Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I've heard the term elusive used to describe Buckeye Falls a lot over the years. The first research I did on it almost five years ago stated that the man that had found the base on that site had attempted it four times before being successful. Scrapping together bits and pieces of information from several sources, I made my first attempt to the base with my friend Kip four years ago. We passed the turn up the correct drainage before coming to a small cascade on Clark's Creek and turning back and finding the route up to the base. It was on this trip that I found out why so many people had failed on their quest to stand below the mighty Buckeye.
The birth of the love hate relationship with Buckeye Falls for John Lane. Just about 20 more to go.
Yeah...more trail shots.
Just a few feet apart, the elevation is so much higher.
But worth your work.

The hike starts out innocent enough following an old forest road that today serves as a horse trail. A few feet out of the truck requires an immediate crossing of Clark's Creek. I've hiked to the base four times now and can tell you, if the water isn't up over your shins or higher you're wasting your time if you want to see a good flow on Buckeye Falls. The trail continues on for over 3.5 miles and some 20 creek crossings before it eventually turns into a total creek wade near the drainage of the falls. The hike up the creek the falls is on gains around 600ft in elevation and the trail is the creek itself. If you haven't figured it out yet, the hike is hard and if you visit the falls under optimal conditions you will be wet and cold...for miles.
I can't tell you how hard and how steep that climb is.
This log is important. Please remember it for a later illustration.
We were really high on the waterfall when we realized we couldn't safely descend.
Rope to the rescue.
Down we go.

A few weeks ago, John Lane and I planned a day in the Smokies but when I woke up to a botched forecast and overcast skies I asked if he would like to hike to the base of the crown jewel of the Clark's Creek area. The week had been filled with rain and snow but a warm front had settled over the area driving temperatures into the low 60's and I saw a perfect window to creek wade despite it being late January. When we arrived at the dead end on Clark's Creek road, I quickly slipped on my waders and walked out into the creek with the water almost spilling over the top of them just below the knee! John was busy packing up his gear for the trip when I walked back to the truck with the good news. Unfortunately John doesn't own waders and instead was wearing his old sneakers. I felt bad that he was going to have cold feet and I was going to be dry so I changed into my old hiking shoes to join him in the cold feet club. I tossed him a pair of heated insoles for his shoes and we were off to Buckeye. The creek crossings were tough with swift currents and some of them hit John just below the groin but after a few hours we were hiking up the drainage to the base. At the base, I pointed out a fallen log that was wedged perfectly between two trees making a bench. We decided to climb up the far right side of the falls to enjoy a snack and admire the view. John had packed some extra bacon egg and cheese biscuits and as we ate a heavy fog swept up the valley swallowing us up. When it came time to hike down, we realized the rain had made the terrain too slick to climb down the grade without a rope. Luckily, John was prepared with a length of rope that got us far enough down the side of the falls that we were able to scoot back down to level ground without injury. The conditions that day started a Buckeye Falls fever of sorts and as we hiked out I talked about the possibility of seeing the whole waterfall from the left ridge and an even better view further away on Chigger Ridge.
Looking back at the falls now completely covered in fog.
New strategy, were gonna crab walk outta here.
Jason to the lead and continuing down "the trail."
Back on Clark's Creek the water had went up since we hiked in.

Fast forward to last Thursday and John took a vacation day for our attempt to find the viewpoint of Buckeye Falls on Chigger Ridge. I elected to hike up from Higgins Creek to Bearwallow Gap since I had hiked to the gap before without knowing really where I was going but merely stretching some miles with my buddy Steve a few years ago. I asked my friend Melissa about the route from Bearwallow Gap and looking back on her directions now they were flawless, but our execution was not. When John and I arrived at the trail head at the end of Lower Higgins Creek road the creek was raging and I was hoping my waders would keep me dry at the crossings since I had woke with a sore throat and fever. I wasn't about to cancel on John since he had used his vacation day and I figured a good sweat might make me feel better. It was immediately evident that my legs didn't agree with my logic and I lagged behind as we climbed up by the falls on Higgins. The higher we climbed we noticed a change in the weather as well. A very elevation dependent snow had blanketed the higher elevations the night before and as we neared Bearwallow Gap it became more and more of a winter wonderland. Snow and ice clinged to everything and John and I stopped to photo the postcard blue skies and snow covered landscape. The photo breaks helped me get some wind back in my lungs and helped me get back to a more normal pace as we passed the blue gate at Bearwallow Gap.
Before we reached Bearwallow Gap, the snow started to pile up on the hunt for Chigger Ridge.
I was dry for a few minutes.
John's feet on the logging road. You can see how low the laurel was down over the trail.

From the gap, the trail becomes an old logging road. The road starts out easy and John and I were in high spirits knowing we were marching toward Chigger Ridge and a snowy Buckeye Falls scene. My excitement, as many times before, was short lived. Mountain Laurel lined the trail and the weight of the snow had the limbs doubled over blocking the trail. I spent long stretches of the three miles out the road bent over getting doused with cold wet snow. John once again was wearing his trusty tennis shoes so I tried to stay out front so he could at least have some boot prints to step in and keep the snow off his feet. By the time we reached the very obvious turn down Longarm Branch that Melissa had blazed years ago, I was soaked from all the snow. Occasionally the trail would open up and I would have a break from the awkward hiking and waterboarding to get some great views down the Clark's Creek valley and you could see as far as Greeneville, TN. Near the end of the road it takes a hairpin turn to the left and straight uphill. The trail was fairly open for us and when it leveled off it made a turn to the right and into some serious deadfall. Negotiating all of it was burning up my energy and when we escaped the tangle we turned up a small stream for a few feet that I determined to be Chigger Branch.
Ice covered trees.
This branch held a lot of snow to be so little.
"Hey John, someone has been this way for something."

Here's where the heartbreak began for John and I that day. The snow had weighed down the branches of the laurel hiding the creek crossing we should have took to our right and forcing us upstream to a faded piece of flagging tape in the middle of the branch. The trail was gone. It was as if it dead ended in the creek. Not a cut branch, piece of tape, nothing was visible on either side of the ridge. I told John I would hike on upstream to look for anything and suddenly way up on the right side of the ridge I saw some pink tape on a broken tree limb. I called back to John and we climbed up the steep ridge just picking our way up the most open route we could to meet the ridge line. When we popped out on level ground, we were surrounded by laurel and nothing as far as a view was concerned. A faint animal path appeared to go both ways on the spine of the ridge. To our right was downhill grade and uphill on our left. Knowing what I know now, we were only about a hundred yards or more Above what is the lookout on Chigger Ridge. We had hiked up the Larry Jarrett/Randy Tarpley/Black Bear route shortcut. I couldn't see the surrounding landscape for the laurel so I took us higher and started seeing cut branches as we picked our way through a hell of a maze. A piece of checkerboard flagging tape here and there started building my confidence again and we climbed higher until we mercifully were freed of the laurel and found ourselves on a wide level ridge that started curving to the right. I could see off the mountain and I told John that I thought we might be a little higher than we should be and we possibly were hiking toward Wilson Knob. The flagging tape continued on and so did we, climbing higher and higher and I was trudging instead of hiking by this point when I noticed something off to my left in the woods. A wooden shelter appeared with a old stove and several barrels inside of it. I was amazed that someone had came all this way to build a shelter and from the newer looking tarp and fresh ashes under the stove, it was obvious someone had recently used it. We took time to take a break and John fished his phone out to check signal and his GPS. When we were able to get enough signal, we saw that we were tracking above the falls toward the summit of Wilson Knob. I decided we needed to start our hike back since it was already past 3pm and we had over five hard miles of hiking between us and safety, but not before we knocked back a delicious craft brew he had brought to celebrate our hike.
Looking down the ridge. It was so steep and this was our view for a long way.
Deep snow and a broken giant hiking on.
Although we weren't looking for it, this shelter had a roof and dry firewood. If I had been off the next day, I would have stayed.

John took the failure of not finding Buckeye Falls that day better than me and I tried hard to disguise my disappointment pointing out all of the beauty we had seen along the way. After settling in for the evening and reviewing maps, GPS, and consulting with Melissa, it was even more agonizing that I had missed my target. I thought about it when I went to sleep at night and when I woke up in the morning. I had to go back and redeem myself, it would drive me crazy until I did.
Soaked and disappointed, I hiked out to regroup.

Yesterday, I was off and there was only one hiking destination on my mind. I only told Amber where I was going and told her if I hadn't contacted her by dark to call John Lane, he would know where I was. I've been on good behavior with solo hiking since my Linville disaster trip but Buckeye wouldn't let me rest until I got it off my mind. I packed my overnight pack with extra clothes, food, and a way to build a fire, and dug my rusty machete out of retirement for an equalizer against the laurel. I arrived at the trail head around 11:13am and found another hiker arriving to hike up to the falls on Higgins Creek. Speaking of Higgins, the creek was even higher from two straight days of heavy rains but I was so determined to go to Chigger Ridge wet feet were the least of my concerns. Surprisingly, I made incredible timing arriving at Bearwallow Gap in less than an hour and my legs were solid having shaken my cold symptoms from a few days earlier. The biggest surprise of all was the condition of the old logling road. The laurel were free of snow and had lifted so much that I didn't have to duck at all or use my machete. It was a literal stroll to Chigger Branch. Larry Jarrett had messaged me saying I had went the exact route he takes to Chigger on my previous trip but Melissa had pointed out a longer route that could possibly be more defined. I crossed the branch picking up a faint but obvious path to the right winding around the ridge. I could see the cut branches and depended on those to find the way more than flagging tape as I noticed some of it had fell to the ground. When I reached the opposite side of the ridge I found an opening up a saddle between two ridges but no distinguishable signs of a trail. I decided to head up to the ridge and knocked a piece of bark of an old tree as a marker to find my way back. When I got to the top of the ridge I didn't see Buckeye and my heart sunk a little but luckily my ears didn't fail me. To my left and uphill I could hear water coming from a distant ridge. The ridge line was easy to follow and I passed by a large oak with a yellow piece of metal stuck in the tree. I WAS GOING THE RIGHT WAY! I remember Melissa telling me that there was a yellow marker on a tree near the viewpoint. A short distance later the ridge leveled off completely and to my right through the trees, I could see Buckeye Falls. I stayed on the ridge for maybe fifty more yards when I noticed a flurry of flagging tape, pink and blue led me downhill to a jaw-dropping open view of the falls. Believe me when I tell you this, words do not do the scene justice. I flopped down on the ground and dropped my pack from my shoulders and just sat there for a few minutes before doing anything.
Good sign for attempt two at Chigger Ridge. Higgins Creek was pumping!
Upper Higgins Creek Falls was a nice side trip.
The opening on the ridge...could this be it?
Looking back down the saddle, see the trail don't ya?
I could have kissed that yellow diamond.
At last! Buckeye Falls from Chigger Ridge. Ready for the serious photos.

When I came back from my trance, I carefully unpacked my camera and checked the lens for any smudges before setting up my tripod to capture the falls. I had to use my only zoom lens and was pleased with the images I was seeing on the playback. I spent well over an hour on the ridge and ate my lunch, recorded a few videos, and eventually had to add some layers of clothes because of the increasing wind. Buckeye had a perfect flow and the cloud that blew in just as I arrived over the sun made for perfect photo conditions. Truly, redemption has never felt better. I couldn't help but think of John and the torturous snow hike I had put him through a few days earlier but I was encouraged that I could lead him back so he could appreciate the wonder of a full view of Buckeye Falls for himself.
Buckeye Falls from the Canon Rebel.
Closer look of the falls and some ice still lingering at the base.
One of my favorites from the day.
Different filter on the lens doesn't matter, Buckeye is still impressive.
Now remember the log? In the image to the left it's circled. Whether it's the highest waterfall east of the Rockies or not, there's no denying it's a monster.

Buckeye Falls is one of my favorite hikes for a number of reasons. The sense of accomplishment each time I reached the base of the falls had never diminished. I've seen it completely dried up on a brutally humid summer day and frozen over with large chunks of ice in the winter. The flow from a trickle, to a full force waterfall that can be heard for over half a mile away on the adjacent ridge, and through it all, I always find myself ready to go back. Until next time, happy trails!