Monday, September 8, 2014

Earlier today I finally stopped laughing over Justin losing his tooth on our camping trip a few weeks ago. There's a perfectly good reason they call it the wilderness, wild things seem to always happen. It's instances like what happened to him that also got me to thinking of how dangerous it really is out on the trails. There's plenty of pitfalls to befall the casual hiker. Bees, bears, ticks, poison ivy, and stinging nettle to name a few. Snakes, breaks, twists, ands sprains all await with one wrong move. Take all those things in to consideration before heading out and don't forget to check the weather too.  Sadly, there's always a press release that emerges each year where someone got too close to the edge of a cliff or is swept over a waterfall when they lose their footing. How do you avoid becoming that person, or worse than that (according to John Forbes) be the one that survives and takes a rescue ride in the basket below a helicopter? Why risk it? Why put your neck on the line when you could sit at home and look at everyone elses adventures through the safety of your computer screen or television? Because no matter how wonderful someone else can capture a moment, there's nothing like living in it. Pushing the envelope, taking it to the next level, call it whatever you want, but it's that aspect that I find most enjoyable, especially on my recent outings.
Above the clouds near the Devil's Courthouse off of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Lower waterfall on Sam's Branch. The steel cable on the left of picture is from the railway that used to run through the area that now serves as the trail.
Steve at the brink of the lower waterfall.
One of the first waterfalls we reached above the lower falls. This one was nice being around 20ft high.

Last Thursday, I had the good fortune of hiking with my friend Steve. It was one of the few times we've had the opportunity to hike together this year and he wanted to go somewhere that provided a little danger, some adventure, and plenty of fun. I researched my hiking bible, Kevin Adam's North Carolina Waterfall Guide Book, and became fixated on a creek off the Blue Ridge Parkway outside of Brevard called Sam's Branch. Sam's Branch flows off the steep slopes of the mountain above Waynesville and forms plenty of waterfalls along the journey. The most intriguing part for me was the difficulty involved in accessing the waterfalls upstream from the trail that intersects the lower waterfall on Sam's Branch and leads on to the falls on Wash Hollow. I have been to the falls there several times and never thought to hike upstream or really had the time considering I've often been on one of my marathon waterfall days. Remember the 23 waterfalls in one day entry? I told Steve of the potential to see waterfalls that only a handful of people have ever seen and he was immediately convinced as well, we were off to Sam's Branch.
Heading upstream. This was took above one of the waterfalls looking downstream.
This little cascade was very photogenic.
Putting some distance on civilization.
Not much of a trail. Just keep moving upstream. That was our motto.
This picture does little to represent how tough of a climb this was. I had to crawl on my knees here up the crack of the rock to get any traction.
The route we took is somewhere down in the lower portion of the picture. This was our first full view of the cliff on the opposite side of the creek.

The two hour drive to North Carolina is never bothersome as our conversation kept my mind off the miles. We arrived at the trail head off of NC 215 shortly after 10am and began the climb up the bank to meet the old railroad bed that serves as the trail. It had rained the night before and every tree limb I brushed dropped cold water down my back. I brought all my camera gear including the gopro and my tripod. Adam's description warned of climbing and needing your hands free to negotiate the terrain but I figured we could toss the equipment to one another as we made our way up the mountain. Steve was stoked and had me almost in a run as we curved around the ridge toward the roar of water. The rain had also gave us some prime flow for the normally peaceful creek. I took us down a small side path that gave me my first view of the lower waterfall from it's base. Sam's Branch stair steps up the mountain for as far as you can see and I started taking pictures right away, taking advantage of the overcast sky and good lighting. Steve turned over any rock he could budge in search of snakes or salamanders waiting patiently for me to finish. We climbed back to the main trail and a short distance later it arrives at the midpoint of the lower waterfall.
This is the best kind of hiking.
This waterfall was close to 25ft high and was also very photogenic.
This large waterfall made our efforts seem worthwhile. I wanted to swim here but I knew we were pressed for time so we had to hike back into the woods. There wasn't a safe way to climb over this one at creek level.

From our vantage point we could see downstream to the base and upstream to more and more drops of the falls. As promised in the description, we found the sloped rock on the opposite side and began our climb beside the waterfall. The trail is immediately steep and overgrown as many people don't go upstream. It was slick as well, with water running over exposed rock faces, we were forced to grab onto anything we could to keep going upward. Steve had to climb with one hand because the other was carrying the gopro and tripod but we soon found a trail above us higher on the bank and bushwhacked up to meet it and keep a little distance from the slick bedrock along the waterfall. The trail soon leveled and so did the creek. We worked our way back down toward the top of the falls and met the creek there. A large boulder hangs over the creek at the brink and a deep pool lies beneath it. Upstream was about a 20ft sliding waterfall and more smaller falls as I could see a good distance past it. Most of the rocks were covered in bright green moss and already you could get the feeling that this area wasn't visited very often. In the guidebook, it suggests crossing to the right of the creek and making your way upstream as best you can. I seen what appeared to be a disturbance in the leaves along the bank and suggested we should take that route since it looked like the beginnings of were someone or something else had walked. Climbing up the rock was difficult but once we got in the woods there was plenty of laurel to hold onto. The laurel were so thick that we had to crawl and twist our bodies to get through and keep trying to follow what we now determined was a small game path. I grew frustrated quickly and retreated back to the creek and waded and rock hopped along more small waterfalls. I took time to take some pics of a few that were over 10ft high and Steve joined me in the water to keep heading onward looking for the largest waterfall on the creek. I had downloaded a picture on my phone of the only image I could find from the base of the upper waterfall so I had an idea of what we were looking for. Continuing up the creek I started noticing a large rock cliff hanging over the left side of the creek. I could already tell we were gaining elevation and although it was slow going there was so much to see I couldn't wait to turn the next corner.
Crawling through the woods is hard on your laundry.
Standing on top of another waterfall.
Steve pondering our next move. Look how deep that water is! This was about waterfall number six or seven.

Soon we were above the shade of the massive cliff and I could see the top of the rock looking downstream. What a view it must be to sit up there! We arrived at another waterfall, this one being around 25ft high and hidden by large rocks above and below it. We rested there while I took some pictures and as I packed my camera back up, the rain began to fall. The last three hikes we've been on it's rained, so we weren't concerned and tried to reenter the woods to have a little shelter. The climbing was horrendous with laurel and rock walls cutting us off and we were having to back track and try new routes. We found the best way to continue on was to crawl to miss much of the laurel branches and it wasn't long before I could hear another waterfall. Steve went down to the creek first and called for me to come see for myself. I came out of the brush to see a 50ft waterfall with lots of small cascades and a long deep pool at it's base. Even more surprising was there was no mention in the book or photo of any of the waterfalls that we had seen so far. There was no sign of human intervention either. No trail, no trash, no disturbances of any kind. I carefully surveyed both sides of the creek bank but not a single leaf was turned over.  I just didn't see any way someone had been there before. I mentioned it to Steve and he agreed, the rocks we were sitting on had moss as thick as a couch cushion on them. The rain had let up for the time being and we could see the skies were full of threatening clouds but we now both were soaked so our hike continued on.
As I rounded the corner, The massive upper waterfall of Sam's Branch came into view. This is only half of the waterfall.
The upper portions of the waterfall. There's still a long way to the top. I had crawled up a sloped slick rock for this view. The rock drops sharply on the opposite side of this hiding more cascading water.

Steve never complains when we go out, but the constant crawling and ducking under obstacles was starting to hurt his back. I brought some water and trail mix and at the base of another falls along the way we rested and started doubting we would find what we were after. Steve needed to be home around 6pm and it was now past 130pm and he seemed more and more hesitant to head further up the mountain. The forest closed around the creek making it almost dark with the rain clouds and above the falls it leveled out heading out of our sight. Had we somehow passed the upper waterfall? I told him we would hike up around the level area to see what was there. I stayed in the creek and put a good distance between us rounding the corner to find just more of the same. I could see that the creek took a sharp turn to the left on upstream and I told myself that if I didn't see anything past that point we would head home.

I rounded the corner and was greeted with a decent size waterfall and lots of boulders on either side of the creek. I climbed on top of one and could see that the lower waterfall was only a portion of a roughly 100ft high waterfall! WE HAD FOUND IT! I grabbed my phone to take some pictures and looked at the saved image of the upper waterfall. At first it seemed that it wasn't the right place but I noticed a distinct rock that separated the stream at the upper drop and knew we had succeeded. Eventually my elation and heart rate settled and I started taking pictures. The boulders kept me from seeing the whole waterfall unobstructed and the rain had started falling again. Steve joined me at the base and used his foot as a step to let me climb over more rocks and see the drops hidden behind each rock. For more than a mile we had seen no sign of any other humans and now we were crawling over slick rocks taking pictures in the rain. Once I was satisfied I had enough pictures to tell the story the reality of the danger set in.
The upper waterfall on Sam's Branch. Only the second photo I've ever seen of it. The person who hiked here before us had stayed in the woods passing much of what we saw along the creek up the mountain and explaining why there wasn't a trail or any disturbances of any kind. I was standing on a rock that had stinging nettle growing on it to take this picture. I would estimate a little over a mile separates the lower and upper falls but it's some tough no trail hiking!

Only half of our hike was complete. We now had to get off the mountain in the rain, around the cliffs, and through the laurel. There are so many obstacles that separated us from dry clothes and a ride home it was a little discouraging. Many times I've took vicious falls on the way back due to not paying attention. We didn't have the luxury of getting hurt because I knew no one could get to us any time soon so we agreed to take our time and work together and started back to the truck. Although we had twisted all over the creek and mountain on the way up we followed our tracks back rather easily. I opted to stay in the creek for as long as I could and when we would arrive at a brink of a falls we would crawl back through the laurel and slide down to the base and continue on down the creek. A couple of hours later and we were safely back at the truck.

On the ride home, Steve and I talked about the danger involved in what we do and the lines that seem to get pushed further and further by an ever growing hiking community The Sam's Branch hike had lived up to the hype. It was everything I could ask for with at least seven waterfalls that I had never seen pictures of. That being said, it's not a hike for everyone. There's no trails or signs of any kind, so if you get hurt or lost, you're on your own. I consider myself very fortunate to be healthy enough and experienced enough to get out and do the things I do, but I know that all it takes it was one wrong step and I could end up being one of those press releases. It keeps me honest and hungry for more adventure, hopefully, for years to come! Until next time, happy trails!


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Amber hates hiking. She tells me this every time I ask her to join me. It's always too hot or too cold, too steep or too dangerous, too far or most times, just simply, "NO!" Despite her hatred for the trails, she's a really good hiker. It always starts out the same, arguing the entire way to the trail, followed by cursing me on the hike in, loving the moment when she arrives at the destination, then back to cursing me on the hike out. On the drive home she raves about how wonderful it was and it wasn't nearly as bad as she thought it would be, but she will never, EVER, do it again!

Enter Alabama.

My college roommate and good friend, Ben Ezell moved to Alabama with his wife Carrie and their collection of animals to reside in one of the finest lake houses I've ever laid eyes on. When Amber and I planned our vacation I suggested we visit The Ezell's for some late summer fun on the water and of course the slightest chance of a tiny, short, easy, smooth hike. After confirming with Ben and Carrie, we were on our way to Bama for a week of relaxation.

On the drive into Alabama we took a lazy stretch of four lane known as Highway 72. I spotted a brown forest service sign indicating a point of interest and in bold print was "WALLS OF JERICHO 25 Miles." I first heard of the Walls of Jericho on a road side in North Carolina. I met author Mark Morrision who is from Georgia and said it was a must see if I ever found myself in Alabama. He cautioned us to visit the walls in times of good rain preferably the spring or fall since the creeks in the gorge can dry up easily. As fate would have it, as we passed the forest service sign it was also raining as hard as I can ever remember! I told Amber that it was a sign that God wants us to see the Walls of Jericho. A quick "NO" and we scooted on down the road to the intersection with Interstate 65. Soon we were meeting Ben outside of Cullman, Alabama and on our way to the lake house. The rain was relentless, it continued the entire drive and well after we were in the comfort of our residence for the next few days. God was giving me the water I needed to see the Walls of Jericho.

Further compounding my chances of seeing a trail on my vacation was the fact that it was also our three year wedding anniversary, Wednesday to be exact, the only day that Ben could possibly join me on a hike. Late Tuesday night after a long day of lake fun, I made a final plea to Amber, and miraculously, she agreed we could hike on our anniversary!
Amber and Ben starting down the trail.
The footbridge across the creek.
Climbing through the gorge.
The drainage from the main falls leaving a cave.

The next morning Amber, Ben, and I made the two hour drive back to the Walls of Jericho near the Tennessee border. We arrived at the trail head around 10am and started hiking the 2.5 miles to the main waterfall in the gorge. The hike really is easy going in, traveling downhill the majority of the way and Amber stayed in good spirits well into the first mile before realizing we had to return the same route. Switch backs lowered us further into the gorge and we began passing some sink holes. I began hearing water and could see a creek further down and we hiked along it's banks reaching a long wooden foot bridge. The trail turned muddy and it was challenging trying to keep our feet clean. Ben and Amber got along really well and we all stayed together as we crossed the creek near a cemetery for the final half mile of the hike. The trail continues upstream and with every weed laid over for about a 25ft stretch on either side of the creek, Monday's rain had caused some serious flash flooding. The flow had backed down a lot but was still a little cloudy, without that rain the creek would have been completely dry! I was first to see the lower falls in the gorge and thought is this all there is? Amber was behind me and said, "Is this ALL it is?" There were two other hikers swimming in the bright green water hole and I asked how much further to the main falls and was a little surprised when they told me only a couple hundred yards. The walls of the gorge were gray rock cliffs with water springing from seemingly ever crack and crevice. We climbed over the ledges finding deep stagnant pools and small waterfalls leaving from caves. Amber took the lead and I helped over a steep ledge continuing to climb upstream. Before I could join her, she returned to the edge and said, "Jason, there's nothing up here but more rock!" I felt like I would possibly die on my anniversary if there was nothing else to see, so I jumped up and climbed over another ledge and there in a large hole worn out by water was a beautiful 35ft high waterfall. Truthfully, I've seen better waterfalls but with the overall scene was fantastic! Amber and Ben joined me on the brink of the gorge and Ben and I climbed down the piles of rock to reach the base of the falls. The waterfall doesn't flow away like it would on most creeks but instead pools deeply and drains through underground caves reemerging downstream above the lower waterfall. Eventually I coaxed Amber down to join us and it was a great feeling having my wife with me at such a wonderful place at the exact time she was walking down the aisle three years earlier!
Ben and Amber on the edge of the gorge.
Main waterfall at the Walls of Jericho.
Wide angle shot of the waterfall taken with my Gopro.
Ben and Amber on the cliff above the waterfall. This helps with telling the size of the waterfall. Ben is 6'9".
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY! It's around 2:10pm in this picture, exactly three years later from Amber walking down the aisle to me!
Amber and I under the Walls of Jericho and on our way out!
Ben and I cooling off for the hike out in 52 degree cave fed creek water!

The conversation on the hike out can't be put in print here, but Amber struggled. We took several breaks and around an hour and half later were making the final approach to the car. To her credit, Amber handled it well considering the heat was above 90 degrees and the humidity was equally brutal. The two hour drive back to Ben's went by quick and we still were spared with enough time to play in the lake. I even got to watch the sun set over the water from the comfort of a jet ski. To me, our anniversary was perfect. Having Amber with me was all I wanted and for her to be willing to do it showed a lot of love on her part. She even has started speaking to me again, and something tells me I will soon have a hefty bill from her favorite cake decorating supply store. Until next time, happy trails!

Amber shortly before her mood deteriorated.






Wednesday, August 27, 2014

**Part Two** Panthertown Valley Camping Trip. Please see previous entry for full story!

With just over an hour to spare before dark we arrived at the Cold Mountain Access to Panthertown Valley. My hopes of finding a decent camp site were dashed when we found the parking lot jammed with cars. Sleeping in the truck wouldn't be possible so we gathered our packs from the bed of the truck and started down the Schoolhouse Falls Trail. The trail is easy and the waterfall is one of the most visited in the valley. Surprisingly, we didn't pass anyone on the hike in and were greeted with music from the Cannan Land property adjacent to the trail. I mistakenly took one of Carlton McNeil's twisting winding trails that led us through a tangle of laurel and by the top of the waterfall and it seemed our packs snagged on every branch we passed by! Carlton was a pioneer in the valley and blazed many of the present day trails recognized on forest service maps, he even has his own waterfall named for him there, Carlton Falls.
Ready for day two! Photo by John Forbes.

As we passed the base of Schoolhouse Falls the first campsite across the creek was already taken by another group of hikers. The trail widens again downstream at another camp site. Thankfully this one was empty, and in a prime location too. Pine needles softened the ground and a slight trail led down the creek bank giving us a water source. Shane and John suggested we find enough firewood to last through the night and we started scavenging the area dragging dead logs and twigs we found back to our site. As we had left the truck (now over a mile away) Shane noticed a small black bag in the bed and asked if it was mine. I didn't recognize it and John had already started down the trail ahead of us so I assumed it was something he decided he didn't need for later. After we gathered our firewood, John started working on getting the fire going while Shane assembled his tent. I laid on my sleep pad and rested my tired feet staring up at the night sky. John suggested I start unpacking my tent he had let me borrow while he made dinner. I asked him where it was and the look on his face made it obvious what was in that small black bag in Shane's truck, my tent! It was now dark so I grabbed my headlamp and started back to the truck. The hike went by fast and was surprisingly peaceful. I grabbed some water and my tent and set off back to camp. I stumped my toe on the hike back on a sharp stick that knocked the hide off below my big toe but with all the other cuts I had from earlier it did very little to slow me. I arrived back at camp to find John preparing dinner and Shane returning from a bath in the creek. Shane's refreshed look inspired me so I too took off to the creek for a dip. I shed my clothes on the bank and used a extra sock I had packed for a wash cloth. Getting all the dirt and debris from my cuts made me feel a lot better and I rejoined camp just in time for my own hot pot of Ramen Noodles. After dinner we sat around telling stories and reliving our crazy experience on the cliffs. Shortly after 11pm, we all retired to our tents for the night and an early morning appointment with more trails.

Day Two.

With a thin mat and sore body, I slept in thirty minute spurts through the night. While tossing in my sleeping bag, I discovered a new injury to my foot. Apparently the stick I stumped my toe on had slipped under my foot and punctured the ball of my foot, I rubbed my hand over the wound and found it wet with blood. I awoke for the final time around 6am and exited my tent finding that I was the first one up. John began groaning complaining of a headache and asked if I had any Tylenol. Shane started rummaging around his tent and found some medicine for John in his first aid kit. We decided the best plan of action was to hit some of the more popular falls early that morning avoiding the crowds and breaking camp later in the afternoon. Our first stop was just upstream at Schoolhouse Falls. With a deep pool in front of the falls and the ability to photograph it from all sides, including behind it, it's easy to see why it's one of the most popular falls in Panthertown Valley.
John and Shane behind Schoolhouse Falls.
John in the pot hole at Warden's Falls.
Jawbone Falls.
Shane and I inside the pot hole at Riding Ford Falls.

Shane and John were impressed and circled the falls clicking away with their cameras. I took their pictures behind the falls and made a short video of my own walk behind the waterfall. We had a lot to see so we set off on the trail traveling back through camp and on to the trail intersection for the Devil's Elbow. The Devil's Elbow Trail passes by five waterfalls and I had brought Burt Kornegay's Panthertown map with me to keep us on course. The first stop on the trail was at Warden's Falls. I had visited this waterfall last fall and really liked it so I kept quiet and let John and Shane soak it in for themselves. The trail crosses the top of the falls and a slight scramble gets you to the base. Both John and Shane were impressed and Shane was in the water playing on it's natural water slide in no time. I poked around downstream and found a deep pot hole which was the perfect fit for John. He jumped in and I took some pictures with the waterfall as a back drop. Satisfied with our first falls we were off to find Jawbone Falls. We climbed back up the ridge meeting the Devil's Elbow and followed it down to the next spur trail that once again emptied us above the waterfall. It was the first time for me seeing this falls and I was impressed with it's wide slide and massive deep pool below the falls. We worked down the bedrock and John was first to it's base. He decided to climb out to a rock in the pool for a better view and forgot to take his electronic cigarette from his pocket and ruined it for any use the rest of the day. I was afraid it would ruin the day for him but he kept his spirits high as we continued downstream and crossed over to a sandy beach which I thought was the best view of Jawbone Falls. Just around the bend was our next waterfall, Riding Ford Falls. Riding Ford was more of a long cascade but with a large collection of boulders at the base and yet another cool looking pot hole I found it to be very photogenic. Both Shane and John were already wet and with a little convincing, I was taking the plunge in the pot hole inside of the waterfall. It was in two sections with one being too deep for me to touch but the other compartment I could stand up in and lean back letting the water cascade over me. I seriously could have spent the rest of the day here. John and Shane climbed on one of the large boulders and eventually took turns joining me in the pot hole for photo ops. After we all had cooled off, we set off to find Elbow Falls further downstream. I was excited to see this one it reminded me of a smaller Turtle Back Falls but it was even smaller than what I could depict from photographs I'd seen, only being about 10ft high. Although it's small, it forms a deep channel and sharp "elbow" bend as it continues on down the valley. The trees along the banks here were the most photogenic being covered in curtains of thick moss and two of the largest dead trees had washed in on the bed rock below the falls indicating that this place sees some serious flooding. Our final stop on the Devil's Elbow was at Red Butt Falls. We climbed out of the gorge and found the trail again, as we hiked toward the spur trail we noticed some flagging tape lined on either side of the main trail. Thankfully, John saw some writing on the tape and we stopped to look. Someone had took time to warn other hikers of a yellow jackets nest right next to the trail! I spotted it in the leaves and we snuck by trying not to alarm them. So to whoever did this, I thank you! The trail to Red Butt is overgrown indicating not many people get down in the valley that far. When we arrived at the falls we were at the top and it was very similar to Riding Ford Falls with a large cliff looming over it's base. Shane examined the rock and found a perfect slide to test out. As he zipped down the rock laughing wildly, I knew I had to try it for myself. The footing is a little tough but once I was on my rear the water pushed me down to a small pool at the end of the slide. I was in love, as quick as I would land I would scramble back up for another ride! Eventually both Shane and I "raced" each other down the plunge, pushing and shoving trying to be the first to reach the pool. I think Shane summed up the Devil's Elbow hike the best when he said, "we made each of those waterfalls our own."
Elbow Falls.
The old trees surrounding Elbow Falls.
Shane preparing for launch at Red Butt Falls.

Thrilled with our morning of adventure and play time we hiked back to camp energized by six quality waterfalls under our belts. We packed our gear and our new found energy burned quickly with the midday sun and tired legs from the day before. We arrived at the truck and  made the short drive to the end of the Cold Mountain Access for a trip to see our final three waterfalls, Greenland Creek, Halfway Falls, and Carlton Falls. We all were starting to get hungry and our insults and arguing only intensified as we wound toward Greenland Creek. As Shane and John stepped out on the rocks below the waterfall, their stunned looks made me almost forgive them for their ridicule on the hike in! Greenland Creek Falls is nice and big around 70ft high. To continue on to the other falls we had to climb the steep trail next to its' drop. My legs and energy were shot but I made it to the top first and found a little path that led me down to the top of the falls. I wouldn't recommend hanging out here, a stiff breeze or a slip would certainly mean your death. John and Shane joined me and we decided that we had a great trip but it was time for some food! I didn't argue with them either, I was starved, and our hungry served as our motivation on the hike out, soon we were in the truck on the way to the Twin Dragons Buffet.

Cooling off at Red Butt Falls.

Greenland Creek Falls.
John and Shane leaving camp.

My shredded legs.
It's been over a week since our Panthertown Trip and as I type this up tonight I have had a smile on my face the whole time. The challenges we pushed through on day one helped us savor the fun we got to experience on day two. Although Thomas couldn't find his infamous trail, he was a lot of fun to hike with and we've already talked of taking an even more epic trip in the bowels of Panthertown Valley in the near future. Finally, I would like to recognize all the new readers I've gained from my friends through the various social media sites that help promote my blog. I appreciate all of you and look forward to bringing you many more trip reports in the years to come. Stay tuned, and happy trails!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Most of the photos in this blog entry are from my friend John Forbes, he was the only one crazy enough to let go long enough to take a picture that day. This is our story...

Tired, sore, and still bleeding from a few wounds, I limped into Twin Dragons Chinese Buffet near Brevard bringing with me two more beat down hikers looking for a hot meal. As I worked my way around the bar, the nicely dressed Sunday afternoon customers raised a few eyebrows, but I didn't care, I was just happy to be alive and to see the won ton soup bowl was nearly full. I settled in on my second plate talking to Shane when a soft elderly woman's voice said, "what have you done?" I looked up from my plate long enough to see her shocked look as she stared down at my legs which were covered in bloody gashes, but in order to fully understand those wounds I have to take you back to the beginning of our weekend camping trip.
We were so excited! Photo by Thomas Mabry.
The drop into the gorge of Flat Creek Falls.
Approaching the upper falls. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas "on the trail" photo by John Forbes.
You really had to hold onto your hats on this one...as well as other body parts. Photo by John Forbes.

Shane Estep has hiked with me several times in the past and when he mentioned a hiking/camping trip, I felt the pressure of picking the perfect spot and making sure it lives up to our recent run of epic journeys. John Forbes has become one of my "go to" hiking partners and recruited him for the trip as well. Settling on a location for a camping trip came surprisingly easy to me. I hiked in the Panthertown Valley last fall and loved the trails and many camp sites would put us in prime territory to see a lot of waterfalls in one day. The Valley lies just outside of Lake Toxaway, North Carolina and, in my opinion, is overlooked as one of the premier hiking destinations in the mountains. While doing the prep work for our trip, I became a member of Friends of Panthertown Valley to scope out some possible sites we wanted to see and as I perused their page I kept seeing posts from a member named Thomas Mabry. As fate would have it, Thomas sent me a friend request on Facebook and I poured through his pictures, impressed with some of the more difficult hikes he had completed. Thomas and I exchanged several messages and I told him we would be coming into the area for some hiking and I asked if he would join us as a guide in the rugged Flat Creek Falls gorge.
Shane and I coming down the cliffs. Photo by John Forbes.
This wasn't a photo op, I was actually hiking here. Notice the thorns on the right. I had over 100 cuts when we reached the base of the waterfall. Photo by John Forbes.
Down and down and down. Photo by John Forbes.
Shane and I had to laugh so we wouldn't cry. Photo by John Forbes.

Not more than a week earlier, Thomas had joined author Todd Ransom in an epic bushwhack down the cliffs next to the 200ft waterfall to it's base. When I saw that it could be done, I had to go myself. So I told Shane and John we were in for adventure on the grandest of scales, but we ended up getting far more than we bargained for.
The tree obstacle course on another section of cliff. Photo by John Forbes.
The helicopter entering the gorge. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas the Honey Badger blazing the trail. Photo by John Forbes.
and we're right behind him. Photo by Thomas Mabry.

We left the Tri Cities early Saturday morning and the two hour drive down into the North Carolina Mountains went quickly with Shane driving his powerful Chevy pickup truck (sarcasm) The road to Flat Creek Falls trail head dead ends at a large camp site and when we arrived, albeit a few minutes late, Thomas was standing next to his car ready to hit the trail. We all took a few minutes getting acquainted and were soon across the creek and winding down the old rail bed that serves as the first part of the trail. For me hiking through the thick low lying Laurel was a pain, I had to stay bent over for most of the hike and when we met the jeep road intersection I finally could rest my back. Thomas was quite the hiker, keeping pace and telling stories of his recent surge in hiking activity. Shane stayed quiet for long stretches seemingly absorbing all he could from the surrounding forests, while John was almost jogging he was so excited to see the falls in person. In less than an hour we had blazed through the woods to the top of the waterfall. I cautioned John and Shane that the trail drops steeply off and down to the creek on some exposed bed rock and that a slip into the creek would mean a ride over the waterfall and eventually the morgue. Thomas took the lead and showed us a steep but manageable grade down to a small falls that empties into a deep pool. I opted to use my butt to slide down the ledge and was the last to reach the base. I noticed the moss on the opposite side of the pool was so thick it was hanging down like curtains, a sign that not many, if any, other people get down to this vantage point. From the pool the waterfall really begins in earnest, cascading wildly as it roars toward a vertical drop of over 100ft in the vast gorge below. We all took pictures looking downstream and I could feel my heart beating a little faster as I knew things were going to get even more difficult. Thomas seemed to have trouble finding the route that he used on his previous trip with Todd but settled on swinging downstream on the sloped rock face heading toward the main drop. We followed each other single file as there were several places along the route that was foot in front of foot walking. Adding to the difficulty was the loose pine needles, dry flaky moss, and small pebbles and sticks that had rolled down onto the rock face over time. IT WAS INTENSE HIKING! Soon we were grouped on a narrow ledge with seemingly no way to continue, Thomas decided that he had took a half butt slide/control fall here to a lower ledge that was frighteningly narrow and about 10ft or so from a sheer cliff that lines the gorge. John was quick to follow and turned to coax me down. I could see the soft ground beneath his feet rock and I was afraid if I jumped with all my weight I would slide on to my death. Shane stayed close behind me and I suggested we should find another way but Thomas and John insisted I could do it and so I slid down onto the ledge using the remnants of a dead tree to steady my landing. I found it easier to turn away from looking off the cliff and I scooted over as far as I could to let Shane make his way down with us. The narrow ledge led us further along the cliff rim but thick shrubs cut us off. Thomas lived up to his social media description as a honey badger and vanished into the mess with John close on his heels. I had to get down on my hands and knees to continue and soon I was tangled in thick briers digging into both legs. It really hurt but I wasn't going to let go and risk sliding down the grade and each crawl became more painful. Shane had claimed to be afraid of heights but he seemed to be calmer than anyone and helped me by showing me foot holds and cautioning me of approaching brier scrambles. When I caught up to Thomas and John I found them trying to find a way down a even steeper ledge. A large tree was turned over our heads and we were able to wrap our arms around it's trunk working down the ledge to a point where two trees grow closely to the drop. John's height worked against him for the first time in the little man's paradise but he was able to ride the tree down only having to make a semi dangerous jump. I got down the cliff rather easily and temporarily regained a little bit of my dignity. Thomas continued to lead us down into the gorge but I could see that we were still extremely high and warned John not to stray too far down that he might not be able to come back up the grade. As we crawled and thrashed along the cliffs, I still remained confident that we would soon find a gap in the rock walls to give us access to lower trails and a way to the base. I didn't expect it to be easy but I certainly had counted on being further along than we were. We reached an exposed section of the cliffs and I heard a thundering noise coming from over the ridge. A helicopter came over the tree line and into the gorge below the falls. It was literally hovering right beside of us! The first thought I had was that someone had went missing and they were looking for them but as the copter turned I could tell they were photographing the waterfall! It was a real manly feeling that someone paid a pilot to take them there and here we were hanging on for dear life on the cliffs hiking down to it's base. Soon the helicopter lifted out of the canyon and was gone, a part of me wanted to be on it and heading to safety but I pushed on. Thomas checked his GPS and noticed that we were about 20 yards off course. Above me was a solid rock wall and below me was a drop that we couldn't get down, it was at this point that I started thinking we might be in serious trouble. I couldn't imagine climbing back up the route we had descended but now that seemed like a real possibility. John is one of the most positive people I've ever met and I could see the doubt in his face as well. Thomas soon came scrambling back up to join us saying he had been cut off by yet another drop. I could tell he was upset he couldn't find the way he had took before but I knew we would get to the base one way or the other and I was just happy no one was seriously hurt yet. For the next thirty minutes or so, John, Shane, and Thomas took turns wading down the gorge in different directions using trees to steady their legs on the extremely steep terrain. I found a spot to rest and serve as a coordinator to tell the others of each person's location. Eventually all of the group reconvened with me and shared the grim news, we couldn't get down and were now going to have to try to climb out to find another way. For a moment, my heart sunk, I wasn't sure how or if it was even possible for me to get back up some of the ledges I had to jump down, but I certainly didn't want to stay there either. I took the lead and made it up to the tree that gave John problems but I was able to once again scramble up it with ease. I had to twist my body a little funny to get under the fallen tree but it was one less obstacle to overcome. I entered the low lying brush with the plan of staying as high as I could on the ridge above the main cliff face. I knew the general direction I needed to take and so I slithered on my belly through the briers for more cuts and pain therapy. I could see Shane, John, and Thomas about twenty yards below me also fighting through the tangles. I reached a large rounded rock with no way to climb over and was forced to go downhill to join them. We found ourselves at the narrow soft ledge and the vertical climb up the rock face. Thomas and John could used the dead tree to climb over it and were soon on their way back to the main splash pool. Shane was ahead of me and struggled slightly climbing up and warned me not to use the dead tree which was now dangerously loose. My first attempt up the rock ended in failure with me sliding down it's face on my left forearm leaving some skin behind. The second try the grip I had on Shane's hiking stick failed and I once again stumbled back down to the ledge. Shane called for John to help us but he couldn't hear us because he was already at the waterfall washing off from the climb out! After I rested a moment, Shane braced himself and again lowered his hiking stick down for me to have something to grip until I could find any kind of traction, I used the dead tree just enough to pull up and land on my knees on the narrow landing above. I was so relieved but still had a treacherous scoot over a rock face down to the upper falls and the deep pool to be with everyone else. When I arrived at the pool, I almost made another fatal mistake, I walked dangerously close to the slick stream bed and John called me back to use a small side pool to wash off instead. My body was beat up but I was alive and happy that we would still find a way to the base. Thomas was down on himself but once I had my breath I told him, that what we had experienced would make for a great story for the blog and not to worry about it!
Ginseng near Flat Creek Falls.
FINALLY! Flat Creek Falls. Look at John and Shane to the left of the picture, they are tiny compared to this giant waterfall.
The lower drop of the falls is nearly 100ft high. Photo by John Forbes.
John Forbes making the leap of faith. A fall here would have been fatal. Photo by Shane Estep.
Shane sliding down the rock below the falls. Photo by John Forbes.
This picture really illustrates the massive size of Flat Creek Falls. I'm tiny compared to the lower portion of the cascade. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas Mabry is inducted into the Shameless Selfie Crew.
A little out of sequence but this is when we finally made the top of the falls and found a new route to the base. I was beyond exhausted and only halfway through. the hike. Photo by John Forbes.

We rested there by the stream and soon we all were recovered enough to make another assault on finding the base of the mighty waterfall. Thomas took off through the forest finding renewed strength and we took a more gently sloping approach through the forest eventually finding a slight trail from that led us down into the gorge and downstream from the waterfall. The trail hugged the creek and as I was watching the ground for snakes I found one of the nicest ginseng plants I've ever seen. I didn't dig it since it wasn't in season and the berries weren't ripe, it was obvious other people had passed by without noticing it. We arrived at the base of the waterfall a few minutes later and I found a rock to rest on while John and Shane made the insanely slick climb around the left side of the falls and eventually vanished out of sight. Thomas joined me on the rock and seemed to be in better spirits since we had made our goal of being at the base. I was happy everyone was safe and to have a new trail contact in one of my favorite hiking areas. As we hiked out of the gorge everyone relived the challenges of the day and I'll have to admit seeing Shane's truck at the trail head was one of the greatest sights I'll ever seen, even with the University of Kentucky sticker. Thomas bid us farewell and we were on the road in search of a campsite near Panthertown Valley for day two of our trip....

...TO BE CONTINUED.