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.

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