|And we're off! The trail was old logging roads. The problem was, they had overgrown from years of inactivity.|
|Everyone was all smiles and glad to get going. Pictured from L to R are Tracie, John, Renee, and Scott.|
|An old tree stand. The board didn't look too trustworthy.|
I mention all of this because, for the second time, I randomly met up with a group of people I only knew through the Internet in the hopes of seeing some waterfalls in a remote area of the Toxaway River in North Carolina. All of you remember the first time I did this with some friends from Chattanooga on an epic camping trip that saw multiple waterfalls, bears, and even a missing tooth, but I'll let you look back on that tale for yourself. This mission was simple, follow someone that knew where they were going and hike back unscathed and victorious, simple right?
|Marching onward. Photo courtesy of John Lane.|
|Heading into the gorge. Do you see a trail? That's because there isn't one.|
|Decay can be beautiful.|
The hardest sale of any hike is telling my wife I'm going to meet a complete stranger to wander around in the woods. Luckily, my friend John agreed to go with me and she said, "well, he will have a harder time killing two of you." He is none other than Scott McGaha, a 6'5" outdoor whiz that had done the hike just a few weeks earlier but when asked if he would hike with me, happily agreed. He told me he had invited a few of friends and I could bring whoever I wanted and I told him that Jesus would be joining us, he laughed saying, "I've always wanted to walk with Jesus."
|Turtle! Photo by John Lane.|
|The shell had a smily face on it.|
|More decay along the way.|
John and I were pumped for what we were prepared to be a double digit mileage day and spent the drive to North Carolina babbling like two teenage girls. We had agreed to meet Scott at the Park and Ride outside of Brevard and follow him to the trail head from there. We were a few minutes early and were able to stretch before seeing Scott and his friends arrive on the scene. Scott was just as I had imagined he would be, friendly and very outgoing, with him he had Renee, who is also a facebook friend of mine, and her and Scott's mutual friend, Tracie. We all got acquainted before Scott launched into story telling mode and Renee tried to hustle him to the car so we could get to hiking. Tracie had brought donuts so she gained bonus points immediately and we all loaded up to ride over to the trail head.
|Serious steepness just before the river.|
|See the look on Tracie's face? She sees the waterfall too!|
|John isn't used to getting up early so he decided to nap.|
I was shocked when we passed by the road I thought we would be hiking in from for the day and even more so when it was a random stretch of highway of insignificance, maybe Scott WAS going to kill us. Once parked he bound from the vehicle gathering items to shove into an already busting at the seams pack. I noticed a bamboo stand off the side of the road and went over to take a few pictures and get my legs warmed a bit. Scott told Renee to pull up the GPS track and we were off, following what was obviously old logging roads. Conversation came easliy for Scott and I and we had to be reminded on more than one occasion by Renee to slow up since their legs weren't as long as ours. John and Tracie talked in the back of the group but I missed most of that conversation since Scott was at full tilt at the front of the pack. It was nice to have someone that not only could cover ground like a madman but also could entertain with interesting stories.
|Renee's onion find.|
|Lunch at Wintergreen Falls. Photo by Tracie.|
|Downstream from the falls.|
|Closer view of Wintergreen Falls.|
We made excellent time intersecting logging roads and faint paths, the whole area was a maze, especially to me. Fall color was still faint with lack of rain and cool temperatures, summer was refusing to let go. Ever so often we would see a piece of orange tape left by Scott as spots for us to turn. It wasn't a long way into the hike until I could hear water in a gorge below and could tell it was a waterfall. Scott led us along the ridge with steep drops before stopping and saying, "we need to go down here." The climb down was steep but no worse than Northeast Tennessee's Compression and North Fork "trails" we all slid down the bank through the loose leafs noticing a turtle along the way and listening to the growing sound of falling water. Finally we arrived at a nearly vertical drop above the river. Scott and I were able to use our long legs to get down with the help of a sturdy old tree but Renee, John, and Tracie found a small drainage to get around the area. When we all regrouped we were now on bedrock along the Toxaway River and through the trees I could spot the first prize of the day, Wintergreen Falls.
|The bushwhacking turns serious around the lower falls.|
|Scott lends a hand even when he doesn't really have one to spare.|
|Renee climbing a vertical bank near the lower pool.|
|John showing off balancing on a fallen log over the pool.|
Two quick reasons come to mind why Wintergreen Falls is such a good waterfall, one it's on the CMC (Carolina Mountain Club) 100 waterfall challenge, and two, I've never seen it before. Maybe those are selfish reasons, but it really is a striking waterfall. A large pool keeps you from getting really close to the falls and it drops through a high chute and the top and breaks off into two distinct drops at the bottom making a tempting water slide if it was a tad warmer. Perspective is distorted viewing it from so far across the pool but the total height of the waterfall is around 160ft high! We all shed our packs and started digging in our packs for lunch. I found two trees suitable for my hammock and fell into a trance taking it all in. Renee excused herself for a bathroom break but came back carrying a large onion! All I could think was what did she eat! It was quite the mystery of how it got there and I can't say that I've ever seen that before. Our lunch was really relaxing but we were all anxious to move up river and see the upper falls and the Rock Bridge of the Toxaway.
|Scott having way too much fun.|
|Tracie found her strength on the crazy steep grade and took the lead!|
|Poor John had a bad view. I think he took this picture for insurance purposes.|
|Other than telling them to stop for a second, this photo is really how things were going uphill. This fallen tree was an obstacle to overcome or undercome in Renne's case, but it was also a good resting spot.|
The Rock Bridge made this trip for me. I think it was Casey Marcum that had a picture of it on his Wild North Carolina Waterfalls site. From the moment I laid eyes on it, I wanted to stand on that rock for myself. Casey carries ropes and climbing gear with him so I often wondered if I would ever get to see it, since I can't tie my shoes and they stay tied for an entire hike. Today, with Scott and his six plus bundles of rope, I knew it was going to happen! The first challenge was getting around the pool of Wintergreen which Kevin Adam's describes as a "nasty bushwhack," and to which I agree. Basically we skirted the river as close as possible fighting through laurel and over downfall. The land was naturally sloped to send you spilling into the water but we soon reached a small tributary they empties into the pool at the base of the falls. Scott led us up the drainage before striking up an even steeper hill covered in small weeds including thorns. It was a tough scramble but we helped each other the best we could before we intersected the faintest of paths on the ridge. We were now high above the river again and we followed the goat path around the ridge until it petered out. Scott told us all to wait until he went downhill to see if we were far enough above the lower falls to get back into the river to continue upstream. It was during this time, that disaster nearly ended our day.
|I walked out of the woods downstream from the Rock Bridge. You can see it up the narrow chute. It took me only a few minutes to make my way up to it.|
|The Rock Bridge over the Toxaway.|
|John just below the Rock Bridge. He really helps show the size of the chute below.|
|John crossing over the Toxaway on a log bridge as I look on. Photo by Tracie.|
|My shot of John on the log bridge and the rest of our group downstream.|
|I had to get a closer look at the Rock Bridge from the other side, so I rolled up my pants and waded the river.|
|Downstream from Rock Bridge. This was a cool spot as the water roared by.|
Scott was almost directly below me when it happened. He was nearly 75 yards below me and was making his way through some fallen timber when he busted a Yellow Jackets nest wide open. A fall from where he was would be disastrous and he did a graceful dance and a fundamentally sound basketball pivot away from the danger and came away with only five stings. I could see the bees down the hill, hundreds billows out angry their home had been destroyed, we were going to have to find a different route. I backtracked down the goat path to an area of pretty open woods, it was steep, but I'm an old ginseng hunter so I led John and I down the grade with little trouble. I swung back around the ridge well below the bees and came to another small tributary that made almost a natural rock staircase all the way to the river. The rocks were covered in a slick loose silt but I took my time occasionally yelling back to check on John. When I reached the river is noticed an old blue cooler that had washed in from somewhere far upstream. My attention however quickly shifted from the trash to my treasure, I could see the Rock Bridge!
|Everyone invading the rock bridge area.|
|Time to settle in for photos.|
|The Rock Bridge.|
|The gang is all here, it's almost time for a group shot.|
|The Rock Bridge GoPro group shot!|
It's hard to accurately describe the scene. The Toxaway is pinched in a narrow channel a couple of hundred feet long and wedged perfectly across it is a large slab of rock, whether it fell there or was washed there is a mystery, I was just happy it was there. So many thoughts about the bridge had entered my mind over the years but just by looking up at it all I could think was I DON'T NEED ROPE! I wish I could have been timed running up the rocks climbing higher and higher until I was just below the bridge, I paused and looked back, none of the group had popped out next to the river yet. I found a crack in the rock wall with a few bushes I climbed up even with the bridge, my dream was going to happen but then it hit me, we were a group, and a team, I needed to wait on everyone else. I climbed down meeting John as he got to the river, Scott, Renee, and Tracie emerged further downstream and everyone was in awe of the area. John walked across a fallen log and worked his way downstream to the brink of lower Wintergreen Falls and I shed my boots to wade the river for some different views of the land bridge. The ladies worked their way upstream too, fixated on the big rock across the Toxaway.
|Looking downstream from the Rock Bridge.|
|I was so happy. I don't know what else to say.|
|Jesus celebrates the Rock Bridge.|
|I think John might be Spiderman.|
|Tracie and Renee look on as John sticks to the rocks like glue.|
|Straight up and he keeps going.|
|"Well, if you fall from up there you'll die."|
At some point, as I was in a dream like state, we all reconvened at the Rock Bridge. Scott lingered only momentarily before working back into the woods to set some ropes to make the final climb to Upper Wintergreen easier for all of us. Occasionally you would see a tree shake high above where we were was the only clue he was there. John scrambled all over the place, climbing the rock walls then sliding down them like a kid on a playground. Renee and Tracie settled into photographing the Rock Bridge while I wandered around dumbfounded by it all. Scott finally came back and we all posed for a group shot on the Land Bridge. The whole area was better than even I could have imagined. Satisfied with our mission. We set out to see the last waterfall our day, Upper Wintergreen Falls. The climb around the Rock Bridge area is extremely steep, it would be possible to climb without ropes but why sweat it when Scott had laid out a cake walk up the rock walls? John and I somehow were the first to step around the cliffs and see the upper waterfall. Let me tell you, it's absolutely amazing. I wasn't prepared for what a great waterfall that I was looking at. It's sheer size was staggering. Three huge drops made up the main part of the falls with a fourth being slightly upstream and out of sight from the base. A large pool, perfect for swimming, and a natural slide in a smaller pool were at the base. I think our entire group was impressed with it.
|The Scott McGaha rope course.|
|Upper Wintergreen Falls from ground level. Photo by John Lane.|
|The waterfall is deceptively large.|
|The chute below Upper Wintergreen.|
Everyone settled into the rocks while John and I climbed the falls for different views. At one point, John looked like an ant beside the upper drop. When we both joined at the brink of the upper drop we both sat there looking down on our new friends and reflecting on an incredible day, the Toxaway River had delivered. We carefully climbed down and visited with Tracie and Renee while Scott entered the photography zone, working various angles of the falls. I still have yet to see any of these photos so hurry up, Scott, you know to post these in a timely manner;)
|John beside one of the drops.|
|John climbing the upper drop of the falls. Can you even spot him?|
|Climbing the falls. You can see Renee and Tracie in their bright colored shirts below.|
|The top of the falls.|
|John has been on some memorable hikes with me this year. Just another full day of adventure.|
The day had escaped us as the sun dropped behind the ridges, and we began the steep climb out to meet yet another logging road. Surprisingly, my legs felt good coming out and followed the knife edge ridge pretty easy keeping a decent lead. As I climbed I heard what I thought to be a deer walking on the trail ahead but then a familiar lumbering gait clued me into it being a bear! I rose over a small ridge to see the bushes below moving but no bear. The bark ripped off a rotten tree, was where he was having his supper when an inconsiderate hiker interrupted him. I waited for John and Renee to tell them the excitement I had just had, and we lingered a few more minutes making sure Scott and Tracie were coming. I forgot to mention earlier I had lifted Scott's pack while we were at the upper falls, how he hiked all day with this much weight on his back is miraculous to say the least. The sun gave us just enough light to reach the halfway point on our hike back out the logging roads but we soon had to rely on headlamps for the final stretch of our journey. We strayed slightly off course in the dark but found our way back to the cars without further incident.
|"Okay, who's ready for more torture?"|
|"Yes, I'm sure this is the way."|
|Heading up and heading out.|
|Here come's John!|
|Upper Wintergreen through the trees.|
|Bear dining area.|
|Jesus dining area.|
Having snacked early in our hike we all were anxious for some food and we had dinner at a barbecue joint back in Brevard before going our separate ways. It's hard to put a cap on such a great day of new friends, new destinations, and teamwork in one of the more remote stretches of river in North Carolina, but I'll try anyway. The stretch of river from the Wintergreens is about as good as it gets and tops the scales of adventure, beauty, and reward. I'll look back fondly on the day for years to come and look forward to the day our new group can hit the trails again. Thanks again to you, Scott, you were a wonderful guide that helped me achieve something I've thought about for years, I'm forever grateful. Until next time, happy trails.