Monday, September 12, 2016

In an attempt to beat the heat this summer, several of my recent hiking trips have been geared for an eventual dip in the water once reaching the destination. In the last few years alone it seems that the popularity of hiking has exploded. Personally, I blame the internet and more specifically social media. This summer I've seen it with my own eyes, from the Snapchatters to the Instagrammers, they're out in full force.
A warning or invitation, all a matter of interpretation.

With the added company on the trails have come an increased body count as well, including a several weekend streak of news of rescue crews fishing a carcass out of a pool for someone that either got to close to the edge of the falls or underestimated the power of currents. Tragic nonetheless but very preventable, and again I feel social media is to blame. The accepted norms and maintained trails have fell into the category of not enough risk or everyone has been there already.
If I remember correctly, there are around 80 steps that lead to the observation deck for Whitewater Falls.

My trail behavior has somewhat evolved in recent years and now that once in a lifetime shot doesn't have as much meaning after seeing the last in the lifetime attempts at those shots. I like living and adventuring as much as the next person but I like to come home that evening even more. With all this being said, I suspect you will think I'll launch into a "but let me tell you about this one time" story..well, yes and no.
Somewhere below the tree line would be our destination. The 411ft high Whitewater Falls is a sight to behold!

Not only have I tried to beat the heat but also maintain the best of the outdoors experience as I can with the least amount of company. The challenge of these type of hikes has been taxing to say the least but occasionally I get lucky.
Chicken of the Woods. This was so orange we spotted it from a few switchbacks away.

Difficulty alone will exclude the masses and nestled on the North Carolina and South Carolina border is a 14 mile river named the Whitewater. I can't think of a more appropriately named body of water since it barrels through slot canyons and over waterfalls on its way to meet Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. By far, the most popular destination on the river is Upper Whitewater Falls, a 411ft behemoth that is typically viewed from a observation deck on the side of the gorge.  The view from there is a good one and many people shell out the parking fee for a glimpse of the highly photogenic falls, including me, on several occasions, with each time a wandering eye to the point the waterfall is obscured by trees near it's base. An unwavering desire to make the hike to the base has lingered and a few weeks ago, I scratched it from the list....this is that story.
I think she was excited. Beyond the observation deck narrow stairs continue to lower you into the gorge.
I'm not kidding around when I say these steps were narrow.

On a 95 degree day and a late start by my normal departure standards I loaded up and met my friend Jessica for the trip down to North Carolina and the Whitewater base expedition. I first met Jessica back in March on a chilly day on Little Stony and since then she has proved her obsession with the outdoors may outweigh my own. Group hikes for JDRF and adventures in the Northeast Tennessee mountains led me to believe she was ready for some true adventure in the North Carolina Mountains. The drive down is a long one at over two hours but conversations about hiking can pass any amount of time or distance. A short stop at the gas station on 281 for some snacks and a bathroom break it was only a few minutes before we were arriving at the packed trail head for Whitewater Falls.
A metal bridge spanning the whitewater river is an excellent place to rest before taking on the off trail portion of the hike. This was actually taken after we hiked back from the base but for story telling purposes, it works here.

Knowing that we would succeed I had stuck a float in my pack taking the majority of the room and after some readjusting we were able to sneak the pump for it into Jessica's pack. The Instagram crowd was there in full force with flip flops on and cell phones at their ready, included in the mix was a gang of around 20 motorcycle riders that were intent on a group photo on the observation deck. Jessica and I received some strange looks as we both worked with our full packs and fetched our hiking sticks from the truck, but we didn't care, we were there for adventure. We only made it a few feet from the truck when the first crack of thunder startled the crowds but we continued on determined to see the base.
Beautifully carved rock on the river. The rain began to fall making for some fun scrambling.
Small waterfall below the main attraction.
And another nice waterfall. I really wish you could tell how large these boulders were!

At the edge of the gorge there stands a warning sign, and again at the observation deck stating that there are no waterfall views beyond the deck. Jessica was excited to see the falls for the first time and crowded her way over to the railing in silent awe, finally I had to nudge her, "you ready to go to the base?" The sign alone perhaps deters a few people but Jessica and I would encounter several other hikers on our way below the deck via the Foothills Trail where it crosses the river downstream from the falls. Along the way we stopped to photograph mushrooms, narrow staircases, and blooming mountain laurel. Thunder continued to threaten us increasing in intensity until a light rain began to fall as we were within earshot of the river.
Jessica along a nice slab of rock next to the river.
More rocks along the river. There was a tricky passage near this spot. Thankful for long legs here for sure.
Hiking sticks do no good on the Whitewater River.

We arrived at the river as a steady rain quickly soaked the rocks and made my rock hopping plan a river wading option. It was obvious that many people had made the trek upstream by the scramble paths that lined both sides of the river but Jessica and I started upstream by wading around a wide variety of shaped and sized boulders. In only a few feet in saw another pair of hikers marching upstream on the bank. We continued to stay in the water until we were cut off by a rock wall and a waterfall around 15ft or so. I made my way over to a small island the river and thankfully noticed a Yellow Jackets nest before suffering the consequences. Seeking shelter from the rain, the other hikers were having snacks under a cliff and I stopped to talk to them for a minute. They both were friendly and said they planned on getting to the base as well. Jessica and I lost sight of them after some technical rock scrambling and one narrow ledge we used to escape another waterfall we would struggle to get around. I was impressed with Jessica's determination and she led us upstream on a pace that was hard for me to match. I knew she was excited to get there but she didn't have to run!
But there are some serious rewards on the horizon.
Getting close now. The mighty Whitewater Falls is surreal from the base.
This picture is pretty neat. There is one of the largest waterfalls I've ever seen in my life right in front of me but she stops to take a picture of a wildflower.

The first glimpse of the base of Whitewater Falls came as I popped onto the top of a boulder where Jessica exclaimed, "would you look at that!" The entirity of the 411ft falls could not be seen but the bulk of it was in view and we were still about 100 yards downstream. Both of us stood in a trance before reaching for our cameras for a few shots until we were in a race to reach the swimming hole on the far right side of the falls. I honestly don't remember which of us reached the pool first but I know that I was quick to unpack my float and demand Jessica fetch my pump. I went to work pumping up the float while she unpacked our snacks. Our privacy was short lived when the young couple from South Carolina finally caught up just as I was finishing with the float. They were quite a bit younger than us but were very friendly and the four of us shared the joy of being at the base of such a huge waterfall. They had traveled about the same distance as us to be there and I waited for them to take their pictures before I decided it was time to launch my float. One problem though, my float was now missing.
A wonderful swimming hole. Time to get busy!
There goes my float!
Finally afloat!

Paddling across the deep pool was Jessica atop the missing float and she explored every corner of the area knowing I was waiting for my turn. She finally returned with a sneaky grin saying, "oh, were you wanting this?" When I finally got in the pool the water was cool but refreshing and I paddled across to the brink of the falls. Sometimes we let specific moments fade from our memories but riding a float at the base of Whitewater Falls will last with me for a long time. I lost track of time and the rain had faded as the sun popped out making our swimming hole even more inviting. I rejoined Jessica long enough to enjoy some summer sausage and cheese and saying goodbye to the South Carolina kids as they packed up and headed out. Jessica went into full explorer mode and crossed the river climbing high on a boulder above a long cascade while I continued to play on the float before crossing over myself to see the falls from even more angles. Jessica seemed tiny up on the rock face and I settled for working my way downstream to include as much of the waterfall as I could in the picture. It took some convincing but I finally got her to come back down so we could pack up for the hike out.
I was like a kid in a candy store. Floating here was definitely worth the effort to pack my float up that river bed.
Whitewater Falls Base Selfie.
I was feeling the pinch while trying to enjoy my float.
Downstream from the base.

Being there was incredible but I knew that getting back out would be a challenge. Luckily the sun had gave us the ultimate assist in drying many of the rocks for our return trip and when we made excellent timing taking a slightly different route. At one of the trickier rocks I used Jessica as an anchor and I hoisted up on the rock belly first thanks to her help, I'm sure she won't let me live it down. We exited the river to hike along an impressive cliff before bushwhacking back out near the water's edge at the bridge across the river.
From my float trip across the pool.
Here's some perspective. Jessica on the side of the waterfall.
AND her view back to me by the swimming hole. Whitewater Falls is fantastic!
Napping on the river.

We both were tired and climbed up on the bridge for a short break before climbing out of the gorge. The climb up was easier than I had thought it would be and we arrived back at the observation deck with tired legs and soaked clothes with sweat. We took a few pictures before climbing the remaining steps to finally reached the paved downhill path to the parking area. Thankfully Jessica had thought to bring some wet wipes and we cleaned up on the tailgate as onlookers wondered where we had been to get so dirty. Just as we finished cleaning up enough to get in the truck another storm blew into the gorge with a torrential downpour sending everyone scrambling for shelter while we laughed it up from the safety of the truck.
Hiking back was no picnic.
Infinity pool on the Whitewater River.
UP and UP. Heading home just ahead of another storm.

It's hard to put a finish on such a nice hike, even now, weeks later. Whitewater Falls is such an impressive place but given a fresh perspective it seems otherworldly. On a daily basis I'm asked how tall I am, but to stand at the base of that waterfall, I'm merely an ant, and man, that's a great feeling. Until next time, happy trails.

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