Thursday, December 18, 2014

There's a few places I never tire of hiking and Little Stony Falls is one of them. Sure you can cheat and follow forest roads to a large parking area above the upper falls but it bypasses one of the most scenic hikes in the state of Virginia. Hanging Rock Recreation Area is just outside of the town of Dungannon and the 2.6 mile trail shadows Little Stony Creek the entire duration to the upper waterfall. Along the way are numerous cascades, cliffs, and strange rock formations. Although I've hiked there more than a dozen times, I always come home with a new perspective. When Thomas Mabry asked me to find him a hike in Virginia to tackle, I spent no time in picking Hanging Rock. Thomas has knocked out countless Tennessee and North Carolina hikes this year and wanted to get one Virginia hike in to the mix before the new year.
From left to right, John, Randy, and Thomas.
2.6 miles to glory. Photo by Thomas Mabry.
Thomas climbing under the rock shelter.

Coming up Little Stony National Recreation Trail.

It was even easier picking who I wanted to join us on the trip. A few weeks earlier, Thomas, Randy Tarpley, and myself joined John Forbes on his 100th trail day at Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs. We all agreed to hike together again and I couldn't think of a better occasion to get the band back together. Randy met me at my house and rode with me to Weber City where we met John and Thomas. The ride over to the trail head is only around 30 minutes and we parked next to the creek near the gated recreation area road. Exiting our cars I immediately noticed it was colder than the forecast but once we started up the trail the cold was soon forgotten among stories and laughter. Just a few minutes into the hike the trail passes under a large rock shelter with many fallen boulders. John took off the trail and climbed onto a wind eroded sandstone ledge high above us. We all hung out taking pictures and poking around the boulders before John pointed out an abandoned mine that has been gated shut by the forest service. I had hiked by the area for years and never knew it existed! On either side of the gates there was enough room for what looked like a small animal to squeeze through and John easily wiggled his way behind the bars to pose for a picture or two. Back on the trail the creek was flowing slightly above normal levels but not enough to cloud the water. Not only was it Thomas' first trip up Stony Creek it was also Randy's, finding somewhere he hasn't hiked is an accomplishment in it's own right. Many of the trips I take are researched directly from his blog,
John and Randy peering into the abandoned mine.
And he's off!
Randy and John heading up the trail.
Sitting atop a rock along the creek.

The trail soon crosses a large bridge high above the creek. Several small falls are in the area and upstream I could see a rock standing straight up out of the creek. I pointed it out to John and we followed the creek bank until we found a path through the laurels to the base of the nearly 12ft tall rock. In the middle of the creek was a large rock shaped like a coffin. Little Stony was split by it and on one side the water was completely still and on the other it was a raging torrent. It was the perfect spot for our first group shot of the day and as you can see, it turned out rather nice.
Our crew in the middle of Little Stony Creek!

Randy was first to attempt and succeed a climb of the tower rock and after he managed not to hurt himself getting down we all took turns having our photo made on top of it. All the play time and off trail exploring was burning our daylight quick but none of us noticed or seemed to care. The sun was high in the sky so our photography efforts of the actual waterfalls would most likely be thwarted anyway, and we were determined to complete one of the most in depth explorations of the area. When we finally pulled ourselves back onto the trail we only made it a few 100 yards before the creek leveled off into a long cascade framed by bedrock. I've always enjoyed taking pictures in either direction here and the guys seemed to share my enthusiasm for the site and everyone went to unpacking their tripods and heavy duty equipment. I set up as close as I could to the water and captured some nice long exposures since the sun hadn't came up over the ridge in that area yet. We finally got back to hiking and covered the next mile relatively quick before finding another rock shelter to stop and explore around. Water had dripped from the cliffs above us and the cold air had frozen the moisture in thick shells on the ground under the cliffs. Ferns, moss, and other small plants were completely encased in ice and we crawled around the area trying to take extreme close ups of the scene. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me and I reeled off around 100 pictures just within a few feet.
Shooting in the ice garden. Photo by John Forbes.
Frozen fern leaf.
Frozen Moss.
Thomas hiking under one of the rock shelters.
John and Thomas discussing strategy.

 At the next bridge crossing a small waterfall empties into the gorge from the right. I've always just photographed it from the bridge but John was once again quick to leave the trail and hike over walking behind the falls. Thomas was close behind him as I waited on Randy to catch up with us from the ice garden. I eventually gave in and hiked over to where Thomas and John had settled into a large rock recess behind the waterfall. There were so many different rock formations I was already satisfied with my decision. A nice coal seam ran through the rock and several iron deposits could be seen on the surface as well. Our goal of thorough exploration was being met but it was now after 1pm and we were just under halfway to our final waterfall of the day. A stretch of unrelenting cascades kept us busy pushing the shutter buttons and Randy was impressed by a natural rock staircase climbing away from the creek before descending back to water level. Around a curve we approached Star Branch as it splits the trail with a nice small waterfall. Both John and I have been to the upper free falling waterfall on Star Branch and were anxious to introduce it to Randy and Thomas. I couldn't resist hiking down to the lower waterfall that empties into Little Stony for a few shots since I had never shot from that angle and I was thrilled with the lighting and quality photos I was seeing on my camera screen. I could hear faint yells and whistles over the roar of water and hiked up the steep bank seeing John above upper Star Branch Falls motioning for me to come upstream. The hike through the thick laurel and loose rock was a challenge but as I finally swung around the falls another nice waterfall greeted me that I had never seen before. Randy and Thomas had their cameras out stalking around it's base and John ran around to perch on top of the waterfall. The sun was right on it and even with ND filters I was having trouble getting anything that I would even consider using. I eventually gave up and just settled on enjoying sitting by and watching the others have a good time. Thomas broke out his alter ego the Badger for a push further upstream and even in his bright orange shirt soon vanished out of sight. John and I hiked together upstream and could hear him yelling back to us that he had found another waterfall! A nice 8-10 footer greeted us completely shrouded by the laurel. The only spot the sun could cut through was directly on the water but I was just happy to be in some new territory with some new waterfalls to come home and write about!
Randy, Thomas and John next to the creek.
Walking behind a waterfall and huge rock shelter.
Coal seam.
Anyone is welcome to guess what this. Maybe some iron deposits?
Randy on one of the bridges taking pictures of John and Thomas behind a waterfall!

Climbing back down was slow going. The laurel and loose rock made a mean tag team. The laurel kept me from seeing where I was putting my feet and the loose rock kept me off balance. Randy was well ahead of the rest of us but when we caught up to him he told us a branch had poked his eye but he was OK to continue on. I asked him to let me see and I couldn't believe he wasn't in worse pain considering how bad his eye looked. To me, it seemed a piece of stick was still lodged in it and it had cut his eyelid as well. The eye was blood red and watering like crazy but Randy insisted he was OK and we traveled on although a little more carefully.
Lower portion of Star Branch Falls.
Little Stony Creek.
John on top of his new discovery on Star Branch. The sun was killing me here.
Another new find on Star Branch, this one was unearthed by Thomas.
Cascade on Stony Creek.

We passed several more nice cascades and some rocks as big as houses before our next off trail detour. Laurel Branch runs under the longest of the three bridges we crossed emptying into Stony Creek as well. John found us a well hidden trail to follow upstream and within a few minutes a nice 30ft waterfall could be seen emptying from another fork in the creek! Once again I was embarrassed that I had never seen the falls here as they were even more beautiful than the ones on Stony Creek. Further upstream I could see another significant drop and after finishing up at the lower waterfall I took off in hot pursuit of John who was already climbing all over the upper falls. I liked this "new" falls a lot. It fell in two drops with the lower portion being split by a large rock. The only way to see all the waterfall was to climb over onto the rock which wasn't an easy task considering the smooth rock had thin layers of ice coating it sporadically. Once I safely made it over with John I was thankful I had put in the effort, the hidden drop was perhaps the nicest one to photograph. I could see downstream to Randy shooting the lower falls and Thomas below me at the base of the falls, we were all loving Laurel Branch! I tool a quick glance at my watch and saw that it was after 4pm! I knew we had an hour of daylight left and the there more waterfalls to see!
Waterfall emptying into Laurel Branch.
I climbed over this... photograph this
...and this.
John captured me at work, getting the above shots lined up.

Once we made it back to the bridge we all found a new hiking gear and within minutes were scrambling down to the base of the largest of the falls. Although I had seen it countless times it was a thrill to see Thomas and Randy stand in awe of its beauty, everyone picked their spots for photos and made some quick memories before hiking on.  The trail cuts across another wooden bridge above the middle waterfall, it's kind of small so I kept hiking but when I realized Thomas and the rest of the group wanted to go down for a closer look I circled back to join them. The afternoon sun was now behind the ridge for good and lighting was nice for photography. The temps hovered in the 40's all day and now that the sun was gone they were falling fast. John packed extra gloves and dug them out of his pack to keep my hands from freezing. The middle falls pictures were some of the nicest of the day and I found it hard to leave the base when everyone else started packing up.
Lower Stony Falls.
Middle Stony Falls.
Upper Stony Falls.

One last falls awaited Thomas on his first Virginia hike of the year and with about 20 minutes of daylight left we arrived at its base for a brief but productive round of photography. As I packed my gear away for the hike out, I knew we would be walking in total darkness and hadn't packed my headlamp. It's funny too because I had looked at it on the kitchen counter before leaving that morning and though there would be no way be out that late, but when you get a group of eager hikers together anything is possible. Luckily Thomas had packed a small flashlight he let me used bad he hiked a long way using the glow from his bright orange shirt! As it often happens, I drifted into thought and my pace quickened, soon I was out of sight 9f the group completely. I turned out the flashlight and was swallowed up by the night, it was one of the most peaceful experiences I've had.
Darkness closing in on Upper Stony Falls. Randy Tarpley seen on far right of picture shooting from another angle.
Thomas crossing one of the bridges on the hike out.

In just over an hour we knocked out the 2.6 miles back to the parking area and safety of the vehicles. Everyone said their goodbyes satisfied with another epic day. We saw 11 waterfalls in 7 miles and just over 7 hours of daylight we had to work with. All of us were aware that there were a few more falls that we could have explored upstream on Laurel Branch and a mystery stretch of one of the forks that drain into it, but vowed to return another day to scratch them off the list. Until then, happy trails.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The year is quickly coming to a close and I wanted to end it with some of the more difficult and remote hiking locations the area has to offer. While seeking out the adventures I stumbled across a waterfall deep in Carter County named North Fork Stony Creek Falls. A quick Google search yielded very little additional information but did give me the location of the headwaters of the creek near the Double Springs Shelter on the Appalachian Trail. I've earned some stripes this year as far as the difficulties of my hikes go so if I couldn't find a trail to follow I would just mirror the creek down the drainage to the falls. I checked with local trail guru Larry Jarrett and he was kind enough to give me a few pointers to aid me on my mission. Having what I deemed to be sufficient information I decided the trip to the falls was a must! I recently transferred stores and finding the time to hike has been the greatest challenge of all, but Sunday I was off and the weather was nice enough to break in my new boots on the hunt for North Fork Stony Creek Falls.
Lincoln and Sallie crossing one of the hiker fences on the AT. Photo by Halley Burleson.
Appalachian Trail heading into the rime ice covered trees.
A closer look at the ice covered branches.

I haven't had any trouble finding people willing to hit the trails as the notoriety of some of our hikes really have everyone eager to hit the woods and see what it's all about. When I transferred stores I began working with Justin Hopkins again. For those of you that follow the blog, you will remember Justin as poor soul that lost his tooth on a nasty fall at Red Fork Falls. I've probably laughed more about that moment than anything this year so when he asked to take him hiking again I told him as long as we could keep our teeth he could tag along. My North Carolina connection came through as Halley and Lincoln also joined our group in the days leading up to the hike.
Lincoln, Justin, and I inside the Double Springs Shelter. Photo by Halley Burleson.
Frozen spider webs on the side of the shelter.
Time to head off trail! photo by Halley Burleson.
Heading down the drainage. Can you see the others?
When the springs started popping up in the drainage so too did the Laurel. At this point you're still over a mile from the main waterfall!
Dead end above some cliffs.

Sunday morning, Justin and I met in Gray and departed for Elizabethton to meet Halley and Lincoln at Food City before following highway 91 to the top of the mountain. The Appalachian Trail crosses there at the Johnson County/Carter County line. Larry had cautioned us all to wear orange and I was thankful for it as there were three groups of hunters with dogs tracking bears. As I ate my breakfast in the gravel lot it was fun to watch the hunters chase their eager hunting dogs and one of them took a hilarious belly flop fall while holding his dogs tail. I talked to the oldest of the hunters about the falls and one of the first things he said was, "if you don't have a GPS you can't find them."  Undaunted by his assessment, we hit the AT through a unusually tricky gate lock into a pasture field. The field was open and being on top of the mountain we could see deep into Shady Valley and the frosted tops of the distant mountains. Halley and Lincoln seemed happy to be with us and I was glad to have her dog Sallie back out for the first time in what seems like forever (and yes she was wearing orange as well!) Justin seemed focused and quiet marching through the woods occasionally stopping to take a cell phone picture. Our pace on the level ridge was fast and soon we entered the woods over one of the hikers fences that make the AT so wonderful. The trail stayed relatively flat still following the ridge line and I felt like I was far enough away from the truck to break the news to Justin that the hike might be a little longer than six miles. I had screen shot the conversation with Larry so all we had to go on was his map and the hopes we could read the lay of the land enough to know where to turn off the Appalachian Trail. Halley and Lincoln fell behind photographing the forest coated in ice. I was so excited my pace was leaving Justin further behind and soon I was heading down a small valley and could see the Double Springs Shelter. I already knew I had went too far for the turn down the drainage but I was interested in seeing the shelter and the headwaters of what was, at least in pictures, a large waterfall. I settled into the shelter digging out the trail journal scouring for any mention of people that may have wandered down from there to the falls. Almost a full year of entries later, and not one mention of North Fork Stony Creek Falls! I didn't want to alarm the others so I tucked it away in it's plastic bag and back into the rafters of the shelter. I scouted down the blue blaze trail to the spring and found the creek bubbling to life right at my feet. I rejoined the others and told them we had came too far according to Larry and needed to head back but I now could see the valley that I thought would lead us to the waterfall. As we hiked back around the ridge the rime ice began to fall like snow and we all stopped to take it in. I kept starring at my map and decided we were entering the right drainage and if I was correct we would drop right down to the top of the falls...
Found a way down by the fallen tree at top left. You can also see the top of first waterfall here. Photo by Justin Hopkins.
Halley eager to set up for photos!
Shot from the tripod.
Justin coming through the brush heading downstream.
Another large waterfall on the creek.

The first part of the off trail hike was easy. The occasional tangle of thorns or slick leaves did little to slow us down. The fact that we were hiking downhill was a welcome relief since we were already 3.5 miles in. The ridges grew steep around us and the valley deepened. The open forest hiking soon closed into Laurel thickets and creeks roaring to life from springs on either side of the drainage. I tried to stay as close as I could to the newly formed creek but it was a crooked journey avoiding the trappings of the Laurel. I heard what I thought was a waterfall downstream and as I grew closer I was cut off by another creek cutting in from the right and a steep bank descent. I found my way down upstream and the boots paid off as I waded through the small branch with dry feet. The creek now was double in size and the water was loud. I realized the others were no where to be seen so I waited until I could see Halley's red jacket coming through the laurel to keep hiking. I could definitely hear a waterfall and arrived at the top of about a 25ft waterfall! Everyone was excited to see the falls and asked if we had made it. I couldn't tell much about the falls other than I wanted to get off the ledge and to the base. Over the years the cliffs surrounding the waterfall gave way and created a rocky path to get down for a better view. I was first at the base and waited for Justin to catch me since he was packing my tripod. While trying to find the best angle to see the falls I found a clearing and a neatly trimmed branch, a good indicator that Larry had been there although it had been a few years. We took pictures and snacked resting after around four miles of hiking. I wanted to check downstream and beat my way through more laurel to find the creek level and unremarkable and couldn't help but wonder, where were we? I took my phone out to look at the topo map and it seemed like we should be either near or on the North Fork drainage but I had never seen a published picture of the waterfall we were sitting by. Justin proved his merit here by pointing out the lines on the map and saying "here's where we left the AT and look how sharp the lines are here so the main waterfall should be downstream from where we are now!"
My first glimpse of the main waterfall. You can tell how steep the banks around the falls are here as well.
Me walking behind the falls.
I took my jacket off where my shirt would stand out more. I'm tiny behind the falls!

I started back out through the laurel from where I had just came with Justin, Halley, and Lincoln close behind. I kept my head down and feet moving forward. I eventually fought my way into the creek and just waded down the drainage hoping to see some sign of hope. When I stopped at a small clearing I found myself alone again and decided to wait for the others. Nearly 10 minutes went by before I could see Justin hiking toward me alone. Apparently Halley had hurt her knee on the climb down the drainage and couldn't continue fighting through the laurel. Justin told me they said they would wait for a while on us if we kept going but would hike out after an hour or so. I was really disappointed they had traveled so far and felt like I was failing them in not getting them to the falls. I pushed myself hard down through the creek and small creeks continued to dump in on either side of me. I could hear more roaring water in the distance and arrived at the top of another decent waterfall. It was a large cascade that squeezed the creek into a steep gorge. I found the area to be really cool and noticed what looked like an old logging road on the right side of the stream even though it was still really overgrown. Justin would lose sight of me but each time I stopped I could hear him thrashing my way with the tops of the laurel shaking. Although it was brutal hiking, it was really enjoyable to be in such a remote area with very little sign of human interference. In one of the many side streams I found a old bread bag which was bittersweet, it showed that someone had been here for some reason but that they were also littering. The logging road narrowed and I had to dump off into the creek now completely surrounded by the mountains. I waited for Justin and he caught me just above a small waterfall but one that I recognized from TN landforms as the upper falls on North Fork Stony Creek! We were on the right creek and from what I remembered close to the main waterfall. I found a renewed energy and could soon see large rock formations on either side of the ridge and noticed that the forest floor on the opposite side of them seemed to be a lot lower! I continued on the right side of the stream and suddenly it vanished over a large drop, we had made it to North Fork Stony Creek Falls! I waited for Justin to reach the brink with me before we continued around the ridge looking for a way off the cliffs to the base. With a week of rain the falls was roaring but we couldnt' lose focus because the leaves were slick with water seeping across the bare rock beneath our feet. I found a doable but sketchy gap in the cliff to slide through to a ledge right at the main drop. I bear crawled away from the drop and found a rock shaped similar to stairs that dropped me down to the last stretch of loose rock to the base. Justin chose a different and probably safer route and remained high above me. When I stepped out into the creek for my first unobstructed view of the falls I was stunned. I know I've said that a lot in the past, but truly stunned! The waterfall flowed in to distinct drops off the cliff. One of the drops was a little over 15ft higher than the other but the whole scene was wonderful. Justin caught up to me and we congratulated each other standing in the creek. I still lack seeing several waterfalls in Tennessee but this one topped my list of favorites in the first few minutes of being there. Justin crossed the creek below the falls and hiked around walking behind  the falls, I couldn't believe how tiny he was against the rock wall framed by the two drops. I took a few pictures and decided I had to have one of those shots for myself. When I got behind the falls I could tell not many people had been there the moss was so thick. I tried to stay on the rock to not disturb the scene and found my way out to the opening between the two drops. I can't remember being more proud on a hike. Almost two miles off tough off trail hiking had paid off, I was in Heaven. I waited for Justin to finish taking pictures and hiked around the rock amphitheater to rejoin him. We savored a few more minutes there at the base before knowing we needed to start the two mile climb back UP to the Appalachian Trail. It was a little after 2pm when we finally tore ourselves away from the falls and started hiking out. The climb around the waterfall was more difficult going out and when I reached the slide down the cliff I had took earlier I realized how foolish I was for attempting it. A narrow ledge separated me from tumbling out over the falls and to my death. I hiked further away from the falls to find a safer route back up. When we reached the top  we still had miles of laurel struggling ahead of us but we vowed to stick together and take our time. Soon we were wading the creek below the first waterfall and climbing the bank to reach the upper springs of the drainage. Justin pushed himself hard and not having water or food was catching up with his body. Our rest breaks grew more frequent as the sun started to fade behind the ridges. Both of us had waded in knee deep water and after seeing the ice coated trees that morning I knew I didn't want to be there after dark. Justin stopped a few 100 yards shy of the intersection of the AT for one final break, the promise of fresh drinking water just over the ridge pushed him onto the summit and back on the trail. Hiking back is usually a breeze on level and downhill grades but even my legs were sluggish from the climbing and scrambling we had been doing for nearly four miles off the main trail. After stopping at one of the trail side springs we pushed on the final 2.5 miles to the truck.
Tripod shot of North Fork Stony Creek Falls.
North Fork Stony Creek Falls captured with Canon Rebel T3I.
Almost home.
Shadow Selfie overlooking Shady Valley.
The red line is our trip. You can see that almost half the hike was completely off trail!

I told Justin I was so tired that it hurt to move my eyebrows and he soon faded into sleep on the ride back home. It gave me time to reflect on what a truly wonderful day it was in the mountains. Justin had redeemed himself from the infamous fall earlier in the year and knocked out a hike very few people do. Thousands of people pass by the falls on their quest to tame the Appalachian Trail each year and yet the area around the falls is nearly flawless. It's amazing what you can accomplish if you set your mind to do something! Again, special thanks to Larry Jarrett for his insight and more importantly his friendship, I couldn't have done this trip without you. Until next time, happy trails!