Saturday, March 29, 2014

Driving in traffic is perhaps one of my greatest stresses. I often marvel at the level of stupidity of the people I share the road with and often arrive at my destination with a red face and what I'm sure is unsafe blood pressure levels. For instance, while commuting to a meeting I became trapped behind three cars who felt the need to drive side by side by side driving 10 miles under the speed limit. It's in these times the full appreciation of the outdoors and the isolation they provide are most evident to me.
Trail closed? Yeah right!
The trail as it enters the rock slide area.
Deep pool on Stony Creek.

One of my personal favorites for such seclusion is found in Dungannon, Virginia. Hanging Rock Recreation Area is seldom used but has beauty at every turn. The park has no doubt seen better days but it also serves as a trail head for several nice hikes including the Falls of Little Stony. I consider hiking in from the rec area the "back way" because during the summer you can drive to a short distance above the upper falls and see all the waterfalls in less than a miles hike, but I also prefer the longer route because of the numerous cascades, cliffs, and overall beauty along the 5.2 mile journey.
Cascade at the first footbridge.
Dad heading up the trail.
Awesome cascades.

My dad has become quite the hiker himself, shedding over 100lbs since last April and really being determined to get his life and health in order. I've been amazed at the transformation and blessed because now he can tag along with me without being exhausted. A few weeks ago we headed into the mountains of Virginia for hike up to the falls on one of the warmer days we've had this winter.
Creek side at the cascades.
The tree waterfall.

The trail is in great shape and remains level as it follows Little Stony Creek up the valley. A short distance into the hike is a large rock shelf that has collapsed some time ago and the massive boulders are stuck in the ground like daggers. One of the boulders has split once it hit the ground and the trail snakes narrowly between the rocks. At around half a mile the first footbridge crosses the creek and a large cascade. The trail enters a flat stretch along the left side of the creek with a large rock that stretches for over 100 yards level with the water. I love this area and always stop to take photos from different perspectives. I told dad to hike on and I would catch up with him up the trail. After getting my fill of photos I sprinted up the trail looking for dad, and was surprised at how far he had hiked in a short distance. It wasn't long before we arrived at the second foot bridge which crosses the creek at a side stream waterfall that empties into the gorge.

As the trail gained elevation I noticed large icicles formed along the gorge walls and soon snow started to line the trail. Dad and I took our time and he waited patiently as I would stop to drop the tripod for each shot. I found a nice cascade that was about a twenty foot drop below us and was able to slide down the bank and keep my feet under me impressing him that someone my size was so nimble. A tree has fell over the creek creating a perfect waterfall spanning it's length and by the size of the tree, it will be there for years to come.
Clear skies.
Snow starting to line the trail.

We made good timing and the gorge transformed before our eyes with the cliffs rising steeper and the snow getting deeper. The trail passes under a cliff were icicles hang dangerously above your head. I had to take advantage of such a unique photo op although I wasn't about to make a sound and cause them to come crashing down on me. The trail winds up the mountain away from the creek to avoid some slide damage and eventually drops back down to creek level just short of the third and final footbridge before reaching the waterfalls. On the ridge high above us Bear Rock loomed over the valley and we crossed the longest of the bridges and a short time later we were at the largest of the waterfalls on Little Stony at the observation deck the forest service has constructed. Of course, I wanted to be at the base of the falls and left dad to take a break and headed down the steep bank. I went off trail to get further downstream to include some cascades in my shots. In my haste, I lost my footing and caught my arm in a small tree causing it to get jerked painfully above my head. I wiggled free but my arm hung completely numb at my side! I tried lifting it and it wouldn't budge and used my right arm to pick it up but still nothing. I rubbed my hand over the other one for what seemed like an eternity before my fingers began to tingle and the feeling came back in my arm. Dad had missed it and I was glad as I took photos of the roaring falls. I told him about it once I reached the observation deck and he surmised it could have been a slight nerve strain or rotator cuff issue. He had me do a couple of throwing motions and stretch it over my head before determining I was a wimp and that we should move along.
The longest bridge on the trail.
Death from above.
Lower falls on Little Stony.
From the observation deck.

A short distance upstream from the lower waterfalls is the smallest waterfall on Little Stony. It's hidden off trail in a rocky cove and I didn't take time to scramble down this time. Maybe a couple of tenths of a mile upstream is the upper falls and one of the nicer falls in Virginia. It isn't very high but free falls into a large pool and can be photographed on all sides INCLUDING behind it! I could tell dad was proud we had reached our destination and was even more excited that he still felt great. I told him that he was just tuning up for our father/son hike to Mt LeConte this coming summer.
Sun peeking over Upper Stony Falls.
Dad and I.
One last look at Little Stony.

If you ever find yourself feeling the stresses of life maybe a trip to Dungannon, Virginia and Little Stony Falls will brighten your day. Hiking always helps me unwind but it also helps me focus on how blessed I am. No matter your situation there is always someone who has it worse than you. Until next time, happy trails!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Finding hiking partners recently has been a real challenge. Not everyone shares my obsession of wandering into the wilderness  at every opportunity, but thanks to the wonderful Internet, I can post where I want to go and wait for volunteers to tag along. Some people would scoff at the idea of hiking with strangers, but I like to think of it as networking and I've always been fond of meeting new people.

When I first decided to hike to Lilybeth Falls I knew it would be a tough sale. Although it's only a few miles round trip, it requires some climbing and negotiating unmarked trails all while being in the heart of bear country.  There was very limited information online and even fewer directions. A local trail legend who goes by Rat seems to be the only one who has went there or at least the only one who has wrote a blog about it. Check out his work at ( He referred to the hike as the waterfall tour but took a route that comes down from the top of Rich Mountain and comes out at the trail head for Pine Ridge Falls. I was unfamiliar with hiking that route but figured if I could read his general directions from his post backwards I could get there from the bottom up.

When I shared my intentions on my facebook page, Jon Phillips volunteered to join me. A few others committed but as the hike grew closer backed out for various reasons. I had already decided I was going whether I had anyone with me or not, I was just trying to keep Amber from being too upset with me. Late Friday night, Jon messaged me asking if he minded if Randy Tarpley went along with us the following morning, or as he has known by most of the hiking community, Rat! I couldn't believe that the man who inspires most of my hikes (especially in Unicoi County) would be joining us on trail!

Saturday morning we met at the trail head for Pine Ridge Falls shortly after 8am. The sun was hidden behind some pretty nice cloud cover so I was anxious to see what photo opportunities awaited us. From the moment I stepped out of the truck, Randy, Jon, and I acted like we had known each other for years. Randy led the way telling us of his many adventures in the mountains and pointing out specific ridges and rock formations. He also told us of how he looks for "ninja trails" and as we would later find out, they are very important in the wilderness above Pine Ridge Falls.

The first real obstacle of the hike occurs at a half mile in, Pine Ridge Falls has to be hiked around to continue on to the next falls on Devil's Fork. There is a small natural rock staircase that has to be climbed on the right of the falls. It isn't extremely hard, but it shouldn't be underestimated either, a false step and one would certainly be injured severely if not worse. We all made the climb and I could already feel the excitement of knowing I would soon be at Josiah Falls. I have hiked above Pine Ridge before but without directions and pouring snow, I turned back short of reaching the waterfall. We stuck with the right side of the creek weaving between small saplings that have grown through what used to be a nice trail. The trail leads to a creek crossing that leads to a nice camp site but we stayed on the right side more or less bushwhacking upstream. A short distance later the forest opened up and some logging roads became visible above us on the right. Randy led us through the area to a small but deep pool below a picturesque cascade. We crossed the creek and were met with some heavy laurel but I could see through the trees, we were at Josiah Falls!
Josiah Falls.
A different angle of Josiah.

Josiah Falls is gorgeous, it's surrounded on either side by steep terrain and is well hidden by the rock boulders before the base of the falls. All of us strategically unpacked and picked out where we would set up for shooting the falls. Although the sky was cloudy, the open canopy above the falls made for some tricky photography conditions. Randy was disheartened to learn we didn't have ND (neutral density) filters for our cameras but thought we could get some good images nonetheless. Jon's camera was a real gem in comparison, a Canon 60D, and when I saw his images, I wished I had saved my money to purchase one myself. A ND filter helps control the amount of light that your lens get, much like how sunglasses work for the human eye. We spent around thirty minutes shooting Josiah before packing for yet another difficult task.
Randy climbing above Josiah
Cascades at the split above Josiah Falls.

On the right side of the falls, the terrain is nearly vertical, compounding the problem was a large tree that had blocked the preferred path up and around the falls. Randy led us up the steep grade digging his hiking poles into the loose dirt and holding on for dear life. I followed close behind and used the limbs from the fallen tree to help pull myself uphill. After a short but grueling climb we were able to swing around the ridge above Josiah Falls. Surprisingly the waterfall is much larger than can be seen from the base with a long sliding cascade snaking through the laurel before the main drop. Randy and Jon stayed to the right of the trail and I took a small goat path around the cliff above the falls that led to an easier path up the ridge and upstream to what is known as "the split" Two streams converge just short of the top of Josiah Falls in a beautiful setting of numerous cascades and slides. Unfortunately, a massive pine tree has fell in the middle of it marring much of the photo potential.
More cascades at the split.
Cliff before Lilybeth Falls.
The Devil's Slide.
Sitting below the cliffs at Devil's Slide.

From the split we stuck with Devil's Fork which is on the left. The laurel really come in handy here as we used them to pull up, over, and around the still very steep creek banks. Soon after I could see a large rock cliff and we arrived at it's base a few minutes later. I found a perfect rock under the shade of the cliff and unloaded my pack for a break. Randy told us around the corner out of our sight was the area known as the Devil's Slide and that he was oblivious to it's existence for years as he hiked right on by between the other waterfalls. After our break, we followed along the rock wall on an uphill slant through some slick leaves and more blow downs. Once we were on top of the cliffs I could see the short distance upstream to Lilybeth Falls. I shot ahead and slid down the bank at the base of the falls while Jon and Randy set up behind me using the laurel to frame their shots. I don't know exactly what it was about the falls that I was so entranced with but I was in heaven. Cliffs rose steeply above the top of the falls and Randy pointed out the tree he stood at to look over 100ft down to where we were at the base. Hearing Randy talk about his previous trips and to see the look of excitement on his face when describing them was a joy for me, sometimes I wonder if anyone else gets it, and he most certainly does. He was also a team player when it came to pointing out prime photo angles at the falls even laying flat on his stomach at one point to photograph some small cascades. Time was the furthest thing from my mind and I still can't say how long we were there, but we eventually started hiking back out. We made a small pit stop below the Devil's slide and had brunch with the various goodies we had brought with us. I found a slanted tree to prop myself up against and sat with my feet spread out in front of me. As the sun peeked over the ridge above the small falls I couldn't have been a happier person. Jon worked with his camera while Randy continued on with conversation,  I had found two wonderful new hiking partners. When we passed Josiah on our way out, we paused for a group photo, using Jon's camera of course!
Lilybeth Falls.
Side view of Lilybeth Falls.
Jon working on a shot.
and Randy working on his shot,

As we approached the top of Pine Ridge Falls, we saw another group of hikers at their base. They seemed surprised to see us coming out of the wild but it was nice to know we were closing on safety and once Jon made it down from the rocky cliff, I felt that relief even more. My first ever waterfall tour was complete and the added bonus was having the man who invented it hiking with me. Jon was the perfect fit for the group as well being a lifetime outdoorsman. It's nice to know that people can still get along in a world that seemingly gets crazier by the day, maybe that's why I love the sanctuary of the woods so much. Until next time, happy trails!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

It's been incredibly wet and snowy this winter and with temperatures finally starting to creep back up into the normal range, much of the snow has added to the flow of the already swollen creeks. There are several waterfalls in NE Tennessee that need this to be worth viewing. One in particular I have had on my list was Pete's Branch Falls in Horse Creek Park near Greeneville.

One of the bridges across Horse Creek.
Cascades on Horse Creek.

Pete's Branch Falls is a two mile hike along Horse Creek that crosses the creek several times, you can actually drive to the spur trail that leads to the waterfall if you have a high clearance vehicle but I decided to walk since I had never been there and was unsure of the roads. It was also the first chance I've had to test out the waders I bought a few years ago to help my dad around the barn. I knew that the creek crossings would get my feet wet if I didn't have them and I was right, at the first crossing the creek came just shy of the top of spilling over inside my boots. The old road follows the creek up through the park and it's absolutely gorgeous. There are numerous photo ops of all the cascades and I took my time since I was alone working on some new camera settings I have been studying online. Even though it was a few miles, my legs were on fire from the weight of the waders. They also weren't broke in and had dug into both of my heels rubbing blisters. Even with the discomfort, I was happy to be outside, and even happier not to have any time constraints.

More cascades.

Soon I arrived at the Pete's Branch Trail and the old road turned into a narrow path that started to climb up the mountain the final .6 miles. Even with the heavy rain and snow, Pete's Branch was still rather low, disappointing considering my planning in making the trip. To add to my aggravation, the trail was steeper than anyone had mentioned in their reviews of the hike. Soon I rounded over a small rise in the trail and could see the waterfall in the distance. It's always such a thrill when you see a waterfall for the first time, I forgot all about my heels and tired legs and was at the base setting up my tripod for the first picture. The falls drop off a large set of rock cliffs that span both sides of the creek. As I worked on shooting from different angles I decided to climb along the cliff wall on the right of the falls to get high enough to show the rugged terrain around me. I was peeking between the trees framing the falls with my camera and noticed another drop just upstream from the main waterfall. I hadn't read anything about it in the research I had done and couldn't see enough of the falls to tell if I had even seen a picture. I noticed the rock wall on the left side of the creek eventually met the ridge high on the opposite side of where I was so I scrambled back down and started climbing toward the top of the rock cliff to get a closer look of the falls. It wasn't easy and it was steep but as I started working my way back down to the base of the falls I could tell it had all been worth it. The "new" waterfall was a sliding cascade that eventually dropped near vertical over 20ft to it's base. I had never seen a picture of it so I slid down through the laurel and laid next to the creek trying to get an angle that best represented what I was seeing in person.

Pete's Branch Falls.

Rock Cliffs above the falls. The other waterfall is hidden in the laurel above.
Underneath the cliffs.

The trail I took upstream.

Previously undocumented watefall above Pete's Branch.
I couldn't wait to get home and share my find with my friends on the Waterfalls of Tennessee website. I took several pictures before packing up and carefully climbing back around the cliff at the main waterfall. On the hike back, I stopped at a few cascades and worked on some isolations before packing it in to the truck. I would recommend hiking to Pete's Branch if you had the chance, under the right conditions, it's one of the best in Northeast Tennessee. Until next time, happy trails.

One of last view of my find.