Friday, July 18, 2014

Hiking in the Thompson River Gorge has been one of the highlights of my many day trips into North Carolina. The gorge is one of the most wild and rugged places left in the mountains and has been known to claim a few lives over the years. As the river loses elevation it forms some major waterfalls on it's way to meeting Lake Jocassee. The largest of the waterfalls is the Big Falls on Thompson River, a 150ft high beast of a waterfall, near it's base there's a large slide area that empties into a deep pool and is the perfect place to slide and swim on a hot summer day. The humidity and heat has been fierce so far this year and when I found out that Steve would join me on the trail for the first time since the birth of his daughter, Baize, I knew exactly where I wanted to go to celebrate the occasion.
Thompson River downstream from Big Falls which is hidden from the huge boulders seen here.

The drive down to the trail head takes a little over two hours but Steve and I killed the time telling funny stories and laughing wildly.We made a pit stop for breakfast and for some supplies and it seemed like no time before we were parking off of the NC 281 Brewer Road intersection. Normally I carry only my camera bag and cell phone but since the gorge is more remote and strenuous I brought a full pack so we could have plenty of food and water for the climb out, also sticking in the side pouch of my pack was a 25ft length of rope I had found on a hike back in Tennessee. The first part of the hike follows an old logging road uphill past a gate and begins a steady decent down the back side of the ridge. Soon the sound of passing cars was gone and we were left with the sounds of the surrounding forest. The trail was easier to follow in my previous visits and I noticed bicycle tread in the red clay mud as we neared the first river crossing. The river was somewhat cloudy from the previous days rain but crossing wasn't a problem. The cascade just downstream from there was roaring so we knew what to expect when we arrived at the main attraction. The trail stays with the river and several trees have been cut off the trail making the route much easier than before. Several trails shoot off the main trail and each one leads to a waterfall. I've seen all the waterfalls on the route so we didn't fool with any of them staying focused on our goal. Despite being out of the woods for several months, Steve was right at home and stayed hot on my trail the whole way. The trail eventually meets a crossing of a small tributary of the Thompson River and turns left following it downstream and slightly uphill. I knew that we were closing on the steep spur trail to the waterfall. The problem most people encounter on this stretch of trail is picking the right trail into the gorge. There are two other spur trails before the right one to the waterfall. The first spur trail leads down above the second unnamed falls on the river and the second trail leads to the base of that waterfall. The second falls is loud and can be heard from the main trail which adds to the confusion for some hikers. When we arrived to the correct turn there were two sticks leaning against each other and a large pile of rocks to mark the turn. I remembered what the beginning of the trail looked like from before so I knew we had made it. I looked at my watch and was surprised we had hiked the three mile route in well under an hour as we began the decent into the gorge.
Steve below the rock wall near the river.

The spur trail begins rather easy with a gentle decent winding downhill through the trees. Steve noticed a fence lizard running across the path and was able to corner it against a tree and capture it for a few pictures. After walking for around 10 minutes downhill the trail turns much steeper and previous hikers have left rope tied off to help down the steep grades. Steve and I had no problems with these sections and were soon at the large rock wall that separates the trail from the river. Once again, ropes were tied off and we walked down the crack in the rock face to reach the final stretch of trail before the river. The deceiving part of Big Falls is that it's unusually quiet until this point. From the main trail head it can't be heard, and is only heard when you cross over the rock wall but still not seen. Although the steep part of the trail was behind us we knew there was still work to be done. We arrived at the river and were we had crossed in previous trips was under water from the elevated flows. The boulders were wet from spray so we had to use extra caution crossing the river and I opted to slide on my butt to keep from taking a hard fall on one of the rocks. We reached the opposite side and worked our way through scattered boulders as large as cars and small houses. I peeked up from watching the trail to catch the first glimpse of the waterfall. It was as spectacular as ever and although I was excited I couldn't help but notice an increasingly cloudy sky.

Steve and I high above the river. Behind my head is the steep climb up to the rock you see on the right of the falls. This is where I fell along the tree line of the boulder. The narrow waterfall near my shoulder is a 30ft+ fall and was what I was trying to avoid!
Almost to level ground. The height of the boulder obstucts a clear view of the waterfall.
Looking downstream from on top of the boulder.
Steve resting after the climb up. This is where we had to try to shelter ourselves from the storm.

On the right of the waterfall there is a long massive boulder that has to be climbed over to get access to the slide area. The problem with that is the water cascading over the boulder in times of flood over the years has worn it smooth and there isn't any traction. A tiny crack runs up and over the boulder to where it flattens out and Steve started the climb first using the crack to wedge his foot for each step up. He made it to small ledge and I threw him the rope I had in my pack and used it to climb up to meet him. He climbed further until he was standing on top and I threw him the rope again and joined him at the top. We no sooner turned our attention to the waterfall before it began raining! We took shelter against the gorge wall using the trees to shelter us for a few minutes hoping to ride out the rain. After about 20 minutes the rain stopped and the skies turned blue again but the damage was done. We were soaked and worst of all so was the steep rock we had to get off of to hike out. I figured we would play in the deep pool at the base long enough to let the sun dry the rock and we would be fine, so we got out the camera equipment and Steve climbed the slide so I could film his ride at Big Falls. The waterfall was loud but nothing compared to his laughter as he took several trips. As I was checking the camera I could see a large black cloud drifting into the was going to storm. I tried to get Steve's attention to hurry but he couldn't hear me over the water and large drops of rain began to fall again. I rushed to get the bags back on my cameras and back to the side of the large boulder to shield from the rain. Soon the rain was a downpour with claps of thunder and lightning and for the first time hiking I was truly concerned. Steve remained optimistic and we huddled on the rock hoping it would blow through. After another 20 minutes and the rain continued to pour, I decided we would try to get down and hike out before there was a chance of a flash flood pinning us on the wrong side of the river. When we scooted out to the ledge of the boulder the crack we used to climb up was a small rushing stream! The water was rushing off with it dropping off a 30ft ledge with what would be a rocky grave. I tried to keep hugged to the rock opting to fall into the grass and rock to the left but I kept sliding further out on the ledge. I threw Steve the rope and told him to lower me down so I could have some control over where I was going to land. Steve anchored down and wrapped the rope on his arm and I slid through the stream feeling for any cracks to get footing. I made it down a long stretch using this method and was only about 20ft from getting safely off the rock when I started sliding faster than I could control, the rope pulled tight and swung me away from the ledge and toward a grassy and rocky landing. Steve lost his hold and I was in a feet first free fall! I crashed into the rock and grass and rolled over fully expecting Steve to land on top of me. Instead he was still safely at the top laughing hysterically at my fall. I laid there for a minute in the pouring rain just staring up, I couldn't believe I wasn't hurt. I got to my feet and told Steve to slid to me that I would catch him, almost before I could brace myself he was on his way laughing and yelling. He landed a little more gracefully and was to his feet much quicker as well. We hurried over to the river crossing and I could tell the water was already rising. I had switched packs and was carrying twelve hundred dollars in camera equipment on my back so I was extra cautious not to take a fall. Steve joined me on the other side and we faced the steep climb up a trail that was now a muddy mess.
Steve taking the Big Falls slide! Just before the storm.

A lot of the fear I felt on the opposite side of the river was gone and I refocused climbing up the gorge making sure of my steps in the mud and water using the ropes to pull myself up. I could tell I don't use my arms a lot when I hike because they were already shaking from the exertion. The rain continued to beat down us but we pushed forward making the main trail in just over 30 minutes of tough climbing. We still had three miles of hiking ahead of us to the truck but we both knew we were lucky that things weren't much worse. The entire hike out we talked of how the rain added to the adventure and it never let up all the way to the truck.
Cell phone shot of the falls.
Time to head to higher ground!

The dry clothes I had brought in my pack were now soaked but I changed anyway just to freshen up a little and on the ride home we made our traditional stop at Taco Bell in Brevard. We caught back up to the main part of the storm that had trapped us and I couldn't believe how dark the heavens were, but they were much less intimidating than when I had encountered them on the exposed rock at the waterfall. It had been several months since Steve and I had hiked together but mother nature waited patiently to put me through one of my toughest hikes with one of my best friends. Until next time, happy trails!

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