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.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, Steve and I ventured into the North Carolina mountains in search of a few waterfalls. Recently we discovered a waterfall challenge made by the Carolina Mountain club, and since then we have diligently worked to knock waterfalls off the list.
Fall on the Harper Creek Trail.
Little Lost Cove Cliffs.

The first stop of the day was just off the Blue Ridge Parkway on the Harper Creek Trail (HCT) near Morganton. South Harper Creek Falls is over 200ft high and lies in a steep gorge surrounded by cliffs. The HCT starts relatively level and follows a ridge line as it makes it way toward the sound of water. The trail switchbacks down meeting the creek near the top of the waterfall, from here you have a couple of options. You can follow the creek downstream or cross and head toward the cliff overlook where you will have an entire view of the waterfall. We went downstream first and found a small spur trail that led us to the middle section of the waterfall and a flat rock before it flowed another 100ft off a steep grade. The whole area was pretty amazing and I even worked my way dangerously toward the lower drop to take a peek. Across the gorge the high cliff was visible where we would have to hike to see the whole waterfall. The upper section of the falls is shaded nicely by the cliff on the left side of the creek and a crystal clear pool made a tempting spot to take a dip. It was surprisingly hot with the sun bouncing off the rocks and I noticed that a few clouds were drifting in and decided we need to move to the cliff overlook for some pictures when the sun would be blocked by them. We followed the trail back upstream and crossed the creek, at the crossing a nice waterfall is visible upstream being roughly 30ft high. An obvious trail leads upstream toward it's base but we were greeted by no trespassing signs. I didn't let the sign discourage me and just waded out in the creek and upstream to take a few pictures.
Steve at the middle section of South Harper Creek Falls.

Steve and I continued back downstream on the main trail and began the climb toward the cliffs via switchbacks in the trail. We gained a lot of elevation very quickly and soon we were following the rutted path down to the cliff's edge. There are no safety devices of any kind here, so use your own judgement on how far out on the rock you want to go for the picture, a fall would most definitely be fatal. Steve scooted out to the edge first and called for me to join him. I took a more cautious approach and slowly scooted down to where I could see the waterfall. It was quite a sight! Both drops were visible and the bottom drop vanished below us at the tree line just before it met the creek. The sun was my enemy as it was high in the sky and glaring badly off the water below. Steve and I sat patiently waiting for a cloud to eventually deflect light long enough for a few photos before packing up and heading out for the next waterfall.
The cliff view at South Harper Creek Falls.
South Harper Creek Falls over 200ft high.

Harper Creek Falls would seem like it would be close considering we were on the Harper Creek Trail and at South Harper Creek Falls. However, to get to the trail head for our next waterfall we had to take a twenty minute car ride further down highway 181. Harper Creek Falls lies in the Wilson Creek Gorge off of 181. The drive into the gorge is beautiful and lots of great swimming holes and cascades line the creek. If I ever buy a kayak it will be the first place I bring it. As we arrived at the trail head the parking lot was jammed with cars, and we got the only available parking place. I was a little discouraged thinking it would be hard to get photos with people all over the waterfall. Kevin Adam's book describes the trail as a "gentle ascent" to the ridge line, rarely do I disagree with him, but the trail was anything but gentle as it rose quickly and winded both Steve and I as we mercifully made the ridge line. From there the trail began a long downhill grade before meeting the creek. The trail is a little confusing with lots of side paths cutting off in both directions but we stayed with the main route just following it upstream. Steve took a couple of memorable and hilarious falls as we were hiking this section and I had to bite my tongue from laughing too hard at his misfortune.
Cascade on Wilson Creek and deep channel below.

Eventually we arrived at a large worn path leading straight downhill with ropes tied off on a steep rock face. We had arrived at the base of Harper Creek Falls. The trail continued on upstream so I wanted to investigate before I took the steep trail down to see if there was a better route. I could see the waterfall down through the trees but it was way to steep to go down any way but the rope route. As we hiked back, I heard someone yelling for help. It was kind of surprising considering a hiker we had met told us we were going to be the only ones at the waterfall as they were hiking out. Again, I heard a female yelling for help coming from the bottom of the falls. Steve and I scrambled down the trail and found a girl and her dog trapped at the base of the large rope section up the steep rock. I took the rope and climbed down to where she was while Steve waited on me at the top. The dog was too old to scramble up the rock face and she was too weak to lift up the rock. I let the dog sniff my hand before I tried picking it up and handing it to Steve. Snickers the dog, wasn't a fan of this approach and growled at me so I moved down the rock further giving the dog more room while Steve and another good Samaritan called for Snickers to come to them. When the dog finally made a running attempt at the rock, I got behind it and pushed it on to the top. Both the dog and owner seemed grateful, and Steve and I stepped out on the rock at the base to the surprise of a much better waterfall than we were anticipating. The waterfall fell in three sections, the upper section was hidden from our view and the middle section slide sharply and pooled before going over the lower drop into a massive deep swimming hole. We indeed had the whole place to ourselves and the sun was finally far enough out of the sky for good photos. Steve suggested we hike around the pool and get up to the middle section for some better views. It's a steep climb up the domed shape rock at the base and one wrong step and you will be sliding into the pool whether you want to or not. A large rock rests at the drop of the middle falls and helped boost Steve onto it for better views. I waded the creek here and there is thick moss that makes traction a lot easier so I could photo the upper drop as well.
Harper Creek Falls.

Both of us hung out here soaking in the days accomplishments. We had knocked two waterfalls off our list and had a good time while doing it. We both decided when summer comes around again we would come back to the Wilson Creek Gorge for further exploration and swimming. Enjoy the photos, and until next time, happy trails!