Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Rocky Fork encompasses 10,000 acres of mountain wilderness in Unicoi County, Tennessee. Recently it was announced this area would become Tennessee's newest state park. I found the news to be bittersweet, while the trails need some overhauling and better access points, the untamed aspect of hiking there is a welcome escape.
1st falls on Higgins Creek (100ft high)
Frontal view of 1st falls
2nd falls
hidden 3rd falls. 4th falls is almost completely hidden just upstream

Lower Higgins creek is part of the Rocky Fork track and features a two mile stretch where it is pinched through one of the most rugged gorges I've been in. The best part is that the severe elevation change here creates some wonderful waterfalls. I have hiked the area many times but never with my faithful hiking buddy Strickler. Yesterday, we traveled to the trail head at the end of Lower Higgins Creek Road and started the grueling uphill hike into the gorge. The trail begins at the most ricketiest bridge I've ever seen or crossed, I fully expect it to be gone each time I go here but it hangs on somehow. I used the Everytrail App on my phone to track our stats such as speed, elevation change, and distance. The trail follows the creek the entire way and the small cascades and deep pools help take your mind off your burning legs. Just before the first and largest falls, the trail takes a brutal increase in elevation and by the time it levels off above the 100ft high waterfall you barely have time to catch your breath until you have to start the steep scramble to it's base. There are no steps or hand rails but there are grapevines and tree roots to keep you from tumbling to the bottom. Maybe my many trips here have lessened my appreciation of what a great waterfall it truly is but Steve raved about how wonderful it was and said it was one of the better ones we had visited in our area. I took time to wade downstream and took some pictures of the smaller cascades below the falls,  it's hard to believe it's warm enough for creek wading in January but yesterday's high temp was 70 degrees! We climbed back to the trail head which is no easy feat and continued upstream to the next waterfall. It's a lot smaller but still a nice sliding 20ft cascade. Just upstream from this falls is the first creek crossing, there are two options here, continue on the trail to the small set of rocks to jump across or catwalk a tree limb that has been cut and placed over the creek just downstream. We chose the rock hopping, I waded and Steve managed to keep his feet dry. The trail continues on for a short distance before swinging back to the creek and another crossing, this one proved to be more difficult and I waded in and set up some make shift rock steps for Steve to make it dry again. For a brief stretch the trail levels, during this time Steve expressed his hatred for me and my crazy trails. I pointed out that we were in a stretch of five great waterfalls, he wasn't wearing a tie, and he had just got a shut up. Once again the trail climbs, just off to the left two separate 30ft falls can be seen down through the laurel. They both are pretty and picturesque but would require a bushwhack to get to. I told Steve we would save our energy and get to the 50 footer upstream. I like this waterfall the best, it can't be seen from the trail only heard. There is no sign of a established trail and the best way to get to it is just start wading through laurel. Anyone who has off trailed through laurel will note it's strength, flexibility, and unwillingness to break under any circumstance. I only knocked my hat off a few times and we met the creek about 20 yards downstream from the main falls. The falls Cascades in the upper part before free falling into a rock framed pool then further cascades down to the creek level.
nearing the base, the trail is steep

50 foot falls on Higgins Creek
We spent some time recovering from our bushwhacking efforts and took a different approach out which was equally fierce. I had never hiked upstream from the falls and we continued up the main trail and eventually we crossed the mountain and found ourselves in a flat area where the creek is really broad and shallow. We decided we would return in the summer and do some camping and continue on even further up the creek. I looked at my App and from the topo map about another mile upstream there are some significant elevation gains so there should be some more waterfalls. Sadly, we were running out of daylight and turned around, the trail is much easier going back because it's all downhill and before I knew it we were back to the final creek crossing. I started across at the rocks but Steve continued downstream to the tree branch. "This is where we crossed last time" "Yeah, I know but I can walk that tree branch." I told him to at least let me take some pictures of the attempt. He carefully stepped out on the branch and pushed on it with one foot to test the strength, and without further hesitation put both feet on the branch. To his credit, he did make two full steps before swinging his arms wildly, jutting his butt out, catching his balance briefly, leaning the other way with the same routine, before finally releasing a string of obscenities as he crashed to the water. I doubled over unable to take anymore pictures laughing hysterically. Steve continued his colorful language and we laughed the remainder of the way back to the truck.
down he goes

I would recommend visiting Higgins Creek before the state park system takes it over and appreciate it's rugged beauty. I'm unsure how they can make the trails any easier to visit the falls but an easier hike will be a welcome change from bushwhacking and creek wading. So pack some water, dry shoes and socks, and wander into the Rocky Fork wilderness and until next time...happy trails!

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