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!

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