Tuesday, July 12, 2016

After a relaxing week of vacation, I wanted to end it with a quality hike before the dread of returning to work fully settled in. My last day of vacation also happened to be Father's Day and since my own dad is still on the mend from knee replacement, I chose to hike with the next best dad I know, Steve.
The kiosk at the trail head entering the Green River Game Lands.

Steve and I have shared many great trail memories and with the recent release of Kevin Adam's updated North Carolina Waterfalls book, I had plenty of ideas of where to go. As much as I tried to get Steve to chose the days direction he left the final decision to me and my heart settled on the tiny town of Saluda, North Carolina.
A deer enjoying the morning sunshine.

Saluda is home to many great waterfalls from the pay-to-play Pearson Falls, the mighty Big Bradley Falls, and the more obscure Pacolet Falls...that's right, I know about it too...anyway, our course would almost certainly guarantee we would be the only people on the trail that day.
After a mile, we reached the old barn and our left turn toward Little Cove Creek.

Facebook is a great tool if you know how to tune out the bad and pay attention to the good, and one good thing to come my way lately is the friendship of Andy Kunkle. Andy shares my passion for waterfalling and has the distinct honor of discovering some waterfalls with one even bearing his nickname, Fungi Falls. He also happened to notice on topographic maps Little Cove Creek followed a similar course to the creek that is home to Big Bradley Falls. In other words, thar's waterfalls in them thar hills.
Stinging weed dominated the creek banks. 
Indian Pipes  popping out of the forest floor.

Steve picked me up early that morning and even gave me a break from driving duty allowing me to enjoy the scenery and settle into story telling. Our laughter and stories made the hour and a half trip a short one. Before we knew it, we approached the Saluda exit and the "curviest paved road in North Carolina" to reach the Green River Game Lands for the start of our hike. It was a hot morning and crowds of people were gathering at the tube rental places along the river. Once Steve was parked at the trail head we were alone for the rest of the day. I stuffed a few beers in my pack for a toast and we were off for some bushwhacking and creek wading.
Life is everywhere if you pay attention.
This would be our trail for the day.

The trail starts as a level road through open fields that quickly had Steve mumbling about how it would be so much better if they just would let us drive but after finding some fresh blackberries and a deer walking right out in front of us, his mood improved. We eventually reached the familiar old barn and cabin from our hike a few years back to the base of Big Bradley but instead of taking the right we took a hard left in search of the waterfalls on Little Cove Creek.
Steve was excited to see Milton Bradley Falls.
He was more excited to see this snake though!

The trail continues to be an open road and the heat was really beating down on Steve and I as we were already a mile into the hike. There was still plenty to see with many wildflowers blooming and our first creek crossing of the day. I made no attempt to keep my feet dry and the cold water felt good as it soaked into my tennis shoes. After the creek crossing the directions said to take an angled approach to the far right corner of the field and enter the woods. The trail is non existent at this point and we waded in the weeds working toward the woods and an obvious creek coming down the mountain. Once at the woods, there isn't any obvious path but a short distance away I could hear the creek. I told Steve our best bet would be to just wade and rock hop and when we entered the creek I made note of a pile of dead logs to know where to get out on the way back.
The top of Milton Bradley Falls. You can see the design in the rock here.

There's something nice about just being in the woods with no clear trail. Kevin had mentioned easy open woods walking on the left side of the creek and we found an overgrown but old logging road to follow next to the creek. At a tangle of dead trees, we met with the only trouble of the day. I crossed over the brush watching for snakes but somehow alerted some hornets to our presence. Steve got the worst of it being stung twice and dropping our guidebook in their nest while he retreated! We gave them a few minutes to calm down before retrieving the book without further issue.

Our faint logging road eventually swung away from the creek and we went back to our creek wading moving upstream. Lining both banks were tall and potent stinging weed. Steve and i already were itching from brushing some and rinsed our legs off as best we could in the water. It didn't seem like it was very far but creek wading is slow going sometimes but through the trees I could see the first waterfall of the day, Milton Bradley Falls.

Steve beside one of the numerous cascades on Little Cove Creek.
We climbed this cascade using the natural water soaked stairs.

I'm always amazed how much better these waterfalls are in person than I've seen in pictures, and Milton Bradley Falls was no exception. At around 35ft high it would be the tallest waterfall we would see that day and it cascaded eloquently down to a small pool at its base. I couldn't think of a better time to share a beer with Steve and we lightened my pack by emptying  two sweetwater blues before spying the steep scramble path we would take next to the falls to continue upstream. Steve took the lead and he was climbing along the rocky cliff when he told me to hold up. The tone in his voice made it clear he had spotted a snake. A few minutes of thrashing around and he had captured his prize, a baby water snake that was unusually friendly. We took a few pictures before turning him loose and searching for the rope that was supposedly there to assist us over the rock face at the brink of the falls. Steve dug it out of the weeds and was quick to scale the rock face and vanish from sight. I took a more cautious approach and slowly inched up the rock before leveling off at the top to discover the rope tied to a dead log! I looked back over the ledge knowing I would have to go back the same way later. The rocks at the top of the falls has some neat swirls and we rested for a few minutes before continuing the wade upstream.
Beautiful lichen along the creek.
Bradley Cooper Falls.

I can't stress enough that this hike isn't for everyone. There isn't a trail to be seen and the only sane option is to stay in the water unless you just enjoy the burn of stinging weed. We made good timing for the most part but there are quite a few trees laid over the creek that gave us some up and over workouts and we were constantly on the lookout for bees or snakes. Aside from the named falls, there are many beautiful cascades on the stream and I was constantly stopping to take pictures. After some rock hopping and more downfall, Bradley Cooper Falls came into view. I was impressed with this waterfall as well and found it photogenic despite a few dead logs at it's base. Steve ran over to the base and filled his water bottle saying he would make women jealous by drinking from Bradley Cooper! The name of this falls came from a movie he was in called the Hangover. The day the falls was discovered the man who found it had a hangover.

Steve drinking from Bradley Cooper.
High above Bradley Cooper Falls. Heading upstream.

It wouldn't be a true Strickler/Horton outing if there wasn't some misinterpretation of the directions and instead of turning onto the side stream we were supposed to follow to the next two falls, we instead spotted a rope running above the top of the falls and continuing upstream. We followed the razor thin path using the rope to get around the cliff and found a more defined trail appearing out of nowhere....someone was coming in from upstream. Whoever this someone was, had money and rope, and Steve and i followed the ropes up and around countless obstacles. We both were having the time of our lives. We finally came to a monster boulder that blocked the entirety of the creek with a small spout of water squeezing underneath it making a nice little rock shelter and waterfall. The trail past this area levelled off and it was soon clear that we had made a wrong turn. I fetched the book from my pack and realized my mistake before having to confess to Steve. He took the news in stride and we headed back to to find the right creek.
The upper reaches of Little Cove Creek.
Sat down to have a look at my directions and found a photo op.

At the top of Bradley Cooper Falls we hugged the narrow ledge trail and swung onto a side stream. Literally a few feet in we crossed over the third named waterfall of our hike, Mary Lou Bradley Falls. The trail really gets close to the brink of the falls and caution was exercised continuing on by us both. I told Steve we would check it out from the base by more conventional methods on the hike back but we had one more waterfall to see, the unique Cavern Falls. The next half a mile of creek wading was the toughest of the day but I was determined to see Cavern Falls and visit the small cave behind it. A seemingly endless stretch of fallen trees and narrow rock chutes and boulders guard the final approach but when I lumbered into sight of the falls, I was in awe.
Steve climbing around some of the more scenic obstacles.
We found a beach.
More creek climbing.

Cavern Falls is one of the most interesting waterfalls I've seen and there is a killer swimming hole at its base. To enter the cave behind the falls, I had to wade the swimming hole that was waist deep on me so poor Steve was in to his chest. We both tool turns exploring the narrow chasm and finally settled on a rock in front of the falls to dry off and reflect on an incredible day. Four quality waterfalls and he had finally got to see a snake on a hike, I felt like he had a pretty good Father's Day even with a few bee stings.
Cavern Falls.
Steve celebrates arriving at Cavern Falls.
The narrow entrance to the cavern. Passing through here guarantees a soaking.
The author at Cavern Falls.

Our hike back seemed to take less time and we made a quick stop at the base of Mary Lou Bradley Falls for a few pictures and made the mini rappel at Milton Bradley Falls without incident. The area where we met the hornets was avoided by wading to the far side of the stream to bypass the area completely and we were rewarded with the best raspberries I've ever put in my mouth growing in abundance on the bank. Reaching the car, we brushed off as best as we could before searching for some lunch. Steve spied a Jack in the Box and was perhaps the happiest  I had seen him all day. While in the drive-thru I discovered six ticks crawling on me and I'm sure onlookers got a laugh at us both inspecting each other for more in the middle of the busy parking lot. In closing, many thanks to the pioneers such as Andy Kunkle and his band of bandits that not only continue to make new discoveries but are willing to share that information with the rest of us. Until next time, happy trails.