughter soon filled the valleys below and we settled into pictures and a few beverages to mark the occasion. From the rock, you are looking over the heart of the Rocky Fork and the jagged cliffs of Whitehouse Mountain seem forever away as well as Interstate 26 as it winds towards Sam's Gap and the North Carolina state line. Further away the unmistakable dome of Big Bald and the Unaka Mountains dominated the skyline and even further away the Roan Highlands peeked above surrounding ridges, it truly was a fantastic view. With no leaves on the trees, I could trace the forest road I had hiked a week earlier on a trip through the Rocky Fork across to the Hidden Lake and back down the Higgins Creek trail, it had took me a few years but the dots were slowly connecting inside Tennessee's newest state park. We were having such a good time celebrating John's successful navigation skills and making a few phone calls since we had service, we lost track of time and as we started packing up to leave I knew there was a good chance we would run out of daylight before making it back to the truck.
John and I in the field.
Wide angle view of the field.
On the connector road to Rocky Fork.
Buzzard Rock!
This calls for the Jesus Selfie!
and a toast!
Big Bald and Big Buff.

Back on the trail we had a small climb back up the four wheeler road before level and downhill hiking dominated the rest of our trip. When we arrived back at the Sarvis Cove intersection I opted to take us down the jeep road to maybe save some time and see if there were any other treasures to uncover. Hiking on the road proved to be easier as the grade was less severe to allow vehicle travel and in one of what seemed like thousands of switchbacks we found another incredible overlook through some trees and on a large rock standing some 60ft high off the forest floor below. The sun was fading quickly but illuminated the distant ranges of the Great Smoky Mountains which called for another round of high fives before settling into our "were gonna run out daylight" pace that led us to the growing sound of water and the by some more impressive cliffs on an adjacent ridge. It was a shame that throughout the day, we had saw not a trace of trash but the jeep road was littered with lots of beer cans and plenty of wrappers tossed by careless passengers. Do us all a favor and stay home, if you have no more respect for nature than that.  A few miles remained of our hike when the sun finally faded completely and we had to make several tricky creek crossings in the dark before meeting back up with the road we had hiked in on. As I approached the final creek crossing I noticed something white off to the right of the trail aloing some laurel trees. As I got closer, I could tell it was a car and the interior lit up with someone in the passenger seat and whatever they were smoking was a smell unfamiliar to me. I slowed up letting John and Shane catch me and we hiked by without incident, although I felt my nerves for the first time all day. I was stunned someone would drive an Acura across a creek to avoid detection and I'm sure they were surprised to see Jesus and a giant hike by them in the dark, perhaps, it even caused them to give up the drugs they were on.
Lots of laughs on the rock.
Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs and Interstate 26.
Paparazzi on Buzzard Rock.
Zoomed shot of Big Bald.

A final obstacle appeared on the other side of the creek in the form of some locals gathered around a campfire drinking whiskey but we continued on as they all four watched us intently. At the truck, finding all the tires still inflated and none of my windows busted out I breathed my final sigh of relief. It had been a fantastic day of hiking and companionship on a successful mission to Buzzard Rock. The clear views and changing scenery made the tired legs seem insignificant and jammed like sardines in a can we left Horse Creek Park to cap an incredible day. In the days that followed, Shane eventually began speaking to me again but the mention of the word "Sarvis" still to this day will make him cringe. Until next time, happy trails.

Buzzard Rock pano.
This is my kingdom.
Jesus preparing for the next trip.
Wolf Laurel Ski Resort.
One more surprise on the Jeep Road.
Shane sheds his fear of heights.
Darkness doesn't stop our hiking.
A final look from Buzzard Rock.