|From left to right, John, Randy, and Thomas.|
|2.6 miles to glory. Photo by Thomas Mabry.|
|Thomas climbing under the rock shelter.|
|Coming up Little Stony National Recreation Trail.|
It was even easier picking who I wanted to join us on the trip. A few weeks earlier, Thomas, Randy Tarpley, and myself joined John Forbes on his 100th trail day at Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs. We all agreed to hike together again and I couldn't think of a better occasion to get the band back together. Randy met me at my house and rode with me to Weber City where we met John and Thomas. The ride over to the trail head is only around 30 minutes and we parked next to the creek near the gated recreation area road. Exiting our cars I immediately noticed it was colder than the forecast but once we started up the trail the cold was soon forgotten among stories and laughter. Just a few minutes into the hike the trail passes under a large rock shelter with many fallen boulders. John took off the trail and climbed onto a wind eroded sandstone ledge high above us. We all hung out taking pictures and poking around the boulders before John pointed out an abandoned mine that has been gated shut by the forest service. I had hiked by the area for years and never knew it existed! On either side of the gates there was enough room for what looked like a small animal to squeeze through and John easily wiggled his way behind the bars to pose for a picture or two. Back on the trail the creek was flowing slightly above normal levels but not enough to cloud the water. Not only was it Thomas' first trip up Stony Creek it was also Randy's, finding somewhere he hasn't hiked is an accomplishment in it's own right. Many of the trips I take are researched directly from his blog, Rattreks.com.
|John and Randy peering into the abandoned mine.|
|And he's off!|
|Randy and John heading up the trail.|
|Sitting atop a rock along the creek.|
The trail soon crosses a large bridge high above the creek. Several small falls are in the area and upstream I could see a rock standing straight up out of the creek. I pointed it out to John and we followed the creek bank until we found a path through the laurels to the base of the nearly 12ft tall rock. In the middle of the creek was a large rock shaped like a coffin. Little Stony was split by it and on one side the water was completely still and on the other it was a raging torrent. It was the perfect spot for our first group shot of the day and as you can see, it turned out rather nice.
|Our crew in the middle of Little Stony Creek!|
Randy was first to attempt and succeed a climb of the tower rock and after he managed not to hurt himself getting down we all took turns having our photo made on top of it. All the play time and off trail exploring was burning our daylight quick but none of us noticed or seemed to care. The sun was high in the sky so our photography efforts of the actual waterfalls would most likely be thwarted anyway, and we were determined to complete one of the most in depth explorations of the area. When we finally pulled ourselves back onto the trail we only made it a few 100 yards before the creek leveled off into a long cascade framed by bedrock. I've always enjoyed taking pictures in either direction here and the guys seemed to share my enthusiasm for the site and everyone went to unpacking their tripods and heavy duty equipment. I set up as close as I could to the water and captured some nice long exposures since the sun hadn't came up over the ridge in that area yet. We finally got back to hiking and covered the next mile relatively quick before finding another rock shelter to stop and explore around. Water had dripped from the cliffs above us and the cold air had frozen the moisture in thick shells on the ground under the cliffs. Ferns, moss, and other small plants were completely encased in ice and we crawled around the area trying to take extreme close ups of the scene. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me and I reeled off around 100 pictures just within a few feet.
|Shooting in the ice garden. Photo by John Forbes.|
|Frozen fern leaf.|
|Thomas hiking under one of the rock shelters.|
|John and Thomas discussing strategy.|
At the next bridge crossing a small waterfall empties into the gorge from the right. I've always just photographed it from the bridge but John was once again quick to leave the trail and hike over walking behind the falls. Thomas was close behind him as I waited on Randy to catch up with us from the ice garden. I eventually gave in and hiked over to where Thomas and John had settled into a large rock recess behind the waterfall. There were so many different rock formations I was already satisfied with my decision. A nice coal seam ran through the rock and several iron deposits could be seen on the surface as well. Our goal of thorough exploration was being met but it was now after 1pm and we were just under halfway to our final waterfall of the day. A stretch of unrelenting cascades kept us busy pushing the shutter buttons and Randy was impressed by a natural rock staircase climbing away from the creek before descending back to water level. Around a curve we approached Star Branch as it splits the trail with a nice small waterfall. Both John and I have been to the upper free falling waterfall on Star Branch and were anxious to introduce it to Randy and Thomas. I couldn't resist hiking down to the lower waterfall that empties into Little Stony for a few shots since I had never shot from that angle and I was thrilled with the lighting and quality photos I was seeing on my camera screen. I could hear faint yells and whistles over the roar of water and hiked up the steep bank seeing John above upper Star Branch Falls motioning for me to come upstream. The hike through the thick laurel and loose rock was a challenge but as I finally swung around the falls another nice waterfall greeted me that I had never seen before. Randy and Thomas had their cameras out stalking around it's base and John ran around to perch on top of the waterfall. The sun was right on it and even with ND filters I was having trouble getting anything that I would even consider using. I eventually gave up and just settled on enjoying sitting by and watching the others have a good time. Thomas broke out his alter ego the Badger for a push further upstream and even in his bright orange shirt soon vanished out of sight. John and I hiked together upstream and could hear him yelling back to us that he had found another waterfall! A nice 8-10 footer greeted us completely shrouded by the laurel. The only spot the sun could cut through was directly on the water but I was just happy to be in some new territory with some new waterfalls to come home and write about!
|Randy, Thomas and John next to the creek.|
|Walking behind a waterfall and huge rock shelter.|
|Anyone is welcome to guess what this. Maybe some iron deposits?|
|Randy on one of the bridges taking pictures of John and Thomas behind a waterfall!|
Climbing back down was slow going. The laurel and loose rock made a mean tag team. The laurel kept me from seeing where I was putting my feet and the loose rock kept me off balance. Randy was well ahead of the rest of us but when we caught up to him he told us a branch had poked his eye but he was OK to continue on. I asked him to let me see and I couldn't believe he wasn't in worse pain considering how bad his eye looked. To me, it seemed a piece of stick was still lodged in it and it had cut his eyelid as well. The eye was blood red and watering like crazy but Randy insisted he was OK and we traveled on although a little more carefully.
|Lower portion of Star Branch Falls.|
|Little Stony Creek.|
|John on top of his new discovery on Star Branch. The sun was killing me here.|
|Another new find on Star Branch, this one was unearthed by Thomas.|
|Cascade on Stony Creek.|
We passed several more nice cascades and some rocks as big as houses before our next off trail detour. Laurel Branch runs under the longest of the three bridges we crossed emptying into Stony Creek as well. John found us a well hidden trail to follow upstream and within a few minutes a nice 30ft waterfall could be seen emptying from another fork in the creek! Once again I was embarrassed that I had never seen the falls here as they were even more beautiful than the ones on Stony Creek. Further upstream I could see another significant drop and after finishing up at the lower waterfall I took off in hot pursuit of John who was already climbing all over the upper falls. I liked this "new" falls a lot. It fell in two drops with the lower portion being split by a large rock. The only way to see all the waterfall was to climb over onto the rock which wasn't an easy task considering the smooth rock had thin layers of ice coating it sporadically. Once I safely made it over with John I was thankful I had put in the effort, the hidden drop was perhaps the nicest one to photograph. I could see downstream to Randy shooting the lower falls and Thomas below me at the base of the falls, we were all loving Laurel Branch! I tool a quick glance at my watch and saw that it was after 4pm! I knew we had an hour of daylight left and the there more waterfalls to see!
|Waterfall emptying into Laurel Branch.|
|I climbed over this...|
|...to photograph this|
|John captured me at work, getting the above shots lined up.|
Once we made it back to the bridge we all found a new hiking gear and within minutes were scrambling down to the base of the largest of the falls. Although I had seen it countless times it was a thrill to see Thomas and Randy stand in awe of its beauty, everyone picked their spots for photos and made some quick memories before hiking on. The trail cuts across another wooden bridge above the middle waterfall, it's kind of small so I kept hiking but when I realized Thomas and the rest of the group wanted to go down for a closer look I circled back to join them. The afternoon sun was now behind the ridge for good and lighting was nice for photography. The temps hovered in the 40's all day and now that the sun was gone they were falling fast. John packed extra gloves and dug them out of his pack to keep my hands from freezing. The middle falls pictures were some of the nicest of the day and I found it hard to leave the base when everyone else started packing up.
|Lower Stony Falls.|
|Middle Stony Falls.|
|Upper Stony Falls.|
One last falls awaited Thomas on his first Virginia hike of the year and with about 20 minutes of daylight left we arrived at its base for a brief but productive round of photography. As I packed my gear away for the hike out, I knew we would be walking in total darkness and hadn't packed my headlamp. It's funny too because I had looked at it on the kitchen counter before leaving that morning and though there would be no way be out that late, but when you get a group of eager hikers together anything is possible. Luckily Thomas had packed a small flashlight he let me used bad he hiked a long way using the glow from his bright orange shirt! As it often happens, I drifted into thought and my pace quickened, soon I was out of sight 9f the group completely. I turned out the flashlight and was swallowed up by the night, it was one of the most peaceful experiences I've had.
|Darkness closing in on Upper Stony Falls. Randy Tarpley seen on far right of picture shooting from another angle.|
|Thomas crossing one of the bridges on the hike out.|
In just over an hour we knocked out the 2.6 miles back to the parking area and safety of the vehicles. Everyone said their goodbyes satisfied with another epic day. We saw 11 waterfalls in 7 miles and just over 7 hours of daylight we had to work with. All of us were aware that there were a few more falls that we could have explored upstream on Laurel Branch and a mystery stretch of one of the forks that drain into it, but vowed to return another day to scratch them off the list. Until then, happy trails.