Monday, December 30, 2013

Since tackling the Dismal Gorge, I have been in constant pain. There were so many falls that day I can't pinpoint which one was responsible for my misery. At my yearly physical, my doctor told me I had a neck that was out of line with my spine and some ribs that needed adjusting. He asked with a puzzled look on his face, "Exactly what do you do when you go into the woods?" I laughed and drifted into thought before answering. Finally, it came to me, "I live."

Feeling better and having a day off, I decided to go hiking. I even felt nice enough to let Steve pick the destination. He hasn't been on any of the Smoky Mountain hikes I've took so of course he chose the hardest hike in the park, Ramsey Cascades. Ramsey is a real grind of a hike that takes you four miles deep into the mountains near the Greenbrier entrance of the park in Cosby, Tennessee. I had hiked there early in the year and thought I would turn back before wearing down. The four miles wouldn't be so bad if each step wasn't uphill and on the day we chose to hike, in the snow.
Little Pigeon River

In a way, the weather made the hike more appealing for me. Photography in the mountains with snow is something I've always found to be beautiful, plus the crowds of tourists would be thinned with 30 degree temperatures and a light snow. When we arrived at the trail head there were only three other cars, as opposed to when I visited earlier having to park in an overflow half a mile away from the main lot. The trail leaves the parking lot crossing the Little Pigeon River immediately on a large suspension bridge. The snow was sticking to the bridge and starting to lay on the rocks in the river. I had recently started using a tripod so I took time to set it up on the bridge for a few shots of the river before moving on.
Ramsey Prong.
Steve crossing the foot bridge.

The first two miles passes quickly and is deceptively easy despite the gentle uphill grade. I've always found trails to be easier when they follow a river or stream with the sound of the water keeping me lost in thought instead of being able to hear my heavy breathing. When the trail meets the Ramsey Prong, a sign displayed states that you are 2.5 miles from the falls. The trail also narrows significantly as it shadows the Ramsey Prong and elevation is gained at a much faster clip. The roots and rocks keep your eyes locked on the trail and the snow was beginning to intensify. Steve stayed in the lead and kept a blistering pace for the conditions. I was falling behind from stopping to line up pictures and fog was rolling in quickly causing me to lose sight of Steve ahead of me on the trail.
Tree hugger!
The largest of the tulip poplars.

I caught up to Steve at the first of the two foot bridges crossing the creek. The foot bridges are a nice highlight of the hike being constructed of large trees split in two with a hand rail on only one side of the bridge. As I crossed the log bounced beneath my feet and with a thin layer of ice and snow I could feel the nerves at it's highest point above the creek. Safely across the creek, the trail winds uphill through more boulders before entering the old growth forest. Three large tulip poplars line the trail and Steve and I were ants in their presence. We took some time among the giants and set up the tripod capturing the following image of us to scale their size.
Entering the old growth forest.
I felt refreshed after our rest at the trees and we kept a nice pace up the mountain. The snow was now over two inches deep and the woods were eerily quiet. Steve usually doesn't show any signs of being tired but he eventually doubled over holding his knees on one of the many flights of rock stairs. I asked him what was wrong and he only stared at me knowing I already knew the answer. I said, "just remember, you wanted to come here" He rose to his feet and continued on readjusting the tripod in the pack while mumbling as I lost sight of him in the fog again. The trail left the peaceful sounds of the creek and entered my least favorite part of the hike, a long grueling uphill trip around a ridge before it swung back toward the prong short of the falls. Each step was hard, slick, and painful. I had a cramp in my side but I focused on one foot in front of the other and not falling and soon the trail leveled and began descending back toward the sweet sound of water. I met Steve in a maze of boulders and helped him cross the side stream at the base of Ramsey Cascades. A sign warns to control children with the current death toll of four written in red paint.
Narrow passages over the foot bridges.
Rock stairs near the falls.

Although we had made it to the falls, there was still a sloped rock to negotiate covered in ice. I made sure to use extra caution considering my camera was strapped to my back and a fall would shatter it beneath my weight. Steve pulled me up on the large boulder that separates the upper cascade from the lower drops and we rested in the ice cold mist from the falls. The fog was thick and so was the mist. I was almost hesitant to remove the camera from the safety of my bag, but I HAD to have a picture. I didn't bother with the tripod because the lens would be soaked in seconds. Instead I shot free hand with a slight shutter speed of half a second. I wasn't sure if any would be salvageable but I snapped away. I noticed a couple of hikers on the right side of the falls hidden behind some rocks drinking warm soup. I was jealous they had something warm, my hands were ice cold and my feet were wet from holes in my trusty hiking shoes. I made a mental note to have a thermos of something warm the next time I hiked.
Ramsey Cascades.
Steve at the cascades.

Steve had regained his usual jovial mode and marveled at the size of the cascades. He went through the usual speech of how he couldn't believe we hadn't been there before now and how we would we back in the summer for swimming. I however was struck with sadness, Steve will be a father by then and his responsibilities will change completely. In my mind, I have already been preparing to do my hiking alone. I didn't mention it to ruin the moment so I nodded somberly and said, " I can't wait, buddy."

The cold has a way of quickly rattling you back to reality and I zipped my pack and used the Jeff Forrester method for getting safely off the boulder by sliding on my backside down to the trail. Steve joined me and we hiked triumphantly back to the warmth of the truck over four miles away. Maybe it was my sadness, but I savored that hike as much as any I've been on. No detail escaped me and I kept my pace below normal to make sure I had every possible picture I could want. We both were exhausted when we finally made it back to the trail head. We had worked long hours on the days leading up and had done this hike on our only day off before the Christmas holiday. I was equally impressed with Ramsey Cascades on my second visit. Although conditions weren't the best for photography, it was a beautiful trip and good to spend time with my best friend. Hopefully we will return in better weather and get that much anticipated swim in, until next time, happy trails.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Some two weeks ago when I was making my schedule, I knew that I would only have one day off to do as I please, so of course, I would spend it hiking. I called up Strickler and we settled on Thursday and hiking back to one of our most difficult but favorite hikes, Dismal Falls. In the 10 days leading up to the hike I watched the weather for Cashiers, North Carolina every day and it looked like we would be hiking on an overcast but unusually comfortable day temperature wise considering it's late November. Somewhere during those 10 days, our friend Forrester AKA Old Man Winter asked if he could tag along with us as well. Jeff had never hiked with us in North Carolina so I went from excited to ecstatic. The threesome threw off the normal driving arrangements slightly and Jeff volunteered to drive his wife's minivan as long as we weren't doing any off-roading.
In the pines.

This morning I awoke to beautifully clear and sunny skies in Gray, TN and took one final glance at my weather channel app for Cashiers. The forecast had changed slightly calling for a 10% chance of a morning shower and clearing skies in the afternoon. Steve and Jeff arrived at the house before 8am and we loaded up the van and hit the road. Jeff's van was a nice change, with plenty of leg room and a smooth ride the miles clicked off quickly. As we barreled down the North Carolina side of Interstate 26, Jeff got the opportunity to meet one of the many state troopers that lie in wait of inattentive motorists.  A nice $218 welcome present (speeding ticket) was exchanged and we were on the road once more, although at a much slower pace. On the west side of Asheville the skies began to cloud up and I once again found myself daydreaming of how awesome my pictures would turn out with my tripod set up at the base of Dismal Falls.
Large hornets nest downed along the trail.

Somewhere around Brevard, the skies clouded a little too much and a light rain began to fall. Both Jeff and Steve showed some concern hoping the weather would break before we had to hike. I reassured them that the skies would clear but we should be thankful for the cloud cover because it would help taking photos in the gorge much easier. As the rain continued for 45 minutes and all the way to the parking for the trail head, I too began to feel the dread and the already difficult hike would now be downright dangerous.
Tree growing out a rock nearing the unnmamed falls on West Fork.

I only brought a t-shirt and a long sleeve pullover so when I exited the van the rain and the colder than normal temperatures caused me to shiver. Jeff and Steve loaded their packs and we hit the trail. Only a short distance in, I was cold, but Jeff had an extra sweatshirt he let me borrow and although it didn't fit the best it was enough to keep me warm and heading toward the waterfalls. The leaves were thick and slick, as we hiked along I didn't see signs of anyone being on the trail in recent weeks. The rain was constant but light and the forest canopy shielded us from the majority of it. We arrived at the spur trail to Aunt Sally's Falls and a short uphill hike takes you to the base of the 40ft waterfall. I was somewhat stunned at the low flow of the waterfall and honestly disappointed. I didn't bother to take my camera out of the pack and waited as Jeff snapped off a few shots before we continued back to the main trail. When the trail crosses the West Fork of the Pigeon River the climbing begins, and as we would find out, so would the falling. I had a terrible time with footing and relied heavily on using tree limbs and roots to climb and pull myself forward. My first layer of clothing was soaked and I was already cold again as we arrived at the 30ft unnamed waterfall on the fork. It's a nice cascading waterfall that has a large dead tree across it. The flow of water was a little better so I took a few pictures but didn't waste too much time standing in the open with my camera out. Steve and I make good timing hiking and Jeff was falling off the pace somewhat so we would stop and wait, after a few minutes when he didn't join us, Steve went back looking for him. He had got turned around at the waterfall and was hiking back toward the van and along the way had took his first fall of the day. Eventually I could see them both hiking back up the steep slope to join me. It was slow going and we all alternated falling and pulling ourselves back up as the trail became more gnarly approaching Rhapsodie Falls.
This waterfall isn't on any topo maps and doesn't have a name.

When we got to the base of Rhapsodie it was also at much lower levels than I had seen it last time but the pictures still were turning out fantastic.Steve sought refuge under some thick laurel and Jeff joined me taking pictures. Although it would be the perfect spot to stop, snack, and rest before the climb around the Dismal Gorge wall, the rain pushed us on. The trail begins a steady climb out of Rhapsodie Falls and meets the main trail at an intersection that will either take you into the lower Dismal Gorge or begin the climb to the top of the ridge and then into the gorge at the base of the main falls. Shortly after passing the lower Dismal trail the footing was spent. I couldn't get any traction to continue on using the trail. I instead left the trail and climbed the ridge where the leaves were much deeper and used whatever bush or tree I could get my hands on to continue upward. Although there was many reasons to turn back and be discouraged we all pushed on, most of the time we were actually laughing at each other as we took turns falling and sliding back down the trail only to have to get up and do it again. A 300 yard climb took us almost 45 minutes!
Rhapsodie Falls.
Seeking shelter at Rhapsodie Falls.

As we crested the ridge, the trail begins a steep, nearly vertical descent into the gorge below. As fate would have it, the rain had turned from a drizzle to a downpour. As I waited on Steve and Jeff to join me, I swear I could see wet snow mixed in with the downpour. I was in the lead so I could make the decision to turn back or go forward, and I really hesitated here because it was cold, we were soaked, and if we were hurt here, we most likely wouldn't survive the night. I decided to push on and I will admit, it was a stupid decision. The best way we found to get down was to sit down and slide from tree to tree. It was hard to control our speeds and I ended up slamming my knee against a tree and was in pain the remainder of the hike. It still took us another 30 minutes to make the 190 yards to the base of the falls. I was the first to step out into the creek at the base and the falls were fantastic. The flow was good and there wasn't any downed trees to ruin photos (this happens a lot here) I had packed a surprise for Steve and Jeff and grabbed three beers from my backpack. When we opened them, they spewed wildly and we all toasted our accomplishment in the pouring rain. There was some skeletal remains of a large animal at the base and we surmised that it probably fell to it's death from the main drop some 100ft upstream. I didn't even bother unloading my tripod and had to almost crotch down shielding my camera lens from the rain as I took pictures. We had some snacks and each posed for pictures before packing up and heading out of the gorge. The climb out was much easier but required much more strain on our arms as we used anything we could hold onto to pull out. The backside of the ridge was less kind causing us once again to slide from point to point trying to control ourselves as best as we could. At one point, Jeff had the misfortune of sliding right through a spot where Steve had earlier relieved himself, thankfully, he brought a change of clothes! I thought Steve would need rescued from laughing himself to death, both he and I laughed the entire way back about it. Jeff didn't find it as funny. When we finally passed the forest gate at the trail head and saw his van parked there, I don't think I've ever felt a greater sense of relief, we had somehow beat the odds and made it back safely.
Climbing the ridge toward the Dismal Gorge.
Forrester with his celebratory beer.
Only picture I got of the falls without water drops on my lens. The 150ft Dismal Falls.

Dismal Falls will always be one of my favorite hikes. It requires as great an effort as any hike you will do, but the satisfaction you feel from doing it can not be explained. Although my pictures will not be the best, they will serve as some of my all time favorite memories from our rainy day in the wilderness. The conditions of the hike in the rain made it the most difficult I've done and the most dangerous. If you take anything away from this blog, I hope it would be that even the most seasoned hikers can find themselves in dangerous situations with something as simple as rain. Always put safety ahead of adventure and as always, happy trails!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fall is my favorite season with the bright color and cool weather there's nothing to dislike about it. I've spent most of my off days this fall in and around the Linville Gorge. Being about an hour from my house, it's not a bad drive and there's literally something new to see each time I hike there.Steve and I have feverishly knocked off the waterfall challenge list from the Carolina Mountain Club and were excited to complete the Grandfather Mountain area portion with one last waterfall.
Road heading toward Gragg Prong.
More fantastic views from the road.

The waterfalls on Gragg Prong are a short four mile drive off the Blue Ridge Parkway with the parking area being next to the creek you follow the 1.5 miles to the top of the first waterfall. I'm not sure why we picked the waterfalls last or if we have any reason at all behind the order in which we visit each one. The weather was perfect for hiking that morning with the sun being high in the clear sky with cool temperatures, however it wasn't ideal for photographing waterfalls with the settings I usually use on my camera. I didn't mind though, I was in the woods and wasn't wearing a tie, all my problems were gone for the day.
The trail folowing the creek downstream.

The first portion of the hike follows the creek and the trail literally runs through the creek bed but the water levels were so low we were able to keep our feet dry. Gragg Prong is a beautiful little creek with small cascades and deep pools. The water is so clear you can easily see the trout swimming and there are several creek crossings along the way to up the adventure factor. The last crossing requires a leap that would be impossible for most people but with long strides I was able to stick the landing on the narrow rock and keep my feet dry. The trail continues to parallel the creek and the sound of water grows louder as you follow it downstream. Soon a faint trail leads out onto the exposed bedrock along the creek and you are at the first waterfall. It's not very high or powerful but the overall setting is fantastic. The first part of the waterfall slides only a few feet before emptying in a large deep tub shaped swimming hole. If it had been summer I would have been it head first! The lower portion of the waterfall is about a 12ft cascade that sweeps around a large boulder that rests in the middle of the creek. As I looked around I couldn't help but think of how wonderful the scene would have been just a week earlier with most of the leaves still on the trees. Steve walked up to knock me from my daydream raving about the swimming hole. Although the rock was kind of steep around the waterfall it was dry and we could climb around on it without any trouble. I found a large tree limb around 10ft long and stuck it into the swimming hole as far as I could without being able to touch anything! Both Steve and I stared into the depths knowing we would be back as soon as temperatures would cooperate.
The epic swimming hole at the upper falls.
Upper waterfall on Gragg Prong.

We left the first waterfall feeling wonderful and excited for what awaited us just a short trip downstream. I had read the lower waterfall was much larger but didn't have a height listed because of it's sweeping cascade into the gorge below. The trail travels through a nice campsite and a young couple was there and greeted us as we passed through. They both had already been to the waterfall and told us of how wonderful it was. We quickened our pace and soon we emerged onto the steep sloping rock above the lower waterfall. I had seen pictures but in person it was huge! It had a vertical drop at the very top but then cascaded wildly approximately 70ft downstream. Steve made his way down the left side of the waterfall near a large steep slide to the bottom. He didn't give it a second thought before sitting down, throwing his hands in the air, and sliding down the rock like a kid on playground slide. Just before he would land in the creek he rose to his feet and did an awkward run to regain his balance. I'll have to admit it was really cool. I could hear his cackles as he walked out of sight briefly leaving me to decide if I wanted to do the same move with a $1000 worth of camera gear strapped to my back. I've never been one for spending much time on fretting on what to do so I too took the slide to the base. In fact, it was so fun we both done it several times. The waterfall itself was also fantastic, even though it was sunny there was enough color to make some good photos from downstream. Steve continued to play as I lined up photos and we both were in great spirits and realized that it would be one of our last hikes until next year with our busy holiday season schedules.
Top of the lower waterfall.
...and Steve on his way to the bottom.
From the base.

The waterfalls on Gragg Prong are absolutely wonderful. I can't do enough justice to these two waterfalls with words. It's an easy three mile round trip hike to see them for yourself, so if you are near the Blue Ridge Parkway around Grandfather Mountain make this short trip and I promise you won't be disappointed! Until next time...happy trails!
Further downstream on Gragg Prong.
Reflections on Gragg Prong.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I spend about as much time on the road as I do on the trail when I visit some the entries I have listed. Although my heart lies firmly in the mountains of North Carolina, my home state of Virginia has some wonderful hiking opportunities. This past Sunday I took advantage of one of those hikes and spent the day revisiting one of my favorite fall destinations..
Heading up the mountain.

The Brumley Mountain Trail is a fourteen mile combination of forest roads and narrow paths that wind up and across the mountain and toward Hidden Valley Lake. Along the way the trail passes the Channels of Virginia, a large outcrop of sandstone boulders that have mazes carved in them after years of water erosion. I had been several times and had enlisted some friends that live in the area to keep their eyes on the mountain in hopes of hitting the trail at peak fall color.
The Brumley Mountain Trail.
Reflection in a mud puddle on the trail.
Vines growing together in one of the clearings.

Sunday morning arrived and the group of coworkers I had arranged to hike with met at one of our stores in Abingdon, Virginia. Shane had text me earlier in the morning promising a surprise for the hike and I was anxious to see what he had up his sleeve. Just before we departed for the mountain, our company CEO arrived to hike with us as well! I will admit, I was definitely surprised but I also felt a great deal of pride that the owner of the company I work for was willing to join his employees for a day in the mountains.
Sherrell, Kip, and Shane nearing the fire tower.
Amber climbing the tower and the abandoned cabin in the background.

In all, seventeen of us made the journey to the trail head saddled on the Washington County/Russell County line off VA 80. The parking lot at the mountaintop was jammed with cars which wasn't surprising considering it was the first clear day we had really had that week. The trail follows an old forest road up the mountain for three miles passing several steep inclines near the summit and before the fire tower. The Hayter's Gap Fire Tower was built in 1939 and has long since been abandoned having the bottom rung of steps removed for safety reasons. As the group rested, I boosted Amber onto the tower and she took my camera up for some shots of the surrounding area. Here's one of the better photos she got from the fire tower.
Russell County view from Brumley Mountain.

The entrance to the Channels is also at the base of the fire tower and the trail winds through some rhododendrons before it splits with a small spur leading to the top of the boulders and the main trail continuing down into the boulder field itself. We all spent time on top of the Channels taking pictures and naming the distant ridges. However, the real fun is when you actually enter the Channels from the base. The towering boulders made even me feel small and everyone dispersed quickly making our large group vanish in the maze of sandstone. Although the group was large, the massiveness of Channels made it easy to get photos without anyone else in the shot. After about an hour of wandering through the maze, we reconvened at the fire tower and began the hike out. The sun was lighting the leaves perfectly so Amber and I lagged behind the group as I took countless photos.
Heading into the Channels.
Amber and Cash through the squeeze.
Over two acres of boulders to play in.

It was a surreal day hiking with my friends and coworkers, everyone seemed to have a good time and no one got hurt. I was impressed with the hiking prowess shown by my CEO and was thrilled when said he would love to join us on future hikes. Maybe I can interest him in some real estate in North Carolina. Until then, happy trails!
Our group.
Leaving Brumley Mountain.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Steve and I spent yesterday wandering through the Linville Gorge and riding the Blue Ridge Parkway. The fall colors are starting to peak in the high country of western North Carolina and our mission was simple; get as many good pictures of the mountains as possible.

Unfortunately, mother nature didn't receive our memo and the overcast skies sent us scrambling for a back up plan. The beautiful thing about cloudy days is that it makes for perfect waterfall photography. Yesterday morning, I got up early and researched my guidebooks for a few waterfalls to kill our day in the mountains on. Steve has been obsessed with completing the Carolina Waterfall 100 Challenge and there was only one waterfall left in the Grandfather Mountain section of the list, Steels Creek.
Forest road to Steels Creek.

Steels Creek for one reason or another has been overlooked by me and many other people as there are larger and more accessible falls on and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trip to the trail head is an adventure in itself, a four mile narrow dirt road ride with steep drop offs and no room for passing was a blast for me, for Steve, sheer terror. (my driving didn't help) When we arrived at the parking lot at the end of the forest road, I fully expected him to jump out and kiss the ground. The trail continues past the dead end in the road and around a few jeep mounds as it parallels Steels Creek. Soon you pass through a camp site that is littered with beer cans and other trash left behind by idiots. A few yards further there is a wonderful swimming hole on the creek below a small cascade. The trail crosses around the pool and above the cascade through the creek. This section could prove difficult in high water or for the average hiker. After crossing the creek the trail comes a T intersection with the Mountains to Sea Trail.
Crossing Steels Creek.
Snake swimming in the deep pool below the cascade.

The Mountains to Sea Trail is the Appalachian Trail's red headed step brother. Although much smaller and less traveled, it passes through some of the most beautiful terrain you will find anywhere. In fact, the part of Steels Creek we were hiking is affectionately known as "God's Country." The trail gains elevation leaving the creek via some switch backs up the ridge but soon switches back down the mountain meeting the creek again at a sandy beach section. The trees were a mix of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens adding to the beauty of the hike. There is a sloped rock near the beach that has a white blaze on it that can be easily missed if you aren't careful. We climbed the rock and entered the woods, steeply climbing through a ravine that kind of zigzags you up a dry stream bed until the trail finally turns sharply right and around a sharp ridge.
This guy was really enjoying modeling for photos.

Once we passed over the ridge, we both could hear the roar of the waterfall. It's always one of my favorite times in the hike, the excitement of seeing something new and being so close, and both Steve and I always pick up the pace. We came to a sharp trail that I knew led to the base of the waterfall but I suggested we continue on since the MST crosses the top of the waterfall and I wanted to see the view from there. As we stepped out onto the rocks above the falls, the scene was surreal. Steels Creek crashes wildly down multiple drops and through crazy potholes carved in the rock, it's the ultimate playground! The rocks however, are deadly slick and one wrong move and you would take the 70ft trip to the bottom the hard way. I snapped off a few photos and we made it back to the scramble path to the base for some more pictures. As the trail arrives near the base of the falls I realized we were actually only halfway down the falls and that there was a major drop just below the rock we had to find a way out on to get a decent view. The rock is sloped at a steep angle toward the creek and a rope from a tree is there to help as you slide out further for views. I was able to crab walk down a crack in the boulder and scoot over to the brink of the major drop off but below the first section of the falls with all the potholes. IT WAS PERFECT! I sat in amazement of the views as Steve managed to somehow get himself in a bind trying to cross the creek and was in all fours and snapped me back to reality. He eventually regained his balance and joined me on my perch.
Top of the watefall, lower section hidden from view.
This boulder has fell and balanced perfectly. Awesome swimming hole underneath it, if you dare.
Upper drop of the waterfall on Steels Creek.
Deep pool below the last drop.

Steels Creek was indeed impressive, the rock cliffs, fall colors, and epic waterfall made for postcard like conditions. We spent over an hour sitting on the narrow rock here, daydreaming of next summer and coming back to wade the creek up to the base and explore the uncharted waterfalls upstream on Steels Creek that show up on Google Earth. Stay tuned until then, and happy trails!
This is the bottom half of the waterfall before the long wide cascade.

Bear activity.