Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When Halley, John, and I get together, the adventure factor is always high. Lately we've all been booked with other commitments and haven't hiked as a group but I wanted to share a day we spent in North Carolina a few months ago with you all.
Ginseng along the trail to Crabtree Falls.
John at Crabtree Falls.

Halley served as host for our outing and John and I met her at the Ingles near Spruce Pine before traveling a short distance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. She had brought along two other hikers she had met through her photography business, both Craig and Eric were seasoned outdoorsmen but had yet to do any Carolina hiking. Our first stop of the day was Crabtree Falls, a beautiful 60ft waterfall right off the parkway. I've visited there several times before but never miss an opportunity to take in it's beauty and I was excited to be with my friends again. The hike down to the falls is a loop, with the right loop taking a shorter, steeper path to the base of the waterfall. I've always hiked it since I've tried visiting as many waterfalls as I can while I'm in town. Halley suggested taking the left loop so I was going to get to see some new trail. The left side of the loop was easy and steady as it swung around the ridges picking up a small creek. All of us were lost in conversation and the wildflowers were blooming nicely along the trails. We arrived at a large cliff above the waterfall but with the trees you couldn't see it from there only hear it. The scramble down to the base was pretty easy and I was excited to see that our group was one of only a few people there. We all dispersed taking pictures and enjoying the waterfall. When it came time to hike out we took the right loop so we could get back quicker. The steep climb seemed to get to Craig's legs and he asked how many more stops we would be making because he didn't want to be tired at work the next day. Eric was the oldest of our group but was a beast of a hiker only stopping to let the rest of us catch him. He rested at the intersection of the two trails and I spotted some ginseng in the woods. It was a cool find and I wondered how many people walk by without even noticing it. The group was moving much slower hiking out so I took the time to photograph wildflowers, at times I was crawling through the forest floor trying to get just the right angle. John and I had seen a four leafed trillium on the hike in and I was so pumped to get some shots of it that I left my camera bag laying in the weeds next to where we spotted it. I only realized my bag was missing when we got back to the parking lot and had to run back the half mile to retrieve it! When I got back, Halley informed us that she was taking Craig and Eric back to their car in Spruce Pine and they might join us later in the day. She also gave John and I directions to Grassy Creek Falls, a waterfall a short distance off the parkway. As John and I packed up, we left my tripod sitting in the parking lot and didn't realize it until we arrived at Grassy Creek's parking area. I couldn't believe that I had been so forgetful already and as we rushed back I was praying that someone hadn't took it. Luckily someone had left it on the sidewalk to keep it from getting ran over and John and I were back on the road to Grassy Creek Falls.
Downstream from Crabtree Falls.
Unusual Trillium where I forgot my camera bag!
Grassy Creek Falls.

The parking situation at Grassy Creek is a little sketchy. The state maintenance ends and private property signs begin. A couple of residential driveways split off of the main road and a small sign indicates that hikers are welcome down the gravel road that leads to the falls. It's a steep downhill grade and along the way there are signs with various nature quotes that John and I enjoyed reading as we hiked by. Eventually there is a small pull off on the left side of the road and a road on the right with a rope over it and a sign indicating that the waterfalls are down the way. When we reached the top of the waterfall I couldn't believe how far it tumbled down the gorge. We took the steep scramble down the bank and arrived at the upper drop seeing that we could hike behind it! I was in love with this waterfall, It was incredibly photogenic and you could walk down the side of it around each drop making it bigger and bigger in all of your photographs. I knew we had some time before Halley caught up with us so I took my time shooting long exposures while John explored and photographed the waterfall also. SUDDENLY, Halley came walking out of the woods. I was stunned she could hike so fast but was glad she was back with us and we continued to take pictures and hang around the falls. When we finished I was really dreading the hike back up to the truck on that long grade. As we reached the spur road I could see Halley's car and I was so relieved my hiking up that road was over! My relief was short lived however when I noticed her mirrors were folded in and her windshield wipers were raised. She noticed it about the same time and let out her trademark "what the heck!" I turned looking up the gravel road and saw a old pick up truck parked sideways blocking us in. I checked the truck and no one was in it and the doors were locked. We were pinned in! The road was at such and angle that the three of us probably could have pushed the truck out of the way but it would end up rolling down the valley. Halley said it was obvious whoever done it lived at the end of the road so we loaded up and started down the gravel road not knowing what to expect. When we started winding around a ridge I saw what looked like an abandoned electric company substation with a porch and a very angry looking older man standing there waiting to greet us. He appeared to be unarmed and to be alone so I wasn't quite terrified. He approached the car as we reached his house and Halley jumped out to greet him. She tried using her charm but he was having none of it only stating that he had her license plate number and never wanted to see her again in there. He had to backtrack when she said she knew the owner of the land she had parked on and that he had always let her park there without problems. He agreed to move his truck and let us go but we had to give him a lift  back to his vehicle. When he got in the backseat with John it was immediately evident that he had been smoking marijuana all day, maybe even for weeks. The interior of Halley's car filled with the smell and he sat in silence even though John and I tried to engage him in conversation. When we dropped him off and the truck was safely out of our way we all erupted with laughter. John said he had a contact buzz and needed snacks! Although we didn't get his name, we had one for him, Willie!
John looking for just the right angle.
Further downstream on Grassy Creek. There are more drops behind me.
My favorite shot of the waterfall.
Halley and John behind the upper drop of Grassy Creek Falls.

After laughing ourselves into side-splitting pain, we noticed the cloud cover was still kind of thick if we wanted any views off of Mt. Mitchell and instead opted to head over near the South Toe River and some hiking at Roaring Fork Falls and Setrock Falls. We weren't going to let our encounter with Willie ruin our day of hiking, in fact, we were just getting started...to be continued...

Friday, October 3, 2014

After seeing the disasterous results of the forest service placing signs to help hikers find the Devil's Bathtub in Scott County, Virginia, I've been more reluctant to share directions and information about my hiking destinations. On one particular hike, me and one of my hiking buddies carried out three full bags of trash from what was once a pristine and private swimming hole. I place a lot of blame on myself for the current situation there. I've shared pictures and took groups of people with me who have undoubtedly told others until now it's overrun and less desirable for everyone who visits, so lesson learned.

Another relatively obscure hiking destination in Tennessee is the area known as Rocky Fork. With the Devil's Bathtub fiasco and the fact Governor Bill Haslam recenty named Rocky Fork as a future state park, I wanted to get there ahead of the crowds and the piles of trash that await. For years, I've pointed out cliffs that are visible from Interstate 26 and wondered what the view would be like from the top of them. I didn't know their name, if a trail went to them, if it was public land or private, I just wanted to be there.
Panoramic view from Whitehouse Mountain.

The internet has made the world a much smaller place and I've made a lot of connections with fellow hikers leading to my introduction to Randy Tarpley, also known as Rat. In my opinion, he is the Northeast Tennessee Godfather of hiking and has blazed many of the current trails I hike on. During one of our discussions about hiking, he told me the cliffs were known as Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs, a part of the Rocky Fork property, and that he had been there and wrote a blog about his trip. From the blog, I gathered some basic directions and decided I had to go for myself when I could find the time.

On Tuesday morning, I hiked with Jeff Forrester and his cousin, David from Missouri. We spent our morning hiking on Unaka Mountain taking in some of the early fall color and visiting Red Fork Falls. I had a great time playing in the woods and it was even better to be recovered from a cold and some back problems that have had me sidelined for a few weeks from the trails. Jeff and David wanted to hike to the Devil's Bathtub in the afternoon and I decided I would go home, satisfied with my morning adventure. As the weather improved throughout the afternoon, I couldn't resist the urge to head out for a solo hike and those magnificent cliffs in Rocky Fork.
Acorns are everywhere on the way to Whitehouse Mountain.
Climbing up the steep trail to the summit.

I arrived at the trail head and the blue gate I had read about in Rat's blog. The hike up Rocky Fork is flat and easy to follow on the old logging road. The creek is full of nice cascades and one particularly deep swimming hole. Although I was alone, I felt completely at ease and peace with my surroundings. I think sometimes it's better hiking alone because there are no distractions and I tend to pay more attention to what I'm doing. I found the trail for Whitehouse Mountain and began the climb around the ridge. The trail is overgrown and faint at times but the occasional piece of flagging tape or cut limb kept me on track. I've become good at tracking routes through the wilderness even finding some of Rat's infamous "ninja trails"  The climb was unrelenting and my feet were wet as the trail passed through a muddy creek bed a few times as it went up the valley. The surrounding slopes were steep on both sides of me and I started seeing forest boundary signs every so often marking the future parks borders. Eventually the trail comes to a saddle in the ridge line and I noticed it took a hard right to climb at a even steeper climb! I was sweating pretty good so I took a moment to rest on the forest floor in the middle of the trail. There was a slight breeze and acorns were falling everywhere. I was sure one would eventually crack me in the head but somehow it never happened. I made my way back to my feet and continued to hike climbing toward the tree line and blue sky that always seemed just one more step away. When I made it to the top of the ridge I was disappointed to see that the trail made another sharp right turn and the climbing was the most ferocious yet. At times, I was hiking on my toes the terrain was so steep and I had to make several rest stops up the increasingly narrow ridge spine. I started seeing large rocks and a few views between downed trees. The trail almost completely vanishes and it becomes taking the path of least resistance the remainder of the way. I was soon on the very top of Whitehouse Mountain. The fall color was fantastic to be early in the season and as I crested the mountain the views really opened up. To my left I could see all of Interstate 26 from the time it leaves Erwin until it crests the mountain at Sam's Gap and the North Carolina line. Cars looked like ants and I thought of all the times I had been from their vantage point being wanting to be where I was now. To my right was just mountain after mountain and more flaming fall color on the high ridges above me, but most intriguing was what lied directly in front of me. Whitehouse Mountain drops off even steeper than the climb I had just endured and is littered with rocky boulders various sizes. Further down the ridge out of sight was the tops of the cliffs. I sat on top of the mountain and took in the view and took some pictures excited to see what awaited me on down the mountain.
The first views off the mountain near the summit.
Interstate 26 on far right of picture.
Whitehouse Mountain summit looking into North Carolina.
I made it! Took this one with the Gopro.
Another Gopro picture.

I started climbing down the ridge through the boulder field and found the loose rock difficult to keep my footing. At one point I got a good look at both of my feet with the sky as a back drop as I did, you guessed it, a back drop. Luckily the loose rock broke my fall and skidded me down the mountain side a few feet in some thorn bushes. I sat up and dusted off plucking the thorns from legs and realized it was a bad idea to go any further alone.  I was a little disappointed I wouldn't be on the cliffs that day but I knew I would be back and would have something to look forward to. I scurried back up to the top of the mountain and took some more pictures and a short video of the view. I used my Gopro for a selfie to prove I was there and packed up for the easy downhill hike out.
The Tennessee Welcome Center is the clearing on the distant ridge.
Fall color starting to pop up on the highest peaks.
One last shot. I had worked up a little bit of a sweat!

My first trip to Rocky Fork will definitely not be my last. It's beautiful and pristine just the way nature is intended to be. The future of the area remains cloudy with the state park destination but it will be at least a few years until anything is done there, so enjoy it while it lasts. Until then, happy trails.