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.