Thursday, June 19, 2014

Eight waterfalls down and munching on peanut butter sandwiches, Jeff, Larry, and I were off to a great start on our mission to see 30 waterfalls in one day. It was only shortly after 1pm when we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway and a short drive later we were at our next destination, Skinny Dip Falls.
Skinny Dip Falls.
Tree on the Mountains to Sea Trail.

Skinny Dip Falls is insanely popular with both tourists and the locals so I wasn't surprised to see the parking lot at the Looking Glass Overlook jammed with cars. I still held on to hope that maybe I could get some decent shots of the falls since it was one of the more photogenic locations we were going to see that day. As we hiked the trail down the mountain we passed several groups leaving and when the falls came into view I didn't see another soul! My excitement was quickly squashed when I saw a lady sitting on the lone rock in the deep pool below the falls reading a book. She barely glanced up as I had to sneak around the boulder she was on to take a few pics and maybe salvage something useful. I noticed the bridge downstream from the pool was a nice shot so I set the tripod up for my picture and suddenly her kid ran into the scene whipping his manhood out and proudly peeing in the pool under the bridge! I was already annoyed and now I was downright mad. Not only was she ruining my dream picture, she wasn't watching a child that could easily drown downstream before she could reach him. I don't understand people that go to these places acting like they own them. I show up and take my pictures and leave so that others can enjoy them as well. Despite the challenges I was met with, I got some decent pictures without any children in the frame and Jeff and Larry were having the time of their lives so I was happy for them.

Looking Glass Rock.
Our next few falls were the easiest hiking of the day because we didn't have to leave the car to see them. Currently the Graveyard Fields is closed for expanded parking and new restrooms but the two large waterfalls in the valley below can be seen from the parkway can be seen from the road. We stopped at both and zoomed them in as best we could and were on down the parkway to meet the intersection with NC 215.

Long views from near Graveyard Fields.    

Second Falls at Graveyard Fields.
NC 215 is home to a cluster of quality waterfalls that can pad anyone's day hiking numbers in a hurry. We turned on 215 toward Waynesville and within .4 miles arrived at the trail head for the two waterfalls in Middle Prong Wilderness. It was the first time for me to see these falls so I was eager to get to them and was out of the car before Jeff could get it in park. I took my guidebook with me and was thankful I did, since the trail was confusing and involved several creek crossings and winding through rhododendron thickets with limited views. Jeff and Larry caught up with me at a campsite and the three of us found some flagging tape to follow upstream to the base of the first waterfall. I quickly noticed a swirl at it's base, which is basically the current of water picking up sediment and dead leaves making a little whirlpool. I had seen some beautiful pictures of swirls at the base of waterfalls online so I set my camera for an exposure of 20 seconds and was thrilled to see I had captured one for myself. To me, the entire trip had been worth it just for that one image. The creek and waterfall weren't the most impressive I had ever seen and the flow seemed to be down compared to the pics I had seen that made me add it to the list but the adventure factor in getting to the falls made them worthwhile. To see the upper waterfall we had to climb a steep bank and continue upstream wading the creek until it reached the base of the falls. The upper falls was beautiful, having a deep channel carved at it's base that also made for some great photography. Although it was my first visit to the two falls, I knew I would come back!

Jeff and Larry in the Middle Prong Wilderness.

Upper waterfall in MPW.
On the trail.

A short drive further down 215 we arrived at the roadside parking for Wildcat Falls. The trail follows an old railroad bed and is easy as it snakes around the ridges. The actual waterfall runs under the road with the upper portion above the bridge and a continuation below it. I set my tripod up for a picture and Larry stepped in front bragging that I knew where all the good shots were. I waited for him to finish taking pics but he sat down and settled in before I could get the picture, he was a true master of photo bombing! I even took time to step back and sneak a picture of him lost in thought and I couldn't help but smile, someone loved hiking as much as I did.
Bubbling Branch Cascades.
Deep pool on Bubbling Branch. Rain began to fall during this picture and spotted the lens.

Further down the road we stopped at one of my favorite waterfalls, Bubbling Branch Cascades. You can see the waterfall from the road but  I had told Jeff and Larry we had to climb the rock beside the waterfall to fully appreciate it. The cascade drops some 60ft and has multiple swimming holes along the climb. At the top of the waterfall is a crystal clear pool with a rope swing, I don't think there are many more perfect spots in the mountains. I looked across the gorge to where we parked and Jeff's car seemed so small surrounded by the mountain landscape. I took my time getting back down the waterfall so I was sure to get all the pictures I wanted while Jeff and Larry rested at the base. I could tell the trails and our marathon day was starting to wear on them, and truthfully, it was wearing me down as well.
My first swirl at Middle Prong Wilderness.

The next stop would bag us three more nice waterfalls and bring our total to 19 waterfalls around 4pm! I had mentioned Wash Hollow Falls several times during our trip and gloated that no one was ever there, but as we pulled in to the trail head a vehicle from South Carolina greeted us. I thought they might be there to Sam's Branch Cascades, which you have to cross on the way to Wash Hollow, but once again, I found someone right in the way of my picture. As we approached the base of the waterfall a group of four people were sitting there smoking weed! Besides being in my way, they had two dogs that ran up the bank barking and growling at us. They ran up the bank assuring us they were harmless and quickly retreated back to their spot at the base. I hated to interrupt their party, but I wasn't too upset since they ruined my chance to shoot the waterfall. I also started having some camera problems as we hiked out with my display saying the camera couldn't read my memory card. As bad as I hated to admit it, I could see the 30 waterfall total slipping away.
Section of the waterfall on Sam's Branch. This is a huge stretch of waterfalls that the trail crosses.

I worked frantically on the camera as we approached the final stop of that side of 215 at the Waterfall on the West Fork of the Pigeon River. The waterfall is right beside the road and I stayed in the vehicle while Jeff and Larry took off to take a few close up pictures. I finally got my memory card to start reading again just as we started back up the mountain and down the final leg of our trip to meet highway 64. The skies had been heavy with clouds all day and I could tell that our luck was about to run out. We had 20 waterfalls under our belts and I thought if we were lucky we could get the final three at Living Waters Ministries before the skies burst open.

Considering the waterfalls at Living Waters are on private property and beside the road, there is something about them that seem so peaceful and serene. The owners allow people to hike there at their own risk and sadly several people have died there over the years. In one of the more unique scenes in North Carolina, two creeks meet and can be photographed as they form two distinctly different waterfalls. Mill Shoal Falls cascades next to a beautiful red cabin and Mill Shoal Falls takes a vertical plunge of around 25ft. I have never been able to get decent pictures of either of them because of lighting, forgetting my tripod, or just plain user error, but I was finally able for everything to come together to capture a wonderful picture as rain began to fall. The slight drizzle quickly turned to downpour as we ran down the trail to Bird Rock Falls and the final waterfall of the day. Larry and Jeff risked the slick rock and ran out to view the falls while I took shelter in the laurel from the rain. Hiking back out we all had smiles on our faces and laughed wildly at the downpour and our now soaked clothes.
Mill Shoal Falls and Cathedral Falls at Living Waters Ministries.
A successful day of hiking in the books. We took a moment to pose for a group shot. 23 waterfalls, 10 miles hiked, in 10 hours. I'll never forget it!

The greedy side of me would have loved to top the 30 waterfall total but having 23 quality waterfalls in one day was still an impressive accomplishment and I feel like my goal of showing Jeff and Larry a good time had been met. Larry noted on the drive home that his paper had 23 lines on it and we had filled each one! It was almost an omen that we were meant to see that many and call it a day. I've already laid out a plan to return later in the year and stay closer to the trail head to knock out the elusive 30 waterfalls in one day...until then, happy trails!

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