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!

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