Friday, April 27, 2012

After a near five mile round trip hike in Gorge's State Park, Kip and I were excited to see what the falls of the Thompson River had to offer and although it was somewhat late in the afternoon (around 2:30) we felt we more than capable of making the six mile round trip hike at Thompson River before dark.

The parking area for the falls is non-existent, I had to leave my truck at the intersection of hwy 281 and Brewer Road and the trail head to the falls is an old logging road, that of course, leads uphill. After a couple hundred yards the trail levels and you start winding through the ridges, and within half a mile a nice 20ft falls is off on a side trail that can be spotted through the woods, we skipped this one and continued on down the main trail looking for a spur trail to the high falls of the river. The directions we had were last updated over six years ago and as we made it down the trail we started reaching obstacles that grew more frequent the further we went into the forest. The downed trees and thickening underbrush slowed our progress and was killing important daylight also, we finally found the trail to high falls and followed the narrow overgrown trail toward the side trail that leads straight down to the riverbank below the falls. I could hear the falls but the bank was steep and dead leaves and thick laurel made the descent challenging and tiring. I had brought a bottle of water and Kip had brought a few packs of snacks in case we were to get hungry, at this point all seemed OK.
High Falls on Thompson River
parting shot from High Falls

As we reached the river the size of it was more relative to that of a creek and around a small turn the 110ft high falls was nestled beautifully in a cove that looked undisturbed for years. I was forced to wade out in thigh deep water to get a photo but the cool was welcome after sweating down the bank to get there. I noticed that it was already and hour later and Kip and I began the difficult climb out and back to the main trail. Climbing out I was already tired and stop a few times up the mountain to rest. I was drinking water quickly and it seemed to do nothing to quench my thirst. We made the main trail once again and continued on determined to cap our day with one last fantastic waterfall. The main trail forked which was not mentioned in our directions and we ended up hiking a mile in the wrong way before deciding we needed to go back. My legs by this point were starting to really tire I had hiked over eight miles of strenuous trails the day before and was past that mark already today, but Kip's pace kept me motivated to move on. Back on the correct trail the logging road had narrowed to a single person path and downed tree after downed tree had to be negotiated to continue on. We passed several loud falls and we recognized those to be a couple of the unnamed falls from our directions, it seemed like we should have been further in but based on our directions we were still nearly two miles from Big Falls and it was closing in on 5pm. We sat at an old campsite creek side and had a decision to make, give up and go home or continue on and risk darkness catching up with us.
this was almost dinner

I made the call to continue on, I was tired but I could just imagine how awesome it would be when we got to the falls and they would energize us and we would hike out with smiles on our faces. The directions said we would see some old logging cable at our feet at a certain point, we ended up going the right direction but didn't go far enough to find the cable by maybe twenty paces, we doubled back and realized our error and continued back from where we had just came. I was starting to get frustrated and Kip and I's conversation had pretty much ceased. We found a small tributary and crossed it and started uphill seeming to double back on the opposite side of the creek in the direction from which we had came. Suddenly the roar of the creek to our left increased and the trail widened, at last, it seemed we were making progress! About three miles from the truck, out of water and food, and exhausted I smelled what I thought was my friend passing gas. As I looked around I noticed fresh bear manure on the trail! I've always wanted to encounter a bear while hiking but today was not the day. For the first time ever on a hike, I was beginning to feel nervous that things might not go as I had planned.

Another ten minutes or so down the trail, The river below was really roaring, and we came to some old flagging tape and a small pile of rocks that indicated what we thought was the crazy steep path down to Big Falls. The path was intimidating, and that's putting it lightly, it was straight down and looked like it hadn't been attempted in quite sometime, I asked Kip what he thought about it, his reply "I think we are going to die." With his vote of confidence we started down the trail, at a little over halfway down the trail becomes really tricky to negotiate, I heard something behind me and as I turned I caught Kip by his backpack straps as he slid by. He had fell behind me and could have possibly been hurt badly but luckily his shoulder was scraped and we were able to continue on to the riverbed. When I caught the glimpse of the falls, my heart sunk, it was the wrong one! We were still about twenty minutes up river from our destination and it was now evident that we would not make it to Big Falls on this day. We rested and soaked our feet for the grueling climb out, after only twenty minutes we started up that god forsaken trail, it took all of my effort and energy and it still took thirty minutes to reach the main trail. I had never felt so exhausted, my brain told my legs to move but they were gone, I started thinking that we were going to be spending the night there and how worried my wife would be. I trudged on however, and Kip did as well we barely spoke the whole way out and our exhaustion caused us to be confused and doubt we were even on the right path, the sun hung low in the sky as we finally reached the truck. I collapsed into the seat and laid it back too exhausted to drive. We had avoided a serious disaster with nothing but dumb luck.
beautiful unnamed falls on Thompson River, the one we mistook for Big Falls.
car sized boulders on the river

Although the falls of Thompson River are impressive, we were foolishly prepared for a difficult hike and didn't allow ourselves rest or time to attempt a place so treacherous. Miraculously, we almost made it. The trails were in rough shape and I would not recommend them for the average hiker. As I write this it's two days later, both feet are bruised, swollen, and cut. I learned a valuable lesson at the Thompson River and will indeed return, but next time with more supplies and with fresh legs. Until then, I will lick my wounds and doctor my ego...happy trails.

Wednesday, I spent my second consecutive day hiking in the mountains of North Carolina, this time I took along one of my friends, Kip. I usually hike with him when I'm going on one of my more grueling hikes, I'm not sure if this is by design or his poor luck, regardless we set off for Gorge's State Park and the Thompson River area at 930am and after a few stops along the way we were parking at Gorge's by noon.
The monstrous Rainbow Falls

Another shot of Rainbow Falls

The waterfalls in Gorge's State park are some of the best I've visited. The park itself is rather new and the visitor center is still under construction. I have a feeling the free access will eventually end and this will become a pay to play park. The park and property are along the Horsepasture River and within it's property bounds houses Bearwallow, Stairway, Rainbow, and Turtleback Falls. Just upstream from Turtleback is Drift Falls, a beautiful 80ft natural rock slide with a deep swimming pool in front, UNFORTUNATELY, this is on private property and if you would have to be blind to miss the signs littered everywhere along the river to remind you. This is a tragedy in my opinion, apparently the rock quarry across hwy 281 owns the property the falls is on and why they don't sell it or donate it to the park for use is baffling. Hopefully someone will read this and have the power to do something to change it! Anyway, after parking at the top of the mountain it's a three mile round trip hike to the falls. I have visited Gorge's several times and I was surprised as we neared the river the trail had received some nice maintenance and there is even a trail to Stairway Falls now! We decided to head on toward Rainbow Falls which is the largest falls in the park. A dull roar almost like the sound of bass can be heard well in advance of climbing the steep trail to the viewing area for Rainbow Falls, once it comes into sight it's refreshing and inspiring. The mist from this 125-150ft beauty hits you at a great distance from the falls, and it's feels wonderful after climbing the trail. I took pictures between wiping mist from my camera lens, and in a few minutes we climbed on toward Turtleback falls. At the top of Rainbow Falls, you can access the river and climb out and rock hop to look off the top of the falls. If you look upstream you can see Turtleback falls, it's awesome being between such two impressive waterfalls. It should be noted however, that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you enter the river between these two falls. The bedrock is slick and there is zero grip, not to mention the current is swift and there would be no way to get your footing before being swept over Rainbow Falls and to your death. Many people have made this mistake despite warnings I have read on blogs. On my first visit here a young lady had perished just two days before, the flowers left for her were a sobering reminder of the danger.
top of Rainbow, the current is really moving here

As we approached Turtleback falls, I couldn't help but think about my first visit there. I had came with my friends, Steve and Pauline and there was a group of father and son hikers at the falls already swimming and riding the 20 foot drop off into the pool below. I was tired from hiking and sat by the pool to rest for a minute. One of the fathers was from the area and said if you swam across under the falls there was a nice ledge to sit on and relax. I was wanting to cool off so I swam over and under the falls, the current was strong and the falls thrashed me pretty good as I swam under them. I was greeted by a slick rock wall with not even a finger hold to latch onto. I couldn't find a ledge and decided to swim back as I came under the falls I came up too far over in a rip current to the opposite side of the pool. Each time I tried to swim free of the falls I was turned back under them, eventually I got choked and panic set in. I was tired and thrashing by this point and could barely keep my head above water. Although I was a good swimmer, I was about to drown. I knew if I went under again it would be it and somehow in my panic I thought as long as there is air in my lungs, I would float. Sure enough, I drew a deep breath and laid on my back, my upper body floated and I was able to push out of the current and toward the safety of the shore. I made it to the bank and laid face down on the shore, I was so grateful to have made it, I cried. Today, over two years later I still remember it vividly and think of it several times a week, I feel like it changed me as a person and I appreciate waking up each morning, and thankfully it didn't kill my love the outdoors, only strengthened my respect of it's dangers. I still regard Turtleback Falls as one of my favorite waterfalls.
Turtleback Falls, almost my final resting place
Kip beside Turtleback falls its quite large
 Since we were already so close, we went on past Turtleback falls and up the new steps installed by the falls on to Drift Falls. The trail abruptly ends about 100 yards down river from the base of these falls and although they are private property, a decent picture can be taken by rock hopping out in the middle of the river, here it is.
you can't say you weren't warned.
Drift Falls, so tempting.
We headed out and back past the two main falls of the park, as we approached the intersection of Stairway and Rainbow Falls trails we decided we had enough time to visit Stairway. The trail is new but that doesn't mean it's easy. It's narrow, steep, and slow going in places, it intersects the river along a cliff about 30ft above the water and the trail is about a foot wide as it descends the cliff to river level. I had never visited Stairway Falls and was impressed because each step of the four cascades is at least 20ft high and the pool at the base is beautiful. I would have enjoyed it more if I was oblivious to the fact that I didn't have to climb the half mile trail straight back up and out.
Stairway Falls

The climb out was indeed a gasser and once we intersected the main trail we still had a mile to weave back up the mountain to the parking lot. Once we made it I had some water and the short drive down the road to the Thompson River I thought would give my legs enough time to be continued.
Hidden Falls
Horsepasture River heading down toward Stairway and Bearwallow Falls

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dill Falls

I spent the day in North Carolina looking for waterfalls from a map I had purchased online, and I'm pleased to report the directions were spot on. The Brevard area features many waterfalls, some advertised better than others. I passed through Brevard and traveled west on highway 64 to the intersection of NC 215 which is known as Parkway Road. NC 215 is one of my favorite places on Earth, I believe there are at least 20 or more falls along this route.
A distant shot of Dill Falls

In a previous blog post, I had tried to visit Dill Falls and was crushed to find the gate locked only to be opened the next day! Today it was first on my list, and thankfully the gate was open! The road branches at two miles in and the final mile is a narrow gravel road with no room to pass that dead ends at the parking area for Dill Falls. I've always found it funny that there are literally no signs, advertising, or giving directions to most of the falls here. The trail from the parking lot is fairly obvious, in case you have no sense of direction, take the one that goes downhill. In a few minutes you can hear the falls and you arrive at the 80ft high Dill Falls. I was really impressed with the falls and spent a few minutes taking it in before taking some photos. I had a long day ahead of me so I hurried back to the parking area and took the upper trail in search of Upper Dill Falls. I found it, but there wasn't a trail to the base and it required scrambling down the bank but I made it with little trouble.
Upper Dill Falls, I tried a different setting on the camera here.
After a few shots of Upper Dill Falls, I headed back to the truck and on to the top of 215 and the intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had seen the Devil's Courthouse overlook on a visit a few weeks ago but did not go to the top because my hiking partners were tired, so today I hiked the thirty minute trail to the summit. It has been cold recently and there was snow on the ground as I made my way up the trail which is a little surprising because it is almost May. At the top of the courthouse you can see hell and half of Georgia...literally. The park service installed a compass that indicates what mountain range you are looking at and 33 miles away is Rabun Bald in Georgia!
looking off the trail to the summit.
I thought this was really neat, and helpful
Waynesville side of the parkway
to the right is 215 coming up the mountain
a fall here, and it's a recovery not a rescue
From the Devil's Courthouse I ventured down the backside of 215 which eventually arrives in Waynesville, NC. Only a mile down the road, I arrived at the parking area for Wildcat Falls, it's a small pull off, again with no signs. It's a mile hike to this 60ft sliding cascade and totally worth it. The trail follows an old railroad grade and is easy and pleasant, a small concrete bridge even crosses at the base of the falls!
cascades along the way to Wildcat Falls
Wildcat Falls
My next stop was only a mile down the road, just past the pull off for Bubbling Branch Cascades, there is a pull off that doesn't appear to have anything worth checking out. I got out of my truck and could hear the sound of a pretty loud waterfall, I just couldn't see it. Thick underbrush and a steep bank must deter most hikers but not me, I found a decent place to climb down the bank next to a corrugated pipe coming from under the road and waded through some weeds before arriving at a 20ft cliff above the creek. I was able to use the laurel to grip my way across to a nice older tree with a root system that worked like stair steps to the creek level.
15ft above the creek bed
this may not look like stairs, but it worked pretty well
unnamed 35ft waterfall, I called it death wish falls.
determination to get a good picture. water was just above freezing.
The waterfall is on a tributary on the opposite side of the main creek so I had to rock hop over and wade a small pool to get a good pic! I was pleased I was able to make it and get a good picture, I like a challenge and this one was definitely up there. I haven't been able to find a name for this falls online either, and it wasn't on my waterfall map of NC so I called it Death Wish Falls.

After huffing and puffing my way back up the cliff and bank to my truck I rested for a minute regrouping by looking over the map, I traveled on down to my final stop on 215 for the day which was Sam Branch Falls and Wash Hollow Falls. The trail again follows an old railroad grade and was a nice change of pace from the previous falls. When you arrive at Sam Branch Falls you have to cross the falls midway up to get to the tributary that Wash Hollow Falls are on. I didn't really like Sam Branch Falls. They are probably a combined 60-70ft but they are in four segments of drops. A fall in the creek crossing could be fatal because the two lower drops are the highest. I made it safely across and literally within a minutes walk, I arrived at Wash Hollow Falls. They are a low flow creek but the falls are high and they flow across a beautiful swirled rock pattern that really is eye catching.
NC 215 is really curvy, this is the parking area for Sam Branch/Wash Hollow
Upper part of Sam Branch Falls, trees have fell over the winter months ruining the beauty.
lower section of the falls, it's pretty far down!
icicles near Wash Hollow Falls
Wash Hollow Falls

that's dr office quality
I realized that it was still early in the day so I decided to take the scenic route back toward home on the Blue Ridge Parkway and down through Brevard. Recently the movie The Hunger Games was filmed near Brevard in DuPont State Forest and I decided to go by and see if it had changed one of my favorite hiking spots any. It was more crowded than usual and the people who were there were not the typical hikers I encounter. I heard several people make reference to the movie and I noticed the trails have been upgraded but they also have closed a lot of what I loved about the park. The access trails to the base of High Falls had been closed by the park service cutting numerous trees over the trail and the Triple Falls trail had trees cut blocking it as well trying to prevent people from climbing next to the falls. It's nice that the park got some money and recognition but they shouldn't fix something that isn't broke. DuPont houses one of the nicest collections of waterfalls in all of North Carolina, and no matter how bad they try to screw it up, I will still visit here at least a couple times a year. Enjoy the photos and until next time...happy trails!
Looking Glass Rock from the parkway
snow showers!
High Falls in Dupont State Forest
base of High Falls, I had to go off trail for this picture
lower section of Triple Falls
middle section of Triple Falls
PS- I did not visit the upper section of Triple Falls due to a group of about 14 movie buffs recreating scenes and being in the way of my photos. DuPont also has Hooker, Bridal Veil, Grassy Creek, and Wintergreen Falls. I will feature an entire blog on the park at a later date. **Last of the Mohicans was filmed at Hooker and Bridal Veil Falls (scene of canoe going over falls and behind the falls respectively)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Compression Falls

Twisted and Compression Falls lie deep in a gorge just outside the town of Butler,TN off Poga Road. The drive to the falls is pleasant and scenic as it winds around Watauga Lake, but the hike is anything but pleasant. Although the hike is short at just over 3/4th of a mile it is a near vertical descent to the river below the falls. Once you arrive at the river, you have to negotiate a rocky path up stream until you meet a cliff that is wet at all times from the mist of the falls and slick with moss. I hike..a lot, and it's as difficult of footing as I've encountered. However, there's no feeling quite like finally getting a full view of Compression Falls and feeling the powerful mist in your face.
Amber and I at Compression Falls
college kids taking the plunge
This is what it looks like before you jump.

Steve, Amber, Pauline, and I visited on a Sunday so there were other people present, and a few brave souls were jumping off the falls into the frigid waters. I would love to have their nerve, but several people have been severely injured here and a few have lost their lives. Although beautiful, Twisted Falls is one of the most dangerous locations I've visited. Speaking of Twisted Falls, many people mistake Compression Falls as Twisted Falls. The falls are rumored to be named under the grizzliest of circumstances, Compression for a person who suffered a compression fracture of their back when their canoe went over the falls, and Twisted for the countless ankle injuries incurred trying to reach that falls. Compression is an impressive double falls and the first you arrive at. If you cross the creek in front of the falls, it's slick and swift water, you can climb steeply up the opposite bank and get on top of the falls. There is one of the deepest pools above the falls and a nice 20ft falls above that, to continue on you have to swim over to a rope hanging in the water and scale a 25ft rock wall. Once you make it up the creek on either side of the stream is surrounded by rock cliffs, and the river narrows and there are powerful whitewater rapids. Eventually the trail vanishes and the only way forward is to suspend yourself over the raging waters and hang from the side of the rocks by a rope installed by the forest service and crab walk until you can get around the rock cliff. In the distance, Twisted Falls is visible, it is narrow and powerful it would like similar to the letter "Z" from above. The water is deafening but it's a special feeling to be one of the few people that venture that far upstream. The pictures I'm using for this blog of Twisted were from a previous visit and with the help of others, to this date it is one of the only photos I've seen of the falls.
Twisted Falls and the dangerous waters below
close as you can get without falling in at Twisted
above the beginning of Twisted Falls as it enters the narrow chute

The gorge where the two falls are located is beautiful and deadly. Each time I visit I am in awe of the power of water. The years of rushing water have carved the gorge to the modern wonder we see today. Sometimes I would like to see this area further developed from a trail standpoint but even in it's current condition, Compression Falls recieves many visitors, and with development would come more trash and carelessness of the masses. I rank this falls as the nicest in the Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee area, if you feel the need to break a sweat, take in a beautiful falls,  and perhaps take a dip, then Compression Falls is your cup of tea. Until next time...happy trails.
This is a normal look for him
Watauga Lake from Butler Bridge